Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Spider-Man, Spider-Man ...

I RECENTLY BROUGHT a copy of Amazing Spider-Man 6 on eBay for quite a reasonable price - I say reasonable, and it was under Guide, but I'm sure non-comics fans would look at me in astonishment if I told them how much I paid. For a comic. Granted it's not in the best of condition, but its quite solid and I'm sure the low price was a reflection of the heavy T&P stamping on the cover, despite it being a UK variant. Overall I'm very pleased with it.

As I got into the Spider-Man series during 1965 and 1966, the Marvel reprint 64-pagers were a useful source of earlier Marvel stories.
I would have first read the story when it was reprinted in Marvel Tales 3, back in 1966, having missed the original issue. And a dark and scary read it was, too. To today's comic readers, the tale probably seems a bit quaint, but to this then-twelve year-old, the alien and uncontrollable savagery of The Lizard was a bit disconcerting ...

This was the third animal-oriented foe for the fledgling superhero following The Vulture and Doctor Octopus. This time Spidey was taken out of his familiar urban New York setting and transposed to the Florida Everglades, tracking down reports of a man-size lizard with his sometime employer, newspaper publisher J. Jonah Jameson.

In the end, it turns out that The Lizard is really well-meaning scientist Curt Connors, who has been experimenting with a serum extracted from reptiles that is intended to grow new limbs for amputees. Guess who he experiments on. And guess what goes wrong ... Spidey of course, saves the day and manages to defeat The Lizard without harming Dr Connors, earning the lifelong friendship of the scientist and his family. Connors would continue as an occasional recurring character as Spidey's go-to scientist and of course was featured as a foe in the recent Spider-Man movie.

But this wasn't my first Spider-Man story. As detailed in an earlier blog entry, I'm fairly sure my first meeting with Peter Parker was issue 15, featuring Kraven the Hunter, probably about mid-1965. And I know that around the same time, I came across a reprint of Amazing Spider-Man 16 in a copy of Uncanny Tales from Alan Class Comics.

Alan Class reprinted a miasma of disconnected American comic strips in his black and white reprint books. At one shilling, the reprints were actually more expensive than the colour originals, yet somehow had a slightly illicit feeling about them.
I became a regular reader starting around Amazing Spider-Man 22, which would have been in the shops around the time of my eleventh birthday. The cover for that issue is a real eye-grabber (see below). And, the Circus of Crime were already familiar to me, so that reinforces my belief that I had already read the Spidey/Daredevil teamup somewhere earlier, as the same villains were featured.

For me, The Amazing Spider-Man was another revelation. I'd already become familiar with other Marvel titles, like The Fantastic Four, Tales of Suspense and The Avengers. And while these comics were very different from the DC comics of the same period, they also shared some of the same characteristics.

The Fantastic Four were celebrities, for the most part respected by the community they served. If the public turned against the FF, then that was a cover-worthy story. The same with the stars of Tales of Suspense, Captain America and Iron Man. Cap was an institution in his world. Older cops and soldiers would see Cap and comment on how they'd fought alongside him in WWII. His association with government agencies such as SHIELD and the US military was a matter of record. And Iron Man was known as the employee of Tony Stark, himself an important munitions contractor for the US government. And the Avengers ... well, they enjoyed A1 priority clearance so could pretty much go anywhere and do anything. If any of them told a police officer to jump, the cop would ask, How high?

In common with many DC and other superheroes, the Marvel characters were usually well respected by the authorities and the public ... okay, maybe not The Hulk ...
Not so much with Spider-Man ... nope, Spider-Man was mostly despised by the public, thanks to an almost maniacal hatred on the part of influential newspaper publisher Jonah Jameson, and an instinctive dislike of spiders on the part of almost everyone else, but actually voiced by The Wasp in Amazing Spider-Man Annual 3. Though Stan made a cursory (and in my view) ill-advised attempt to have the newspaper publisher explain his reasons in ASM10, I don't think Jameson needs a reason. After all, The Daily Mail never explains itself ...

J. Jonah Jameson's anti-Spider-Man campaigns are the stuff of legend. And in Spider-Man Annual 3, the Wasp blackballs Spidey, simply because she doesn't like spiders, but then, she is a bit of an airhead. 
The other thing that really captured my youthful admiration was that Spider-Man was still in school and only a few years older than me. And where DC heroes like Green Lantern and Superman had settled and stable civilian lives - Elongated Man was actually married - Peter's Parker's personal life was a complete car-crash. He was a carer for his ailing Aunt May, often shouldering the family's money problems himself. The kids at school bullied him relentlessly - something all-too-familiar to me - and his relationship with Betty Brant, Jameson's slightly neurotic secretary, was at best fractious. No other hero - in my experience - had ever had such a tough time as Spider-Man.

Ditko's splash page for Amazing Spider-Man 22 is a kind of second cover to the issue. The above scan of the original art from that issue shows how perfect Ditko's inking was - his depiction of Princess Python is pretty sexy here. And the interior house ad shows FF36, which I mentioned before was my first issue of that title.
Some of this I already knew as I opened Amazing Spider-Man 22 for the first time. The first thing I noticed was that Ditko was still using the trick of depicting a summary of the story on the splash page. In other Marvel titles, Jack Kirby had moved away from this and was using the splash page to start the story proper with a big, attention-grabbing moment. But here, Ditko's old-school approach seemed like a hangover from the days when all comics - including the first couple of issues of Amazing Spider-Man - had more than one story, necessitating each tale have its own mini-cover. In retrospect, it's surprising that Lee didn't put his foot down about this. Or maybe he did and it contributed to the rift that would grow between the two creators during the following 18 months.

But ASM22 is a rattling good read, with great characterisation. The supporting cast - Jonah Jameson, Betty Brant, Liz Allen - are all on fine form and Stan and Steve squeeze in some fun moments, particularly at the art gallery where Ditko takes a swipe at modern "artists".

Stan and Steve pack everything the new reader needs to know about the Spider-Man supporting cast into one page. Later on in the story, Ditko draws one of his trademark off-beat action pages, making the bad girl a key player in the battle ...
By this point, Steve Ditko was having more input into the stories and the characters were well-formed and running like a well-oiled machine. The storytelling is off the chart and a masterclass in how to pack in the most story into the available space without it feeling rushed or crowded. As others have observed, today's writers and artists would take six issues to tell the same tale.

The cover to this issue was especially unusual, as the comic's star doesn't even appear on it. There was an added advantage of having Stan the Editor in charge of Stan the Writer. Where this type of cover would never have happened over at DC, Stan wasn't afraid to mess with the formula and try something new or different. In fact, it was that kind of innovative approach that would put Marvel ahead of DC on sales just a couple of years later.

The idea of not showing the hero on the cover must have been pretty successful, because Stan would come back to it a few more times over the years ... besides, the Spider-Signal was a pretty cool device that never failed to give me a thrill in those early days of Marvel.
Especially fun was the scene at the end of the story where, with the rest of the Circus of Crime in the hands of the police, Spidey attempts to turn Princess Python over to the law. The teenage Spidey is at a bit of a loss at how to handle a mature, worldly-wise bad girl like this, and I especially liked the bit where she makes up to a flustered Spidey as - as I've said before - even at 11 I had an appreciation of brunette bad girls ...

A detail from the original artwork for page 16 from Amazing Spider-Man 22. Though not especially known for his "good girl" art, Ditko makes a pretty good job of making bad girl Princess Python quite .. um, comely.
The story ends with Peter getting told off by Aunt May for staying out late without calling, something that no kid of my age would have been unfamiliar with. Oh, yes ... Stan knew exactly what he was doing.

The next issue of Amazing Spider-Man featured the Green Goblin. At the time, I didn't recognise the Goblin, as I'd missed his earlier appearances in ASM14 and ASM17. But this was to kick off an epic storyline that would eventually introduce the Crime Master and recount his battle with The Green Goblin for control of the city's organised crime.

Though this wasn't one of the best Spider-Man covers, the story inside was a fun thrill-ride, with Spidey wise-cracking his way through brawls with common mobsters. Great action from Ditko, great dialogue from Lee.
The tale opens with The Goblin trying to muscle in on gangster Lucky Lobo's operation. But Spider-Man's interference leaves The Goblin back where he started and Lucky Lobo's mob in jail. Ditko crafts some epic battles in this issue with Spidey taking on whole gangs of thugs at once, and the gangsters coming off second best. This was a Spider-Man I could really enjoy. I especially liked when he fought regular crooks, and I suspect Ditko preferred this too, as he never seems to have quite as much fun drawing Spidey battling true supervillains.

The issue pretty much acts as a set-up for the forthcoming gang wars storyline, but finds time to (re)introduce former jailbird Frederick Foswell as a snoopy reporter working for The Daily Bugle. There's a funny bit of business where Spidey stops fighting crooks for a few seconds so he can call Aunt May to let her know he'll be a little late home, then it's back to the plot with Spidey defeating Lobo's goons, only to walk into an ambush by The Goblin. The Goblin gets away, and the issue ends with Peter's growing suspicions about Foswell's intentions and his feeling there is some "terrible danger waiting for him, just around the corner" ... which sounds like Stan hadn't figured out what the next issue was going to be about.

Yet, true to Stan's hinting, Amazing Spider-Man 24 turned out to be quite a sinister story. Like I say, at the time I read it, I was quite new to Spider-Man and Marvel. So to come across a story where the hero was doubting his own sanity was quite unsettling and creepy.

The tale opens with Peter fretting about the lack of money in the Parker household and deciding to get out and earn a few bucks by thwarting a robbery as Spider-Man so he can sell the pictures to The Daily Bugle. This too was a little unsettling for me as an 11 year old. I was growing up in a household where money was tight so I shared Peter's sense of dread when he realised there was no money in the kitty to pay for stuff like food.

Peter's plan doesn't pan out as Bugle reporter Frederick Foswell shows up, meaning that Peter can't sell the pictures to Jonah Jameson because Foswell would "know" that Peter hadn't been on the spot to take them.

A cunning villain is trying to convince Spider-Man he's going mad and not doing a bad job of it ... look at the way Ditko captures Peter's growing sense of paranoia as he begins to think there may be something to the psychiatrist's theories.
But the main plot of the issue has a noted European psychiatrist show up in Jameson's office and sell him on the idea that Spider-Man is heading for a breakdown due to his dual identity. Then, while swinging around the city, Spidey is attacked by phantom versions of his old enemies, leading him to seek out the psychiatrist and submit to analysis.

This kind of thing never happened to the DC heroes. Lee and Ditko's depiction of mental instability was just as effective - if a bit less graphic - that what EC had done ten years earlier. It's the dark edge to the story that makes it sinister.
The scene where Spider-Man shows up at the psychiatrist's office and the room is upside down literally took my breath away, back in the day. It was such a massive surprise as I turned over the page. And then the great twist at the end where it's Jonah himself who inadvertently thwarts the villain's plot to drive Spidey crazy ... Even in 1965 I could appreciate a bit of irony. 

It's possible that you haven't read this issue, so I'm not going to give away the reason why the psychiatrist is trying to drive Spidey nuts - it's such a terrific ending. You'll thank me later.

But Lee and Ditko weren't done yet. In the very next issue, Jameson - who clearly hadn't learnt his lesson - begins another crackpot scheme to discredit Spider-Man, genuinely believing it isn't going to backfire on him ... again.

Great "hero in danger" cover ... and look at the body language in the panels at the bottom of the page, where Betty is trying to stop Peter convincing Jameson to use the robot against Spider-Man ... pure genius.
It all starts when inventor Professor Smythe brings Jameson his "Spider Slayer" robot. After last issue, Jameson is initially reluctant to get involved but Peter, figuring Spidey can trash the robot and make Jameson look bad, talks him into it.

As it turns out, that's almost the dumbest thing Peter's ever done, as the robot turns out to be a very efficient piece of machinery, which very nearly spells the end for Spider-Man.

And the other important development in this issue is that both Betty and Liz Allen get to meet Mary Jane for the first time - even though Peter himself has never laid eyes on her. The way Ditko draws the girls' reactions to MJ is absolutely priceless.

While Peter is battling the bizarre Spider Slayer robot, Betty and Liz Allen show up at the Parker house looking for Peter and are shocked to find out that another "friend" of Peter's has got there first - Mary Jane Watson.
It's kind of a fun issue. As dumb as the robot is, it's not entirely without menace, but Lee and Ditko were just taking a breather before the return of the Green Goblin and the resumption of his bid to wrest control of New York's organised crime. Because in Amazing Spider-Man 26, it all kicks up a gear ...

The story starts off quietly enough. The Goblin is arguing with a masked man - The Crime Master - who we've never seen before, revealing that the two know each other's true identities. Both are trying to seize control of the city's underworld. Both will stop at nothing to succeed.

The cover of ASM 26 again places Spider-Man in genuine peril. And even The Green Goblin seems be on the back foot when The Crime Master shows up, trying to take over crime in New York and outsmarting Spider-Man at every turn.
The next scene shows the beginnings of The Crime Master's terror campaign to cow New York's top crime bosses into submission. Though he doesn't have any superpowers, he seems a smart and capable criminal. Then Lee and Ditko show us Frederick Foswell hiding a disguise in a concealed wardrobe in his apartment before he reports for work at The Daily Bugle, clearly trying to lead the readers to suspect that he's The Crime Master.

But Peter Parker doesn't know anything about this yet. He's too busy having an argument with Betty Brant, who believes that Peter's been two-timing her with Mary Jane Watson. Like I've said before, that Betty is real high-maintenance. Peter tries to explain he's never even met Mary-Jane, then loses his temper and stalks out, heading for high school. When he gets there, Flash Thompson starts needling him and, still mad from his argument with Betty, tears into Flash and his pals, almost revealing how super-strong he really is.

In a moment of stupidity, Peter attacks Flash and his gang, almost revealing that he has spider-strength. But Liz Allen gets mad at Peter for not turning the other cheek. And even in his Spider-Man identity, things aren't going great for Peter.
It's an interesting scene, because here we see the first glimmers that Flash isn't thoroughly bad. He feels bad that Peter takes the rap and goes to the principal to explain. Although I wouldn't have realised it at the time, it seems like Stan and Steve had always planned on softening Flash Thompson's character and paving the way for him and Peter to become friends - which they eventually would under John Romita's tenure.

The scene really resonated with me ... I had been at quite a tough primary school in south-east London and as a bookish, non-sporty kind of kid, I got a lot of stick from the tough lads, so I really knew how Peter felt. Maybe that scene felt familiar to all comic-reading kids ...

Meanwhile, Peter still has no Spider-Man costume, one costume being in the possession of Professor Smythe from last issue and his spare in the hands of Aunt May. So he does the only logical thing. He buys one from a costume shop. Problem is, the cheap fabric doesn't fit properly and he has to use his sticky web fluid to hold it in place. This will become an important plot point later, so someone - either Stan or Steve, accounts vary - was really thinking this through.

After a series of minor catastrophes, the issue ends with a fairly major catastrophe. An unconscious Spider-Man is dragged before a baying mob of gangsters by The Green Goblin. Can it get any worse? You betcha ...
Spider-Man's first encounter with the Crime Master goes badly and he barely escapes, gassed and hurled from a rooftop. Though Spidey manages to tear his mask off and use his webbing to break his fall, his spider-sense inexplicably fails him and he's knocked unconscious by The Green Goblin.

The nail-biting conclusion has The Goblin using the captured Spider-Man to challenge The Crime Master's claim to being the boss of all crime in the city.

For me reading this in 1965, this was just the most anxious situation I'd seen in a comic. Stan had carefully sucked me in by making me identify completely with Peter Parker. Then he'd begun swatting Peter with an escalating series of bad luck scenarios until I just couldn't imagine things getting any worse. After all, Peter was just a school kid - not a lot different from me. And here he was at the mercy of real hardened criminals.

And the worst part was, I'd have to wait a month to find out what was going to happen. Assuming I could even find a copy of Amazing Spider-Man 27 in any of the newsagents in my area.

Next: The best Spider-Man story ever


4 comments:

  1. Lee and Ditko broke ground so many times in Spider-Man I'm still surprised at just how good their work is and how well it holds up. Like you I grew up reading the Lee-Ditko stories early on, both from the Marvel Tales reprints and my older brother John's collection which dated back to ASM # 3.

    So many of Ditko's covers had a sense of menace, and issue # 15 is a particular favorite. If you go through the Marvel hero line over the years you'll notice Stan Lee's affinity for animal names, Lizard, Scorpion, Rhino, Owl, Eel, Falcon, on and on. As far as Jameson's explanation in # 10, I suspect most of that came from Ditko. The speech "sounds" very much like his input.

    According to Ditko he began plotting Spider-Man solo sometime before ASM # 25, so the Crime-Master stories and beyond are all Ditko plots. Of course the question comes up as to whose idea it was for Peter to graduate and go to college is # 28. My guess is that Ditko and Lee had discussed this long before they stopped talking to each other, and I suspect Lee originated that idea based on his characters growing up in teen-romance strips (Patsy and Hedy both graduated a year before Peter).

    A wonderful post that touched on so many innovations and just plain fun of this period. I look forward to the follow-up.

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  2. Thank you, Nick, for the kind encouragement. I'm already working on the follow-up which will look at the last year of Ditko's Spider-Man (including *those* issues) and the switch over to Romita's version. And as you've probably guessed the Blog title alludes to the Spider-Man cartoon that aired in the US and in UK regions during 1967 which might rate a mention ...

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  3. I was at just the right age (7 years old) to be excited by the Spider-Man and FF cartoons, but Marvel spoiled me and I actually thought they'd adapt the unmasking of the Green Goblin on the cartoon! No such luck! Most of the cartoons didn't even give villains an origin, they just "were". Anyway, I still have a soft spot in my heart for them, as well as the Marvel Super Heroes cartoons.

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  4. So you related to Peter Parker, eh, Al? Then it must've been your Spidey suit I saw next to Tharg's outfit in a cupboard at Irwin House when I was down in London back in the late '80s. Go on - admit it.

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