Tuesday, 25 November 2014

... Does whatever a Spider can

AS A KID in the Sixties, I was first a reader of DC Comics, then discovered Marvel. My introduction to the work of Stan Lee and his collaborators was a bit of a slow burn ... I didn't really start reading the flagship Marvel title The Amazing Spider-Man until mid-1965, by which time Lee and Ditko were in full swing.

Okay, this kid is reading a comic in the 1940s, but his experience wouldn't have been much different from mine. The Superman behind him is the November 1947 issue, though the Ha Ha Comics he's reading is from mid-1943. See if you can identify any others ...
In my last blog entry, I described how I had come to be a regular reader of the title and how Stan Lee's and Steve Ditko completely different approach to superhero stories captivated my imagination and made me feel they really understood my life. I didn't realise at the time they were telling stories that resonated with any number of teenagers and tweenagers, and it was this that started Marvel inexorable rise to dominance of the comic business. And I had got as far as Amazing Spider-Man 26, which left an unconscious and helpless Spider-Man in the hands of The Green Goblin, the Crime Master and their baying hordes of gangsters ... a development that had me holding my breath until I could track down the next issue to discover Spidey's fate.

A brilliant "hero in jeopardy" cover from Steve Ditko encloses one of my favourite Spider-Man stories of the 1960s. Look at that great cathartic moment at the foot of page 4 as Spider-Man breaks free of the ship's anchor chain that's been holding him (not quite) helpless.
I needn't have worried. Even though Spidey has been trussed up with heavy duty chains, the gangsters are unable to tear off his mask (which he glued in place with webbing last ish, remember?), and he's not about to sit still while they polish him off. For, just as Spidey breaks the grip of the gangsters holding on to him, the police arrive. The distraction allows Spidey the space he needs to literally break free of his chains in one of the greatest single panels of Ditko's entire Spider-Man run. And we're only on page 4 ...

The Green Goblin hangs back, leaving Spidey and the three police officers to battle with the Crime Master's goons over three epic pages. The Goblin escapes but Spidey trails The Crime Master beneath the dockside pilings, losing him in the sewers. Later, when Spidey confronts Frederick Foswell in Jameson's office with his suspicions that Foswell is The Crime Master, the real Crime Master is lurking on a rooftop outside the Bugle building. Cornered by tipped-off police officers, The Crime Master is shot and unmasked. Turns out Foswell has been working on the story for Jameson and uncovered The Crime Master's identity ... a mobster called Nick "Lucky" Lewis. (Stan must've really liked the nickname "Lucky" because he gave it to the gangster Lucky Lobo in ASM23, as well.)

From Amazing Spider-Man Annual 2 - The Crime Master.
Again, readers were left wondering who The Green Goblin really was. I remember reading somewhere that Stan and Steve had very different ideas on the Goblin's real identity. After a quick search of the Internet I found some quotes from a Steve Ditko interview that had appeared in US fan-magazine, Starlog: "Stan's synopsis for The Green Goblin," said Ditko, "had a movie crew, on location, finding an Egyptian-like sarcophagus. Inside was an ancient, mythological demon, the Green Goblin. He naturally came to life. On my own, I changed Stan's mythological demon into a human villain."

From Amazing Spider-Man Annual 1 - The Green Goblin (riding his pre-glider broomstick).
This fits in with Ditko's commonly known antipathy towards super-human or fantasy-based foes for Spider-Man, something I had noticed even back in 1965 and covered in my previous blog entry.

As for The Goblin's civilian identity, I also recall reading someplace that Ditko wanted to have The Goblin turn out to be a complete non-entity, as he felt it more realistic. But he must have changed his mind as the story in Amazing Spider-Man 26-27 unfolded because in Starlog, Ditko later recounted, "I had to have some definite ideas: who he was, his profession and how he fit into the Spider-Man story world. I was even going to use an earlier, planted character associated with J. Jonah Jameson: he [was to] be [revealed as] the Green Goblin. It was like a subplot working its way until it was ready to play an active role."

This makes me suspect very strongly that Ditko may have been lining up Foswell to be the civilian alter ego of The Green Goblin ... though it's possible he really was going to reveal the Goblin to be someone we'd never seen before. I guess we'll never know for sure, because that story was the last time Ditko would ever draw the character.

In the closing few pages of ASM27, the identity of the mystery villain is revealed, our suspicions about Foswell prove to be unfounded, Spidey reaches the end of the road with the Incredible Shrinking Costume, and Peter meets the nosiest man in the universe, Barney Bushkin. This would have taken up an entire issue of a modern comic.
The last few pages of ASM27 deal with the nasty shop-bought costume that had been giving Spidey so many problems and his efforts to find another outlet for his crime pictures, which leads him to Barney Bushkin, perhaps the nosiest newspaper picture editor ever. And the comic finishes with Peter and his Aunt May happily going off to the movies together, a rare moment of stability in Peter Parker's normally hectic and unpredictable private life.

So I suppose after this startlingly good brace of issues, the only place for Lee and Ditko to go was down. And, perhaps a little unfairly, Amazing Spider-Man 28, featuring The Molten Man, was never one of my favourites.

In retrospect though, I suppose this would have been a pretty popular issue with most kids. It's certainly action-packed - Spidey's battle with The Molten Man goes on for an epic seven pages. But for me it lacks the cleverness and subtleties apparent in the Spidey-fights of the last few issues. You have to wonder if Ditko constructed a long - and it has to be said, repetitive - toe-to-toe slugfest because he'd been told to by Stan.

Though the cover design is striking, I'm not sure what story it's telling. And I think the second cover/splash page is a bit bland too. However, the interior 7-page battle between Spidey and the Molten Man is pretty epic.
The more interesting components in this story are: the scene in which Peter manages to switch the cheap shop-bought costume for his original at Professor Smythe's lab - though the coincidence of Smythe's assistant being transformed into The Molten Man just as Peter Parker was visiting stretched the definition of "coincidence" even for my 11-year-old sensibilities - and; Peter's high school graduation.

Now, back in 1965, I didn't have much grasp of what "graduation" entailed. We didn't have that in the UK back then. The biggest educational challenge that faced me was the "11-plus", an exam that determined whether you'd be sent to an academic "grammar school", or be dumped with the dunces in a "secondary modern", after the summer holidays. But graduation seemed cool and exciting, and even I could gather that it was a big day for Peter and his fellow students. The fact that this ceremony marked an exit for Liz Allan from the series pretty much escaped me at the time and I was only reminded of it while reviewing the story for this blog.

I was never much of a fan of Liz Allan. My first bias was always towards girls with dark hair, so Liz didn't appeal to me on that level. But she always seemed a bit of a game-player, and even at my tender years, I found that annoying. She wouldn't return to the comic until much later, by which time Gerry Conway was writing the series and I had long lost interest in it.

So, was ASM28 a filler issue? I think, kind of ... Molten Man is a pretty uninspired villain and I think was just there to provide a peg to hang the story of Peter's graduation on. What's more interesting here is that, at this point, Marvel Comics were allowing their characters to grow and develop. Moving Peter on to University was a massive step and where other companies' characters pretty much stayed static in their lives (Clark Kent was a reporter for the Daily Planet for, what, 25 years? Never promoted, never changed papers, never made editor?), Stan's characters' lives would change as the years passed. That all pretty much stopped when Stan relinquished editorial control of the Marvel line and the suits decided that all character development should be frozen to better serve Marvel's growing number of licensing deals.

Just about the best hero-in-danger cover of the entire Spider-Man run. Putting the audience's eye-level at the surface of the water makes us feel like we're right in there with Spidey ...
I liked Amazing Spider-Man 29 a lot better, though it too was a bit of a filler issue. It featured the return of The Scorpion, the thug that Jameson arranged to be given super-powers back in Amazing Spider-Man 20, which came out before I began buying the title on a regular basis. I'd catch up with ASM20 a bit later when it was reprinted in Marvel Tales. But issue 29 offered a recap, so I didn't feel too much out of the loop.

First, let's take a look at that cover. Steve Ditko had already demonstrated a liking for placing Spider-Man in real danger on the covers. No other Marvel character faced cover jeopardy with quite the same regularity or intensity as Spider-Man. Towards the end of Giant Man's run, some attempt had been made to bring a similar sense of peril to the Tales to Astonish covers, but these had largely failed because they had made Giant Man seem like he was ineffective, rather than generating reader concern for the character.

It must have been fairly obvious to Stan that the whole Giant Man thing wasn't working. Trying to apply the hero-in-jeopardy schtick to Giant Man failed because it's hard to believe a 25-foot guy could be under threat from any normal-sized person. The situation on the cover of Tales to Astonish 68 is just plain daft.
But Amazing Spider-Man 29 ... now that is a jeopardy cover. I have written about this one on my website, in conjunction with the book I wrote a while back, How To Draw and Sell Comic Strips, offering it as an example of the perfect comic cover. And what made the Scorpion more than a bit scary was that he plainly didn't care whether he killed Spider-Man or Spider-Man killed him. Even as a kid I recognised that that is possibly the most dangerous type of person you could ever meet.

I'll come back to Amazing Spider-Man 30 a bit later, as I missed it in its original run and wouldn't discover a copy until a couple of years later ...

Amazing Spider-Man 31 was the start of an even bigger Spidey saga, that would run across three issues and is still, for my money, the best Spider-Man story ever.

The start of a super-saga ... this would be one of the last times that Ditko would put a secondary cover on page of of the story. This scene refers to the closing fight with the Master Planner's goons that starts on page 17.
The structure and pacing of the storytelling is pitch perfect. Spider-Man has a run-in with some masked goons who are stealing scientific equipment for "The Master Planner" and making their getaway via helicopter. They're well organised and obviously well funded. But he loses track of them after he causes their copter to crash into the East River. All this is quickly forgotten as Peter heads off to Empire State University for his first day of college, little suspecting that Aunt May has been feeling quite ill. When his aunt takes a turn for the worse that evening, Peter is shocked to hear Doc Bromwell wants to send her to hospital. The next day, lost in thought, Peter doesn't hear Flash trying to introduce him to two new friends, Harry Osborn and Gwen Stacy. They think he's ignoring them and Peter's high school history looks set to repeat itself. In the meantime, Bugle reporter Frederick Foswell, disguised as police stool-pigeon Patch, is also on the trail of the technology robbers. A chance meeting between the pair sends Spidey back down to the docks where the same masked goons are heisting more scientific equipment. There's an inconclusive battle but the thieves get away. And while Peter regrets not taking pictures of the fight for Jonah Jameson, at the hospital Aunt May's tests indicate she's sicker than Dr Bromwell thought.

An unprecedented eight pages are spent on Peter Parker's problems with Aunt May and his (lack of) college social life. Yet none of this is unimportant, and will become the very heartbeat of this whole masterful story. By this point, Steve Ditko was being credited with plotting by Stan, so there's little doubt that lavishing that amount of space on material that isn't superhero action was all Ditko's idea.

Essentially, the entire issue is setting up what will follow ... but stick with it. It's going to be worth it.

The cover essentially tells the reader the entire plot. The splash page was the first Ditko had drawn that formed the opening of the story. And the violence of Peter's frustration is a startling moment for any 11 year old reader.
Amazing Spider-Man 32 is where the whole thing really gets going. Steve Ditko's splash page breaks with tradition and actually forms the opening panel of the story, instead of acting as a second cover. Admittedly, it's a little dull, but I see this page's function as a kind of movie-style establishing shot, so the readers know exactly where the following action takes place.

Immediately, Ditko abandons the idea of keeping the identity of The Master Planner a secret. He probably realised that he'd over-played that hand in the battle between The Green Goblin and the Crime Master for control of the city's mobs and just dumped the idea. So we see Doctor Octopus issuing orders to his henchmen, but identifying himself to them as The Master Planner. Why was he keeping his identity a secret? Who knows? Not me ... probably not Ditko, either.

Meanwhile, Aunt May's doctors tell Peter that May is dying of radioactive poisoning. Horrified, Peter realises that it's because of a transfusion May received of Peter's blood back in Amazing Spider-Man 10 and it's his super-power that is killing her. As Spider-Man, Peter manages to enlist the aid of Dr Curt Connors - the former Lizard - to find a cure for Aunt May. Connors identifies the problem and orders a rare isotope, ISO-36, which he'll use to neutralise the radioactivity. But Doc Ock gets wind of the delivery and has his goons steal the rare element. Spider-Man goes after the thieves and starts tearing up the town to find them. Of course he does find Doc Ock's underwater lair and there's a mighty battle, but the structure is weakened by the two enemies flinging heavy plant equipment at each other and, with sections of the ceiling coming down, Doc Ock clears off, leaving Spidey trapped beneath some machinery ...

There's cliffhangers and there's cliffhangers. This one, surely, must be the grandaddy of them all.
When I originally read this in the early months of 1966, I was stressed breathless by Peter's predicament, so "in" the story was I at this point. The thought of having to try to find the next part of the story - given the erratic distribution of American comics to UK shops - made it even worse. I probably felt like that for about half an hour ... then something else distracted my attention and I carried on with all the other stuff I did - swapping gum cards, playing war, climbing trees ... that sort of thing.


Probably Marvel's most memorable moment, and definitely Spider-Man's -  wringing such high drama out of such a simple situation is a testament to the storytelling skills of both Stan Lee and Steve Ditko.
When Amazing Spider-Man 33 finally did roll around, probably around March of 1966, I was ready for it. Stan and Steve didn't have some rubbishy movie serial type resolution planned for Spidey. There was no "with one bound Spider-Man was free" kind of escape. Nope, they kept Spidey under that machinery for five pages. It's an extraordinary piece of storytelling. As each second drags past, and as each drop of water falls on Spidey from above, I was right there with him, straining uselessly against the dead weight above even as Spidey did.

And when he does somehow find the strength to heave that giant block of cast iron off his shoulders, it's the greatest moment in comics.

Yes, I said the greatest moment in comics ... anyone want to argue? Thought not.
But even then, Ditko wasn't finished. With the underwater structure crumbling around him, Spidey grasps the life-giving cannister of ISO-36 to his chest and stumbles through the rising waters. The ceiling gives way, enveloping Spider-Man in a bruising torrent of water. Somehow he finds his way to the surface and crawls exhausted from the water, only to find eight of The Master Planner's goons waiting for him. For goodness sake, Steve, give this kid a break ...

Three pivotal points in this story - Spidey not realising he's beaten The Master Planner's henchmen, recognising that Betty was just too highly strung to make an acceptable girlfriend for a superhero, and then understanding that if he stands up to Jameson, he might finally get reasonable payment for his first class crime pictures.
The battle with the goons is incredible, not because Spider-Man does so well, but because he does so badly. Exhausted, battered and on the point of collapse, Spidey keeps on swinging, even after the last goon is prostrate, hardly even realising he's won. 

Spidey manages to get the precious isotope delivered to Dr Connors, even finding a few moments to photograph the arrest of The Master Planner's goon squad by the police, but when he goes to The Daily Bugle to deliver the pix, he runs into Betty. When she sees his battered, bruised face, she goes into neurotic meltdown and rushes off sobbing. I think it was at this point that Peter caught up with my 11 year old self and realised what a pain in the butt Betty was. Finally, tired of Jonah Jameson's shenanigans, Peter decides that he'll use his exclusive photos of the police breaking up The Master Planner's gang to gouge the cost of Aunt May's hospital care out of the skinflint publisher. It's as though Peter has addressed each of the responsibilities that have been weighing him down and has finally dealt with them ... 

Thinking about it in retrospect, it's almost as though the final page of issue 33 is Ditko's farewell to the character and the book he helped create. And it would have been the perfect place for Ditko to stop ... but that's not what happened.

The issue ends quietly enough - I love Ditko's very cinematic split shot of Peter walking away. Others would ape this trick in later comics, notably Jim Steranko. But after the emotional rollercoaster of ASM33, how could the following issue ever hope to stack up?
Where before Stan and Steve had flirted with an extended storyline in ASM26 & 27, this was the first time that a Spider-Man tale had taken up three consecutive issues. Stan and Jack had been doing that kind of thing for a while over on Fantastic Four - at this point the Frightful Four saga was just winding down - and Ditko had told a multi-part story on Doctor Strange (Strange Tales 130-146), which began before ASM 31-33 and ended when Ditko left Marvel with the July 1966 issues. But these Spider-Man comics are a bit of a watershed in that a single coherent story ran across three issues of the comics. Even with Stan's and Jack's multi-parters, the storytelling involved one plotline seguing into another then returning to the previous storyline again - Fantastic Four 36-45 is just that; three intertwined plotlines (The Frightful Four, the loss of powers and Doctor Doom, The Inhumans) rather than a single story.

And I think that's all great. I'm all for an epic storyline - as long as the story is epic. Stan and Steve certainly delivered during the Master Planner arc. No one could complain that the tale lacks action, characterisation and emotional resonance. But as I've said before, the concept of continued stories would have its detractors - me included - as time wore on. Not because I think continued stories are bad, but because they became over-used and a crutch for lazy writers who didn't want to think up a new plot every month.

The remaining five issues of Steve Ditko's tenure as plotter and artist offered nothing as ground-breaking as the Master Planner saga. Even though he seems to be setting Spider-Man up for a return bout with Kraven the Hunter cheerfully enough, nothing he did with the title after this would have the verve and energy of anything he'd done in the first 33 issues.

After ratcheting up the tension to "11" in the issues before this one, ASM34 settles down to a more sedate "7.5". Here, it looks as though Ditko has given up on the second-cover idea for the comic's splash page and is now using page 1 to begin the story proper, just like Jack Kirby.
In all fairness, Amazing Spider-Man 34 isn't a bad comic by any stretch. It has some great developments - Peter trying to strike up a conversation with Gwen Stacy for the first time and getting knocked back, and the plotline with Betty Brant exiting Peter's life - but it can only compare poorly with the issues that immediately preceded it. It does, however, bring back an old foe, albeit not a super-powered one ...

There's a bit of a feeling that Ditko is marking time here. He's reverted back to using Page 1 as a second cover and the art seems a bit less detailed.
Amazing Spider-Man 35, on the other hand, bears some hallmarks of being a bit of a filler issue. The villain, the Molten Man, is in my view a b-team character. I wasn't mad about him in ASM28, so I wasn't overjoyed to see him back. The drawing seems a bit thinner and a bit less detailed than we've been used to. The final page seems very rushed indeed, not typical for Ditko, who never, as far as I know, ever missed a deadline. There's a funny bit where Spidey battles the Molten Man accompanied only by Artie Simek's sound effects, but that really does seem much more a Stan thing to do than a Steve idea ...


The last few covers have been very light on background detail and the interior art lacks the meticulous effort that made issues like ASM25 such a delight. And look at that pointlessly large panel of Spidey on page 11 ...
By the time I got to Amazing Spider-Man 36, I really did feel that Steve Ditko was just phoning the work in. As with the previous issue, Steve Ditko's art seems a bit rushed, lacking the detail that he'd put into the first 33 issues. Where before he'd stick with the basic six-panel layout, using larger panels to emphasise a dramatic point, now it seemed as if he was just jamming in big panels to save himself a bit of drawing. It did occur to me that it could have been because sometime around this point, Marvel (and DC) switched from the larger twice-up artwork to the smaller half-up size. Could this be why Ditko's art looks so ... thin? So I did some checking (actually, I looked at the IDW Artists' Edition of Steranko's SHIELD) and found that the date of the switch was around November 1967, more than a year after these issues of Spider-Man came out. So I couldn't even allow Ditko that excuse. Then, thinking about it, the three covers from ASM 34 on also lacked real jeopardy. No, there's little doubt ... by this point Ditko was just going through the motions ...

The cover was a big improvement over recent issues, but the splash page did look a bit crude. On the bright side, the interior story and art was almost a return to form for Ditko ... sadly, it wouldn't last.
Issue 37 of Amazing Spider-Man did seem to be a bit of a rally for Ditko. The cover had real menace, the issue introduced Norman Osborn as a slightly dodgy associate of the issue's villain, Professor Stromm, and even the artwork seemed a bit more detailed, like Ditko actually cared again. Overall I quite liked this issue the best of the post Master Planner Spider-Man comics. But as it turned out, ASM37 was just a blip.

The cover of this issue is an obvious paste-up, the splash page is the weirdest ever seen in a Ditko Spider-Man comic and the interior story is a bit "meh", lacking in any real danger. We should have seen the writing on the wall ...
Amazing Spider-Man 38 was the saddest issue of the entire Ditko run on the character, for oh-so-many reasons. For a start, there was no cover. That's right, Ditko left before drawing a cover for the issue. This meant the Bullpen had to paste something together in a hurry. The main image of Spider-Man was lifted from a panel on page 13. The three lower images are just action panels from the story pasted in. There's not even an attempt at a background behind Spidey, so my guess would be that no one realised until right on deadline that Steve wasn't planning on turning in any cover art for this issue.

The interior story is just about okay, very similar to the Meteor Man tale in issue 36, but just kind of bland and unmemorable. The only vaguely interesting bit is where Norman Osborn disguises himself and hires a bunch of gangster goons to kill Spider-Man. At this stage, we readers can only guess what his beef with Spidey is. But it does seem that even at this late stage, Ditko was setting Norman O up for something bigger than just the role of a walk-on trouble-maker.

Yet, for all my misgivings about Steve Ditko leaving The Amazing Spider-Man, the fact is that by the end of 1966, the title would be racking up an impressive 340,000 sales, overtaking Fantastic Four as Marvel's best-selling title and, though DC's core Superman and Batman titles were all still a long way ahead, this would begin to change over the next two years ...

But issue 39 of Spider-Man would confirm our worst fears. Steve Ditko had walked out on his two seminal characters, Spider-Man and Doctor Strange. From Amazing Spider-Man 39 onwards, a new hand would wield the pencil, and Stan Lee would return as plotter and scripter both ... and to be fair, do a very good job of it.

In the wake of Ditko's departure, the dynamic of the creative team behind the character would change drastically, not necessarily for the worse ...
But that's all for the next blog entry in this series, where I'll look at the impact of John Romita and how Marvel's increasing inroads into television and other forms of licensing would change the fortunes of the company ...

Next: New hands on the tiller


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


Sunday, 7 September 2014

Why I thought comics were a lost cause in the 1960s

WHEN I WAS GROWING UP IN THE 1960s, my pre-teen years were almost entirely consumed by comics. In the first half of that magical decade, while so much around me was changing, all I could see was the DC comics of Mort Weisinger and Julius Schwartz, along with the Beatles and certain favoured tv shows like My Favorite Martian, The Munsters and Space Patrol.

As an eight year old, this was the sort of thing that held my rapt attention - DC comics and Ray Walston as My Favourite Martian. Life was much simpler then.
In the second half of the Sixties, I'd discover Stan Lee's Marvel Comics, The Monkees and Steed and Mrs Peel in The Avengers. While it was a great time to be growing up, there were also plenty of disadvantages to being a kid. Chief among these was the prevailing attitude that comics were stupid.

Once I got to about ten, I discovered Marvel Comics, the Monkees and, a little later, Emma Peel.
For a lad at a tough South London primary school, it didn't pay to be different in any way. I distinctly remember getting the tar beaten out of me on two separate occasions, for reasons that now escape me, by the two toughest kids in the school. It probably had something to do with the fact that I did quite well in class, read comics and didn't play football at playtime. In their eyes that must have made me something of an oddball - and I shared my ostracised status with Joseph "Fleabag" Newey, a kid from an obviously impoverished family, who turned up to school in worn and dirty clothes and was mocked mercilessly for it.

At home, it wasn't much better. I didn't get walloped by my mum unless I had done something pretty bad. But she, too, had a real problem with me reading comics. Any time I managed to amass a small "collection" she'd decide I was spending too much time reading them and unceremoniously dump them in the rubbish chute at the end of the balcony on our block of flats. It didn't matter that these comics might be Beezer or Topper, Batman or Green Lantern, or even a clutch of Alan Class or Miller black and white reprints ... into the rubbish they'd go with alarming regularity.

A small selection of some of the comics that ended up in a landfill because my mum didn't approve of me "wasting my time with that rubbish" - as a counterpoint, this was where I started my life-long love-affair with reading and, as a result, regularly came top of my class in spelling and other applied English tests.
My mum's gone now, and I never did get the chance to ask her why she had such a problem with my comics. It may have been something to do with the great "horror comics" witchhunt of the 1950s, which reached even the shores of Britain, driven by the nonsensical ravings of Dr Frederic Wertham. I recall that in the 1960s, folks who didn't know anything about the medium would regularly refer to even the superhero books of Marvel and DC as "horror comics".

All of this contributed to the general feeling that comics were only for dumb people at best, or some kind of pernicious influence on society at worst. Then 20th Century-Fox and DC Comics joined forces to make things far, far worse ...

"HOLY DUMBED-DOWN CRAP, BATMAN!"

As 1965 rolled over into 1966, I was feeling a bit better about the comics I was reading. I genuinely felt, even then, that Marvel Comics were making a real effort to improve the quality of writing in their books. I had been very well aware that DC Comics had aimed their material firmly at the 8-10 year old market. But it definitely seemed like Marvel were for older kids. And of course if ever I detected a sneer while I was looking at a Marvel book, I'd very often try to make some kind of defence by telling the sneerer that the stories in Marvel comics were really cool and loads of college kids read them. I would have been reading the story arc that ran from FF41 to FF43 ... where Ben Grimm is transformed back into The Thing to help defeat Doctor Doom at the end of FF40 and spends the next three issues getting all bitter and twisted, then joining The Frightful Four. Great drama, great storytelling, even now. But of course, you couldn't tell that to a non comics-reader in 1966.

So you can imagine my excitement when I heard that there was going to be a Batman tv series. On television. Right here in the UK. This, at last, was the chance to show the sneerers just how wrong they'd been.

As the days counted down to the show's debut, the anticipation mounted ... and when the great day came, I settled down in front of the tv - black and white in those days - and watched mesmerised as the opening teaser unfolded showing us the Gotham City World's fair and a trick exploding cake containing a riddle - "Why is an orange like a bell?" Then there's a scene at Police HQ with Commissioner Gordon and his staff daunted by the prospect of taking on ... The Riddler. So far, so good.

But it's when Gordon decides to summon Batman that things start to unravel. We switch to Wayne Manor allowing Bruce to explain to a charity committee how his parents were murdered by "dastardly villains" (uh-oh), then he's summoned to the Bat-Phone by Alfred. On the way he picks up Dick Grayson, who's clutching a toy plane, though he looks about 25. When Bruce suggests a "spot of fishing" Dick exclaims theatrically "Holy Barracuda!", then recovers and calmly delivers his next line, "Sure, Bruce. Why not? Sounds swell." Again, uh-oh. Bruce is brought up to speed via the Bat-Phone by Gordon and the pair dash to the Bat-Poles via which they descend to the Batcave - and the opening credits rolled, a crudely animated Batman and Robin, kind of in the style of the older Sheldon Moldoff artwork.

I wasn't keen on the animated titles when I first saw them. I'd been used to first Dick Sprang's then later Carmine Infantino's smooth drafting and the figures of Batman and Robin here seemed very sloppy by comparison.
Arriving at the foot of the poles in their Bat-Suits, they jump into the Batmobile (admittedly a very cool design) - "Batteries to Power. Turbines to speed," says Robin - and Batman drives the Batmobile towards Gotham City at breakneck speed. As the next scenes with Commissioner Gordon and Batman played out, the alarm bells were going off like crazy. As a serious comic fan of almost twelve, I could see straight away that the show wasn't taking Batman seriously. In fact, the actors were snickering at the character while over-acting every line they delivered.

Why was Batman so scrawny? Why was his bat-emblem so far down his torso? Why did Robin look 25? Why did the entire cast behave so foolishly? Could Commissioner Gordon really have been that stupid?
The one thing I really did like was the casting of Frank Gorshin as The Riddler. I had been familiar with Gorshin, because he had appeared on UK variety show Sunday Night at the London Palladium as a stand up comedian and impressionist and had stolen the show. His Riddler was slightly based on the giggling psychopath Tommy Udo character Richard Widmark (whom Gorshin slightly resembles, I think) had played in Kiss of Death (1947). So effective was Gorshin's portrayal that he was actually nominated for a Supporting Actor Emmy in 1967, though Don Knotts actually won.

But other than The Riddler, where Gorshin's over-the-top performance actually worked, everyone else seemed to be acting a bit ... well, odd. The other supporting players were all pretty deadpan in the ridiculous situations (though Irish viewers might have had a legitimate complaint against Chief O'Hara), Adam West's Batman seemed a bit dim and Burt Ward's Robin behaved like he had Tourette's.

The remainder of the first Batman adventure concerned the Riddler's attempts to do ... something, it's not entirely clear what, to Batman. First there's a lawsuit for wrongful arrest which is kind of forgotten amidst the sound and the fury. Then Riddler kidnaps Robin - either to substitute his disguised henchwoman Molly (Jill St John) or to lure Batman into a trap. When the Riddler's plan is finally revealed - to steal a priceless jewel-encrusted mammoth from the Moldavian pavillion at the Gotham World's Fair - all that remains is for the big brawl with comic-book sound effects superimposed and the 45-minute tale is pretty much done.

It wasn't just that there were sound effects superimposed on the screen, they were stupid sound effects.
It was the whole sound effects thing that eventually turned me against the show. It wasn't funny, it was just idiotic. Yet strangely, as annoying as I found the series, I was somehow compelled to watch it. Like it was some kind of terrible car-crash, I'd stare at the screen in horror, week after week, while Batman camped his way through ridiculous stories, battling eccentric villains played by even more eccentric actors.

What on earth possessed the tv people to create this travesty of show, I had no idea. At least not back then. But as I dug around, researching the origins of the series for this blog entry, it all started to make a kind of sense.

SECRET ORIGINS OF A TV SERIES

I had been used to the earlier silly Batman tales that I'd read in the Batman Annuals. They had seemed a bit daft at the time, even to me, with Batman battling aliens and imps from other dimensions and becoming Scottish-Batman and Zebra-Batman ...

The Silver Age Batman Annuals were a good source of earlier stories, and though I didn't go out of my way, they were usually a diverting read when I couldn't get comics I liked better, like Flash and Green Lantern.
But when Julius Schwartz and Carmine Infantino modernised the character in 1964, it all seemed much cooler and more engaging. At least DC were treating the character more respectfully ... and instead of weird transformations and time travel, Batman was much more down to earth, battling gangsters, escaping death-traps and taking on the occasional costumed villain.

Schwartz's version of Batman returned to the character's detective roots, pitting him against more realistic threats and situations.
The tv show seemed to take aspects of both Batman versions and mesh them together to come up with a wrong-headed hybrid. The tone and outlandish situations appeared to come from the old-style, Jack Schiff edited stories while the surface look came from the later, sleek Julius Schwartz makeover version. Then, tacked on at the end of the first episode of the week, the strangely out-of-place serial style cliffhanger ending ... there was an explanation for all of this, which I'll come back to later.

In the early 1960s, CBS and Ed Graham Productions had struck a deal with DC Comics to produce an adaptation of Batman for television. Actor Mike Henry - who would later play Tarzan in three movies in the late Sixties - was to be the lead and the show would have been a straightforward adventure series in the same style as the old syndicated Adventures of Superman.

Former American footballer Mike Henry would have made a more rugged Batman than Adam West.
Around the same time, the Playboy club in Chicago was screening the old 1940s Batman serials on Saturday nights and the event was becoming very popular. ABC producer Yale Udoff was at one of these parties and, realising how much fun the audience was having, thought it might be a good idea to create a Batman series for television. So he approached ABC executives Harve Bennett and Edgar Sherick with the concept of putting together a Batman show in the same hip and fun style as The Man from U.N.C.L.E. As fortune would have it, negotiations between Ed Graham and DC Comics had stalled, so ABC was able to swoop in and pick up the rights.

They sub-contracted production to 20th Century-Fox who in turn hired William Dozier to produce the show. Dozier had never read the comics and would have been too old during the 1940s to be a comic reader anyway, so it's hard to think of a less-qualified person to put in charge of a comic book adaptation, something Dozier readily admitted. "When they first proposed the series to me, I reacted with complete horror," recalled Dozier. "They somehow had the instinctive feeling at the network that a series based on a comic book character might somehow be a success. I could understand why they wanted to do a program for children, but I couldn’t see anything in it to interest me."

After reading some of the comics, Dozier was at a loss to know what to do with the character until he hit on the idea of doing the show as a spoof. "Suddenly," he recalled, "I hit upon this tongue-in-cheek idea — the so-called 'camp' approach. This seems obvious now, and when I began to see the show in these terms, it began to amuse me. In fact, it began to interest me so much that I found I could enjoy it. Then I felt that older adults could enjoy it, and I found it easy to work on. This was the concept from the beginning and we never shot a foot of film with any other style."

The idea of doing the stories as two-parters with a cliff-hanger at the end of the first episode would very likely have come from Udoff, who'd seen those old Batman serials at the Playboy club. The melodramatic voice-over narration was provided by William Dozier himself, which just gave me something else to hate.

Two screen tests were filmed - one with Adam West and Burt Ward and another with Lyle Wagner (later Wonder Woman's love interest Steve Trevor in the Linda Carter tv show) and Peter Deyell.

At this stage, the producers were clearly following Batman's old look, before Schwartz and Infantino got to work, which might partly explain the dopey storylines and camp approach.
The producers went with West and Ward and the series was off and running sooner than expected as it was slotted in during January 1966 as a replacement for the cancelled show, Shindig and for The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, which ABC moved to a different time slot on Saturdays.

BUT NOW ... BACK TO REGULARLY SCHEDULED PROGRAMMING

The next "Special Guest Villain" after the Riddler was The Penguin, in a benchmark eccentric performance from veteran Hollywood character actor Burgess Meredith. The plot had the Penguin unable to think of a new caper and showed his attempts to trick Batman into unwittingly planning the crime for him. Though credited to Lorenzo Semple Jr, the teleplay was actually an uncredited adaptation of Ed Herron's Penguin story from Batman 169 (Feb 1965).

The comic book story "Partners in Plunder" wasn't long enough to fill the full running time of the two-part tv show format, so Semple had to add a sub-plot with glamorous movie star Dawn Robbins (Leslie Parrish).
The next transmitted adventure featured 1940s heart-throb Cesar Romero as The Joker. This story was also adapted from an original Batman comic story. "The Joker's Utlity Belt" had appeared in Batman 73 (Oct-Nov 1952). It's unlikely the show's producers would have had access to this story, but it was reprinted in 80-Page Giant Batman 176 (Dec 65), so the timing makes it highly likely that this is where scriptwriter Robert Dozier would have seen it.

The two source comics for the "Joker is Wild" adventure and, from the show, The Joker (Cesar Romero) shows off his own Utility Belt to his slightly dim-witted assistant Queenie (Nancy Kovack).
The earliest credit I could find for Romero was The Shadow Laughs (1933), but before you get all excited, it had nothing to do with Walter Gibson's pulp hero of slouch hat and swirling cape fame. In fact Romero appeared in a wide range of comedies, musicals dramas and mysteries during the 1930s and 1940s, proving himself to be a versatile and dependable supporting contract player whilst at 20th Century-Fox. "I was never stereotyped as just a Latin lover in any case because I played so many parts in so many pictures," said Romero once. "I was more of a character actor than a straight leading man. I did many kinds of characters - Hindus, Indians, Italians. There were very few pictures where I ended up with the girl."

We couldn't see it at the time, but when the show was repeated in HD recently on ITV4, it was pretty obvious that all was not quite right with The Joker's clown makeup.
Romero was a bit non-plussed at first to be cast as the iconic Batman villain. "Why producer William Dozier wanted me for Batman, I'll never know," said Romero. "I asked his wife, Ann Rutherford, 'Why did Bill think of me for this part?' She said, 'I don't know, Butch. He said he saw you in something, and told me, he's the one I want to play the Joker.' I haven't the slightest idea what it was he saw me in, because I had never done anything like it before."

But in the end Romero was glad he did it. "I had enormous fun playing the Joker on Batman. I ended up doing something like 20 episodes of the show. There was certainly nothing hard about that assignment! Even the makeup sessions weren't too bad. It took about an hour-and-a-half to put the full makeup on, including the green wig. I didn't mind it at all."

Yet, Romero famously refused to shave his moustache and the crew had to plaster white greasepaint over it to hide it best they could. Back in the low-resolution days of 1966 and black and white television, I honestly didn't notice. It was only later when the shows were aired in colour did it become obvious that the Joker had face fungus under the clown makeup.

There followed a largely unmemorable run of villains for the next several adventures, though the big-name Hollywood stars queued up to take on the Guest Villain roles: Mr Freeze (George Sanders, with a really strange German accent), Zelda the Great (Ann Baxter), the return of the Riddler, The Mad Hatter (David Wayne), the return of The Joker, False Face (Malachi Throne) ... then something really interesting happened.

Selina Kyle had first appeared in Batman 1 (Spring 1940) as The Cat. She also turned up in issues 2 and 3, but still as a tricky female cat burglar. The classic costume first appeared in Batman 35, but didn't show up on the cover until Batman 62 (Dec 1951). She made a few more appearances in the 1950s, then disappeared from the comic until the Batman tv show resuscitated her and she turned up in Lois Lane 70 (Nov 1966), of all places.
The producers cast actress and dancer Julie Newmar as the long-defuct Batman foe Catwoman. The character hadn't appeared in the comics for decades, but clearly someone thought it would be a good idea for Batman to face a glamourous villainess.

Newmar told the story of how she got the part: "I had lived in New York at the time on Beekman Place. I remember it was a weekend, Friday or Saturday, and my brother had come down from Harvard with five or six of his friends, and we were all sitting around the sofa, just chatting away, when the phone rang. I got up and answered it, and it was this agent or someone in Hollywood, who said, 'Miss Newmar, would you like to play Catwoman on the Batman series? They are casting it out here.' I was insulted because he said, 'It starts Monday.' I said, 'What is this?' That's how television is done: they never know what they are doing until yesterday. Well, my brother leaped off the sofa. I mean he physically levitated and said, 'Batman! That's the favorite show at Harvard. We all quit our classes and quit our studies and run into the TV room and watch this show.' I said, 'They want me to play Catwoman.' He said, 'Do it!' So, I said, 'Okay, I'll do it'."

At 5'11", the striking figure of Julie Newmar was already known to American audiences after she had played the robot Rhoda in the 1964 show My Living Doll and had also appeared in guest spots on top-rated tv series like Route 66, Twilight Zone, Beverly Hillbillies and most appropriately as Stupifyin' Jones in the movie version of Li'l Abner (1959).

The astonishing Julie Newmar as Stupifyin' Jones in Li'l Abner (1959), then as Rhoda the robot in 1964's My Living Doll, and finally, her first screen seconds as Batman's arch-nemesis and love interest, Catwoman.
Not surprisingly, Julie Newmar's Catwoman collided with my 11 year old sensibilities like a runaway truck. Now I had a compelling reason to continue watching this ridiculous show. If anything, this bothered my mum more than my comics reading. For a lad of twelve to be mesmerised by a 33 year old woman, in a skintight leotard who wielded a cat-o-nine-tails with lascivious glee was probably some kind of indicator of unhealthy tendancies. But it seemed fine to me.

Here's some completely gratuitous portraits of Julie Newmar as Batman's purr-fect nemesis, Catwoman. Maybe you can figure out what endeared her to the predominately pre-teen male audience of the tv series, I certainly can't.
Catwoman turned out to be one of the most popular foes during the Batman run, appearing in six separate adventures, played by Newmar in five of those stories. She was unavailable for the feature film shot between seasons one and two, where Lee Meriwether stepped into the clingy black leotard, and - inexplicably - Catwoman was played by Eartha Kitt for her third season appearances, while Newmar was filming McKenna's Gold (1967).

Lee Meriwether made a credible Catwoman in the theatrically released feature film, but Eartha Kitt (despite the eminently suitable surname) made Catwoman just a bit too - I don't know - "mumsy" ...
Only The Joker (22 episodes) and The Penguin (21 episodes) got more screentime than Catwoman (18 episodes). Runners up were: The Riddler (12 episodes), King Tut (Victor Buono, 10 episodes), Egghead (Vincent Price, 7 episodes), Mr Freeze (various actors, 7 episodes) and Marsha Queen of Diamonds (The Addams' Family's Carolyn Jones, 5 episodes ).

The B-Team - Mr Freeze (George Sanders, based on the character Mr Zero from Batman 145), Zelda the Great (Anne Baxter), The Mad Hatter (David Wayne, from Batman 48), False Face (Malachi Throne, from Batman 113), King Tut (Victor Buono) and Bookworm (Roddy McDowell).
The rest of Season One was played fairly safe, with A-list Batman villains Penguin, Joker and Riddler on baddie-duties. Only King Tut and Roddy McDowell's Bookworm offered weak foes as first series drew to a close. 

Many Hollywood stars lined up to make cameo appearances in the show, including:
  • Jerry Lewis (The Bookworm Turns)
  • Sammy Davis Jr (The Clock King's Crazy Crimes)
  • Ted Cassidy as Addam's Family's Lurch (The Penguin's Nest)
  • Andy Devine (The Duo is Slumming)
  • Phyllis Diller (The Minstrel's Shakedown)
  • George Raft (The Black Widow Strikes Again)
  • Edward G. Robinson (Batman's Satisfaction)
And in minor roles there were plenty of faces familiar to followers of US tv shows.
  • Linda Harrison, a cheerleader in The Joker Goes to School (and more famously, Nova in Planet of the Apes)
  • Sherry Jackson, the Riddler's moll in Death in Slow Motion (and Andrea in the Star Trek episode What Are Little Girls Made Of?)
  • Deanna Lund, the Riddler's Moll in Batman's Anniversary (and a featured role in Land of the Giants)
  • Lee Meriwether, King Tut's kidnap victim in King Tut's Coup (plus a featured role in The Time Tunnel and of course, Catwoman in the Batman feature film)
  • Angelique Pettyjohn a model in A Piece of the Action (and more famously, Shahna in the Star Trek episode Gamesters of Triskelion)
  • Jill St John, the Riddler's moll in Hi Diddle Riddle (and roles in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and Burke's Law, as well as Tiffany Case in Diamonds are Forever, 1971)
  • Grace Lee Whitney, King Tut's moll in King Tut's Coup (and of course, Yeoman Rand in Star Trek)
Fanboy heaven - Lee Meriwether and Grace Lee Whitney, all tied up with a big satin bow, in the King Tut episode Batman's Waterloo, from the second season.
Each week, the two episodes would follow exactly the same formula. First there is a daring crime, or sometimes the threat of a crime. Then a bit of business at stately Wayne Manor to introduce Bruce and Dick to new viewers. Next, Commissioner Gordon calls on the Bat-Phone to request Batman's help. After a conference at Police HQ Batman makes an inspired deduction and sets off to pursue this week's Guest Villain. Meanwhile, the Villain is planning their next heist. Batman and the villain clash at the scene of the next major crime. There is a bat-fight, ending with Batman, Robin or both in an inescapable, cliff-hanging deathtrap.

Holy Bat-cliche - Chief O'Hara (Stafford Repp) and Commissioner Gordon (Neil Hamilton) always featured in the mandatory conference at Police Headquarters. And Batman and Robin usually entered premises by climbing up the outside wall on batropes, often encountering a Hollywood A-lister (in this case Jerry Lewis) on the way.
The next episode opening with an unlikely, deus ex machina-style escape. Batman hunts the villain to their secret lair, often gaining access by climbing up the outside of the building on bat-ropes. Then, there's another bat-fight, ending with the crooks in batcuffs.

To me the enormous success of the first season of Batman was completely inexplicable. How could anything so stupid be watched by adults and - even worse - children? Surely kids should have known when they were being patronised, shouldn't they? Everything about it was wrong. The cardinal sin was that it mocked the source material. That would never happen today. Well, almost never. DC Comics certainly allowed Joel Schumacher to channel the idiocy of the 1966 tv show for his two execrable Batman movie entries, Batman Forever (1995) - we should have been warned by the especially dumb title - and Batman and Robin (1997). But then, DC don't exactly have a sterling track record when it comes to movie versions of their properties.

Still, I must have been in the minority, because the repetitive style of the the show kept audiences engaged for the first series ... so much so that ITV screened the second series immediately afterwards, beginning in September 1966.

Second season villainy - The Archer (Art Carney), The Minstrel (Van Johnson), Ma Parker (Shelley Winters) and The Clock King (Walter Slezak).
The second season trotted out the same A-list Batman villains, but kicked off with the distinctly under-whelming Archer (Art Carney). Of course, I wouldn't have been aware of this at the time (as there was no break between the two series on ITV) but it seems, in retrospect, that Season Two fell into a very familiar trap - it exaggerated the qualities the producers felt had made the first series a success. So performances were a little broader, the guest villains were played by slightly bigger stars and clichés of the first series were on display more frequently.

More second season villainy - Egghead (Vincent Price), Chandell (Liberace), Mr Freeze (Otto Preminger, this time) and Siren (Joan Collins).
But what the producers hadn't realised was, by now, audiences had become familiar with the formula and as a result, the show became predictable. Inevitably, ratings began to slip as viewers realised that Batman was essentially just a novelty show that had little value beyond its novelty.

As ratings had tumbled during the second season, producer Dozier decided to spice things up by adding a sexy new companion for Batman - Batgirl, played by dancer Yvonne Craig. Initially Robin was to be dumped, but DC Comics insisted that he stay, so Dozier instead axed Madge Blake, whose health was failing anyway.
We didn't get the third series of Batman - where Aunt Harriet was replaced with Yvonne Craig's Batgirl - in the UK until much later. Around 1974, I believe. By which time I had long left such things behind me. I don't have a 12 year old's perspective on that version, only having seen it recently via repeats on satellite tv.

The other big change Dozier made was changing the show from two half-hour episodes a week to a single half-hour episode. Lost in the translation were the cliff-hanger endings and in came super-villain team-ups. None of this made much difference to the viewing figures and, with ABC concerned about falling ratings and the high cost of production, the show was ignominiously cancelled after the 26 episodes of the third season had aired.


Here's some gorgeous 50mm slides I found: Adam West, Yvonne Craig on set with director Sam Strangis; I can't identify the actress with West here, but I'll figure it out eventually; and a great shot of West and Ward as Wayne and Grayson.
Yet, in an ironic plot-twist worthy of one of Lorenzo Semple's scripts, just a few weeks after production was shut down, NBC approached Dozier to see if they could pick up the property for a fourth season - on condition that the sets were still available. But it was too late. Fox had already demolished the batcave, so that was the end of that.

BATMANIA IN THE SIXTIES

The most visible consequence of the show's initial popularity was that suddenly the shops and the airwaves were crammed with anything and everything you could put "Bat" in front of. Every television chat show was competing to get Bat-guests to improve their ratings. Toy manufacturers big and small scrambled to license and produce as much Bat-paraphernalia as they could and whether you liked the show or not, you were suddenly up to your ears in Bat-guano.

The actors were very popular guests on chat shows. Here Yvonne Craig turns up on The Merv Griffith Show in 1967 in her Batgirl costume. Merv looks a little non-plussed here, doesn't he?
The biggest spin-off was Batman the Movie (1966). Originally, Dozier had planned to produce a feature-length tv pilot over the winter of 1965/66 to showcase the trappings of the show, but because ABC needed to spice up their ratings in January 1966, the series had been rushed into production and the pilot was temporarily abandoned. But in the hiatus between seasons one and two, Dozier shot the feature film and released it in theatres for the summer holidays to keep the property in the public eye until the second season kicked off in September 1966.

The Batman movie was just a longer version of the tv show with a budget of a million-plus dollars, so they could afford more villains, along with a Bat-boat and a Bat-copter. It was still rubbish, though.
The film gathered together the four most popular bat-villains and teamed them up against the Caped Crusader in what was no more than an extended tv episode. The plot, such as it was, had The Penguin (Burgess Meredith) coming up with a plan to reduce members of the United Nations Security Council to dust which would somehow give him and his three partners in crime, world dominion. Uncharacteristically, The Joker seemed happy to be The Penguin's bitch and Frank Gorshin's Riddler was having too much fun cackling to care. Not really sure how that would work. Julie Newmar was unavailable, so Lee Meriwether was drafted in to fill Catwoman's black leotard. At the time, us kids were marginally more interested in Batman in colour than we were when he was on tv in black and white. Colour broadcasting didn't begin in the UK until 1967, and then by the BBC - Batman was shown on the commercial channel, ITV, so seeing the colourful Batman characters actually in colour was quite the novelty.

Life magazine was given access to the Batman set and featured Adam West on the cover. Inside was a series of pictures shot especially for the magazine, including this double page posed spread. I also found the original image the cover shot was taken from.
The media also went bat-crazy and it seemed as though every magazine was cover-featuring Batman - Life had a multi-page article and with exclusive on-set pictures, MAD featured the show on more than one cover, as did TV Guide, Pageant, Screen Stories, Teen Life and many more.

The Bat-Laffs card series featured photos from the Batman feature film. The Catwoman cards were very highly collectible.
Then, of course there were the toys and other merchandising. First and most visible in my 12 year old life was the gum card sets. During the 1960s, there were gum cards for every conceivable taste, some of which I've covered in earlier entries in this blog. When the tv show started in 1966, there were three different sets of cards. These were distinguished by different coloured Bat-symbols on the front of the cards - red, blue and black. Artwork was, for the most part, by Norman Saunders, who had provided memorable art for Mars Attacks, Civil War News and Battle.

Before the Batman movie came out, there were three sets of painted Batman cards for us to collect. Here's examples of the Red Bat and the Black Bat sets - I don't have any of the Blue Bat set - all art by Norman Saunders.
There were also Batman and Robin plastic figures, sold through Woolworths, which cost around 1/6 (7.5p in decimal currency). I think the Robin figure was slightly cheaper. I recall Batman's head-and-cape was detachable, making a kind of ghoulish Bat-symbol. Both figures stood on Bat-symbol bases and were about 4" high.

These Batman and Robin figures were cheaply made, probably cast from existing moulds adapted for the purpose. I found this pic on Nigel Brown's blog, Superstuff in the Bronze Age - well worth a visit.
Then of course there was the Corgi Batmobile. This was the toy of envy during 1966 and 1967. The kids from slightly better-off homes got theirs first, as it wasn't a cheap toy, about 12/6 (62.5p). I did eventually get one, despite my mum's disapproval of all things comic and superhero.

Corgi 267: My second favourite toy growing up - I still loved my James Bond Aston Martin more. But this vehicle is a true 1960s icon, designed by George Barris and based on a Lincoln concept car, the Futura.
Much more recently, I was able to find a 1967 original on eBay with a repro box since, even though I'm not a great fan of the show, I've always thought the Batmobile was a design classic.

Then there was the road safety ad for British television. It was May 1967, and while Adam West was visiting the UK to promote the tv show, he was contacted by the British government's Central Office of Information to appear in a road safety ad, highlighting the dangers of crossing the road without looking to UK children.


Most sources say this photo was snapped in Kensington, but I happen to know the Crawley family lived in Kennington, a completely different part of London. But we all agree it was 1967.
Now here's the weird part. My old friend Tony Crawley, with whom I'd worked on House of Hammer magazine (1978) and on Starburst mag (1979-1985) was looking at this very blog entry and chipped in some information. "A neighbour of mine in Kennington worked for the COI, Central Office of Information. And got an agreement with West, who was coming to London, to shoot a Road Safety commercial for kids. He asked me to write it. Which I did (I don't have the script anymore, or a copy of the film)  They shot it a street away from where we lived, and I naturally took my young son to the shoot." Obviously, he was thrilled to meet the Caped Crusader. Today that young man, Nic Crawley, is President of International Marketing and Distribution at Paramount Studios, in Hollywood, where he helped make Transformers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles such box-office champs.


BATMAN - THE FALLOUT

For me, the worst effect of the Batman tv show was how it infected everyone's view of comics for the next thirty years or so. I can't think of a time when tv or print media have reported on a comics-related story where they didn't start with, "Wham! Pow! Crash!" Even if they were reporting on Love and Rockets or The Walking Dead. Certainly everyone who has never read a comic - and this includes most tv and newpaper journalists - seems to be of the opinion that the Batman show was a fair representation of the tone and reading level of all comics. And for that, I can never forgive it.

But almost as bad was that it was a classic example of the Opportunity Missed. Not only was Dozier's contemptuously spoofy approach what killed the show after just three seasons, but if he hadn't made such a hash of it, maybe we wouldn't have had to wait decades before a movie or tv producer had the courage to try treating comic book characters with any degree of respect.

For some reason, other producers thought that - despite all the evidence - Dozier had got it right and we were subjected in quite rapid order to television shows like Mr Terrific (1967) and Captain Nice (1967), abominations both. Admittedly Captain Nice was created by Buck Henry, who had had a big success with the fondly remembered (though not, I have to say, by me) Get Smart (1965). So it was at least a spoof of superheroes that didn't single out a specific one to ridicule. Mr Terrific was more of a sit-com than a spoof about a secret agent who could fly. I remember seeing at least one episode of one of these at the time while on holiday at my grandparents' house in Glasgow - I think it may have been Mr Terrific, but it's hard to remember, now. I'm pretty sure neither turned up on tv south of the border.

Captain Nice was produced by NBC and featured Carter Nash (William Daniels),  a police scientist who discovered a serum that could give him the powers of strength, invulnerability and flight (though he was afraid of heights). That's Ann Prentiss as Sgt Candy the, um, eye candy. Mr Terrific (Stephen Strimpell) took a pill to give him super-strength and the power of flight.
Dozier even imitated himself and produced a single season of The Green Hornet which, if nothing else, at least brought Bruce Lee some degree of attention. Incredibly, for some unknown reason, Dozier approached The Green Hornet much more seriously than he did Batman. I would have loved to know the thinking behind that. I suspect the history of superhoes on the screen might have turned out differently if he'd done Batman seriously and The Green Hornet as a spoof. But I guess we'll never know ...

The undoubted star of The Green Hornet was Bruce Lee, who was just beginning his show-biz career, as the Hornet's, er, sidekick, Kato. Van Williams was okay in the lead role, but was just a tad bland. I liked the Hornet's car, The Black Beauty - not a cool as the Batmobile, but pretty good just the same.
In the cinema too, the insidious effects of Dozier's dozy decision to go down the camp route with Batman was felt. First there was Modesty Blaise. Released in August 1966, it actually pre-dated Batman the Movie, and by the beginning of 1966 was probably too far along in the production process to be influenced much by Dozier's tv show. But if anything, it was even camper than the Batman tv show. And it was probably more roundly detested by fans of the Modesty Blaise newspaper strip. Like Dozier, I think director Joseph Losey, usually known for his high-brow (some might say, pretentious) projects, just felt embarrassed to be involved in a comic strip movie. So by pitching it as a spoof, he was telling his friends and relatives that he knew it was dumb and was only in it for the paycheque.

Monica Viti certainly looked the part in the title role of Modesty Blaise, but lacked the steely determination. Terence Stamp though was a bit mis-cast as Willie Garvin.
The 1968 Barbarella movie, however, was at least based on a comic strip that started out as a (science fiction) spoof. Not a superhero piece, the project was directed by Roger Vadim from a well-known French comic strip by Jean-Claude Forest, originally published in V-Magazine in 1962. The strip was also published in English in Evergreen Review, 1965-66. The movie version remained fairly close to the source material, though there was still an element of the director somehow feeling he was better than the material. Contemporary critics agreed and the movie was a critical and financial failure. However, the striking imagery has ensured its cult status during the intervening years. And Jane Fonda in those costumes? What's not to like?

Actress and later political campaigner for women's rights, Jane Fonda made a decorative Barbarella. And the set design was especially striking. But you have to wonder if this wasn't more about pleasing then-paramour Roger Vadim than furthering her own agenda.
Danger: Diabolik (1968), on the other hand, I thought was splendid. This one was directed by the mighty Mario Bava and was based on the phenomenally popular Italian comic book about the exploits of a super-thief called Diabolik. As in France, comic strips in Italy are read by a large adult audience, and Diabolik was firmly aimed at that demographic. Smart and sexy, the comic stories made Diabolik a very sympathetic crook, often pitting him again really nasty criminals in a kind of Robin Hood crusade against true evil. As with Barbarella, the Diabolik movie had terrific production design. John Phillip Law was also the Angel in the Roger Vadim film and Marissa Mel made a fetching Eva Kant. Bava's direction might seem a bit over-the-top (all of Bava's direction was over-the-top) - but it didn't mock the source comic strip.

Marissa Mel's costumes for the film were quite a bit skimpier than her comic-book counterpart, but I guess that was simply a sign of the times. Diabolik's secret underground lair was completely brilliant and one day I'll have one just like it.
What all three of these films did have in common, though, was that they were trying to ride the crest of the Batman tv show, even though it had already been demonstrated that the public was pretty tired of spoof superhero tv shows and movies. But Hollywood still didn't get it.

We wouldn't see a costumed hero on screen being treated seriously until 1978, when Richard Donner directed Superman the Movie. Yet despite Donner's best efforts to depict Superman with respect, the producers fought his approach and when he refused to camp it up for the sequel, they fired Donner and replaced him with spoof-meister Richard Lester. 


Richard Donner's take on Superman was respectful to the point of reverence. Despite the massive box office success, the producers remained embarrassed by the subject matter and did everything they could to ensure the sequels went down the well-trodden spoof route.
To the rage of the Salkinds, some shred of dignity remained in Superman II (1980), so to be doubly sure of trampling the franchise into the dirt, they got Lester to make a second sequel, Superman III (1983) and trowelled on the comedy so we ended up with a farce instead of an adventure. Yes, William Dozier has a lot to answer for ... 

And the irony of it is that if movies like Marvel's Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy hadn't done so well at the box office, then we probably would never have seen the day when Fox, DC Comics and the various stakeholders in the Batman tv show finally resolved their differences and agreed to release all three seasons on Blu-Ray. It's not something that I would want to spend over £100 on, but there will probably turn out to be a market for it.

As for me, I'm looking forward to getting back to talking about comics material from my childhood that I actually liked ... so join me soon for more Marvel Comics in the Silver Age.

Next: Back to the Bullpen