I suppose the reason I engaged with the life of Peter Parker as depicted in Amazing Spider-Man comics was because there were more than a few similarities between us. I too was growing up in a single-"parent" household. I had family responsibilities in that I was expected to care for my younger brother and sister when my mum wasn't there. And though I can't say I was an unpopular kid at school, there was still a contingent of my classmates who were giving me a hard time because I was quite bookish and didn't play football at breaktime.
Those aspects of Peter Parker's life were very much at the forefront of Steve Ditko's vision for how the Spider-Man saga should play out. But as time wore on during 1965 and 1966, it seemed that Ditko wasn't happy with the changes Stan Lee was making to his magnum opus.
Now, I'm one of the people who thinks Stan did a beyond-terrific job with his scripting of Marvel's comics. Though I agree that Kirby's and Ditko's plots were ground-breaking and superb, it was the scripting skills of Lee that pulled it all together into a coherent package, gave the entire Marvel line its own unique voice and was largely responsible for rocketing Marvel to the top of the sales charts during the last half of the 1960s.
Though there are those who would disagree with this, you only have to look at the work Kirby and Ditko did on their own to see that neither had much appreciation, or even understanding, of characterisation. And if they didn't understand that, then they could only ever see Stan's contributions as interference.
When both Kirby and Ditko struck out on their own, their projects didn't have the commercial success of Stan Lee's Marvel Comics. The "why" is complicated and is something that I'll look at in a later blog entry.
In retrospect, Stan Lee must have known that many of his readers would feel that way. So he took a big gamble. Rather than letting the new guy - John Romita, fresh off doing a very creditable job on Daredevil, including two stories that co-starred Spider-Man - ease himself into the job slowly, with a couple of safe, warm-up issues, Lee decided to sweep away the last remains of the Ditko plotlines and tackle the dangling Green Goblin thread head-on.
Except, far from being a new guy, John Romita had been a stalwart of the Atlas line of comics. From 1951 till the Great Atlas Implosion of 1957, Romita had been one of Stan Lee's most reliable artists. He'd spearheaded the Atlas hero revival on 1954 by pencilling Captain America ("Commie Smasher") and had drawn Western Kid for the entire 16 issue run, as well as contributing dozens of crime, war and mystery stories throughout the 1950s.
|The earliest Atlas comic I could find with Romita art was Spy Cases 5 (June 1951), though he did only a five-page interior story. However, the cover art on Captain America 77 (Jul 1954) is Romita's, likewise the cover art on Western Kid 1 (Dec 1954).|
Then, after nine years hard graft, pencilling at DC, Romita was feeling burned out. Some days he'd get a script and sit staring at it, not knowing where to start. He'd been offered a 9-5 job at an ad agency, storyboarding commercials, paying 25% more than he could making by killing himself drawing comics. So he was seriously considering leaving the comic field altogether. But in the meantime, Marvel's fortunes had reversed and Stan was in the position of not having enough artists to feed the hungry Marvel machine. After all, Kirby and Ditko couldn't draw everything. Lee had hung on to Ayers and Heck during the lean years, and was in the process of wooing back George Tuska, Gene Colan and John Buscema, as well as trying to poach Gil Kane and Win Mortimer from DC.
He also called John Romita around 1963 or 1964, trying to get him to switch sides and come back to the new, re-envigorated Marvel Comics. "[Stan] would say, 'John, we're really starting to roll. It would be great if you could come back.' And I'd say, 'Stan, I'm making $45 a page. What are you paying?' He'd say, 'Twenty-five a page.' And I'd say, '"How can I take a $20 a page cut?' 'Well,' he says, 'maybe we can make it up to you.' I said, 'Stan, I can't give this up as long as I've got it, you know.' He called me three or four times, and I just kept telling him no. But I didn't tell him to go to hell, like I'd threatened."
Finally, Romita was talked into coming back to Marvel. But after years of churning out pencilled pages for DC, Romita was determined to leave the pencilling to others and stick to inking. His first job was inking an Avengers cover over Kirby pencils. Then Stan threw him in at the deep end and put him on Daredevil from issue 12 to cover for departing Wally Wood. Romita, an experienced artist, floundered a little in coping with the Marvel way of doing things. Like many other professionals, he was unable to see what it was that set Marvel apart. After showing Stan the first two pages of his first Daredevil story, Stan wasn't satisfied. So he got Jack Kirby to do rough layouts for the rest of the issue for Romita to finish. "As soon as I saw Jack's breakdowns, I knew exactly what Stan meant by pacing. Jack laid out two issues. I still have the original art to those two stories."
|Romita's solo pencilling in Daredevil 12 was still very much in the DC style. Everything at eye level and looking quite flat on the page. The later pages, laid-out by Kirby have a punchier feel to them.|
|John Romita was a seasoned pro with decades in the business when he took over Daredevil. Here, his Spider-Man is a curious combination of Ditko's version and what would later become the trademark Romita version of Peter Parker.|
Yet for all this, my 12 year-old-self was very much in a strop after the departure of Ditko. At the time, I recall I only read a couple of the John Romita issues before concentrating my attention of finding all the old Ditko comics I could find in second-hand shops and in swaps with friends.
SAME CHARACTER, DIFFERENT DIRECTIONWith his new artist, Stan Lee was no longer walking on eggshells. From here on, this would be Stan's own version Spider-Man, still with troubles, but far less angst-ridden. And the first order of the day was to resolve a few dangling plot threads.
In earlier issues, Ditko had been quite careful to hide the true identity of the Goblin and also to introduce a couple of characters who could well have been the arch-villain. Opinion was divided between proven master of disguise Frederick Foswell, who'd had an earlier criminal career as The Big Man (ASM10), and the father of Peter Parker's college room-mate, who had been introduced as a member of Jonah Jameson's club in Amazing Spider-Man 37.
|No longer reliant on the plotting of Steve Ditko, Stan Lee did a fine job of the storyline for Amazing Spider-Man 39, including two heart-stopping story twists.|
But there was other stuff going on in the background. This was where Stan began to move Peter Parker away from being the perennial geek he'd been on Ditko's watch and to dial down the animosity shown towards Peter by his peers. On page 6 (see above), Peter shows some empathy towards Harry Osborn, who's been pretty unpleasant towards him so far in the series, and both Gwen Stacy and Flash Thompson see this and start to think Parker's must be much more of a mensch than they've been giving him credit for. As the series winds on over the next ten or twenty issues, Flash's ribbing becomes more good natured and he finally ends up one of Peter's friends.
But back to the plot ... The Gobin's henchmen stage a fake robbery to lure Spider-Man close enough so they can gas him with a chemical that neutralises his spider-sense. It's this that allows the Goblin to tail Spider-Man, then Peter Parker, undetected so he's able to learn who Spider-Man really is. From there on, Lee piles on shock after shock until there's a heart-stopping battle between the two right outside Aunt May's house, resulting in Peter/Spidey defeated, trussed up and unmasked (just like the spoiler on the cover). But the biggest shock comes on the final page of the story, where the Goblin is revealed to be ... oh, you guessed! (Again, see the picture above.) And of course, it's a two-parter, so we were all going to have to wait a month to find out how Spider-Man escapes from this trap, if indeed he ever does.
|Inside another brilliantly designed cover by John Romita, Stan Lee's epic final battle between Spider-Man and his greatest foe, the Green Goblin unwinds with a couple of unlikely plot turns.|
Now, I'm one of Stan's biggest boosters and even I find the plotting here a bit slipshop. I can only surmise that - as I speculated earlier - Lee just couldn't wait to clear the decks of all remnants of Ditko's Spider-plotting so he could crack on with his new vision for the series. And in doing so, made a couple of easy choices that got him where he wanted to be more quickly. Compare the contrived way in which Peter is freed of his bonds by the Goblin to the epic battle he waged to free himself of the machinery pinning him down in the Ditko-plotted ASM33. At the same time, to cut Stan some slack, it's only fair to point out that the departure of Ditko was abrupt - he didn't even bother turning in a cover for ASM38, after all - so Stan probably had to rush to pull the following issues together in record time.
|Cover: Big, bold animal-style super-villain, check. Splash page: Acts as second cover, explains what changes are in store, check. Interior pages: New artist has got the hang of drawing the hero? Not so much.|
The other thing that was apparent to me with this issue was the way Stan was perfectly capable of good plotting despite accusations from some quarters that he wasn't. This issue re-introduces Jameson's son John, US astronaut and all-round good-guy, who will be the super-villain in the very next issue.
The only slight niggle here is that as slick as Romita's art is, he didn't yet have a handle on Spider-Man. But that's no major criticism. After all, even the King himself, Jack Kirby, struggled to depict Spidey with any authenticity. The difference is that Romita would get better.
As ASM41 unfolds, we can see there's a big improvement over ASM39-40. The pacing is polished, the Rhino's a pretty cool villain and there's the return of Betty Brant - not that I'd ever missed her - but Stan is drawing a line under that sub-plot as well. There's a nice little flashback to ASM1 to explain who John Jameson is, which can't be a coincidence. And it's kicking off what, for Amazing Spider-Man, is a rare three-part story-arc.
The pace is kept up in Amazing Spider-Man 42, which brings a super-powerful John Jameson to the fore, forcing Spider-Man to battle one of his few supporters. The story is thematically similar to Spidey's battles with the Lizard - a friend is transformed temporarily into a villain and Spidey has to defeat them without harming the innocent human being behind the "villain". But Stan carries it off well, never losing sight of the Rhino waiting on the sidelines for his comeback in ASM43. And rounds the issue with one of the most iconic scenes in Amazing Spider-Man ... the first appearance of Mary Jane Watson.
So impactful was this revelation on my twelve-year-old sensibilities that I missed entirely the panel at the bottom of the page that told us that Marvel Superheroes were going to be on television. Not in the UK, they weren't. I wouldn't see any of these cartoons until very recently, when they were released on DVD. (I'll cover these in more detail in a future blog.)
Stan had mentioned that Captain America, Iron Man, Sub-Marine, Hulk and Thor were going to be on TV in the Bullpen Bulletins in ASM 41. But ASM42 carried a full page house ad. I didn't make the connection at the time, but Marvel had obviously sold the rights to the characters appearing in the anthology titles that had their roots in the Atlas days - Journey into Mystery, Tales of Suspense and Tales to Astonish. Presumably, no one wanted the Strange Tales characters - Dr Strange and Nick Fury. Or maybe Marty Goodman was holding these two back for bigger things that never quite panned out. I guess we'll never know.
But the conclusion of the Rhino storyline beckoned and I put thoughts of Marvel tv cartoons to one side and again concentrated on the adventures of Spider-Man. John Romita was without equal at designing attention-grabbing cover art, and Amazing Spider-Man 43's was no exception.
Inside the book, Stan had clearly grasped the plotting by the, um, horns and was mixing Peter's new interest in Mary Jane with cool action sequences and even had Spider-Man go to Dr Curt Connors (sometimes also the Lizard) to concoct a fluid that would dissolve the unstoppable villain's protective hide. The first battle with the Rhino was memorable because - as usual - Spidey's getting his butt kicked and, in this instance, he's pulled to safety by one of New York's finest. It's a nice touch where a cop risks his life for Spider-Man while the general public has only shown up to see Spidey get pounded.
And, incredibly, this was about as far as I got with the Romita issues back in 1966. I wouldn't read the Lizard story (ASM44 & 45) and the Kingpin story (ASM50 & 51) until much later. More fool me. One Ditko comic I found in an unlikely place some time during 1967 was Amazing Spider-Man 30. Coming across it was a strange bit of synchronicity and ties in with my only sighting of the 1967 Spider-Man cartoon which, unless someone corrects me, was shown only on Scottish television.
SPIDER-MAN GLIMPSED ON-SCREEENThe mid-1960s was a curious time to be growing up. As I've noted in other posts, the culture was divided between post-war austerity and the youthful optimism of the upcoming generation. For the well-to-do, the Summer of Love was just around the corner, but for kids living in working class areas, life was all about getting entertainment on the cheap. And comics were a great source of cheap entertainment.
|In the post-wars years, buying new comics was a bit of a luxury. Fortunately, many shop-keepers were just as cost-conscious as their customers and would often have a plentiful supply of second-hand reading material we could swap (2-for-1) or buy.|
|If anyone's interested, the comics on the counter in the shop picture above are Police Comics 53 (Apr 46), 55 (Jun 46) and Feature Comics 100 (Jul 46).|
So it was, during the summer holidays of 1968, that I came across that copy of Amazing Spider-Man 30 (cover-dated Nov 65) in a newsagents while on holiday visiting my grandparents in the Mansewood area of Glasgow.
By the summer of 1968, Amazing Spider-Man was up to issue 62 or 63 ... but I was only interested in the Ditko version. Where I didn't have the original comic, I usually had the Marvel Tales or Amazing Spider-Man Annual reprint. So you can imagine how happy I was to come across the missing issue 30, separated from my beloved Marvel Comics by around 450 miles.
I must have read that comic from cover to cover about 50 times during that holiday. It got so I knew the dialogue by heart, and even to this day, to me it's probably the most familiar issue of Amazing Spider-Man. And even more strange, it's not an especially great issue. Back in 1968, I thought The Cat was a bit of a weak villain. He was just a burglar, for goodness sake. The scariest thing he could do was swing his grappling iron around his head and cause Spidey to stumble. Pretty lame, right? But it was the only comic I had to hand, so I was going to read it to death.
|Back in the summer of 1967, I read this comic so many times, I could recite the caption boxes and speech balloons by heart. And yet, it was never one of my favourite Ditko issues.|
|Left: a page featuring Spidey battling the purple henchmen from Amazing Spider-Man 30. Right: Spidey battles the very same henchmen in ASM33. Who were they working for? Stan sure didn't know, but my money's on The Master Planner.|
The other thing that made this holiday trip to Glasgow so memorable was I was able to catch an episode of the 1967 Spider-Man cartoon on television. Most Brits will remember this series from the house ads that Marvel ran beginning in their November 1967 issues. The show certainly didn't screen in the London area. If anyone reading this has any info to add about other regions the cartoon was transmitted in, I'd be very interested to know.
|This ad would have come out too late for me to have been forewarned that there even was a Spider-Man cartoon, as it wouldn't have reached the UK till November or December. And even now, I've never seen an episode of the Fantastic Four cartoon.|
In the early 1960s, tv cartoons were dominated by the Hanna-Barbera company. The founders had been responsible for the heyday of MGM's Tom & Jerry shorts, produced for cinema distribution. The pair, William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, had won seven Oscars for their work on the cat and mouse cartoon and in 1957, as MGM wound down production on their theatrical shorts, Hanna and Barbera formed the legendary tv production company and set to work on their first original series, a half hour show comprising of Huckleberry Hound, Yogi Bear and Pixie and Dixie, the latter a variation on the Tom & Jerry formula. The series won them an Emmy for Outstanding Achievement in the field of Children's Programming.
This was the style of tv cartoons to dominate the airwaves for the next few years. When Hanna-Barbera moved from syndication to network, their shows aped the style of popular tv sit-coms (The Flintstones was based on The Honeymooners, Top Cat was a take on the Phil Silvers Show). But in the UK we wouldn't see a show that looked beyond funny animals and similar themes until Hanna-Barbera commissioned comic book artist Doug Wildey to design their dramatically dramatic adventure animated show Jonny Quest in 1964.
|One of the highlights of my pre-teen years was the Hanna-Barbera show Jonny Quest, with its Lizard Men and its Living Mummies, it was the go-to show for all respecting nerds in the 1960s.|
There had been "realistic" action adventure animation shows before Jonny Quest - Alex Toth's Space Angel for Cambria Productions three years earlier, which I don't remember ever seeing in the UK - but Quest was the one that set a new bar for tv cartoon shows.
After the less-than-successful, one-season Marvel Superheroes tv show in 1966, Marty Goodman looked to get his big two titles on network television, as opposed to going the lower-budgeted syndication route. I have a pretty strong suspicion that Stan Lee might have had a persuading role in that decision.
I never saw any episodes of the Fantastic Four cartoon, which was produced by Hanna-Barbera under the supervision of comic book legend Alex Toth, but I did manage to see an episode of Spider-Man when it aired on Scottish television in 1968, and have since got hold of a DVD box set of all three seasons.
The Spider-Man show was produced by Grantray-Lawrence, who'd produced the earlier Marvel Superheroes show. With Spider-Man they had a larger budget to play with and it showed.
|The very first episode featured Dr Octopus, though the plot wasn't like anything from any of the comics. Curiously, it took Spider-Man out of his familiar urban environment and placed him on top of a remote mountain where Doc Ock has his lair.|
The show did take liberties with the back story of Peter Parker, and in the very first adventure had him arriving at the mountain hideout of Dr Octopus in his own car, something that would have been way beyond the means of the comic book Parker. The supporting cast was limited mostly to just Jonah Jameson and Betty Brant, though the occasional episode might show Aunt May. Characters like Flash Thompson and Liz Allen were absent and Peter seemed to be a full-time employee of The Daily Bugle rather than a high school or university student.
|The Spider-Man tv show worked best when Spidey was in his familiar New York surroundings, but also worked pretty well when it followed the storylines from the comics, as with "Where Crawls the Lizard".|
The quality of the series deteriorated a little with the second and third seasons. Grantray-Lawrence went out of business and Krantz Animation took over, with Ralph Bakshi as the supervisor. Unfortunately, the budgets were smaller and Bakshi took to recycling as much of the animation from the earlier shows as he could to save money.
Looking at the show now, it does seem quite clunky, and the voice-actors' performances appear over-dramatic, but at the time, it was quite an innovation and further indication of how well Marvel's fortunes had fared in the five years from 1961 to 1966. Stan had created the MMMS to transform readers into customers and encouraged Marty Goodman to embrace licensing and merchandising, to further capitalise on revenue generated by the company's new, successful characters.
|What I wouldn't have given back in 1966 to have been able to order an Incredible Hulk sweatshirt, but I had no idea where to get $3.95 from.|
But in 1967, the company was less than a year away from the end of the constricting distribution contract it had with the DC-owned Independent News, and would soon be in a position to publish more than its allotted 12 titles a month. The beginning of Marvel's massive expansion phase was just round the corner.
Next: Catches Thieves ... Just Like Flies