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 it's 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, and 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