|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.|
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.|
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 ...|
|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.|
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 ...|
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.
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 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 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.|
|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.|
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.|
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.|
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.|
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.|
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 ...|
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