Monday, 31 August 2015

... Catches thieves just like flies

AS I NOTED in last month's blog entry, at the age of 12 I hadn't been much enamoured of John Romita's version of Spider-Man. I had been a die-hard Steve Ditko fan and, when he unceremoniously ditched the creation that had made him famous, in 1966, I struggled to warm to the new, sleek, decidedly un-nerdy version of Peter Parker.

The whys and wherefores have been adequately covered in other blogs - mine and other people's. My reaction to this changing of the guard was to turn my attention firmly backwards and seek out the invaluable Marvel Tales reprints of the earlier Spider-Man stories.

At first, you could have been forgiven for thinking that Stan Lee had just aped the classic DC Comics reprints of earlier stories. The cover formats of the DC 80-pagers and the early Marvel Tales were visually quite similar. Both took either panels from the stories they were reprinting or generic images of the characters and put them together in a kind of patchwork quilt of a cover - no focal point, no single striking image. Just an attempt to show customers just how much they would get for their 25c (in the UK, 1/6).

The Secret Origins Giant was a bit of a holy grail in the early 1960s. I only ever saw the ads in other DCs but never saw the real thing. The first Marvel Tales I wouldn't own until much later, but it was another must-have item in my social circle in 1964. I did however have a copy of Marvel Tales 2 in 1965.
And for most kids, this quantity over quality approach would have worked just fine. But once Marvel's two reprint titles became regular bi-monthly publications, Stan thought it through and hit on a much better idea. He reproduced the original covers of the issues he was reprinting on the front covers of Marvel Tales and the new Marvel Collectors' Item Classics.

Above left: A typical Marvel house ad from 1965 - I loved these as a kid and there was a real sense of "treasure hunt" around trying to find all the issues in the newsagents. Stan tapped into the same feeling when he revised the layout of the Marvel reprint titles.
Of course he'd been doing this for a while with the Marvel House ads, which I've covered in an earlier blog. Those ads made me want to find all the Marvels they depicted. And it was the same with all the other kids I knew who followed comics. There was something quite compelling about those wallet-sized cover repros ... so when Stan used the same idea on the covers of Marvel Tales and Marvel Collectors' Item Classics well, it was like an ad for all those old issues we'd missed - with the issues actually inside.

And, as usual, Stan knew what he was doing. The way Marvel's sales had grown dramatically between 1961, when the first issue of the Fantastic Four came out, and 1966 demonstrated that there were many current readers of Marvel Comics who had missed out on the early issues. And Stan was also referencing those earlier issues in almost every story he was writing

So because Stan was a really generous guy (and because he'd also spotted a sales opportunity) he provided us with a jumping on point. Or rather, two ...


During 1965 and 1966, as I was buying more and more Marvel comics and leaving DC behind, I quickly found that the two Marvel reprint books were a great source of stories I'd missed. As I've noted in another post, one of the first Marvel Tales I came across was issue 3, which featured a reprint of ASM6 from November 1963. But now, fifty years on, it's impossible to remember which order I found these reprints in. So I'll cover them in the order of publication of the originals.

The first appearance of The Amazing Spider-Man. The 11-page story was later reprinted in full in the first Marvel Tales Annual in October 1964. I never did see a copy of Marvel Tales 1 until much later.
Amazing Fantasy 15 was always a tough comic to find. First time I ever came across it was when I was on holiday with my family in France. It was our first foreign holiday and we were in a campsite just outside Antibes. There was an older kid a few tents away from us who had brought a stack of comics with him and in that pile he had an Amazing Fantasy 15. This would have been August 1964. I tried everything I could think of to get that comic from that kid. Any comic from my stack, any three comics, money ... I tried everything short of conking him on the head and running away. But there was no deal to be made. It was a compelling cover and it was the first indication I had that the adventures of the Wall-Crawler didn't begin with Amazing Spider-Man 1. He did, however, let me read the comic, so I was able to find out how Peter Parker had come to be Spider-Man. And quite a dark tale it was too.

Even in the first formative story, where it would have been Stan Lee driving the concept and plotting rather than Ditko, this was a pretty unusual comic scenario. From the very first page, Peter Parker is marked out by his peers as a complete loser. Despite a loving home life, with his Uncle Ben and Aunt May, Peter is rejected and ridiculed mercilessly by his schoolmates. And there can't be a comic nerd anywhere who doesn't know what that feels like.

Right from the very first page of the Spider-Man saga, Stan Lee establishes exactly who the character is. This kind of information would probably occupy 20 pages in a modern comic.
But then Parker's life takes a different turn ... in the kind of weird lab accident that Stan loved so much, Peter is bitten by a radioactive spider, which somehow transfers the arachnid genetic characteristics to Peter's blood and he begins to show signs of spider-like abilities. And at first, this appears to be a good thing.

Suddenly, through no hard work or natural talent, Peter becomes the celebrity known as Spider-Man and is all over the media - giving demonstrations of his abilities on television and appearing on chat shows, foreshadowing current media phenomena like America's Got Talent by many decades.

Although Peter never asked for his spider abilities, his first thought is how he can use them to make money and make his own life better. He's a selfish teenager who really needs a serious life-lesson ...
And that's when it all goes horribly wrong. The sudden fame, contrasted with how Peter Parker has been forced to put up with his classmates' relentless bullying, made the teen selfish and stupid, and in a moment of callousness, he allows a criminal to escape the pursuing police, little realising that this same criminal would go on to murder his kindly Uncle Ben.

... And when the life lesson comes, Peter learns one of the great truths of life ... good luck comes with a price and usually, it's way more than you planned on paying.
It's the sort of twist-in-the-tail that Stan Lee had been employing in the mystery tales he'd been running in the preceding 14 issues of Amazing Adventures/Adult Fantasy. But this was the first time it had been applied to a super-hero story. And for a ten-year old reading this, Peter Parker's realisation of how badly he'd messed up - blaming himself for the death of his Uncle and feeling guilt for the devastation he'd brought to the life of his aunt May - is tangible. And it is this simple blueprint that would drive every Spider-Man story of any quality ever after.

Accounts of what happened next vary. Stan Lee has said in autobiography Excelsior that he threw Spider-Man into Amazing Fantasy 15 because Marty Goodman had decreed that it would be the last issue of that magazine, and Stan figured he had nothing to lose. But the evidence tends to indicate otherwise.

Though I have no way of knowing, my opinion is that Stan didn't just put the Spider-Man story in the last issue of Amazing Fantasy. I think he planned to have Spider-Man as an ongoing feature in the title, in the same way that Thor was featured in Journey into Mystery 83, which debuted the same month. The editorial message in Amazing Fantasy 15, unsigned but almost certainly written by Stan, clearly states, "As you can see, we are introducing one of the most unusual new fantasy characters of all time - The SPIDERMAN, who will appear every month in AMAZING. Perhaps, if your letters request it, we will make his stories even longer, or have TWO Spiderman stories per issue."

That's pretty clear cut. "Spiderman" was to be regular feature. So when Marty cancelled Amazing Fantasy out from under Stan, there's a very strong chance he had a couple more Spider-Man stories in the inventory. And we know what Marty thought of inventory.

Journey into Mystery 83, featuring the debut of Thor came out the same day (5th June) as Amazing Fantasy 15, and Strange Tales 101, with the first solo Human Torch Story, was just two months later. Both comics contained three stories - 13 pages plus two five pagers. This fitted the standard Marvel format of 23 story pages per issue.
That first Spider-Man story ran 11 pages. The rest of Amazing Fantasy 15 was filled out with two five-pagers and a three-pager, a total of 24 pages of comic strip. Yet, the first Thor story in Journey into Mystery was 13 pages, and the first solo Human Torch story which appeared in Strange Tales 101 the following month was also 13 pages. So Stan's preferred pagination for Amazing would likely have been two-five pagers and a 13-page Spider-Man story, the same format as Journey into Mystery 83 and Strange Tales 101.

As it turned out, the first two issues of Amazing Spider-Man had two stories - each having one at 14 pages and one at ten. So it's my theory that the two 14-pagers were destined for the never-published 16th and 17th issues of Amazing Fantasy.

After Marty cancelled the title, Stan was left with two 14-pagers on his inventory. So when Goodman relented and gave Spider-Man's own title the green light, there was no way Stan could fit two 14-page stories in Amazing Spider-Man 1. He'd need to to put one in each of the first two ASM issues and commission a pair of ten-page fillers for the remaining story pages. If I'm right, then the untitled first story in ASM1, telling how Spidey saves astronaut John Jameson from certain death in a faulty space capsule would have been intended for Amazing Fantasy 16 ... and the first story in ASM2, "Duel to the Death with the Vulture" would have been meant for Amazing Fantasy 17.

These two tales introduce many of the elements that the Spider-Man strip would be built on: J. Jonah Jameson, the Daily Bugle and his unreasonable hatred of Spider-Man; Aunt May's belief that "Spider-Man is a horrible menace, just like that nice Mr Jameson says"; Jameson's Now Magazine; Peter Parker's selling pictures to Jameson; Spider-Man's spider sense power; and Peter Parker's science know-how used to defeat Spider-Man's enemy.

When you read the two ten-page stories, it seems even more likely that they are the filler tales. The ten-pager from ASM1, "Spider-Man vs The Chameleon", is definitely a weaker story, with a pretty trite plot device (the villain impersonates the hero) and a guest appearance from The Fantastic Four shoe-horned in ... just the kind of gimmick you'd want for a first issue. The ten-pager from ASM2 is also quite weak recycling, as it does, the old invading-aliens-from-space plot that Stan had used so many times before in titles like Strange Tales and Tales to Astonish.

This is all just speculation on my part, but it seems to fit with the known facts.

One story each from Amazing Spider-Man 1 and 2 was reprinted in the second Spider-Man Annual in 1965. I did manage to track down a copy of this at the time, though the remaining stories from ASM1 & 2 would elude for many years.
But none of this was on my radar back in 1965. I wouldn't catch up with a couple of these stories until they were reprinted in the mid-1960s in Amazing Spider-Man King Size Annual 2 - the 14-page lead story from ASM1 and the ten-page "The Uncanny Threat of the Terrible Tinkerer" from ASM2. The other two stories I wouldn't read until very much later.

To my mind, the Amazing Spider-Man comic didn't really get going until issue 3, when Stan and Steve were able to start doing book-length stories. But I'll cover that in the next entry in this Marvel in the Silver Age saga.

Next: Look out, here comes the Spider-Man