Saturday, 26 September 2015

... Look out, Here Comes the Spider-Man

LAST TIME, I looked at the first few Spider-Man stories and how they set the agenda for the whole of the character's future. But it wasn't until issue 3, when the full-length stories began, that Amazing Spider-Man really took off as a title.

The Doctor Octopus in ASM3 story was reprinted in MCIC1 just two and a half years after it first appeared. This may well have been in response to the volume of letters the Bullpen was receiving asking for back issues of the Marvel titles. 
The first time I would have come across the story from ASM3 would have been in reprint form in Marvel Collectors' Item Classics 1 in late 1965, or possibly early 1966. "The Strangest Foe of All Time - Doctor Octopus" was a genuine milestone for the character, as the increased page count opened up story opportunities that hadn't been possible in the earlier 14- and ten-page episodes. 

The first page of the story (this is the reprint from Marvel Collectors' Item Classics 1), acts as a second cover, letting the reader know that Human Torch is also inside.
Even though there was only the one story in ASM3, Ditko still kicked off with a second-cover style splash page that acted as a kind of poster for the rest of the story. I've noted this Ditko foible in previous blogs, but I cannot figure out why Ditko continued to pursue this. If it had been based on some industry wisdom of the time -"Give the kids an additional big selling image once they pick the comic up in the store and open it" - then it might have made sense. But during the first three or four years of Marvel's rise, the practice was abandoned pretty quickly in the rest of the line. Other artists, notably Kirby, used the opening splash as the first scene of the story, and I'd have thought (based on my few years as a comics editor) that that would have been more effective at converting a browser into a customer.

But once we're past that, the story kicks off at breakneck pace. Spidey foils some run-of-the-mill burglars heisting safe, and ponders that it was too easy. If only he had a foe that really tested his mettle. In the next two pages we're introduced to brilliant nuclear scientist Dr Otto Octavius (called Doctor Octopus behind his back by co-workers), see him injured in a laboratory explosion and diagnosed in hospital as having brain damage and his uncanny mechanical arms fused to his body. And we're only on page 4.

It takes just one page for Dr Otto Octavius to go from hapless victim to scowling supervillain. Lee and Ditko sure knew how to move a story along.
Pretty soon, the now-deranged Octavius is entertaining thoughts of busting out of his secure hospital room, while elsewhere J. Jonah Jameson is assigning Peter Parker to get pictures of the injured scientist. But it's Spider-Man that gains access to the medical facility and witnesses Doc Ock threatening the staff.

Overconfident, Spidey wades in, thinking to teach the crazy guy a lesson, but doesn't reckon with the super-strong mechanical arms of Doctor Octopus. In a one-sided battle, Doc Ock snaps Spidey's webbing, slaps him around and flings him out a window. And to add insult to injury, he calls him "Super-Man" during the fight.

Of course, Doc Ock has no way of knowing how Spider-Man got his powers ... but Spidey's abilities are also "born of the atom", and of the hapless arachnid that was bombarded with radiation before it bit Peter Parker.
This is the first time that Spider-Man has been roundly and comprehensively beaten. Sure, the Vulture dropped him in a water tower in ASM2, but that was hardly a death trap and Spidey escaped that with ease. But with the longer page count, Stan and Steve have the space to add a little more depth to the story and allow Spidey to lose the first battle to build the dramatic tension.

No one does misery like Steve Ditko, right? Given his immature years and the fact Peter's never been beaten as Spider-Man before, we can understand how he feels. And Ditko puts it across beautifully.
And not unnaturally, Spidey feels pretty sorry for himself. But, while Peter's wondering if there's any point in going on, Doctor Octopus is taking control of an atomic research facility to "give the world a demonstration of my strength".

But even as a kid reading this, I knew that it wasn't really the end of Spider-Man. And help comes in the unlikely guise of The Human Torch. Visiting Peter's high school, Johnny Storm gives the students a lecture on how they must stick to their goals no matter what obstacles life puts in front of them. "Ability alone isn't enough," he says. "Even the Fantastic Four have had defeats -- but we always come back."

As it would many times in Spider-Man's future, Peter's knowledge of lab work helps him defeat a far stronger foe. The image of Doc Ock, blinded by Spider-Man's webbing is an absolute classic and powerfully memorable.
Newly energised, Peter realises what he has to do. Using Peter's scientific know-how, he first builds a simple weapon he can use against Doc Ock. Then with his Spider abilities, he easily gains access to the nuclear facility and, even though the super-villain knows Spidey's there, Peter's powers allow him to easily evade Doc Ock's attack and fuse two of Octopus' arms together with his crude acid bolo.

Spidey defeats the scary super-villain and Ditko gives a couple of strong images of Spidey being heroic. The epilogue with Spidey thanking a puzzled Human Torch for all his help is a nice touch, and feels like a trademark Stan Lee moment.
From there, it's not so difficult to squirt web over Doctor Octopus' specs then biff him into unconsciousness with a good old-fashioned right-cross. Then, with Octopus safely trussed up and delivered into the arms of the waiting military, it only remains for Spider-Man to look up The Human Torch and thank him for all his help.

When I break it down like this, the story might sound formulaic and a little trite, but it's important to stress that this sort of this just didn't happen over at DC Comics. The Flash never had a crisis of confidence after such a minor defeat. And Green Lantern never heard a pep talk in his civilian identity that made him realise what a twonk he was being. Only Stan had the savvy to realise that giving his heroes such human traits wouldn't make his readers look down on them. Quite the opposite. We could all identify what it felt like to fail. Twelve years olds face failure on a regular basis. It's all part of growing up.

The original Marvel trademark corner boxes were designed by Steve Ditko. So it kind of makes sense that a giant version would be included on the Amazing Spider-Man letters page as an advertisement.
Amazing Spider-Man 3 also featured the first "Spider's Web" letters page, with readers' reactions to issue 1. Though the letters were a little on the dull side - readers hadn't really cottoned on to Stan's informal style at this point - the comments were positive and showed how involved readers' were in the storyline. And I liked the giant Marvel trademark on the second page. 

Amazing Spider-Man 4 introduced a major villain into the Marvel canon - The Sandman. Flint Marko would quickly ascend the super-villain league table, eventually defeating the Fantastic Four as a member of the Frightful Four just a few short years later.
As with Amazing Spider-Man 3, I would have first seen ASM4 (Aug 1963) as a reprint in Marvel Collector's Item Classic 2 (Apr 1966), which would have reached the UK in the late summer of that same year. The story introduced one of Marvel's most enduring super-villains, The Sandman, a career criminal who is (you guessed it) exposed to radiation while escaping from prison over a beach. The radiation fused the sand molecules to his body and suddenly Flint Marko is able to transform his body into sand at will.

Right after Ditko's trademark "second cover" splash page, Spider-Man tries to foil a robbery, only to have the criminals accuse him of assault and call for a cop.
Stan Lee continues to stress the story elements that will become trademark components of the Spider-Man myth. Right there on the first page, Spider-Man is unable to stop a crime because the criminals claim he's victimising them, due in part to J. Jonah Jameson's ongoing tabloid attacks on Spider-Man.

In their first encounter, The Sandman manages to defeat Spider-Man by accidentally tearing his mask, so Spidey has to retreat lest his identity become known. 
Then, Spider-Man is defeated by the Sandman because of dumb bad luck, when his mask is torn from his face during the scrap. And on returning to his civilian identity of Peter Parker, his Aunt May treats him like he's a six-year-old with the sniffles. Then, teed off at JJJ, Spider-Man drops a gloop of sticky webbing on his office chair so that Jonah sticks to the seat. It just the kind of thing Peter's classmates would do to him, so it's hardly surprising that this prank would appeal to Peter. It's all kind of funny and tragic at the same time.

I really liked the way Stan and Steve portrayed the principal as a heroic figure, standing up to the scary Sandman and trying to delay the villain so his students can escape.
Finally, there's a cathartic showdown with The Sandman at Peter Parker's high school, with the brave principal first putting himself between the pupils and the villain, then Spidey bounding in to save the day. There's a nice post-fight bit when Spidey realises he didn't take pictures of the fight for JJJ, so he fakes the fight by punching handfuls of sand from a handy fire bucket. All in all a pretty cool issue that further cements the elements of the Spider-Man legend in the readers' heads.

Not one of my favourite Spider-Man issues, ASM5's cover was a little weak. And I was never much taken with Ditko's version of either the Fantastic Four nor their premier foe Doctor Doom.
Amazing Spider-Man 5 (Oct 1963) was never one of my favourite stories. It was reprinted in Amazing Spider-Man Annual 2, along with a couple of the shorter tales from ASM1 and ASM2 (see last month's post). I think pitting Spider-Man against Doctor Doom would have been Stan's way of trying to bring Marvel's First Family into Spidey's storyline, perhaps as some kind of circulation booster, though Stan was already heavily featuring the Marvel characters in each other's books by this time as a matter of course. But for me, Doom wasn't the sort of villain that Spider-Man should be battling. That said, the story had a couple of fine moments. For example, Stan brings Flash Thompson's admiration of Spidey to the fore in a sequence that begins with Flash disguising himself as Spider-Man to give Peter Parker the scare of his life. Of course, it goes horribly wrong when Doctor Doom, searching for Spider-Man, gasses and kidnaps Flash by mistake.

Flash Thompson's practical joke backfires on him when Doctor Doom takes him for the real Spider-Man. Lucky for Flash that Spidey saves the day long before the FF turn up.
Peter realises what's going on when Doom demands a ransom from the FF for the captured "Spider-Man" over the airwaves and sets out to rescue the bogus superhero. The fight with Doom was designed to be epic, but I felt it just went on too long. I was much more interested in Peter's civilian life and the first hints that JJJ's secretary, Betty Brant, was romantically interested in Peter. And Stan uses the final caption box to announce that Amazing Spider-Man is going monthly from the next issue.

I already covered ASM6 in a previous blog so I won't repeat myself here.

Amazing Spider-Man 7 (Jan 1964) featured the return of The Vulture. Now I always thought that The Vulture was a bit of a creepy villain. The character, Adrian Toomes, was clearly a much older man and shouldn't have been able, by any account, to offer any kind of threat to the super-powerful Spider-Man. There have been attempts by other writers to retrofix this and offer "plausible" explanations of why this should be so (his flying harness gives him super-strength and increased lifespan ... Huh?), but I prefer it was never explained and we just accept that this weird-looking old guy is somehow strong enough and wily enough to give Spider-Man pause for thought.

I wouldn't have seen Amazing Spider-Man 7 as it came out before I knew about Marvel Comics, but I would have certainly read the story when it was reprinted in Marvel Tales 4 (Sep 1966).
In his opening battle with The Vulture in this issue, Spider-Man foolishly relies on beating his foe the same way he had in ASM2, with an electronic jamming device, not realising that Toomes had modified his flying harness so that Spider-Man's "Invertor" would be ineffective. Spidey is knocked from a rooftop and lands heavily on his shoulder, injuring his right arm.

Over-confident and inexperienced, Spider-Man believes he's going to beat The Vulture the same way a second time. The mistake costs Spider-Man another defeat and an injured arm into the bargain.
With his arm in a sling, Peter has to take a bit of razzing from his classmates at school. And then there's the knotty problem of how he's going to fight the Vulture with just one arm. But, while visiting JJJ's offices, Peter Parker is witness to The Vulture trying to steal the Daily Bugle's payroll. While JJJ is trying to talk the villain out of robbing him, Peter ducks out and changes to Spider-Man. The ensuing battle trashes the Bugle's offices, but not before Spider-Man defeats the Vulture by webbing his wings together and floating him to earth gently on a webbing parachute.

Spider-Man defeats the Vulture and saves JJJ's payroll and what thanks does he get - just more threats and invective from the greedy, ungrateful newspaper publisher. But Peter does get to dally for a short while with Jameson's comely secretary, Betty Brant.
The Issue closes with JJJ holding Spider-Man responsible for the damage to him premises and Spider-Man silencing JJJ in his own inimitable way, then Peter and Betty share a quiet romantic moment amid the wreckage left in the wake of the battle. All in all a satisfying conclusion to a good battle issue.

I think the "Special Tribute-to-Teen-Agers" cover line was Stan's way of trying to reach readers beyond the traditional 8-12 year old audience for comic books. Perhaps he felt it made Amazing Spider-Man more of an aspirational read.
I'm not really sure what Stan Lee was trying to do with issue 8 of Amazing Spider-Man. It was a return to the two story format, but not in the same way that ASM1 and ASM2 were two story. ASM8 has one 17-page story and a short six-page backup - drawn by Jack Kirby and inked by Ditko - featuring the Human Torch.

I suspect putting Peter Parker in spectacles was Ditko's idea. He wore similar spectacles himself at the time. So I also believe that getting rid of the glasses was Stan's decision, which Steve may not have agreed with. Certainly, when Steve left the title Stan seized his opportunity to have John Romita make Peter much more rugged and heroic than Ditko's portrayal. Just speculating, though ...
I wouldn't have see the second story till later, as it wasn't reprinted in Marvel Tales in 1966. The main draw for me in that first story - and for Stan who cover-featured it - was the boxing match (the result of an incident where Flash breaks Peter's glasses) in which Peter batters Flash senseless. I'm sure just about every kid reading that wanted to do that to the school bully. I know I did. And I'm betting Steve Ditko did, too. The main plot, featuring Spider-Man's battle with a giant computer on wheels was pretty unmemorable, and very much had the feeling of a filler.

Stan never gave a reason, at the time, for having a second (Kirby-drawn) Spider-Man tale in the issue, aside from mentioning at the end of the letters column that it was intended as a "change of pace". The only reason I can think of is that it may have originally been drawn as a filler story for Fantastic Four Annual 1, but then replaced with the six-pager that actually saw print there. Then Stan would have had to write a shorter Spidey tale for ASM8 to accommodate the inventory strip, which meant that because of the space constraints, "The Terrible Threat of the Living Brain" was a bit *meh*.

"Spider-Man Tackles the Human Torch" was the third time the pair had met (they'd encountered each other before in ASM1 and Strange Tales Annual 2 - Spidey's appearance in FF Annual 1, which came out a month after the Strange Tales Annual appearance, is just a re-telling of the incident from ASM1), and up till this point, their relationship had always been friendly. Admittedly, it's more interesting dramatically to have Spider-Man and Torch feuding, but it's not clear why (if I'm right) Stan decided to delay the onset of the feud until ASM8. The next time the pair would meet would be in ASM17, where their feud continued.

The defeat of Spider-Man - again. Despite the very goofy costume, I really liked Electro as a villain. Ditko always managed to imbue Spidey's earliest villains with an air of thuggishness, and Electro is no different.
Amazing Spider-Man 9 was, for me, a bit of a return to form, with the introduction of a cracking - indeed, crackling - super-villain in the shape of Electro and the first of Aunt May's major health scares, when she's hospitalised for an operation. 

There was no National Health Service in the States back in 1964, so Peter would have to raise a large amount of money quickly to pay for Aunt May's treatment, something that wouldn't be a worry for us in the UK. Luckily - or perhaps not - there's a new villain on the scene and there's a reward for his capture.
Aunt May's illness is what motivates Peter to try to raise the $1000 he needed for her medical bills. First he tries to borrow the money from Jameson, but Peter knows, as we do, that that will never work. So he resolves to capture Electro for the reward money. When that doesn't work out so well, he sells Jameson photographic "proof" that Electro and Spider-Man are the same person. It's not Peter Parker's finest moment, and though he might tell himself he's saving his aunt's life, it's just another example of how Stan was pursuing greater realism by making his heroes morally ambiguous.

Spider-Man's defeat of Electro is simplicity itself. Spidey short-circuits him with a handy firehose. And in the closing scene with JJJ, Peter is able to redeem himself by giving the publisher pictures of Spider-Man's battle with Electro.
But when Electro frees all the prisoners in a local penitentiary, Spider-Man has to leave the now-recovering Aunt May and go battle the electrical menace. It also provides Peter with the opportunity to do the right thing and make it up to Jameson for the dodgy pictures he sold him with a fresh (and genuine) batch showing the defeat of Electro. 

It's a bitter-sweet moment, and I'm sure that Stan and Steve had this difficult relationship planned right from the beginning. It's hard to identify where this is coming from, but I suspect the sentiments are Ditko's and the words are Lee's.
All that remains if for Peter to have a poignant scene with Betty to close out this extra-length 22-page story, certainly one of the better issues of the early Amazing Spider-Mans.

Even better, in my opinion, was Amazing Spider-Man 10 ... this issue introduced a sinister new villain, The Big Man. While he didn't have super-powers himself, his three henchmen, The Enforcers, did have skills. Fancy Dan was a master martial artist, Montana had traditional cowboy abilities and used a lasso as his weapon of choice, the The Ox was just big and very strong. With his keen intellect and his Enforcers as muscle, The Big Man sets out to take control of all organised crime in New York.

The cover to Amazing Spider-Man 10 was a strange composite. GCD credits the Spidey figure to Jack Kirby and The Enforcers in the background to Steve Ditko. On the right is the original - rejected - cover for this issue. My guess is that Ditko redrew the cover art, but Stan still wasn't satisfied with the result and had Kirby redraw the Spidey figure in the final version.
Meanwhile Aunt May is still recovering from the operation she underwent in ASM9, and now requires a blood transfusion to help her recover her strength. When the doctor asks Peter about his blood type, Peter is fearful is radioactive blood might harm his aunt. But of course he can't admit to that and reluctantly allows the medical staff to use his blood.

Steve Ditko manages to cram so much story into his pages though, even at nine frames a page, it never feels crowded or rushed. Same with Stan's captions and dialogue balloons - there may be lots of them, but they serve the story well and the plot moves along at quite a clip.
After that, Peter needs to rest as it's likely his powers have been weakened by the transfusion. However, when The Enforcers threaten Betty Brant, Peter decides that Spider-Man needs to get involved. Spider-Man scares a small-time hoodlum into revealing where he can find The Enforcers, then sets out after them. But they find him first and a skirmish ensues. Weakened from the earlier blood transfusion, Spidey realises he's not strong enough yet to take them all on, so he douses the lights and makes his escape. Outside he sees J. Jonah Jameson passing and develops a suspicion that JJJ's the Big Man, thinking that might explain why Jonah's accusing Spider-Man of being the Big Man.

I really like the way Ditko placed the Big Man squarely in the centre of page 13, while the "plight" of Peter Parker unfolds around him. And the fight with The Enforcers and the gang-thugs is both thrilling and fun, as Spidey brings a bit of playfulness to his beating-up of the gangsters.
So to get to the bottom of things, Peter resolves to boast that he's figured out the Big Man's true identity, hoping the underworld hears about it and brings him before the Big Man. Interestingly, Flash pulls Peter aside and warns him that, if he continues, the The Enforcers will be coming for him, not realising that's exactly what Peter wants. Even this early on, it seems like Stan and Steve were intent on softening Flash's character. Predictably, The Enforcers show up, grab Peter and lock him in a storeroom. Though Spidey quickly escapes, he's spotted by the mobsters and an epic battle kicks off. The fight choreography is some of Ditko's most imaginative to date, full of clever touches. Responding to the Spider signal, the police show up to round up the gangsters, while the Big Man makes his escape.

But Spider-Man, thinks he knows where the Big Man is going and heads for the office of the Daily Bugle. Watching from outside he sees the police show up and arrest ... Frederick Foswell, a timid columnist on Jameson's staff.

Busted ... The Big Man turns out to be not J. Jonah Jameson, but ...Frederick Foswell. And the final scene of a snuffling Betty Brant is setting up the next story where we discover just what a pain in the nether-regions this girl turns out to be ...
The final scene where J. Jonah Jameson explains to an empty room just why it is that he hates Spider-Man so much never rang true with me as a kid, and even less so now. Even this early in the series, Jameson has never at any point demonstrated even the slightest level of self-awareness, so for him to arrive at this epiphany of self-realisation shrieks of "author's message". Now it may be that Stan was getting loads of letters from readers asking just why it is that Jonah has this unreasoning hatred for Spider-Man, and in all fairness, perhaps Stan thought it would be a good idea to try to offer up some motivation. I just think he offered up the wrong motivation.

I've never really liked this scene. I'd prefer to think Jameson isn't this much of a hypocrit. I'd actually think the character would be more interesting and sympathetic if he actually believes Spider-Man is a menace and does more harm that good.
I was discussing this very point recently with a work colleague, Philip de Sausmarez, and he came up with a much more insightful explanation. J. Jonah Jameson, he reasons, is typical of the Great American Dream ... a man who, through his own ability and tireless hard work, has dragged himself up to the very top of his chosen profession. He's the owner and editor-in-chief of a big metropolitan newspaper, and he has little time for people he considers shirkers or those he thinks want something for free. He's worked hard for everything he's got and, by golly, so should everyone else.

Then along comes Spider-Man - a much younger man - who appears to have had everything handed to him on a plate. He has super-powers, gained by some happy accident, and is admired by many. And that's something JJJ just can't stomach.

These scenes from earlier Amazing Spider-Man issues are a true reflection of what Jameson thinks. To have him reveal in ASM10 that actually, all this time, he hasn't actually believed his own oft-stated views just seems plain wrong.
Time and again, in these early issues of Amazing Spider-Man, you'll see Jameson railing against the younger generation and how they all want something for nothing, and how nobody but he knows the value of hard work. So Philip's take on this is, for me, so much more plausible than that awkward monologue Stan and Steve put in the mouth of J. Jonah Jameson on the final page of Amazing Spider-Man 10.

By now, anyone reading this blog has probably heard enough about Spider-Man for a while, so I want to take a look at the Marvel anthology titles of the mix-Sixties, with a special focus on my all-time favourite superhero, Captain America.

Next: America, America!