Monday, 19 December 2016

The Best Marvel Annual: Amazing Spider-Man 1

THE IDEA OF A COMICS ANNUAL isn't an especially new one, not even at the beginning of the 1960s when DC published Superman Annual 1 (Aug 1960). The earliest annual I could find in US comics was Archie Annual 1 (1950). By the time that was published, Archie had been established as a leading comics character for almost a decade. It must have seemed like a good idea to other comics publishers because pretty quickly, other annuals started appearing on the newsstands.

During the 1950s, the concept of comic annuals was an interesting novelty. Where the UK comics market had had annuals for years, it took quite a few years before the American publishers caught on.
Click image to enlarge.
Tales of Terror Annual 1 was published in 1951 by EC, though unlike the Archie Annual that contained 116 pages of new material, canny Bill Gaines just stitched four coverless issues of assorted EC comics into a new cover. A year after that Dell Comics put out Tarzan's Jungle Annual 1 (1952), featuring 96 pages of all-new material, drawn mainly by Jesse Marsh ... and with that just about every other publisher started spitting out annuals on every topic imaginable.

Then, the beginning of the 1960s, DC's dark overlord, Mort Weisinger, put a Superman Annual on the schedule. Though it had no cover date, the 80-page comic carried "1960" in the indicia, and was likely on sale in the summer of that year, probably to capitalise on the approaching school holidays. But sadly, there was no new material here. The only bone Uncle Mort threw the readers was, no ads.

With so many stories in the back-catalogue to draw from, the Superman Annuals were more often than not themed affairs - for example "Adventures in Time, Space and on Alien Worlds" and "The Superman Family on Krypton".
Superman Annual 2 (1960) followed just five months later, on sale in November ... so not really an annual, then. This second issue followed the same format ... about 80 pages of reprint material with no ads. These books must have sold well, because pretty quickly, DC was putting out a whole range of Annuals, mostly published more than once a year, featuring Lois Lane, Batman and The Flash, in that order.

The idea of publishing annuals quickly spread beyond the influence of Superman Editor Mort Weisinger, and Batman's Jack Schiff and Flash's Julius Schwartz also got a look-in. Strangely, there was no Wonder Woman Annual, as there was certainly plenty of back-catalogue to choose from. And neither Green Lantern nor Justice League made the Annual cut, probably because there wasn't.
So it was that Marvel publisher Martin Goodman, ever on the look-out for a bandwagon to hitch up to, came up with the striking idea of publishing annuals himself. What was a bit of a surprise was that Marvel's first annual was all-new material, more so when you consider that Millie the Model had been running for almost 20 years at this point.

Millie the Model had first appeared in 1945 as a standard teen humour comic, but quickly evolved into something much better when Dan DeCarlo took charge of the look. Eventually, DeCarlo was lured away to bring the same look to the smash-hit series Archie, as was his Millie successor, Stan Goldberg.
Millie the Model began in 1945, created by Marvel staff writer artist Ruth Atkinson, though she was quickly succeeded by Ken Bald and Mike Sekowsky. Starting as a kind of "career-girl" comedy comic, it became broader as it went along, evolving into a more straightforward slapstick comedy title - except for the middle 1960s when for about four years it was re-purposed as a straight romance book. Spawning several spin-off titles, including A Date With Millie (1956), which becomes Life with Millie (1960), which in turn becomes Modeling with Millie 1963), and Mad About Millie (1969), the series was one of Marvel's most dependable money-makers, enjoying art by Dan DeCarlo (from 1949-1960), before he went on to become one of Archie's premiere artists, and later Stan Goldberg. And if that weren't success enough, supporting characters Patsy Walker, Hedy and Chilli also got their own series.

Marvel's first two annuals (which truly came first is now lost in the mists of time) couldn't have been more different - teen humour aimed primarily at a female market and mild horror from the Marvel fantasy titles.
Because of the success of the character, Stan would have had a plentiful supply of inventory material to drop into The Big Millie the Model Annual 1 (on sale July 1962), so he could put "All New Stories" on the cover with a clear conscience. And that would also satisfy Martin Goodman, who was known to be reluctant to spend money on new material if he didn't have to. Goodman certainly didn't authorise new stories for Marvel second Annual. The Big Strange Tale Annual 1 (on sale July 1962) simply reprinted stories from Marvel's other fantasy anthology titles; Journey into Mystery, Tales of Suspense, Tales to Astonish and, of course, Strange Tales.

Marvel expanded its Annual offering for 1963, adding the highly-regarded Fantastic Four Annual to the lineup. The FF title was Marvel's most ambitious project to date, as it featured an all-new 37-page story, "Sub-Mariner versus The Human Race" by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, a six-page back-up story co-starring Spider-Man, 14 pages of pinups and a three-page feature about the FF. Stan also threw in a reprint of the first half of FF1, too. 
These 25c comics must have been a big success for the fledgling Marvel Comics, as the following year, Goodman put out second issues of Millie the Model Annual (all-new material, on sale July 1963) and Strange Tales Annual (new material plus reprints, on sale June 1963), and added a Fantastic Four Annual (mostly-new, on sale July 1963) for good measure.

Many pundits cite the first Fantastic Four Annual as the best Marvel ever put out, but my vote would go to the new title that debuted the following year ...


By the time Marvel published their first Spider-Man Annual, the character had been running for almost a year-and-a-half in his own title. Amazing Spider-Man Annual 1 (on-sale June 1963) was cover to cover all-new (the FF Annual published the same year was padded out with a reprint of FF 5), featuring Marvel's longest single story yet, 41 pages of "The Sinister Six", along with a solid set of back-up features (and no ads, save the inside and back covers), all by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko.

Nobody made Spider-Man look "spidery" the way Steve Ditko did. The white background makes for a clean and compelling design and even though the logo colouring style (also used on the previous year's Annuals) is a design car-crash, it somehow conveys the idea that this magazine is something special. The only slight flaw is the giant red text box that obscures the Sandman.
The main story is one of my all-time favourites ... Dr Octopus, still smarting from his defeat at the hands of Spider-Man in ASM 11 & 12 (Apr-may 1964) just a few weeks earlier, escapes from jail and persuades five former Spidey villains - Electro, Kraven the Hunter, Mysterio, Sandman and The Vulture - to band together to help each other defeat their most hated enemy. That's pretty much a role call of every Spider-Man villain since the title began. The only ones missing are The Chameleon (in hiding), The Terrible Tinkerer (lost in space) and The Reptile (not really a villain, in the traditional sense). [Edit: Of course, I meant to type "The Lizard" - but if I changed it, then D.D.Clegg's comment below wouldn't make sense.]

Lee and Ditko include effective vignettes of Peter (Spider-Man) Parker's life, focussing on the sorrow of his Aunt May at the senseless death of her husband at the hands of the then-unnamed burglar - it's Peter's guilt over this that leads to the loss of his super-powers.
In the first five pages, Stan and Steve have recapped events for newcomers, showing Spider-Man's feud with newspaper publisher Jonah Jameson, Peter Parker's relationship with his classmates (and in particular Flash Thompson) and Peter's guilt over the death of his uncle Ben. They've also managed to squeeze in brief cameo appearances by The Mighty Thor and Dr Strange. And on the sixth page, Spider-Man mysteriously loses his super-powers.

With the scene set, Dr Octopus now unveils his plan - though it's not without one flaw, which can only be an oversight of editor Stan not supervising writer Stan closely enough. The villains draw lots to decide the order in which they will fight Spidey (having already dismissed the idea of fighting him as a team). Doc Ock then tells them that he's written a location on each card that will make the best of each villain's special abilities. However, we've just seen the baddies drawn random cards, so how could Ock know which villain would be assigned which location. But it's only a minor lapse in logic, and the story quickly moves on before we've had a chance to spot Stan's mistake.

Worrying about her nephew's distracted mood, Aunt May resolves to visit Betty Brant to see whether the two are having romantic troubles. But right outside the Daily Bugle building, both Betty and Aunt May are kidnapped by Octopus, who's aware that Spider-Man fought once before to protect Jameson's secretary. The Vulture delivers the villains' demands to Jameson - Spider-Man must fight them in turn or Betty Brant will pay the price. How can Spider-Man battle such powerful villains with no power of his own? Thus was the tension cranked up to breaking point ...

Lee and Ditko's economical storytelling moves the plot along at a clip. In the space of a couple of pages, Jameson witnesses Betty Brant and Aunt May's kidnapping, an ultimatum is delivered and we get two cameo appearances - the Fantastic Four and Captain America. Amidst all the drama, I especially like the small detail of Jameson's necktie draping over the window-ledge as he cranes out the window to see who's abducting his secretary and Parker's aunt.
With no other choice, Peter must become Spider-Man and face his foes ... so he sets off the the first location, Tony Stark's electrical plant, where Electro is waiting for him. Crawling under the fence like an ordinary teenager, Spider-Man finds his first adversary. But when Electro hurls an electric bolt at the young hero, he evades it with ease. He'd never really lost his powers, he just believed he had ... Regrouping, Spider-Man uses Peter's science know-how to formulate a plan. Using copper wires to ground himself, he's immune to Electro's power and can safely get close enough to kay-o the baddie.

Full-page splash panels in the middle of a story were a rarity in 1964, but here Steve Ditko serves up a stoater. Even though any school boy will tell you that being grounded when in contact with electricity will kill you (while rubber-soled shoes will save your life), the power and drama of the image more than compensates.
It's a great moment, and we can overlook the shaky science that suggests Spidey grounding himself with wire would keep him safe from electric shock when just the opposite is true. But let's not dwell on that ... let's just pause for a brief cameo from Iron Man before moving on to the next battle - with Kraven the Hunter. Well, it's not so much a battle ...

The battle with Kraven is far from conclusive, but it makes sense that if Spidey can just grab the card from the Hunter and make off, then that's what he should do. Great full-spage image, though.
With time pressing in, Spidey wisely doesn't waste time waltzing around the World's Fair site with the shaggy braggart. He simply nimbly evades both Kraven and his two pet leopards, snatches the vital card bearing the location of his next fight and makes off. We do get another brilliant battle splash page from Ditko, though.

The Human Torch's cameo appearance is a little more extended than those of the other Marvel characters. The X-Men in the above page isn't technically a cameo, as this isn't the real X-Men but actually just robot duplicates.
With Spidey safely past his second challenge, we're treated to a nice little vignette between Web-Head and The Human Torch. Driven by his need to get to his next rendezvous, Spidey is not in a chatting mood, but quaintly, the Torch only wants to see if Spider-Man can use any help. It's a nice quiet moment before the next round of action, and though the two have had a feud on the go since they first met, Stan takes a moment to let us know it's a friendly one. But before the battle continues, Lee and Ditko also give us a cute scene with Aunt May completely misinterpreting the situation and being charmed by Doc Ock's "good manners". It would be the start of an ongoing gag, which turned into a nightmare when, in Amazing Spider-Man 54 (Nov 1967), Dr Octopus becomes Aunt May's lodger, then in ASM 131 (Apr 1974) almost manages to marry her.

Lee and Ditko had already given us an X-Men cameo earlier in the story, so we should have realised that these X-Men were phonies. Check out the flames where "Cyclop's" eyebeams have struck - betcha missed that first time round, right?
There's no time to lose, though, as the plot powers on to take us to Spider-Man's next confrontation with one of Doc Ock's allies - Mysterio. The master of special effects doesn't tackle Spidey directly ... he's happy to send robot copies of The X-Man to do his dirty work. Ditko cleverly has "Cyclop's" eye-beam leave a burning scar wherever it strikes, which should be clue enough that he's not the real thing. Stan makes no comment about it in his script, so it's possible that it's just a mistake on Ditko's part, with him just not realising that Cyclops power is a force beam, not a heat beam.

If Ant-Man can talk to ants, why can't Spider-Man talk to spiders? You can't fault Jonah's logic. But before we can think abouut it for too long, Spidey is up to his elbows in sand ... and Ditko gives another startling splash page.
The juggernaut plot rolls on, taking Spidey to his next battle with the formidable Sandman ... but first, there's a neat bit of comedy with J. Jonah Jameson talking to a spider, thinking the message will be relayed to Spider-Man. Then it's full tilt again the Sandman. By this point in Marvel history, Sandman had swapped from being a Spider-Man villain to being Human Torch's nemesis. Stan Lee would stick to this path by inducting Sandman into the Frightful Four the following year, and this would be Sandman's last hurrah against his original enemy. This time Sandman outwits himself by trying to trap both of them in an airtight cell ... but Spidey proves to have the better lungpower and Sandman passes out from lack of oxygen. This leave just Spidey's penultimate foe, the Vulture, to defeat ...

The lead-in to the battle has Jameson raging that every other paper in town is carrying the story of Spider-Man's battle with The Sinister Six, while The Bugle has missed out, Betty and May enjoy a nice cup of tea with the charming Doctor, while Spidey is forced to give up his web-shooters before fighting his winged adversary ... and how about that splash page?
However, Lee and Ditko never lose sight of the sub-plots and in a single page that's a masterclass in storytelling economy, we get caught up on what's going on elsewhere before we're launched into the battle with the Vulture. The aerial battle has a real sense of danger and is probably the best action sequence in the Annual, but inevitably, the Vulture is defeated and it only remains for Spidey to tackle Doc Ock and free his girlfriend and his aunt.

Doc Ock's final deathtrap for Spider-Man is a doozy - The idea of Spider-Man fighting for his life underwater would be a peril that Lee and Ditko would revisit a couple more times, most notably in ASM 29.
Doc Ock's goldfish bowl deathtrap is almost the end of our hero, forcing Spider-Man to fight his enemy in an enclosed space where his spider-powers are diminished. But despite the menacing situation, Spidey prevails once more by using his brain, which is my favourite aspect of these early Spider-Man stories.

Stan gamely keeps the running gag about Aunt May thinking that Dr Octopus is a "poor man who's having trouble with his arms" and that Spider-Man is "so villainous looking. Not at all as pleasant as that well mannered Dr Octopus". The final scene with the villains bickering in a jail cell rounds the story out perfectly.
And when Spider-Man finally finds Doc Ock's captives, Betty is pleased to see him, but Aunt May reacts with, "So that's Spider-Man ... What a perfectly ghastly outfit!" I found it a hugely satisfying story when I finally tracked down a copy probably some time in 1966. But the actual story - exciting and well-told though it was - wasn't the best bit of the Annual for me. Because among the obligatory pinups (of which there were many) and few throw-away features explaining how Spider-Man's mask worked (Puh-lease! I'd figured that out by the time I was 12!), there was brilliant feature about how Stan and Steve wrote and drew an episode of Amazing Spider-Man.

For me, this was the gold of the comic. An actual demonstration from Steve Ditko on how he draws the Spider-Man comic strip. While Stan's script probably depicts his character perfectly, it would years before I realised that Ditko was not as happy-go-lucky as Stan's script portrays him.
At this point in my life, I had absolutely no understanding of how comics were created. Yet here was a step-by-step instruction on how Steve Ditko drew one of my favourite characters. That three-page strip was worth the 6d (2.5p) I'd paid for that Annual in the second-hand shop where I undoubtedly found it.

Who knew that the artist first roughed out the page in pencils? Or that he then went over the graphite lines with a brush? Dipped in black ink? The bonus was Stan's funny dialogue. He made it sound like those Marvel guys were having the most wonderful time. And it's also telling that Ditko seemed happy enough to draw this script up, so he probably couldn't have objected to it that much at the time. Of course later, I'd come to realise that Steve Ditko had become a bit of a curmudgeon, who probably took himself way too seriously ... but that was years in the future, and even that would never diminish the unconditional love I had for the artist's work. That brilliantly unique art-style eventually displaced Jack Kirby's in my affections, so you can imagine how I felt when Ditko moved on and John Romita took over ... oh wait, I wrote a blog entry about it once.

The credit for the cover of Spectacular Spider-Man 1 says, "painting by Harry Rosenbaum, pencils by Johnny Romita" - but that's not quite accurate, is it?
The final point I wanted to make was that among the pinups in that Amazing (Spider-Man) Annual was a cool, upside down image of Spidey, crawling head first down a wall. It struck me that I'd seen something similar just recently. And of course I had. It was in the very last entry in this blog, where I covered the 1968 Spectacular Spider-Man magazine.

All in all, despite the majesty that is the first Fantastic Four Annual, Amazing Spider-Man Annual  1 still edges just in front as my favourite Marvel Annual - both then, and now.

Next: The Human Torch solo stories