Today I am a man
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So my long-standing claim is that Lee’s run on Spider-Man – technically, Amazing Adult Fantasy #15 and The Amazing Spider-Man #1-100 is a straightforward and excellent novel. This is the first of four planned posts about that.
I’ll dispose of one issue right away: Ditko’s departure. Re-reading surprised me in how little John Romita’s version differs, as Ditko’s Spidey was pretty buff before the first year was over. I don’t understand where the idea of an original lanky skinny Spider-Man came from, unless it’s the obsessive re-issuing and re-telling of the origin story. Peter as a guy was also way past that nebbishy origin issue, well out of his bow tie and into his hip vest, already specs-less, already out of high school and into college, already two steps ahead of Jameson, already enmeshed in women’s wiles, and already taking no shit from anybody. He was also already way better-looking than in the first few issues, a ringer for James Dean as Jacobs & Jones rightly point out in The Comic Book Heroes. None of these can be considered a “Romita effect.” Early Ditko Spider-Man is instantly distinguishable from late Romita Spider-Man, but the transition year, say #34 through #45, is surprisingly smooth. (There is one big change, in the women – I have an upcoming post of its own for talking about that.)
I also think there’s hardly a burp in the events denoting the shift, which one might imagine would be there if Ditko were the sole plot-power for the title, which I’ve seen claimed more than once. The credits also belie the claim of Lee’s role as credit-hog, as Ditko is frequently credited with co-plotting or full plotting. The first such issue is #24, where Lee credits himself only with scripting … and as it happens, it’s a beta-story. Keep your eye on that trend. Following the artist transition, Romita is often credited for plots too.
So what’s going on with Peter? The biggest picture, the frame for all the other posts I’ll be doing on this topic, is that he’s recovering from his infantilized condition. Bluntly, when we meet him in what’s apparently his senior year in high school, he’s emotionally about twelve. The origin-story with Uncle Ben doesn’t transform him into a fully-developed hero, it’s merely his wake-up call that now it’s time to catch up.
In my other, academic life, I introduced students to the complexity of maturation as a story element, and that messing with its component parts through magical means (by whatever device) gets re-written for every generation and idiom. This one’s an example of the growing up too slow problem, in which the exigencies of the external world arrive for the character “on time,” but he or she is not ready for it at all and is therefore in special crisis. [The too fast version is when the character’s on schedule but the world hits too hard or too early] Becoming spider-powered would be handful for anyone, but Peter is in extra trouble. It’s not that he’s a nerd or bookworm; it’s that he’s childlike.
That’s why the most relevant adversity can’t be “Doctor Doom vs. the world,” but always personal, with correspondingly personally-oriented villains who do genuine crimes and harm us little people. A few of the early issues bring in more SF-type guys with world-affecting schemes, but they disappear fast, in favor of Dr. Octopus and the Vulture, people with lives much like Peter’s: to put it most clearly, villains who could be him. It doesn’t take long – in fact, issue #2 is probably the early home run – to integrate the social, tactical, and physical features of his confrontations with these guys, such that every one is a genuinely desperate fight and consequential learning experience. Peter takes some serious lumps: some guys beat him stronger, some guys beat him smarter, and he gets in enough wins to stay in there and see that he’s getting better at it. The villains do too; both he and everyone else are constantly scrambling to improve.
I’ve written about the water tank story before, but here I want to talk about it as a linchpin for Spider-Man’s “catch-up” moment as a person. It’s the only really good story for which Ditko receives plot credit, in which Peter finally breaks his dependency on Aunt May. His visions during the struggle couldn’t be more explicit, that he can’t turn to her or his memory of Uncle Ben. After this, she’s completely dependent on him, and the memory of his uncle is something he has to live up to under his own power.
After that, he’s on schedule, just in time too. The problems of young adulthood are hard enough without the sustained-childhood problem, and he’s got a lot to do, but from #34 on, he squares his shoulders and gets to it. The shy aunt’s-boy is gone, and sure enough, the young man steps into a new social scene right then: in college, gainfully employed, wheels of his own, eyeing the chance for his own apartment, and a bit bruised from an older-woman romance. (If you think Peter didn’t get into the sack with Betty, or that she hadn’t been around the block already, then you didn’t read these. Again, though, more on the women side is set for a later post.)
Who doesn’t have a tough time in initial college social life? All of the characters are out of their element and trying to run high school numbers on each other, and every one of them learns this is silly, sometimes the hard way. In Peter’s case, he’s actually at an advantage in having abandoned his high school priorities beforehand, and he never stands there woefully or slinks off as in that origin issue, not once. Eventually it’s his basic decency which ultimately wins out – and it must be said, Flash’s too. My recent reading shows Flash to be a much more positive character than any adaptation manages, that his bullying is over almost as soon as it began, and also that Peter develops a grudging respect for him before Flash’s own behavior changes much. Most of their antagonism is based on bad luck, and at least as much on Peter’s various dodges to conceal his Spider-Man-ness as on Flash’s adolescence. To his credit, even before the high school graduation, Peter figures out that now he’s Spider-Man, hitting or “beating” Flash is kind of a shitty thing to do. When their college clashes really become a social problem for them, they actually manage to reconcile, tacitly and a bit shame-facedly, like men do.
The same thing happens more gradually with Harry, who begins the college sequence as a way bigger problem for Peter than Flash, because his passive-aggressive sabotage gets past Peter’s radar, but it leads to one of the warmest scenes in the whole story when the orphan and the neglected kid find common ground.
Both of the above threads are completely embedded in Peter’s rebound from Betty Brant, as he steps up to match wits and attraction with his female peers – successfully. Harry’s and Flash’s attempts to keep the chicks away from him fail miserably from the start.
The post-water tank Spidey is hell on wheels against his opponents, but exactly what he’s up against changes drastically too. Straight-up crime-fighting is no longer a problem, as he takes charge of the fights in spatial terms. However, now that almost every conflict is family-oriented and psychological, he has to seek social and psychological solutions instead. He’s not fighting the Green Goblin or the Lizard, which is to say, criminals to be incarcerated, but Norman Osborn or Curtis Connors, men with serious mental problems and with family responsibilities that Peter values.
It’s really a shame that the constant note struck for Spider-Man ever since has been the born loser, the shlep, the Charlie Brown of Marvel, when to my eyes the bulk of his seminal run concerns his experiences after completely overcoming that very thing. This whole phase of characterization seems to have been forgotten, with the run from 34 to 100 being remembered only for its kills, and maybe not even then, with Captain Stacey’s death being eclipsed by Gwen during Conway’s run. In franchise fandom, it’s as if the story goes from AAF #15 to #39-40 to #120. I can see why it happened, though. Serial comics, especially at this time and for these characters, didn’t facilitate genuine novel-writing. Somehow Lee and co-creators made it happen for Spider-Man and for the Fantastic Four, but too many things stood to stop any such effort in its tracks. One is simply the speed with which such work had to be cranked out, such that the first year, especially, features a few blatant throwaway scripts, and Lee’s last few issues suggest to me that he had nothing left to say or do with the character following the knockout Morbius-Lizard story which climaxed in #100.
But most especially I think the issue was the drive to establish them as licensed images, to commoditize them, or for meme-creation to use the modern term. Once the first cartoon, the newspaper strip, and Slurpee cups are in place, well, going somewhere with Spider-Man creates a conflict of interest. And as rightly pointed out by many people, it’s not as if anyone thought these characters were going to take the cultural hold they did, and even Lee, the guy I’m crediting in at least 50% part for the power of these novels, devoted far more time to getting the characters into the commodified state before the 60s were over. Rather than whine about “money tainting art,” I guess I have to see this as a historical and understandable fact for these characters.
Well, that’s the framework anyway. You might notice a few less images this time, and that’s because I’m saving them for the following posts in this series, concerning fathers, women, and heroism.
Links: 50 years later: growth and maturity in Amazing Spider-Man 1-50
Next: Scratch Pad
Posted on July 7, 2015, in Heroics and tagged John Romita Sr., Spider-Man, Stan Lee, Steve Ditko. Bookmark the permalink. 25 Comments.
You mentioned the death of Captain Stacy. ASM 88-90 has always been a favorite of mine, for two reasons. First, it’s the one story that for me really gets across the fact that Doctor Octopus is *dangerous.* Most of the fight(s) are Spidey desperately trying to dodge four super-strong metal tentacles; for my money it’s one of the tensest fights in his career.
The second is how wonderfully Captain Stacy’s death takes place. “Be good to Gwen… she loves you… so very much.” An amazing revelation, beautifully handled — and it creates the wonderful story element of “Gwen hates Spider-Man but loves Peter.” It makes “Lois dislikes Clark because he’s a mild-mannered reporter” look as hollow as it is.
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So this post really seems to be about why Peter’s Act II (issues 34 to 100, or IMO 121) doesn’t get the attention it deserves.
But attention from whom?
1970’s Spider-Man is basically Act II coasting for another seven years or so. It’s that concept of the character: grown up, kind-hearted, confident but sometimes socially jammed up, who conquered the world by the middle of the decade. (And who, licensed to hell, ended up mesmerizing a three-year-old me via The Electric Company and led to me typing this 35 fuckin’ years later.)
1980’s Spider-Man is kind of flailing attempt to find an Act III for the guy, without giving up on the limitations of Act II. He’s still poor, he’s still got that dead-end job, he gave up on his degree, he’s still unable to find a romantic equal (until MJ gets ret-conned). All of his classic villains are basically just speed bumps to him now. The decision to marry Peter off was apparently Lee’s mandate and deeply unpopular among the comics-creators; they apparently wanted to do the same ol’ dude forever.
The outwardly irreverent but inwardly responsible (NOT apprehensive) sensitive guy with the hot girl(s) and the go-nowhere mid-20’s job, who’s manly, gentle, and pretty much Mr. Awesome aside from cash flow problems and a complete inability to manage his schedule leading to hurt feelings among friends? That’s been the dude for like 45 years now.
What are you feelings about the Human Torch?
If you hear the words “the Human Torch” and do not immediately form a fist to punch Johnny Storm in his goddamn grinning face, you are inhuman. Johnny Storm is the worst. The WORST.
And you know why the Human Torch is the worst? Because he’s outwardly irreverent but inwardly responsible, a surprisingly sensitive guy with the hot girls and no need for a job; he’s mainly, gentle, and pretty much Mr. Awesome aside from a complete inability to manage his schedule leading to hurt feelings among friends. HATE THAT GUY.
The Human Torch basically is Act II Spider-Man, except with race cars and space-ships, and less bullshit about the secret identity. This would make the Human Torch objectively a better character to read about, except that all right-thinking people despise the Human Torch and want him to die a horrible death.
And the difference is that Act I Spider-Man exists. “Why is this perfectly imperfect super hero not the biggest fucking douchebag of all time?” Well, because he used to be a neurotic mess, and becoming a huge douchebag represents a major personal triumph for him.
Knowing who Peter Parker was, helps keep the rest of the series emotionally grounded. It creates an arc that the character can travel (even if he’s been stagnating for decades).
But also I think those early issues have a lot of charm. While I really like Romita’s work too, the Lee/Ditko collaborations feel a little bit more urgent, a little less polished. They also are flawless introductions to Spider-Man’s supporting cast (later additions like Robbie’s son and John Jameson really haven’t stuck around much) as well as his classic rogues gallery. So they’re (a) emotionally accessible, (b) provide nice intro’s, (c) ground the character for later development. I think that’s a big reason why people keep coming back to them. Plus: really well done.
To the extent it’s true that 1980s Spider-Man is “a kind of flailing attempt to find an Act III for the guy, without giving up on the limitations of Act II,” I wonder to what extent external developments affected this. Marvel was becoming bigger. The original run of creators had largely passed on, leaving a new crop of creators with new ideas. There was a new editorial presence. Individual creators’ runs on books tended to be much shorter than in the Seventies (I think — no objective evidence for that assertion at my fingertips).
I think those factors, as much or more than a lack of creative vision, may be to blame.
Still, there are bright spots. The Eighties gives us the Hobgoblin, for my money the best Spidey villain ever… at least until writers of less talent/vision than Roger Stern fucked him up. I sure as hell don’t like Venom (and see him mainly as a missed story opportunity), but obviously the fans sure did. I’m sure we could pull out some other examples from amidst the hubbub. 😉
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Venom isn’t a bad idea – from the Rhino to the Scorpion to the goblin mask to the Thing, super-folks have this problem where the costume is all anybody sees, and takes on a social identity of its own. Turning that into, y’know, a liquid space alien parasite is so ham-handed that you might as well have two pigs for your forearms, but that’s sort of how super hero comics work. But yeah, something about how the thing got executed was a mess that turned into a debacle that turned into a farce.
And I grew up on 1980’s Spider-Man, with occasional dips into the Ditko years via reprints. There’s some good stuff there: the Sin-Eater storyline, the fight against Firelord, the showdown with the Juggernaut, and there are some funny Peter David stories in there too. Plus, of course, Stern.
Act III seems to be the marriage, and Peter for a while going on a book tour publishing his photos, and so on. It’s not a terrible direction, but it didn’t seem to have a whole lot of conviction, either. Around that time, I kind of gave up on comics and left for a long while. It sounds like the big change, the marriage, got undone by Mephisto, who apparently is a terrific divorce lawyer.
I think Venom would have been a *great* idea if they’d done a couple things differently. First, since it’s alive and spookily “bonding” with Peter, use it to explore his growing maturity in a sort of father-son dynamic — a mirror, perhaps, of his relationship with Uncle Ben. He keeps trying to, in effect, teach the alien proper behavior, but the alien can’t overcome its innate nature and desire to stalk/bond with Peter. In the end, though, it has a “with great power comes great responsibility” sort of moment because of Peter’s teachings/attitude and sacrifices its life to save Peter’s — *or* it rejects the lesson entirely and Peter has to get rid of it the way he does in the comic, older and perhaps a bit wiser.
Second, *leave it dead.* Obviously marketing won’t permit that if it’s an insanely popular concept (as it apparently was), but the story loses its impact if the damn thing keeps coming back. We have plenty of returning villains, we don’t need to add this one.
But as always, reasonable minds may differ. 😉
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Writers should have realized before that having Peter Parker married to a supermodel was stupid.
But the problem is that, as far as public declarations go… they seems fixed on the bone-headed idea that the mistake is the “married” parts, and not the “supermodel” part.
Peter Parker is not a millionaire playboy, or someone who has to seduce a lot of _femme fatale_ in his adventures. Being married should not modify his super-hero career one bit… if it does, is because it works like a lamp to light the adolescent hang-ups that a lot of comic book writers and readers have about sex and married women.
Why does every single super-hero wife turns into a nagging “mother” character, even before they have any children? (because the only example of a married woman most comic book readers know is their own nagging mother, probably).
Why the sex and romanticism has always to be good and fabulous (i.e.: _boring_ to read about) all the time? Other comics have shown how interesting the problems and confusions in a relationship can be, but in superhero comics there is this adolescent sense of “when you land a girl, EVERYTHING will be all right!” that in people whose career is literally “find something not boring to say about this marriage” turn super-hero marriages into a schizophrenic succession of awesome marriage / thread of divorce with nothing in the middle.
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Incidentally, I encourage everybody to check out Dan Slott’s run on “The Superior Spider-Man.” It’s relevant if your focus is super villainous deeds, heel turns, and Peter Parker finally–finally!–getting his shit together, courtesy of Otto Octavius, Ph.D. I was really disappointed when the status quo inevitably reasserted itself.
(“The Superior Foes of Spider-Man” is also a terrific title.)
Seconded. Been reading SUPERIOR recently (about halfway through the run), and it’s a clever story, and also one they ended before running it into the ground.
All I can think is, “Pete, buddy, you’re sitting on this gigantic pile of unspent Experience Points. Octavius had some great ideas about effective crime fighting. Steal them. Get Reed Richards to finance you if need be.”
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(To James) Almost. Your readings tend to be more retroactively unifying and smoothing-out than mine, often taking a later-stage as “where the character was necessarily going.” My take is that much of this Act II (as I conceive it, emphatically without Conway even a little) was abandoned and even reversed, especially in terms of Peter’s emotional maturation. In my later, mid-80s readings, the reason I liked Stern’s run so much wasn’t anything to do with hobgoblins but rather that it recaptured the idea of young adults who’d been in college together and referred to this forgotten period.
I’m not sure if you’ve read Howe’s book, but if you haven’t, or are going by reviews of impressions of it, then I strongly recommend a full read. He shows very well that the ownership shifts and suit-level management decisions are way more important than anything Lee, Shooter, or anyone else ever did or said.
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Yeah, I recognize that – in part it’s simply coming in with the “past future” already having been established. Deliberately reading the early stuff in a “we don’t know how any of this will play out” mindset is difficult.
For example, allegedly Ditko didn’t like Mega-Nerd Parker, and so was partially responsible for making him more manly and admirable as he cemented his heroic status, a riff Romita and Lee were happy to continue jamming on. Supposedly Ditko had this thing worked out where Peter would go from being fumbling and guilt-obsessed, to gradually more functional, to being a straight-up world-beating Super-Super Hero. And that’s pretty much what we got, albeit years & years later, by many different people.
The other thing that nails the Nerdy Outcast Parker in the imagination, of course, is the role of Uncle Ben in the origin story. Ben’s gotta die so our boy can be triple-fatherless. Now, you’d figure “guy kills my dad, I’ll become a vigilante,” is probably a sufficient super hero motivation–but if we want to really, really make the audience like Uncle Ben, one way to do it is to have this guy be a genuine, loving friend to a total social reject. If, for example, Peter were as popular as Flash Thompson, you don’t quite get the same depth of silly bathos.
Two things, which I’m sure you’ll bring up later:
(1) Lee just goes on an absolute tear about fatherhood for at least 20-30 issues. Norman Osborn and Harry (“you spineless jellyfish!”), Jameson and John (lemme risk my son’s life to fuck with Spider-Man), Kingpin and Richard, Robbie and his son, Spider-Man as the Prowler’s “Big Brother;” etc. etc. etc. More screwed-up father/son relationships than you can shake a stick at.
(2) With Great Power, my great ass! Kid, your perpetually terminally ill grandmother-figure has like zero money,is always on the verge of some kind of nervous breakdown, and you are her only freakin’ caretaker. Isn’t it curious how the most responsible thing you can think of, is to careen all over the city, getting shot at, risking your life, in a city already swarming with super heroes–isn’t it curious that the deep moral commitment you have, is to do exactly what a reckless goofball action-junkie teenage boy would do anyway? Denial isn’t just a river in Egypt, Mr. Parker.
Howe’s book has been on my shelf at eye-level for months. I need to stop reading dumb comics and read it instead.
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You’re previewing nicely for the fathers post, which was partly inspired by your comment on the Superhuman Endurance thread. And I’m sure you recall my annoyed post to you years ago at the Forge about “the Spider-Man novel,” so actually this whole series of posts is your fault.
Regarding Aunt May, I’m currently reviewing how much she’s actually in the story during the second half of the period I’m talking about. The part I’ve just re-read puts her pretty healthy and in the capable hands of Anna Watson, and I’m suspicious about people projecting post-100 content backwards.
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How can you post about the Amazin Spider-Man 1-100 run…. and remove from it one of my best rant arguments? (the way Gwen and MJ devolve as characters when they become girlfriends). When I think about the late Lee-Romita ASM that is practically the only thing I remember, and you say that I have to a wait a later post before starting to rant about it?
(by the way, “canon” says that Peter did it the first time after Gwen’s death, with with MJ. It was even told explicitly in one (terrible) story, when the children of Gwen are introduced and Peter is SURE they can’t be his children, and he explicitly says so. American puritanism at work, if MJ is his wife, she should be his “first” too. I really prefer your version of the story…)
There is one very clear difference between Ditko’s and Romita’s versions, though: politics. Ditko’s point-of-view is very conservative and depict any form of protest or social change as ridiculous.
And now I want to read ASM 1-100 again! Damn you Edwards, I don’t have all that free time!!!
P.S.: one interesting thing about “fictional time” in Ditko’s run: these issues are almost in “real time”. The readers noticed that and in some published letters they ask if that will continue and in ten years the title would have been about a thirty years old Peter, and later still about his sons. Probably the guys at Marvel didn’t even believe comics would still exist in ten years, but the published answer was “we don’t know, we will think about it” if I recall correctly.
I live to frustrate you with “wait until later posts” posts.
Fuck canon, but you knew that already. That’s a perfect example of my point from a couple of posts ago, that “canon” is really license to alter the past in a legalistic context, rather than respect for and development of the past.
Yeah, I was gonna chime in on the fictional time thing too. My take was that Pete shows up around age 15 or so, not that there’s any textual support for it, but it jibes with an approximate real-time pace of those issues, with him graduating in issue 28 or something.
In fact all of the Marvel line can approximately happen in real-time through maybe ’68 or so. Thomas, at least, seems to have the Wasp finally turn 21 and come into her inheritance around then. Eventually you get into weird territory and the “sliding timeline” and God-knows-what, because nobody wants the characters to age or mature, but that’s not a problem early on.
I kinda hope you’ve read Superior Spider-Man, so we can get your thoughts on it eventually…
I confess I had no idea what it is until the past month or so. It hasn’t cleared my filter of “gee check this out one day.” Lots of things get stuck in there.
TL;DR: Peter can’t get his shit together, so Octavius takes over his body and does it for him.
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There’s a line to the effect of, “THIS is what you’ve been doing when you weren’t punching me in the face? THIS?!? Good lord. Your priorities are childish, muddled, and pathetic.”
Ron, given that you sometimes seem to be pining for a villain with the guts to (a) go after the pie damn it, (b) really trounce the hero, (c) turn out to be fucking awesome once he’s actually been dealt (or stole) a decent hand of cards, (d) actually manage to be a character we care about a hell of a lot more than the main guy . . . it’s right up your alley. My recollection is that the art is by Chris Bachalo, which means it’s really sloppy as visual storytelling, but Dan Slott is clearly having a blast writing it.
The various spin-off titles (Superior Team-Up, Superior Carnage, etc.) are totally forgettable.
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Oh! Also, another comic dealing with imperfect gay relationships, Jupiter’s Circle.
I just noticed this…
“Lee’s last few issues suggest to me that he had nothing left to say or do with the character following the knockout Morbius-Lizard story which climaxed in #100”
Morbius didn’t even appear in the first 100 issues, he shows up in #101. And the climax of the story is in #102. Does this mean that you are considering your “end of the Spider-man novel” be “around issue 100” (I remember that in the old Forge discussion you used a higher number as the end), or that you consider “Peter wakes up with six arms” the end of the novel?
I wrote this post (“Today I am a man”) before reviewing the precise authorship of the ending issues, and before realizing that Lee’s on-and-off presence in the #100’s confused me. That’s why I carefully explained my current position, post-review, in the new post, for which #100 is the end, full stop.
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