Today I am a man
BONUS POST: Thanks to Markku Tuovinen and his July pledge at the Doctor Xaos Patreon!
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.
Next: Scratch Pad