Bad guys and bad fathers

normanosbornI’m on about Stan Lee’s run on Spider-Man as a novel again, for the second of four intended posts. The first one was Today I am a man. Might as well clarify a bit about the creators and timing of what I’m talking about.

  • Writing: Lee 1-100, then briefly Roy Thomas, then Lee again 105-110, and then Gerry Conway from 111 through the foreseeable future
  • Art: Ditko 1-38, then John Romita Sr. 39-88 with brief stints by John Buscema and Jim Mooney, then Gil Kane  back-and-forth with Romita from #89 through the end(s) of Lee’s run and into Conway’s

So a bit arbitrarily, I’m taking my endpoint as #100, the story in which Peter tries to de-spiderize himself, before Lee’s final departure. I am not including Thomas, Lee’s final few issues except for a detail or two, or Conway, and not, not, not the deaths of Gwen Stacy and Norman Osborn. Thinking about it this was a big mental break for me. I owned these issues, the real ones, not reprints, and I had them fuckin’ memorized – even gave a big report on comics with the Gwen-Peter relationship, ending in her death, in my Extended Learning Program in elementary school, age ten or eleven. Realizing the editorial and authorship change was a true story-ending, much more than just a minor shift in implementers, wasn’t easy.

This post is about the villainy he encounters, especially after the maturation inflection-point in issue #33. Our own James Nostack, ever-willing commenter, irritated prompted me to do this write-up long ago, although I wouldn’t have dreamed it’d be via blogging, and sure enough, in a couple of posts, he provided a solid hit which needs credit, this time without irritation, for some of what I’m saying here. He said:

Spider-Man, who is fatherless three different ways (real father is dead; Uncle Ben surrogate father is dead; teenage “sidekick” character without any fatherly mentor), starts getting involved in stories that focus a lot on bad fathers.

And

In Spider-Man – here the comics, not the movies. A curious, aching pain is in there. Peter is fatherless in three ways. Somewhere in the third year, villain after villain touching on one or another aspect of this issue.

James might as well have been looking at this post’s draft. Looking at the initial villains of the title and their goals, like Doctor Octopus, the Vulture, the early Green Goblin, the Collector, the Enforcers – although they vary in sanity and personality, they’re all basically a bunch of crooks. They’re people who use gimmicks to make off with bags of money, whether robbers like the Vulture or Looter, or crime-bosses, and Spider-Man is a crime-fighter, literally a vigilante. In this phase it shifts a bit, featuring:

  • Vengeance re-appearances, like Kraven, the new Vulture, or the frankly hapless Mysterio, often for filler issues or to put relatively neutral external tension on a personal relationship
  • An ongoing, complicated crime-boss stories, for instance introducing the Kingpin, and in which the more standard super-powered villain is often an agent or enforcer, like the Shocker
  • Rarely, a crossover for a misunderstanding-fight, usually engineered by someone who’s lying, as with Ka-Zar and Medusa; the most complex version is the Prowler (worth a post of his own perhaps)
  • Meanwhile the larger context of reputation, law enforcement, and public trust snaps into much sharper focus, so that a given “fight a guy” moment is much less about winning or losing or stopping a crime, and much more about how Peter’s various relationships are going to shift because of it

I’ll have more to say about heroism, the big picture for villainy and for Spider-Man’s proactivity, and Peter’s ongoing “how I can keep doing this” crisis in the intended fourth post of this series. I’ll refer to it briefly now because the crime-boss context doesn’t mix especially well with the super-science government stuff, nor with the “tons o’ characters in the Marvel Age of Comics” gig, and both get severely de-emphasized. While that issue comes to a boil more slowly (with a big bump in #50), the more obvious focus on fatherhood develops right away and remains consistent, becoming the spine of the run. It clearly replaces Aunt May as the primary family crisis, who I am certain everyone agrees should have died gently in her sleep with Peter at her side some time after moving in with Mary Sue Watson, and received a nice funeral.

So it makes perfect sense to bring in an older villain and give him some depth right at this point, with Peter in college and more centered in his power, in roughly the second of five phases of the novel. Now that Peter is a grown-up, it’s time to start thinking about his options as one, and how he might relate to the concept of fatherhood – not as its object (a son), but as its subject (a man). Three characters get a strong early treatment.

  • Curtis Connors is the man for whom everything goes wrong except for his family’s love and loyalty, such that he’s the villain Peter genuinely likes as a  person. He also manifests Peter’s worst nightmare, that his life as Spider-Man will endanger his family, and thus “they must never know.” And yet here is the living example of someone whose super-identity is absolutely, unequivocally a direct threat to his own family, and far less under his control than Peter’s, and they not only accept that, they love him anyway.
  • Similarly Norman Osborn does love his son; his problem is that he’s terrible at showing it or acting on it directly, raising for Peter the question of whether “having a dad” is ipso facto a great thing. I especially like the way that his real features never display the manic Goblin grin, but are always stressed and upset … but yet the mask itself does not grin, such that he really is unleashing that persona and its gleeful excess when he puts it on.
  • J. Jonah Jameson’s “bad guy” role has run out of steam, as once it’s been made clear that his entire problem is self-esteem, Peter has more trouble with him as an ordinary employer than as a genuine problem for Spider-Man (well, mostly). He’s more relevant as Osborn’s surprising positive contrast, as the man who hates Spider-Man but also the one guy who gives his son what Peter can never, ever have, unconditional love. It’s also explicit that he has crippling personal emotional problems, to the point of a heart attack. One must credit JJJ for not hating and revenging himself upon his own son, who offers a remarkably easy target for it, being successful, good-looking, and famous. Finally, as a newspaperman, aside from Spider-Man ranting, he brings a surprise – his temper and stubbornness are directed toward actual journalism. (wait a minute … what kind of name is “Jonah Jameson,” anyway? A Jewish-Irish New Yorker? No wonder he’s so cranky)

From the #39-40 Goblin story through the death of Captain Stacy, roughly, the issue expands into the external crime-fighting and social context of Peter’s life, such that pound for pound, it’s the prevailing topic. Connors shows up only twice (I’m not counting his presence in the Thomas issues) but it’s significant, as I’ll describe below. Meanwhile, Osborn and Jameson become major characters, sharing multiple adventures with Spider-Man and constantly interacting with each other.

For a while, Osborn seems to have found a new life with a much better relationship with Harry and is generally friendly with Peter too, until his memory starts to return. I’m impressed with that whole sequence – the sight of a successful man who’s turned his relationship with his son around, but nagged by one thing he can’t remember, struggling to recover it, is riveting – he’s entirely admirable in doing it, while the reader knows that it’s a disaster. The danger it will bring to Spider-Man is nothing compared to the sorrow of shattering Harry’s and Norman’s reconciliation. (I’ll talk more about Harry doing drugs in a separate post.)

And just when they’re needed most, the story gets two more fathers who happen not to be loony in one fashion or another, Joseph “Robbie” Robertson and Captain George Stacy. They provide important material for the other issues – social activism and romance – but they also provide the emotional anchors for the whole title, showing that with dads like this around, young people shine.

That goes hand-in-hand with shifting the entire context of college life from the bow-tie wearing mid-60s to the early 70s with its outspoken black people and fringed vests, which occurs well into the Romita run and is not as artificial as it might seem in the pages. “The Sixties” as construed by movies and pop culture did not exist – what did happen has largely been lost or distorted, and what people call the Sixties is best understood as a many-detailed shift across the whole culture around 1969 through 1974. For most young people, the difference between, say, Spider-Man in the #50s vs. the #90s occurred in the exact same time frame as the comics.

Some of the storylines look tentative for me, as in hopping back to Doc Ock and the Vulture instead of focusing on the Lizard (perhaps rightly recognized as too much gun, father-wise, to waste), and as in time-filling sequences about amnesia and misunderstandings. That uneasy tension I mentioned before between “this is how Spider-Man is” vs. driving plot-character development is definitely present. But soon the Stacy story takes a big spin up, emotionally, as Peter and Gwen get it on with her father’s blessing (and if you didn’t see the “he figured it out long ago” angle coming, go soak your head), while the Osborn story spins heartbreakingly down.

Fatherly stuff gets brought into the mob boss stuff too, as the Kingpin’s believably terrifying grip closes on the city’s crime culture, when first, the stunning Silvermane story hits. It kills me that this seems to have vanished from fan memory: an old man effectively turning himself into his own son, with the blunt, even horror-tinged message, you can’t do this. And second, fast and hard as one of the Kingpin’s own fists, the Kingpin’s own family crisis is revealed. The entire mob storyline turns out to be about, not “stopping crime,” but dramatizing how badly lives suffer when fatherhood is twisted into broken forms.

Oh, and you know that Peter discovers the truth of his parents’ deaths, right, that his dad was a U.S. intelligence officer who’d infiltrated the Red Skull’s organization? It’s in The Amazing Spider-Man King-Size Special #5, timed among the late #60s in the regular title. Comics being so subtle and all, maybe I can winkle out something about that father-and-self stuff in there …

Never again will I bemoan my secret identity — or toy with the thought of giving it up!

I’ve finally vindicated the father — and the mother — whom I’ve never known! And no one but Spider-Man could have done it!

Um. Yeah. That. It’s never referenced in the main title and can’t really be included as a major plot element, and it doesn’t stop Peter’s ongoing “should I be Spider-Man” crisis, but it’s not entirely nothing either. Specifically, at this point the story absolutely shifts his father-figure from the absent natural father and Uncle Ben to Captain Stacy, not only in the death-scene, but later too in #100 – the point being that Stacy (i) knew him not as a child but as a professional, sexually-active young man, and (ii) unequivocally knew he’s Spider-Man and is neither shattered by it nor controlling about it.

stacydeathDrive this into your brain: it has never occurred to Peter that anyone who learned he was Spider-Man would not “give him away.” The concrete reasons for his anonymity, including Aunt May, are not what he thinks. He is as fixated and emotionally-blocked about this issue as, for instance, J. Jonah Jameson is about him.

And the capper: the Lizard (whom Romita draws really fuckin’ scary) is defeated in #77 when his son runs into his arms – and he stalls out, opening the way for Spider-Man to dehydrate him.

Connors: Bobby! Bobby! My son! Are you all right? Did — did the Lizard hurt you? [a shaft of light shines on them]

Bobby: I’m okay, Dad! The Lizard wouldn’t ever hurt me! I couldn’t be afraid … of him! [Spider-Man watches mutely from the shadows]

Now hold that thought and consider how Spidey defeats the returned Goblin in #98: forcing him to view the sick, helpless Harry and appealing to him as a father. Work with me here – pretend that this is all there is, that there isn’t a Spider-Man after #100, that this is effectively the finishing moment of the Goblin arc. “Give him amnesia again” isn’t going to work – that’s Peter (so far) all over, looking for deceptive means for victory. Now Peter’s had it with that, and it’s time for honesty: never mind that you know who I am, do you know who you are? Consider that Peter might have learned this was possible from watching Bobby, as he does not have the emotional history to have managed this on his own. Father-son trust is something he is learning the hard way, from the outside.

I’m not talking about what Lee wanted to do or would have done later. I’m talking about how the whole text ties together on its own, and it ties hard. It makes me want to write an expy story about these two after this moment.

Two more posts to go in this series, and with some side-issue posts scheduled as well. It kind of expanded on me.

Next: Flyin’ high

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About Ron Edwards

Game author and publisher via Adept Press / Biology author and former professor

Posted on August 20, 2015, in Heroics, Lesser is still great, Storytalk and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. I want a entire post about “Mary Sue” Watson!

    Like

  2. After decades filled with Spider-man cartoons, silly movies, the “friendly neighbourhood” image, it’s strange to remember how I regarded Spider-Man at the time as a dark and depressing character (I am talking about reading these issues in later Italian translations when I was 7-10 years old). All the other series were about battling colourful adversaries, travelling to other worlds, dimensions, magic, gods, science fiction…. and there was this guy who had money problems all the time, depressed, alone, it made growing up seem terrifying!

    Liked by 1 person

    • We were complete contemporaries in this reading experience, and I agree with you. A personal difference is, since I was surrounded by siblings ranging from 6 to 15 years older than me, Peter’s life seemed to me a window into theirs. Those #90s issues, with outspoken black people and freewheeling chicks and Harry’s Fu Manchu – those spoke right into what I saw right around me in real life. I wasn’t terrified so much as overwhelmingly eager to get into that life myself, to be in it, to be involved in the dialogues. I wanted to be someone Randy Robertson could respect, or someone Mary Jane would swing with. The generation-gapping stories struck right at what I saw scattered through my family and the others I knew.

      Liked by 1 person

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