Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Essential Spider-Man volume 1

Today I’ll start going through the volumes beginning with Essential Spider-Man volume 1 which reprints Amazing Fantasy #15 and Amazing Spider-Man #1-20 and Annual #1. Like many of the early Essential volumes it’s been reprinted multiple times, with later editions seeing both the cover and cover design changing. All three different covers are shown here. The only noticeable changes made in later editions of the volume are the inclusion of Steve Ditko’s original pencils for Amazing Fantasy #15 and the precise placement of the annual – originally it was stuck at the end of the run despite the last few issues referencing it but later editions place it in publication order.

A quick word of introduction about the two titles. Amazing Fantasy was the final of three names for this short-lived book (previously it had been Amazing Adventures then Amazing Adult Fantasy). It began as a science-fiction/monster title, though did feature the first ever Marvel superhero, Doctor Droom (later renamed Doctor Druid), and after six issues was retitled. But with continuing poor sales the book was slated for cancellation, even though issue #15 was a partial relaunch with changes made in the hope of attracting new readers (for example the title was modified to remove “Adult” as it was felt potential buyers were reluctant to ask for it). Depending on what you read, the Spider-Man strip was either run in the final issue to see how the character would perform since there was nothing to lose or was part of the overall relaunch. In those days, all comics were sold on a sale or return basis on newstands and it took some months for sales figures to come through. When they did it was discovered that Spider-Man was a big hit, leading to the launch the following year of his own title, the Amazing Spider-Man, which is the longest running of the Spider-Man books and, once other titles were launched, invariably the main title in which most of the key story developments occurred.

All the stories in this volume are credited as written by Stan Lee and drawn by Steve Ditko, bar one back-up in issue #8 which is drawn by Jack Kirby (though inked by Ditko), although, as I touched upon in my post about Spider-Man’s creation, who precisely did what in the Marvel collaborations of this period is generally unclear but I think we can safely say the actual artwork was done by Ditko. The classic cover to Amazing Fantasy #15 (reproduced on the cover of the most recent editions) was also by Kirby.

What can be said about Amazing Fantasy #15 that hasn’t been said before? It’s probably the most reprinted Marvel story of all and has been retold many times, whether in the comics, on television, in the cinema and more. The story is generally timeless (with one exception that I’ll come to) and stands in contrast to many contemporary Marvel origins that are more the product of their age (e.g. the Fantastic Four were in the space race or both the Hulk and Iron Man were caught up in Cold War weapons work). It’s easy to identify with Peter Parker, the nerdy teenager who’s a perpetual outsider but who comes to life with his own interests, in any age. And there’s a realism too – when he gets his powers he doesn’t immediately throw himself into crime fighting but instead does what almost anyone would do – use his powers to make money for himself and screw the rest of the world, bar his kindly uncle & aunt. This brings the arrogance of his greatest mistake and his learning the immortal message “that with great power there must also come – great responsibility”. The art has a dynamism to it that anchors Spider-Man in a realistic world

There are, however, a few points that look a bit silly in hindsight. Like some villains who get their powers in accidents (particularly Electro), Peter has also gained the ability to design & make a costume and construct the equipment to support his powers (here an elaborate artificial webbing and the mechanism for operating it), not to mention having easy access to all the raw materials. Now this was par the course for characters in the Silver Age and it does help keep the strip fast paced, but looking at it today it feels like a curious omission. But the big issue is over the whole experiment and radioactive spider. We know a lot more about radiation now than we did in 1962 and the whole idea that an irradiated spider could bite someone and give them spider powers is frankly absurd. It’s early 1960s pseudo-science. But then latter day retellings that instead feature genetically modified spiders are 2000s pseudo-science and will no doubt come to look equally silly. It’s also bizarre that such an experiment would be conducted without shielding, allowing a spider to get in the way in the first place. Was this par the course for real life demonstrations in 1962? I wasn’t around then so I don’t know. (A more minor point that only becomes an issue later on is the name of Peter’s school. “Midtown High” which we later learn is located in suburban Queen’s.) But these are minor quibbles in a fast paced story that successfully establishes Spider-Man and shows the tragedy of the character. It’s easy to see why the character took off the way he did.

Peter’s amazing science abilities don’t end with webshooters. Once the main series gets going he often manages to whip up scientific solutions to problems, such as a gadget to neutralise the Vulture’s flying power, a chemical that fuses two of Doctor Octopus’s arms together, or a cure for the Lizard, or spider-tracers. He’s not the only one, with Electro also proving remarkably good at developing and refining his electrical powers before unleashing them on the world. And then there’s the costume making abilities with several foes again proving remarkably good at coming up with costumes that can’t be traced – was there an anonymous supervillian’s costumer somewhere or did the discoveries and accidents that gave the villains their powers also give them clothes making skills? As ever this is the curse of reviewing Silver Age comics from a modern perspective where some of the blatant absurdities now stand out and modern issues introducing characters would devote significant space to answering these points rather than skipping over them. We also get some other strange moments such as Peter Parker being casually able to walk in the office of a newspaper publisher whenever he feels like it – can you imagine any teenager being able to get so close in real life? Or that a publisher of both a daily newspaper and a magazine has time to get involved in the details such as purchasing photos brought in by freelancers (okay Jonah is a micromanager but there’s only so much time in the day). A film can be proposed, sign a star and begin shooting all within a week – yes it’s a set-up but the film company is genuine. Or that a television entertainer, as Spider-Man then is, can be casually given the component to fix a space capsule, but has to find his own way up into the skies. Then there’s the fact that nobody actually deduces Spider-Man’s identity despite there being so much information available that Peter’s class are able to provide the Living Brain with enough to try (and possibly succeed – we never find out for sure) and Daredevil immediately deduces that Spider-Man is about 17. And there’s the strange way that the Chameleon and Doctor Doom both quickly work out how Spider-Man’s spider-sense works and how to use it to communicate with him, yet none of the authorities or the Fantastic Four ever work this out.

Despite this the series even at this stage does a lot to break down the conventions of superhero comics. We have a hero who may beat the villains but he doesn’t always enjoy public adoration and faces many problems in his alter ego. There’s no real “triangle” whereby the girl falls for the hero but shuns his alter ego (Liz Allen briefly swoons over Spider-Man but subsequently switches her focus to Peter who in any case isn’t really interested). There are ongoing developments from issue to issue rather than a status quo that gets returned to everytime, with no real character development. And there’s a much greater use of characters from other titles put out by the company – we get an early meeting with the Fantastic Four and subsequently the beginning of the Spider-Man/Human Torch feud. The Hulk shows up in one issue, then another has a team-up with Daredevil (which appeared after only three issues of his own series, and does feel very much like an extended advert), plus there are some cameos by the Avengers (and cameos by just about everyone in the first annual). The villains get in on the act too with both Doctor Doom and the Circus of Crime appearing from other titles.

But this is also the single most creative period for Spider-Man’s villains. In the course of just twenty issues we get the first appearances of the Chameleon, the Vulture, the Tinkerer, the Martians, Doctor Octopus, the Sandman, the Lizard, the Living Brain, Electro, the Big Man, the Enforcers, Mysterio, the Green Goblin, Kraven the Hunter and the Scorpion. All these foes would return in one form or another in later years (yes, even the Living Brain), most many times, showing the durability of the creations. Of course that doesn’t mean they were all fully sophisticated rounded characters at this stage. Doctor Octopus starts off particularly confusing, seemingly motivated by little more than professional pride and fear of his rivals, but then after his first defeat by Spider-Man he drifts into the role of a criminal and Spider-Man’s archenemy at this stage (the fact he is the one to put together the Sinister Six is the clearest sign of this). Mysterio similarly seems to have wandered into crime by accident and whilst Electro was mercenary even before his accident he again rushes to crime rather than seeking other, more legitimate methods of using his powers to obtain money. And then there’s the Scorpion, who may be a tale of how power corrupts easily (and provides something of a counterpoint to Spider-Man), but captions such as “His brain has been subtly altered until its standards are those of the predatory beast! He has become the embodiment of all that is evil!!” are now laughable. In fairness some of the other motivations are more reasonable – for instance the Sandman was already a criminal before he gained his powers, whilst the Enforcers are standard crooks. The obsession with organising crime and heading it was to become a recurrent one through the Spider-Man titles and we see the first attempts here with the Big Man. The Green Goblin in his two appearances seems to be motivated by little more than a desire to have Spider-Man defeated, but his willingness to let the Hulk do the job shows it’s not for the prestige, yet equally he’s disinterested in defeating the Human Torch. There’s a thought bubble about plans to organise a crime syndicate but otherwise he comes across as a novice in the crime field who attacks Spider-Man for the sake of it. The Goblin’s identity is never shown but it doesn’t really feel like a deliberate mystery – indeed in issue #17 the Goblin passes Peter who doesn’t recognise his foe at all, which means that none of the characters seen up to this point in the series could be realistic suspects. More effort is devoted to the mystery of the Big Man, though it has to be admitted the comics audience was rather younger in 1964 than today, and rereading the story it becomes easy to deduce his identity very early on. The mystery of who is having Peter spied on runs over two issues and can suggest the Chameleon is back, but rapidly turns into an anti-climax with Jonah. It’s almost as if it was just to provide a cliffhanger.

The audience was also more willing to accept the silly science that produces a number of the villains. Radioactive explosions are responsible for fusing Doctor Octopus’s arms to his body and for turning a fleeing criminal’s body into living sand, whilst a lightning bolt striking a worker on a pylon gives him the power to store and channel electricity. A scientist is able to devise a formula to allow mammals to regrow lost limbs, only for it to turn him into a living lizard creature. Another scientist is able to give a man the powers of a scorpion – and rapidly construct a powerful artificial tail to boot. Now the Spider-Man stories were hardly alone in this – just for starters the Fantastic Four’s origin is quite silly with a scientist, his girlfriend, her brother and the scientist’s friend being able to steal aboard an experimental spaceship and take off, only to find the shielding is ineffective and exposes them to cosmic rays that give them all different powers. But the Fantastic Four is a series with far more science-fiction and fantasy and it’s much easier to accept origins in that context. Spider-Man was from the outset a much more grounded series even if readers had already accepted the absurdity of the radioactive spider. Perhaps this is why after issue #9 the origins settle down and the later villains tend to be either non-powered or the product of scientists, inventors and technicians developing methods and equipment rather than bizarre accidents.

We also get the start of a running tease involving Aunt May’s attempts to set Peter up with Mary Jane, a neighbour’s niece, which are regularly thwarted by one or other having a last minute problem. At this stage we don’t see Mary Jane at all so a reader at the time could only speculate about what she would be like, but with hindsight some of the comments suggest not everything was planned out in advance, such as when Aunt May says “You’ll want a girl who’ll make a good housewife – someone like Mrs. Watson’s niece!” In all the comparison stakes between Mary Jane and Betty, I would never have chalked Mary Jane as the one more likely to become a housewife! Speaking of Betty, this volume introduces a large chunk of Spidey’s most famous supporting cast members – Aunt May, J. Jonah Jameson, Betty Brant, Liz Allen, Flash Thompson and Ned Leeds. However we’re still in an age of broad strokes characterisation, such as Flash being a rather generic hotheaded bully and single-minded fan of Spider-Man who never waivers. Betty Brant goes through some pretty rapid changes, particularly in her attitude to Spider-Man, and it’s hard to understand why Peter doesn’t take the plunge and reveal his identity to her, which would have been quite a bold move for superhero comics at the time. Perhaps it’s the ups and downs in their relationship, especially with the complications of Liz’s crush, Peter’s failure to realise the fears he’s giving Betty and then the arrival of Ned Leeds (who isn’t fleshed out at all at this stage, a sign of how much of a cipher he would be for years). Their relationship is rather tame by modern standards (and definitely chaste – it would be some years before comics would even drop hints about that sort of thing) and it seems clear that Betty is the first girl Peter has ever really connected with properly, resulting in an almost child-like bond between the two rather than the more intense bonds we would see in later years. Amongst the other characters, Jonah is rather complicated with his precise reasons for hating Spider-Man often left untouched and so when they are addressed they vary – is it anger that what he sees as “real heroes” like his son are upstaged (issue #1), is it jealousy of a man who risks his life for nothing (#10) or is it concern about individuals with unfettered power on the loose (#20)? There’s a degree of all these elements but without it being properly established early enough the result is that Jonah can all too often slip into caricature.

The other easily caricatured character is Aunt May, who even in these early adventures has several bouts of ill health and excessive concern for Peter, despite her own talk to him in #18 where she tells him that Parkers are tougher than they look and that he shouldn’t worry so much about her. When I sat down to write this article I was under the impression that there were few “traditional” nuclear families amongst the Silver Age Marvel heroes, with most having at least one dead parent and several raised by other relatives. On reflection though quite a number of those deaths weren’t established until much later – e.g. whilst Daredevil’s father’s death was integral to his origin from the outset, it wasn’t until the mid 1980s that we learnt how Bruce Banner’s father killed his mother before Bruce’s eyes. I’m not sure some of the other dead parents such as the Storms and Starks were established in the early 1960s either. So Peter Parker being raised by his aunt and uncle (for whatever reason; nothing is even mentioned about his parents in these issues) seems even more unusual than previously thought. One consequence is that his de facto parents are significantly older than his contemporaries’, which may well mean the outlook and values he’s picked up from them detaches him even more from his classmates. It also makes some of the threats to Aunt May’s health more credible than with, say, Ma Kent in the contemporary Superboy stories. All of it helps to add to the great burdens Peter bears in these tales.

There’s a recurrent downbeat grittiness to the stories, helped by Steve Ditko’s distinctive art that is rather different from what would subsequently become the norm. Ditko’s work is edgy and here rooted very much in the real world (amazingly so when you consider that at the same time he was producing some very different work on Dr. Strange) but also has a high dynamism to it, perhaps best illustrated by the succession of one page panels in the annual as Spidey fights his foes in succession. The starkness of Ditko’s work is demonstrated perhaps best by the short story drawn by Jack Kirby – whilst Kirby had produced other wonders for Marvel (including the famous cover for Amazing Fantasy #15), his take on Spider-Man rarely gets the unique feel of the character and it’s clear why he never drew for the Spider-Man titles again. The dialogue is also good, fast paced and snappy, if invariably dated, and reinforces the balance of comedy and tragedy in Spider-Man’s life. As a result the series as a whole holds up quite well even all these years later, though invariably one has to make allowances for the time. But that doesn’t detract from a fast-moving, exciting dynamic strip.

(Whilst on the subject of the creators, it’s interesting to note a back-up story in the annual, “How Stan Lee and Steve Ditko create Spider-Man!” It’s a hilarious piece in itself but it’s notable that it doesn’t break the fourth wall and have Spidey’s creators interact with the character himself, whereas Fantastic Four had already seen Lee and Kirby appear in the strip themselves. So even amongst early Silver Age Marvels, Spider-Man stood out as doing things differently.)

That’s not to say there aren’t loads of clichés – the annual in particular sees six of the villains (Doctor Octopus, the Vulture, Mysterio, Electro, Sandman and Kraven) team up to try and bring down Spider-Man, only to descend into egos and squabbling. There’s some overuse already – the Enforcers appear three times in the space of ten issues and rapidly tire, not being the most exciting of the villains. And the earliest issues feature some especial silliness such as the Martians that would rapidly get ignored as the strip found its focus. Spider-Man was not an out and out sci-fi/fantasy adventure series, unlike the Fantastic Four, but something much more special – a combination of soap opera and crime series, with amazing elements thrown in but never overwhelming it. It was bold, edgy and different and one can see why the character and book took off the way they did.

1 comment:

  1. A few months ago I reread this Essential (for about the fifth time) while simultaneously reading the Untold Tales of Spider-Man Omnibus, just to see how well they fit together. It was a lot of fun, they're both great reads.

    And like you said, what can anyone say about Amazing Fantasy 15 that hasn't been said before? It's one of those rare, perfect origin issues, like Action Comics 1 or Detective 33- everything you need to know about the character is right there, everything else just expands upon that story. Great stuff.

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