Friday, 8 June 2012

Essential Spider-Man volume 2

The next volume up is, unsurprisingly, Essential Spider-Man volume 2 which reprints Amazing Spider-Man #21-43 and Annuals #2 & 3. #21-24 are written by Stan Lee and drawn by Steve Ditko; #25-38 and Annual #2 are plotted & drawn by Ditko and scripted by Lee (although #25’s credits follow their predecessors but then state Ditko came up with the plot); #39-43 are written by Lee and drawn by John Romita; and Annual #3 is written by Lee, layouts by Romita and pencils by Don Heck.

Also from Annual #2 onwards the annuals tended to carry a new story that was only as long as the regular issues, and fill up the rest of the pages with classic reprints – remember this was an era with next to no specialist comic shops with back issues and so for a lot of fans who either came late or had bad distribution in their area a reprint was the only way to catch stories they’d missed. Later on the annuals became completely full of reprints, before switching back to original material, roughly around the time the direct market of comic shops began to emerge.

Having detailed the annuals, I’ll start with them. They are both pretty much standalone pieces, each carrying prominent guest stars. #2 is a team-up with Dr. Strange but the focus is so heavily on the sorcerer with Spidey very much the secondary hero that really it should have been Dr. Strange Annual #1. Still it’s nice to see the two main Ditko co-creations together and Ditko drawing both the hard-edged crime thriller world of Spider-Man and the psychedelic fantasy realm of Dr. Strange in the same story. I believe this is the only substantial adventure featuring them both which was drawn by Ditko so I’m willing to be lenient, but this is one of the early signs of how Marvel’s annuals would get to the point where they were frankly non-essential, being oversized issues that told one-off stories that would never be mentioned again, and readers of the regular issues could miss them without missing anything else. Another sign of where things would eventually go comes with the third annual, which has a slightly different creative team from the regular series, as although the layouts are by John Romita, the actual pencils are by Don Heck. Don Heck was at this time the regular artist on Avengers so on one level he was well placed to draw the issue, which sees the Avengers offering Spider-Man membership but after a misunderstanding about the test mission given, he pretends to have failed so as to reject it. Whether or not Spider-Man can be a team player is a question whose history is explored in-depth at Spidey Kicks Butt!: Spider-Man: Team Player? and there’s a look at alternate takes in Alternate Spidey Part 3: Team Member and Freedom Fighter, so for now I’ll limit this to considering whether Spidey should have joined the Avengers at this point in time. Creatively it may have been problematic. The Avengers’ roster at this stage in their history primarily consisted of characters who didn’t have their own ongoing series (Captain America’s half of Tales of Suspense being the exception) so their title’s writer had a great degree of freedom with them – and this annual came out at about the same time that Roy Thomas took over from Stan Lee. Including a high profile character with his own series could have been constraining on development. This would be especially problematic with a group of heroes who enjoyed a favourable public profile and as good as a formal position in the law & order community (I forget the precise details of Avengers history) whilst Spider-Man was regularly facing false accusations, frame-ups and trouble with the police. It would be impossible to balance the two series’ very different positioning of their heroes. And whilst Spider-Man had by this time already teamed up with a number of other heroes, he was still very much the outsider loner who often lost his temper with others, who rarely hung around and who could get up to silliness such as his encounters with Jonah that just wouldn’t fit in easily with the Avengers. Yes we’re talking about a period when the Justice League of America featured Batman, but it was a portrayal of Batman that was about as far from the more recent grim Dark Knight loner as can be imagined. Finally, the Avengers often went on missions all over the world and beyond – could Peter really maintain his ordinary life with such interruptions? Wouldn’t Aunt May worry when he disappeared for lengthy periods? How many classes and dates would be missed because of trips to the Antarctic, Latveria, Kang’s own time or wherever? So all in all it made sense to keep him out of the team. The story itself though doesn’t show the Avengers in the greatest light – they invite a prospective member in, let an argument get out of control, and then assign him a task at random with no forethought, no briefing or anything. Spider-Man may be headstrong, getting into a fight and then setting off without allowing time for explanations, but the Avengers let themselves down as well.

Over in the regular series, after the intense creativity of the issues in volume #1, it’s inevitable there’d be some slowing down as return appearances grow and the series starts settling into the general pattern it would follow for many years. The creative slowdown is most vividly demonstrated with the villains – of all those introduced in these issues, only the Molten Man, Rhino and possibly Spencer Smythe turn up on the standard long lists of Spider-Man’s main Rogues’ Gallery, and none are in what is a fairly large first tier. Nor for that matter is the Beetle, who was previously introduced in the Human Torch’s strip in Strange Tales but who now fights Spider-Man for the first of what would be many times. Otherwise we get the Crime-Master, the Cat Burglar, the Looter, Mendel Stromm (he didn’t adopt the “Robot Master” moniker until later), the guy named Joe, and Colonel John Jameson temporarily powered & driven mad by spores from space. Since no stone gets left unturned in Spider-Man’s world, all of these foes would return in some form or other (although Jameson would be rather different in his future villainous appearances) but they’ve never really caught on. (Okay the issues also introduce Norman Osborn and show him as a villain without a costume, but as he was soon revealed to be the Green Goblin he doesn’t really count as a separate creation.)

There’s more creativity with the supporting cast. Peter’s relationship with Betty Brant finally hits the buffers, partially due to the presence of Ned Leeds but also because they have a basic incompatibility – he’s too addicted to danger, after the death of her brother she doesn’t want to lose anyone else to it. However Betty would stay around the supporting cast for the foreseeable future, which is more than can be said for Liz Allen. Issue #28 sees Peter and his class graduating from high school – a sign of just how fast things moved back in the early Marvel years before things settled down into a more static pattern – and Liz drops away. Peter and Flash then move onto university where we soon meet Gwen Stacey and Harry Osborn. Both are a little different from how they’d later be portrayed – they each have a harder edge and cruel side, especially when it comes to Peter, never once giving him the benefit of the doubt or spotting that he was clearly focused on something else altogether. It’s true that so many other students also assume the worst of Peter but we soon see that Gwen is attracted to Peter for some reason (maybe she’s tired of boys falling over backwards to be with her and is drawn to one who doesn’t play that game?). Harry also seems stronger than he would usually be in later years (even outside his biggest stories). More familiar from the start is Mary Jane Watson. We get a long running tease about what she is like, although curiously she appears with her face obscured in issue #25 where it’s established she “looks like a screen star” (according to Betty). I guess that revelation was forgotten, although when she does show up Peter’s amazed reaction is understandable. Why she’s drawn to him is less clear at this stage (okay we only see her for one full issue) though she doesn’t seem to be just putting it on to please her aunt.

Aunt May is the focus of one of the best known stories in this collection, the Master Planner story that runs from issues #30-33. Amidst the excitement of Peter starting university we also get a highly intense tale as May is taken ill and faces death – and for once not because of a heart attack but because of an element in her blood when she had a transfusion from Peter. At the same time the mysterious Master Planner is making preparations for a grand scheme and they include stealing the only available serum that could save May’s life. The story has a few silly moments (for instance where precisely does the Master Planner get the funds and resources to build a huge underwater with nobody noticing?!) but also has a heightened tension as Peter goes through the trauma of potentially losing his only remaining “parent” and once again being responsible. This just adds to the drama of the fights and then one of the most celebrated sequences of all as Spidey finds himself pinned under a huge machine as the base collapses, but finds the inner strength to lift it off him. It’s an incredible sequence that builds up the momentum as the panels grow larger, and shows one of the most amazing feats yet. On top of all this, the story is also notable for being the first time a villain actually commits a crime and escapes – Doctor Octopus flees the base (and isn’t even seen in The Final Chapter) with his crimes unpunished. Whereas the Green Goblin had got in battles with Spider-Man and other mobsters, he hadn’t actually committed any crimes at this stage, so his escape each time didn’t break the rule of the villain always being brought to book. By contrast Doctor Octopus had already been jailed three times over and accumulated many crimes.

This hard edginess continues throughout much of the run, with Peter frequently finding that he’s lost much even as Spider-Man wins, most notably with Betty but also with May’s health, her continuing financial problems, his reputation at university, Jonah’s continuing attacks that the public believe and so forth. It’s an angry world, seem most vividly in issue #38, Steve Ditko’s last, where Peter/Spider-Man is fighting literally almost everyone at once – Norman Osborn has put a bounty on his head that numerous crooks want, Spidey is fighting Joe and doesn’t really know why, Peter is angry with Ned Leeds to the point that Spider-Man takes it out on a dummy that resembles his rival for Betty, and Peter’s even getting angry with student protesters.

This last bit was part of the decision to root Spider-Man in the university culture, perhaps because of a growing student readership. It introduced new characters but also saw the series starting to take on a few political stances on some general culture and current affairs. Issue #38 sees Peter finding a group of students standing outside a building with placards and discovers they are protesting… a protest meeting. Maybe some real life student protests seem that silly, with people who protest for the sheer sake of it. However this may also have been one of the breaking points that led to Steve Ditko’s departure, which I discuss below.

The last five issues see a slight change of direction as Stan Lee takes over the plotting once more. A lot of the nastiness is reigned back with Peter and Harry starting to open up to each other, with the implication that Peter will be increasingly accepted and befriended by his fellow students. Meanwhile rather than a physical confrontation with Ned Leeds, Peter calmly finishes nailing up the coffin of his and Betty’s relationship by telling Ned it’s all over and Leeds must make the best with her. One caption line that caught my eye comes in issue #40 that states “We just didn’t want you to think you’d picked up a romance book by mistake!” Most of the time this line would be seen as just a typical piece of bizarre humour, but was this an admission of worry by Lee that Romita’s background in romance comics and difficulties in matching Ditko’s style would alienate readers?

The immediate solution was to start the post Ditko era with a big storyline. Up until this point the series is in a slight rut with occasional big stories such as the Master Planner or Crime-Master/Green Goblin sagas, but otherwise running a string of one-off tales that at times feel stale – perhaps because Ditko was increasingly producing the plot and artwork and only then did Lee get to input with the script, making for a disjointed production, though it rarely explicitly shows in the tales themselves. But now a bold move was taken. This brings up two major points of debate at once as they are believed to be related – Steve Ditko’s departure and the revelation of the Green Goblin.

Why did Steve Ditko leave Spider-Man and Marvel when he did? This is one of the great mysteries of comics and if truth be known probably only Steve Ditko knows for sure. (The Marvel Bullpen Bulletins page of the time just referred to “personal reasons”. However nature abhors a vacuum and there are all manner of theories flying about. Amongst the favourites are:
  • Ditko and Lee clashed over the Green Goblin’s identity. (I’ll come to a recent article by Ditko further down, but for the moment here are my thoughts from before I’d heard about it.) Lee wanted him to be Norman Osborn, businessman and father of Harry. Ditko wanted him to be a random unknown, reflecting the likelihood in reality, and his Objectivist political philosophy objected to showing an evil businessman. I’m unsold on this because a ) revealing the villain as an unknown was exactly the same trick that had been pulled with the Crime-Master; and b ) Norman Osborn is shown as a pretty crooked businessman in issues #37-38 even without a costume (more on this later).
  • A variant on the Green Goblin story has Ditko pushing for the Goblin to be Ned Leeds, with the blow of Leeds being the rival in both Peter’s identities, but Lee feeling it was unoriginal to make another Daily Bugle reporter a supervillain after doing that with Frederick Foswell/the Big Man. There may be something in this as Spidey Kicks Butt!: The Return of Norman Osborn notes; not least as issue #38 does suggest a head on confrontation between Peter and Ned is coming (and for that matter Norman Osborn is taking decidedly un-Gobliny actions such as putting a bounty on Spidey’s head). This could have been Ditko’s intention but was it the reason he left the company? I’m not convinced.
  • The other most popular story is that it was political. Ditko was becoming ever more conservative and believing in Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, whilst Lee was more liberal (although not as liberal as some, such as Jack Kirby). Stories of the two clash over matters such as Spider-Man’s attitude to campus protestors – Ditko wanted to show them as highly silly and have Spidey dismissing them, Lee wanted Spidey supporting them – suggest there was an irreconcilable breakdown of viewpoints. Ditko is a remarkable man who has turned down pretty much every opportunity to tell his story and make money from it, which suggests he is a deeply intense & committed individual – and he may have too much of an individual to easily collaborate with others. Certainly many others at Marvel have stated that Lee and Ditko were increasingly incompatible on just about everything.
As the blogger El Fresco notes in Making Marvel Mine: The Stan Lee/Steve Ditko Break Up, it’s decidedly awkward to approach this question purely from the perspective of Spider-Man. Ditko didn’t just leave Spider-Man at this time, he left Marvel completely. And whilst his departure from Spider-Man seems pretty abrupt, coming just before a major revelation and also he didn’t draw the cover for issue #38 (instead one was made by combining panels from the strip), he left Dr. Strange (running in Strange Tales) at the end of a 17-part epic that felt like the climax to his work, the final part of which is called “The End At Last!” Ditko had much more creative control on Dr. Strange than Spider-Man, and Lee was no longer writing that series, so perhaps Ditko had reached the end of everything he wanted to do and was able to do with the character? It’s also telling he initially went to Charlton, where creators had much more freedom, as well as producing probably his most personalised creation, Mr. A (an uncompromising hard-line right-wing vigilante – Rorschach in Watchmen is an insane version), for the small press.

Unless Ditko ever gives an in-depth interview or has a statement sitting on standby somewhere, we’ll probably never know the answer.

Ditko’s departure could have been the blow that eventually killed the series. Although creators were not yet acknowledged as a key selling point (I think Jack Kirby’s move to DC in 1970 was the first time they were made so), losing the man who’d plotted or co-plotted the run up to now and provided the dynamic art could have left a hole that was never filled. However John Romita successfully managed to provide his own take on the character that held up well. He may have pushed the series towards a more romance book feel than the edgy crime drama of Ditko’s work, but sales held up and grew even further. And we have the situation that most subsequent Spider-Man artists have tended to draw to the style developed by Romita rather than Ditko. I’ll hold my hands up as yet another fan who likes Romita’s art best, but that’s not to say Ditko’s art is bad – far, far from it.

What about the mystery of the Green Goblin’s identity, given the long term importance of the character and its role in the tales of Ditko’s departure? Well there’s something a bit odd about revealing a two year old villain’s identity as someone first seen only two issues earlier. Even if you factor in the “Harry’s father” aspect, it still means the Goblin had been around for over a year and a half before the Osborns arrive in the series, and critically all the earlier Goblin stories predated that arrival. Yes from about issue #23 onwards there’s often a man with the distinctive Osborn hairstyle (something that Ditko had used in pre-Spider-Man issues and also given to the Sandman) seen at Jonah’s club, but “man in the background at Jonah’s club” is not a dramatic reveal.

As I’ll discuss in later posts, there have been multiple Goblin villains over the years, and several had mysteries about their identities but the revelations were frequently turbulent and sometimes later retconned. Given the subsequent history, it’s amazing that the original Green Goblin reveal was a smooth as it was and has remained settled. Yes Norman Osborn was someone introduced literally two issues earlier (ignoring the background character at Jonah’s club), and yes events in issues #37 & #38 imply he was just initiating his own anti-Spider-Man agenda rather than having had one for years. However the shock factor of “classmate’s father” plays a part and later issues would take the Osborn identity and build on it, culminating in the stories with Harry where Norman’s posthumous legacy played a big part. No-one has tried to undo this part of the Spider-Man story.

This is despite the Goblin’s origin containing yet more silliness. Whilst it’s clearly established that Osborn is already a ruthless businessman willing to cross the line, the tale of the chemical explosion altering his personality and making him want to fly around New York on what could be a highly profitable piece of technology and try to become the crime lord of the city is a little far fetched. (For what it’s worth, the explosion isn’t mentioned as having given him any special powers. As I noted last time the bizarre accidents that gave powers were largely confined to the first ten issues and after that scientists and inventors devised powers and equipment. And it wasn’t until the 1980s that it was established for definite that the Goblin had super strength.) There wasn't much in previous appearances of either the Goblin or Osborn that implied he was mad (silly as the “I want to be the city's crime lord” is, it was a common goal amongst many villains), and as noted above the revelation also contradicts what Osborn had been shown doing, along with the implication it was only since Stromm's return that Osborn had determined to deal with Spider-Man. Still madness is a convenient plot device to sweep aside inconsistencies in a character.

As for the creative team’s plan – well Stan Lee was still on the title but the revelation is the first post Ditko issue. I have recently read somewhere that Steve Ditko wrote an article for a fanzine in the last few years in which he denied the stories that a ) he left Marvel over disputes about the Green Goblin’s identity; or b ) that Norman Osborn was Stan Lee’s latter-day imposition. Instead Ditko reportedly wrote that Osborn had been planned from the outset. Now not having read the article in question I don’t know how well Ditko’s recollection matches the traceable historical record and it’s impossible to independently verify whether he’s accurately remembering about the identity or not (Stan Lee has a famously bad memory and wrote in the introduction to the mid 1990s Spider-Man vs. the Green Goblin tradepaperback that there was no plan at that start and that he can’t recall whether it was he or Ditko who decided on Norman Osborn) but if true then the criticism shifts from things not being planned out but instead having a quick and poorly devised revelation, to a grand plan that wasn’t properly implemented early enough. Nobody could read the Goblin stories in issues #23 & #26-27 and guess that the Goblin was “the man with funny hair in the background at Jonah’s club”. In the heat of the moment the revelation must have amazed contemporary readers, but looking at the run as a whole in the cold light of day and it falls rather flat. I sometimes think the Green Goblin only really became the number one Spider-Man foe after later events, and during the original stories of the original Goblin he was just one of the higher ranking members of the Rogue’s Gallery but by no means a standout.

Given some of the matters covered in this post it’s wound up longer than what’s planned to be the regular length. Overall this volume has some spectacular high points but also phases where the series feels like it’s briefly treading water. Some of the best is yet to come.

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