Friday, February 27, 2015

Amazing Spider-Man #38

“Just a Guy Named Joe”

By Steve Ditko, Stan Lee, and Artie Simek

This is issue was Steve Ditko’s final issue of Amazing Spider-Man.    While writing this, I’m also in the middle of reading Sean Howe’s fantastic, exhaustively-researched book Marvel Comics:  The Untold Story. *

I’m only a few chapters deep, but the biggest takeaway for me was how totally fractured the relationship between Ditko and Lee had become.   By 1965, there was virtually no creative collaboration between Ditko and Lee.  Ditko would plot out and draw his own stories and then give the art to an intermediary at Marvel editorial who would then give the art to Lee to add dialogue.

Historians and fans have speculated that that it was over creative differences like the possibility that Lee and Ditko disagreed on who the Green Goblin should be.  Or it could have been personality conflicts.   At the time, Ditko was identifying himself more and more with Randian Objectivism and as Howe points out:  “Stan Lee… was a magnet for acclaim, eager to please and beholden to [Marvel publishing’s] demands—practically a made-to-order Rand villain.”   
I don't see it.
Howe also mentions that Ditko probably felt slighted monetarily as Marvel began signing deals for Spider-Man to be represented in different products and media.  It could have been all of these things, it could have been none of them.  Ditko rarely does interviews, wanting his work to stand on its own.   Because of the breakdown in communication between the two, even Lee was unsure of what exactly happened:  “I’ve had theories advanced by other guys in the office…letterers who said he hated me putting in sound effects.  Sometimes I would add speed lines to his artwork and he hated that.  He thought I was doing too much dialogue or too little dialogue.   Maybe he felt…I don’t really know."

Ditko’s impact on the plots in the last year of stories definitely altered my view of the previous stories that I’ve read for this, especially how nasty Peter Parker had become.  It turns out that there is a lot of common ground between a surly teenager being dragged kicking and screaming into adulthood and a 39-year-old objectivist that’s unhappy at his job.

In fact the closest we get to Peter cracking a smile in this issue is this:

Which brings us to the plot.  The titular character of the issue is Joe Smith, another gruff down-on-his-luck mug in the Merry (goddamn bleak) Marvel Tradition.   By the first page we’ve learned three crucial things about poor Joe: 1.  He’s a failed boxer.  2. He’s a failed professional wrestler (which, incidentally is portrayed as a fake sport in this story.  It's probably safe to assume promoters decided to fix the matches after the Crusher Hogan incident).  3. Everbody hates him.
Like I said, bleak.
Even his manager Tommy, the closest thing the guy gets to a friend in the story, refers to him as a born loser.   But there is a momentary reprieve for poor Joe, as Tommy lands him a gig as a monster in a sci-fi television show in the hopes of being the next Lon Chaney.  It doesn’t last.   Joe dons a gaudy robot suit for his first scene and his promptly involved in an onsite accident where he is simultaneously doused in chemicals and shocked by electrical wires.  Naturally, this gives him super-strength, and he lashes out at the other actors on the set in a disorientated rampage.

 Across town, Peter learns that Ned Leeds is back in town but without Betty Brant.  Ned thinks Betty left him for Peter.  Peter thinks Betty left him for Ned.  They scowl at each other, Peter mutters "shuddup" at Ned and wanders into Joe Smith’s rampage.  Peter, as Spider-Man, gets the feeling that Joe isn’t in complete control of his faculties and takes it easy on him.   Joe throws him into a dumpster and escapes with Tommy.  
Meanwhile, Norman Osborn puts on a glasses and a goatee and hires most of the New York City underworld to murder Spider-Man.  In order to ensure that the mobsters won’t take the money and double-cross him, Norman literally cuts a stack of $20,000 in half and gives half to the mob boss with the promise of giving him the second half.  Norman Osborn, it seems, is an idiot.  The mob boss agrees and takes his half of the destroyed, worthless money.  The mob boss is also an idiot. 

Peter is back at school where he runs into Harry, Flash and Gwen and the usual caustic dialogue between the four ensues.  The only thing of note is that Peter and the gang end up wandering through a group of protestors.  Lee’s dialogue plays it off like a Mad Magazine satire of 60’s protestors but the scene is betrayed by Ditko’s portrayal:

In fact, Lee was put on blast by a member of the Students For A Democratic Society in a nasty letter.   “We never thought anyone in a million years was gonna take our silly protest marchers seriously,”  Lee replied.  He should have gone on to mention to the letter writer that he should have been thankful that it was Lee who wrote the dialogue and not Ditko.

Some of Norman’s hired mobsters catch up with Peter and a fight breaks out that eventually catches up with Joe Smith.  This is probably the best part of the issue where there is a three-way fight between the mobsters (who are also some of Joe’s old sparring partners), Spider-Man and Joe.  The fight scenes are really the only point where Ditko’s art shines in the entire issue.
Peter eventually knocks some sense into Joe just in time for Tommy to inform him that a good portion of his rampage on the set of the TV show was recorded and he has the makings of a huge television star.   With the mobsters taken care of and Joe returned to his senses, Peter knocks out a mannequin that reminds him of Ned Leeds and calls it a day.  That night, Peter puts on the news and sees a report about how Joe Smith fought Spider-Man to a draw and is set to become a massive star in Hollywood.   Peter turns off the TV and leads to this final scene:

And on that last bitter note, Peter walks upstairs away from the reader and Steve Ditko bows out of his run as one half of one of the most influential creative teams in the history modern fiction.   And even though a lot his work in these last couple issues strikes such a mean tone, I still had a great time re-reading his work.  

I grew up reading comics in late 80’s/early 90’s and I read a lot of what would eventually become the 90’s house style based on guys like Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld and Todd McFarlane.  I know for a fact that at the time I took guys like Ditko, Romita, and Kirby for granted growing up, so it was neat to revisit him and see what made him and the others so great in the first place.

Ditko left Marvel for Charlton Comics in 1967 where he went on to create a lot of great characters that would eventually be incorporated into modern D.C. Comics when D.C. purchased Charlton.   My two favorite characters from this time were The Question (just a beautifully simple design) and the second incarnation of the Blue Beetle (in my opinion, one of D.C.’s few down-to-earth everyman characters that has had lasting power with readers).   He also went on to create Mr. A, an even more hardcore Randian mouthpiece than The Question could ever hope to be.

And Squirrel Girl, I almost forgot to mention Squirel Girl.  She's great.  Really.  I'm not being funny.  I love Squirrel Girl.  She's not a reflection of Objectivist philosophy.  She commands squirrels.  I love Squirrel Girl.

Ditko would even come back to do a couple odd stories here and there for both Marvel and D.C. and into his 80's he even self-published “secret” comics.   Based on the art featured in the previous link (full disclosure, I’ve not read any of these individual issues of his self-published work, but I’m tempted to order a couple copies when my next paycheck comes in), his most recent work looks beautiful, imaginative, infuriating and confounding.  Not a real big surprise.

*The 15.99 cover price is worth it just read the story about how members The Marvel Bullpen came this close to dosing Stan Lee’s coffee with LSD.  It’s where all the quotes from Stan Lee in this article came from it’s really good.   Buy it.


Monday, August 11, 2014

The Amazing Spider-Man #37

Hello, Josiah here.  I'm going to talk about this issue:

"Once Upon A Time, There Was A Robot...!"

By:  Lee, Ditko, and Simek

The issue opens outside of the New York State Prison where a Professor Stromm is released from prison after a ten year sentence.  We are only at the second panel in on page two and he’s already plotting his revenge, the prison cell still looming over his shoulder.

It’s been pointed out before, but Lee and Ditko really don’t think much of the restorative abilities of the prison system in the 1960’s.  Every month one of Spider-Man's rogues escapes prison or is set free after claiming to be rehabilitated.  Either that, or Lee was plotting and editing a million books each month and it’s an easy way to set up an antagonist.

We move onto a pretty fun scene where we see Foswell spying on his former cellmate Stromm, hoping to get the scoop on his release.  Behind Foswell is one of Stromm’s thugs, poised to shoot the reporter. Behind the thug is Spider-Man who is spying on Foswell, because who trusts Foswell?  

Spidey punches the thug, webs him to his car and tells him to follow Professor Stromm.  As they tail Stromm, Spider-Man puts on the thug's fedora for no apparent reason.  It's a great bit of unexplained humor, and my favorite moment in the book.

Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce Parker
The cops show up and Spidey ditches the car and the thug.  He does leave the hat behind in the car for the thug.  So outside of punching the guy, Peter is nicer to a guy that attempted murder on page two than he is to Gwen Stacy in the issue.  Peter stops back at the Bugle to learn more about what Foswell is up to, and he heads back school where he runs into Gwen, wondering if he’s still mad at her.  Instead of describing it, lets just take a look:

I grew up reading Peter in the late 80’s and early 90’s and he was a pretty well-adjusted guy at that point (married to Mary Jane and living relatively comfortably).  It’s really hard to watch Peter potentially break Gwen’s hand because of his nasty demeanor and/or total carelessness.

I wanted Uncle Ben’s ghost to reappear and crack his nephew in the face.  Instead we get Flash Thompson, and I can honestly say it’s the first time I’ve ever wanted to see Flash kick Peter’s ass.  I'm not sure if that speaks to my preconceptions about Peter Parker's early years (at least seen through the lens of reading these issues as a kid, or seeing his origin retold dozens of times in different comics, movies, and cartoons) or to Lee and Ditko taking Peter too far in one direction.  Peter mouths off one last time and walks away.

We get back to Professor Stromm, who is planning his revenge on the man who landed him in jail, Norman Osborn.  To exact his revenge, the Professor has developed a robot that is mentally controlled by him, is goofy-looking as hell and is awesome.  There is something really simple and silly and glorious about the little guy.  We know that Peter eventually is going to defeat this robot, so lets take a look and enjoy the fleeting moments we have with him:

And here's the fight scene that eventually leads to the robot's demise thanks to that no-good, rotten, dirty wall-crawler.


After senselessly murdering Steve Ditko's greatest creation.  Spider-Man decides to start following Foswell again, who puts on an eye-patch and goes by the fantastic name of “Patch, The Underworld Stoolie.”

Like I mentioned earlier, I started getting into Marvel in the late 80’s and early 90’s and there was only one guy I knew of who used an eye-patch as a silly disguise and called himself “Patch.”

Tangent warning:

Here’s something a I love about comics, Foswell was Patch when these comics were published in the 1960’s. Wolverine first appeared in 1974 (making him the Patch No. 2, publishing-wise) but according to a Marvel comics story published  in 2007 (Wolverine Origins Annual  #1, decent story with a confusing ending if you weren't reading the whole series, but it has incredbile art by Kaare Andrews) Wolverine has been pretending to be Patch since 1932 (making him Patch No. 1, Marvel Universe-continuity wise).

Here’s my potential no-prize winning explanation.  Foswell is a shady guy with numerous underworld connections and at some point he found himself in the corrupt fictional country of Madripoor where he saw Wolverine’s Patch routine and decided to take it to the states.  Or Chris Claremont never read this issue of Spider-Man.

Anyways, Stromm deploys another (much lamer) robot, this time to destroy Osborn’s possessions and then murder him.  Peter follows Foswell to Osborn’s home in time to save Osborn.  Osborn is pretty ticked, he was planning on killing Stromm during the fight, and he doesn’t want to settle for Spider-Man sending Stromm back to jail.  So Norman Osborn sneaks up behind Spider-Man and knocks him out in the hope of getting to Stromm himself.  

Spider-Man defeats the robot and confronts Stromm,  but his Spider-sense picks up that someone  (Osborn) is about to shoot Stromm.  Spidey pushes Stromm out of the way, but Stromm still dies instantly from a heart attack.   

Instead of meditating on the tragic irony of saving someone from certain death only for that person to die moments later from something completely unrelated, Spider-Man leaves about 15 seconds after Stromm dies and tells Foswell to look after things. 

It’s another callous moment from Peter in an issue filled to the brim with them.  In one final scene, some of Peter’s fellow students invite him bowling, but he’s too lost in thought to acknowledge them.  They all think he’s a jerk.  They aren’t wrong.  Dude almost broke Gwen Stacy's hand.

Despite Peter’s behavior throughout the issue, we get a really tight story with fun, cartoony art by Ditko.  I really loved the cat and mouse game played throughout the issue between Spider-Man, Foswell, Stromm and Osborn.  

Oh I almost forgot, we learn that Norman Osborn and J. Jonah Jameson are members of the same social club.

And see you next time for Steve Ditko's final issue!

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Amazing Spider-Man #36

When Falls the Meteor

Script and Editing by Stan Lee
Plot and Art by Steve Ditko
Lettering by Andy Simek

This issue opens up with part-time scientist Newton B. Fester. In the third panel Fester finds a meteor, just the type he’s been looking for, he notes, and says that it will be perfect to prove his theory that “meteors contain microscopic living matter” (Page 1) that are responsible for first bringing life to Earth. The comic makes it seem like this is an original idea, but this concept has been around since the fifth century. It’s regularly referred to as Panspermia, and it’s still considered a viable theory about the beginnings of life on Earth. I know this because it was on Stephen Hawking’s excellent show—one that Peter Parker would surely love—“Into the Universe withStephen Hawking.”

Fester tries to get funding for his science project but is rejected all over town. He starts messing around with the meteor in his basement lab and is hit in the face by a green gas. The gas causes him to have superhuman strength and the vain Fester decides, “I’m much too clever to waste such a golden opportunity.” (Page 2) And by “not wasting a golden opportunity,” he means he’s going to rob banks.

Peter Parker, meanwhile, is trying to get back to his classes. He notes that he’s missed a lot of school since he’s been fighting Kraven and the Molten Man. In true Peter fashion, he enters college life ready for all of his peers to hate him. Peter thinks that since he hasn’t been around his new college much lately that all of the other students have already made tight-knit groups and he won’t be able to join (Page 4). 

A hot little number named Sally Green walks up to Peter and invites him to a get-together after school. At first Peter is all about it. Then, Sally says, “I was hoping you’d come because I’m so anxious to have at least one boy with brains instead of all those brawny athletic types.” (Page 5) Sure, it’s a bit of a back-handed compliment, but Peter doesn’t need to be insecure about his athleticism. Regardless, Peter jumps on the slight and embraces it like a long lost friend. He turns down the invitation. Poor little Peter.

Back to Fester, who has now christened himself “The Looter.” A moment to examine this name. Maybe it’s the times I live in, but to me, “looter” means that you’re taking advantage of a public crisis and stealing from stores because chaos is reining and the police are too busy to stop you. Really, the lowest form of crime. This is not what Fester is doing—he’s just rushing in, punching a bunch of people in the face and rushing back out again—but the losery name fits him well. He’s a cookie-cutter criminal that doesn’t deserve much better. 

I figure this is what would become of Fester had Spider-Man stopped his evil schemes in 2014.

And, as with all thinly characterized criminals, his spree is interrupted by terrible planning. If The Looter’s crime spree were a business plan, no one would back it. Everything depends on finding more green gas inside meteors so that he can sustain his superhuman strength. When his stash is running out, he tries to rob a museum where a meteor is kept. Spider-Man finally catches up with this bozo and puts an end to his crime career. 

A perfect issue? Certainly not. An important issue in the cannon of Spider-Man? Nope. But it had that spark that it seems like Stan Lee can’t help but add. The stakes were low, the villain was corny, even the Parker drama was childish to a certain degree, but everything was fun. And that's what counts, right? This issue made me happy.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Amazing Spider-Man #35

"The Molten Man Regrets...!"

By Lee, Ditko, and Simek

Josiah here.  In the last edition of It's Amazing #566, I wished everyone a Happy New Year.  Then we (we being Sean and I, but really it was 100% me who caused the delay), went over a year without a new installment.  

I'm sorry, my bad.

Anyways, the last issue had ended with Peter straight-up depressed about the state of his relationship with Betty.  So Stan Lee starts out #35 with a splash page of Spider-Man webbing up The Molten Man and the declaration "IT'S CHANGE-OF-PACE TIME AGAIN, SO CLIMB ABOARD FOR THE ACTION...!"

Which was a welcome sight after how the last issue ended on such a downer note for Peter and this issue's story is entitled "The Molten Man Regrets!" so there was the fear that we were going to get more more navel-gazing in this issue.

Oddly, Molten Man has absolutely no regrets throughout the entire issue, even when he inevitably gets caught.  It takes all of one page for Molten Man to go from being in jail awaiting his hearing, to getting pardoned at his hearing, to bending steel beems in his apartment and planning his next heist.

Molten Man would like to come and meet
 us, but he thinks he'd blow our minds
Molten Man is one of those characters that Stan Lee really excels at writing.  Like Ben Grimm and Sandman, he's a great rough-and-tumble-street-level character that could have only come out of the New York City of 1960’s Marvel Comics. Plus, he is also a street-smart, super-powered heavy that also happens to be drawn in the likeness of androgynous rock and roll icon David Bowie in one panel on page two.  

But whatever, a character like Mark Raxton isn’t necessarily an evil guy.  Like a lot of Spidey’s antagonists, he’s just looking for the next score. The stakes aren’t always high when it comes to showdowns with a character like this, but nonetheless it’s a fun read.

Molten Man disguises himself as your run-of-the-mill Spider-Man bank robber, which brings Spider-Man to the robbery right on cue.  It’s a quick fight as Spider-Man gets caught by surprise by a nasty right hook (and the first of many great sound effects in this issue, but more on that later).

Molten Man gets away, but it’s not long before Peter deduces that no normal man with non-molten fists could punch like that.  So Peter—without due process—sneaks into Molten Man’s apartment and attaches a Spider-Tracer the size of a toddler’s fist onto the inside of the collar of Molten Man’s duster while he sleeps. Molten Man, unaware that he is carrying a hunk of metal giving off radio waves on his shoulder decides to move onto the next heist.  Spidey shows up and we get a really fun seven page fight/chase scene between the two.  The first of two highlights are when Molten Man decides to ditch the disguise and comes running directly at the reader.  The second is a great sequence on page eleven with a pretty dynamic six panel fist fight with fantastic sound effects (which we even get a shout-out to letterer Artie Simek in the fight’s introduction):

Eventually Spider-Man hog ties Molten Man with extra-thick webs (though it’s hard to tell because this plot device just comes out of nowhere, the just sees bunch of purple rope that Peter grabs off a chair during the fight, maybe he made this up in his lab, I'm not sure).  Peter leaves the Molten Man strung up for the authorities, then a few minutes later he stops by the police station to drop off photos of the robberies to help implicate Molten Man.  

This issue was a nice synthesis of how Peter Parker and Spider-Man’s lives complement one another.  Peter’s photos and scientific planning have just as much impact on all the proportional strength of a spider what-have-yous.  The biggest criticism I could think of in this issue is the business with the mystery rope, but it’s a small quibble.

In an issue filled with lots of solid action, the best part might actually be the penultimate page when Peter realizes that Betty has quit the Bugle and split town with Ned Leeds.  In six panels, Lee and Ditko take the reader through Peter’s following reactions in the follwoing order: anxiousness, nervous optimism, shock, resentment, sadness and resignation.  It almost looks like Peter's eyes are welling up in the sixth panel.

As a bonus in panel seven, we get to see Peter take his
frustrations out on the wrong person in typical Parker fashion.

Peter takes one last look at the photo, throws it in the trash and goes home.  It’s all pretty melodramatic, but effective.  Sometimes it sucks seeing an ex’s picture when you least expect it, right Peter?

Anyways, next issue features:  THIS GUY!  

Let's meet him together, shall we?