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The Amazing Spider-Man

Longbox Graveyard #55

Spider-Man is amazing — one of the most resilient characters in the medium. A half-century of comics, cartoons, TV series, and feature films ensure there’s a take on Spider-Man for every taste, whether he’s a wise-cracking, colorful costumed crime fighter, or the shadowy, “Emo Spider-Man” of the new film. In his day, Spider-Man has gotten married, buried his aunt, traveled to the ends of the universe, and bonded with an alien symbiote. He’s ridden Spider-Cycles and Spider-Mobiles, been sold on toy shelves as a fishing hero, and co-starred with the Hulk on a toilet paper roll. That Spidey as been pushed and pulled in so many directions yet still maintained his basic identity speaks to an amazingly strong core character concept.

That core concept is Peter Parker.

The Amazing Spider-Man was the second huge comics reinvention for Marvel Comics, who struck gold with Fantastic Four by swimming against the tide. Instead of the remote and infallible superheroes of the Justice League of America, with their secret identities and selfless defense of fictional American cities, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby‘s Fantastic Four were public celebrities who fought amongst themselves as much as they did with their rivals, defending the very real streets of New York City against invasions from the roots of the earth or beneath the sea. Mr. Fantastic and The Invisible Girl would have fit right in with the Justice League, but the monstrous Ben Grimm — who regarded his powers as a curse — and the hot-headed teenaged Human Torch were something fresh on the comic book scene.

Teenage life and burdensome superpowers are central to Amazing Spider-Man, but this time our hero wouldn’t be the morose rocky Thing, or the comparatively well-adjusted junior member of a fantastic foursome. Spider-Man’s alter-ego, Peter Parker, is a bookish high school science student, forever short of cash, caught between girls, bound by guilt and love to his dotting Aunt May, and beset by a host of problems that any teen would recognize. Peter’s powers free him to swing about the rooftops of Manhattan and develop an uninhibited, heroic public persona, but even if his powers aren’t quite a curse, they do complicate his life, and beset young Parker with frustrations and moral dilemmas that only the young man beneath the mask can solve.

It’s the frustrations and anxieties of Spider-Man that make him a transcendent character. There’s little doubt that Spidey will eventually defeat the Green Goblin or the Lizard, but will he get the money he needs for his Aunt’s medicine? Will the public finally give Spider-Man his heroic due, or will they continue to fall for the mean-spirited propaganda of Peter’s boss, newspaper editor J. Jonah Jameson? Will Peter ever get on the same page as pretty career girl Betty Brant, and is Liz Allen really interested in Peter, or is she just trying to make Flash Thompson jealous … a jealousy that makes Flash bully Peter in front of their whole High School class?

It is the stuff of basic soap opera, but it works brilliantly in The Amazing Spider-Man. The harder things get for Peter, the more we cheer for him, and in those rare moments when the planets align and Peter earns some temporary victory, we share his triumph in ways more personal than the adventures of a Thunder God or a Sentinel of Liberty can allow.

It is precisely because even his personal victories are fleeting that Peter is worth cheering for. More importantly, Peter is all too aware of his own flaws, dwelling on his imperfections while discounting the things that make him extraordinary, yet still rushing in, time and again, to face his fears head-on with the absolute assurance that this time it will be different, emotionally exposing himself and attacking life with the same unreserved commitment that endears us to another angst-ridden comics icon …

The Stan Lee/John Romita run is rightly regarded as the classic era of Spider-Man, where the many supporting characters were solidified, Spidey’s villains soared to new heights, and the soap opera beats of the series were tuned to perfection, but on balance I prefer the first three-odd years of the book. Starting in Amazing Fantasy #15, and continuing in the first thirty-eight issues of Amazing Spider-Man, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko created the foundation of a Spider-Man mythos that is still going strong a half-century later. I don’t count Spider-Man among my favorite heroes (getting no end of grief for leaving him off my Top Ten List of Marvel Heroes), but even I would love to own a copy of Amazing Fantasy #15, both for it’s best-in-class origin story, and for a cultural relevance that ranks it among the most important treasures in our pop culture universe.

That iconic cover was by Jack Kirby, but the character was pure Stan Lee and Steve Ditko (and the degree to which each man built the myth will forever be grist for the mill of comics fandom). In Ditko and Spider-Man, the man and the hour met in ways that are still being felt, but it would take me decades to appreciate it. To a kid coming to comics for the first time in the 1970s, Steve Ditko’s Spider-Man seemed reedy and cartoonish, more akin to mouldering newspaper comic strips than the dynamic Marvel house style characterized by artists like Kirby and John Buscema. Unimpressed by the out-of-step Ditko stories I encountered in reprint (and equally uninspired by the Gerry Conway/Ross Andru doing Spidey at that time), little twelve-year-old me dismissed the “over-rated” Spider-Man in favor of the broader and more overt heroics of Marvel’s Avengers, Thor, and Captain America.

It’s only been in the last year that I tumbled to Ditko’s Spider-Man, and I tumbled hard.

Especially when viewing Ditko’s work in blown-up panels — as dictated by the digital Marvel Universe Unlimited subscription plan that I’m using for this review — I can at last appreciate Ditko’s brilliance. For years I dismissed Ditko’s work for its lack of heroic proportions, or absence of detail, but now I can see Ditko wasn’t omitting detail, but attacking his work with a cartoonist’s sense of economy, reserving his pencil just for the most important subject in each panel. If Ditko opts for a featureless, solid color panel background, it is only to concentrate our attention on the subject he has drawn.

Ditko is strong in so many areas, from the character of his faces (which I will examine in detail in next week’s Panel Gallery), to his feel for motion and action …

… to his many excellent character designs, including Spider-Man’s costume and a few classic villains …

… but mostly what I love about Ditko is his mania for details. It seemed of critical importance to Ditko that we understand how Spidey’s web shooters work …

… and how Spider-Man keeps those shooters full of web fluid, too …

… to say nothing of the way that Spidey’s powers let his hands and feet stick to walls …

… or even just the inner workings of one of Spider-Man’s many foes, who often had “scientific” origins of their own.

It was hokum, of course, but in the context of a comic book it all makes sense, and these many details help ground the series and maintain our suspension of disbelief when Spidey is battling second-rate bad guys like the Circus or Crime, or taking on Doctor Doom in a particularly embarrassing episode in issue #4.

The use of science for good or evil was a trope that had resonated with comics fans since the re-introduction of The Flash half a dozen years before, and this theme is front-and-center in Amazing Spider-Man, with the unimpeachable authority of “science!” (exclamation point mandatory) lending credence to even the most outrageous events and origins. Peter Parker is himself a brilliant science student, though he is vilified for it …

… while science fiction events often drive the book’s plot, with space capsules, aliens, and the Vulture’s magnetic wings featuring in the first three issues alone. Doctor Octopus is a brilliant atomic researcher, the Sandman has a radioactive origin, and Doctor Curt Connors turns himself into the Lizard after researching a regenerative cure for his missing arm. But this book isn’t always science gone mad, as Peter uses his own scientific know-how, both in creating his web shooters and web fluid, but also putting his book smarts to practical use against the bad guys.

After the first half-dozen issues or so the emphasis changes to street hoods and organized crime, as Spidey takes on “The Big Man” and his Enforcers, and runs afoul of ambitious gang lords like The Crime Master and the Green Goblin. These tales usually afford Spider-Man the opportunity to take on a big mob of mooks, and Ditko never missed a chance to show us Spidey fighting from the ceiling, or swinging into action from some inventive new angle.

Again, it was the details that made these stories sing — not just in the art but also in the story. Spidey is famously thwarted from cashing a check made out in his name for lack of I.D., but there are other details, too, things that never happened to Superman, like when Spider-Man loses his costume and has to buy a knock-off from a store (which them shrinks and falls apart on him during his adventure), or just the simple act of Peter graduating from High School in issue #28, marking the passage of time in a way unique for books of the time.

But it is the psychological details of the story and the characters that are most memorable. Peter’s internal and external conflicts clash perfectly in Amazing Spider-Man #24, one of the finest single-issue stories in this run. Mysterio hatches a plan to drive Spider-Man mad … and considering the sudden effect that a few special effects movie tricks have on Spidey’s confidence, maybe he was on to something.

All the elements of Peter Parker’s life come together in this tale — J. Jonah Jameson turns the public against Spider-Man, Flash Thompson tries to bully Parker, Liz Allen and Betty Brant tug at Peter’s heartstrings, and Aunt May gives Peter a little guilt trip. It’s the perfect neurotic superhero stew! Small wonder, I suppose, that Peter has a minor nervous breakdown in this issue. Focusing an entire comic story on a hero’s psychology and interior life in 1965 has to be considered groundbreaking, but we’re so comfortable living inside Peter’s head that the tale reads as just another day in the life of Spider-Man.

And no matter how high Peter may swing above the concrete canyons of New York, this thoughtful and insecure side of Peter is always ready to bring him crashing back to earth.

Reading these issues these past several months has been an absolute delight, which I recommend without reservation, even to fans of the grim and gritty new Amazing Spider-Man movie. There’s room enough in our world for cinematic Spider-Men and Ditko Spider-Men and everything in between, but these Ditko issues really are not to be missed, both because they lay the foundations of a modern pop culture phenomenon, and because they are a master class on comic book storytelling. In my reading I captured dozens more images than I could display in this column, but I’ve put everything over in my Amazing Spider-Man Pinterest gallery for you … and join me back here next week, when I take a close-up look at Steve Ditko’s “Amazing Spider-Faces,” too.

In the meantime, enjoy the movie, and revisit the Lee and Ditko originals, to best enjoy the most amazing Spider-Man of all.

NEXT WEDNESDAY: #56 Panel Gallery: Steve Ditko’s Amazing Spider-Faces

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