This gallery contains 21 photos.
Did it! Also — Made It! Got It! and … you get the idea
Since these funnybooks we all love have grown into multi-billion dollar film and television franchises it’s only natural to start thinking about which of our favorite heroes will next appear on the silver screen. Marvel has already worked through their “A” and “B” characters and seem ready to greenlight anything in tights these days (Ant Man? Guardians of the Galaxy?), so to assist our friends at the House of Ideas I’m inaugurating a new feature here at Longbox Graveyard — Superhero Greenlight, where we pitch film takes for superheroes that don’t yet have a date with box office glory!
Joining me in the smoke-filled star chamber are my old comrades-in-comic-book-crime, Chris Ulm and Tom Mason, both dudes with deep roots in the intellectual property business, and both shameless fanboys still carrying a torch for the adventures of men (and women) who wear their primary-colored underwear on the outside. For this first Superhero Greenlight it’s my job to pitch my take on a comic book property for film, and the guys either buoy it up or shoot it down.
After due consideration, I’m offering up …
… Doctor Strange, earth’s Sorcerer Supreme!
Co-created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, and making his first appearance in Strange Tales #110 (cover dated July 1963), Doctor Strange is a master of the mystic arts, doing battle in far-flung dimensions to protect the earth from demons and supernatural beings intent on destroying mankind. Doctor Strange might be the last great Marvel Silver Age superhero who hasn’t yet had a meaningful screen presence. Aside from a couple animated appearances, a one-and-done TV movie in 1978, and the Doctor-Strange-By-Any-Other-Name film Doctor Mordrid from Full Moon Features in 1992, Doctor Strange has been an unknown quantity outside of comic books.
He’s one of my favorite characters — I reviewed his Strange Tales run here, and I spotlighted the strange faces of Steve Ditko’s Doctor Strange here — but Strange is a difficult character to do right. His own book hasn’t always worked, though you can see some of the better attempts over at Mars Will Send No More. Wedging Strange into the superhero-filled Manhattan of Marvel Comics sometimes feels forced — Strange seems to work best when in his own little corner of the superhero world, battling things unseen by the rest of his four-colored brethren (and no less a luminary than Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin seems to agree, based on his own informal take for this character).
Brilliant surgeon Dr. Stephen Strange has it all — wealth, fame, fortune, and fatal hubris. When his drunk driving injures his beloved Clea in a car crash, Strange insists on performing the operation that can save her life himself; when his fiancee dies on the table, Strange loses his reputation, his license, and his soul in one fell swoop. Now he searches the world for a teacher that will let him rescue Clea from the spirit world, and is caught up in a diabolical web of black magic, demons, secret sorcerers, and an extra-dimensional dark god that threatens to possess Strange … and through him conquer earth itself!
Casting: Johnny Depp is my A-list first choice, but there are a host of actors appropriate for the role — including fellow A-Lister Leonardo DiCaprio, the always-reliable Guy Pearce, ready-to-blow-up Joseph Gordon-Levitt, or how how about … wait for it, baby birds … Daniel Radcliffe as a grown-up sorcerer supreme?
TOM: Okay, I’m in. I like your pitch and I think Depp would make a great Doctor Strange — not too young, not too old, and a reputation for playing characters full of quirkiness with some comedy (that the ol’ Doc desperately needs). Your other choices would be good too, but I think Depp could actually bring people into the theater. Iron Man is one of the lesser known Marvel characters to the general public, but Robert Downey Jr. was the draw that made that movie. Dr. Strange is even lesser known than Iron Man, and you need an actor like Depp who can open a certain kind of movie.
Iron Man & Doctor Strange, together again for the first time
PAUL: Depp couldn’t draw flies for Dark Shadows this summer but I’m putting that down to the public’s exhaustion with these Tim Burton/Johnny Depp gothic fetish pictures. Disney thinks Depp still has enough mojo to throw buckets of cash at Depp as Tonto in next year’s very dubious-looking Lone Ranger so I’m going to assume Depp’s star is undiminished and that he’d be key to making Dr. Strange work. At the same time, I’m going to let Burton sit this one out and go with whatever director Marvel pulls off the bench — they’ve had good luck with matching television and film auteurs with their superhero properties and I expect for a superhero picture they’d want a hungry director they could keep on a short leash in any case.
Here’s why I think Doctor Strange would work — it’s a supernatural picture with a streak of humility, humor, and romance for the date night crowd. I pitch this as a summer effects thrill ride perfect for the Ghostbusters and Men in Black audience. The underpinnings of loss, love, and spiritual longing give the movie just enough grit to feel substantial and anchoring events in the now-understood Marvel cinematic universe will let audiences quickly accept the larger-than-life monsters and (subtly) costumed characters at the heart of the story. Just as Iron Man had huge upside hidden by a black hole of a character at the center in Tony Stark, so too will the reinvention of Stephen Strange unlock one of comicdom’s richest visual properties for the silver screen!
ULM: One word on the Doctor Strange pitch — SOLD! The high concept pitch and the character arc are great — arrogant bastard learns wisdom. You’ve definitely built a very strong premise and a hero we can identify with. Throw in some humor (Doctor Strange should be the last human on earth to believe in magic) and a strong supporting cast (who plays Wong?) and I think you have a potential Thor-sized hit. Casting is great — I think all the choices you listed would work.
PAUL: A possibility for Wong is to cast him as an action hero — he’d be Strange’s servant and student, but he’s also a young, physical dude with immense strength or martial skills that contrast with Strange’s cerebral abilities. For comic relief, he could also be the world’s worst butler — maybe he’s clumsy and always dropping things, maybe he’s rude, or maybe he just brews the world’s most horrid tea but everyone (even Strange) is afraid to say anything because he’s such a glowering physical presence.
TOM: I like the idea of Strange trying to revive the love of his life, but two things stick out for me — first, we probably won’t get enough of Clea on screen pre-threat for us to believe in the couple’s love for each other so his quest runs the risk of not being emotionally involving. And second, if too much of the movie takes place in the weird mystical world I think the audience will tune out. It seems that most super-hero movies function better if the big action set pieces are set on Earth. The parts of Green Lantern that were the least interesting were the ones where Hal Jordan was on some distant planet.
PAUL: We might be able to communicate Strange’s love for Clea if he spends part of the first act coming out of some kind of traumatic mental or emotional melt-down, putting the pieces together for himself even as the audience comes to understand what happened. I’m reminded of how Sela Ward had only a few minutes on screen in the movie version of The Fugitive yet her presence and murder were still keenly felt.
The concerns about the story’s otherworldliness are legitimate. I think the most difficult tightrope that Thor walked was integrating action in Asgard with events on earth. I think we need to have at least one big scene where Doctor Strange visits that ropey, Ditko “otherverse” with off-kilter doorframes and pathways stretching off into the void, but for the most part I think the action should be set in the shadows of our own world, building on the idea of other realities infringing on our own (which audiences have already come to accept thanks to the Harry Potter and Twilight franchises).
the classic Ditko “otherverse”
ULM: The other missing ingredient: a villain that isn’t incredibly stupid. The villain needs to be two things: relatable and understandable. Perhaps it is an old rival of Strange — maybe somehow related to Clea (brother, former lover, sister, etc). Someone who cannot and will not forgive Strange for Clea’s death. Perhaps this character is possessed by the Dread Dormammu and is able to finally wreak vengeance …
PAUL: Strange’s great rival was Baron Mordo, who was also a student of Strange’s mentor, the Ancient One (and now I recognize I’ve cut that character from my pitch, though I suppose Strange will encounter him when he goes on his second-act road of trials, and becomes the sorcerer supreme). I like that Strange’s rival might have been part of a romantic triangle with Strange and Clea — we could also make him a surgeon, maybe better qualified to save Clea than Strange, but Strange pulls rank to perform the operation himself, losing a love and gaining a nemesis at the same time. Maybe the rival turns to the black arts to raise Clea from the dead, crosses lines our hero will not cross, and is possessed by demons or otherwise becomes the Big Bad. Or maybe the rival is a touchy-feely type who could have saved Clea with some tinfoil hat remedy that Strange foolishly discounted.
TOM: I think you can unfold the story in real time without too many flashbacks.
When Stephen was a kid, he had the powers and the Eye of Agamotto and while experimenting with it, he inadvertently pissed off the dreaded Dormammu. Dormammu wanted the Eye but Strange was clever enough to hide it in another dimension, denying Dormammu. Enraged, Dormammu responded by killing Strange’s family, wiping out his hometown and leaving Strange for dead.
But Strange survived, vowing never to use the Eye again and to use his powers to atone for the damage he caused earlier.
PAUL: I like that Strange could have had a personal supernatural experience when he was younger, but has denied it or blocked it out. Maybe he made some conscious decision to be a man of science, turning his back on magic, making him a character with an internal conflict between his head and his heart. We could even tie this to some (wrong) decision he made while Clea was on the table, trusting the book (his head) over what his instincts were telling him to do, whether it was some risky, House M.D.-like procedure or even refusing to trust his rival to do a better job with Clea than he could.
TOM: Cut to: It’s now the present day in NYC. He’s an adult now, a medical doctor, working at the hospital (he seems to keep moving; this is hardly his first job), helping others, but finds the city is inspiring him, his relationship with Clea is growing, but there’s evil afoot — assorted demons and dimensional troublemakers keep popping up wreaking havoc and Strange must summon his long-dormant powers again in order to defeat them. (Think Ghostbusters, as the ghosts get progressively worse). It’s all part of a plan by Dormammu who has been searching for the Eye for years but finally discovered that Strange was alive and has plotted to get him to use the Eye again so that he can take if from him once and for all.
PAUL: It feels a bit like Sauron looking for the One Ring, but that’s not a bad thing — audiences understand that story.
TOM: So with demons pushing him around NYC, and Dormammu threatening Clea, Strange is left with a choice: recover and use the Eye that he’s long since sworn to never do again or lose everything he’s tried to build since he was a child. This way, when there are giant-sized third act fights of sorcery, Doc must confront his personal demons while fighting some real ones across mid-town.
PAUL: Making recovery of the Eye and/or seeking out the Ancient One does give some direction and shape to our second act. The Ancient One is the classic mission giver/wise old man figure, and it would make perfect sense for him to award the Eye of Agamotto and the Cloak of Levitation to Strange after our hero completes the requisite montage and has his Moment of Enlightenment … but, sheesh, I’ve bored myself just talking about these things! I think the second act needs a judo flip.
the Ancient One, by Steve Ditko
TOM: I think one of the things you can do to flip it may not be the second act, but in the final act. Strange gives up the eye in exchange for Clea, then once assuring her safety, he has to go up against Dormammu who now possesses the power of the Eye and isn’t afraid to use it. And he starts by incapacitating the Ancient One and then sets about destroying everything Strange holds dear.
Now Strange has to fight, calling forth all his power, even stuff he blocked out from his childhood experience. And now the flip: Clea isn’t just “the girlfriend.” I don’t know enough about Doctor Strange continuity to care and I have no interest in the movie following lockstep with Marvel continuity, but it seems like it would be fun to make Clea more than we think — perhaps connected to the Ancient One, or someone else.
PAUL: In Clea’s first Ditko/Lee Strange Tales appearances she is deeply connected to Dormammu. He turns out to be her uncle or something.
Clea and Dormammu, by Steve Ditko
TOM: And she didn’t just happen to be at the hospital when Strange showed up for work — she was there to watch over him or something like that. Maybe she even has connections to his past in some way.
If you remember The Mummy, the Medjai are tasked with guarding the sarcophagus of Imhotep. Maybe Clea has a similar role with regard to the Eye?
PAUL: Now I’m all turned around. I thought I understood my pitch when I came in here, but now I’ve got a lot of parts that don’t fit.
ULM: What do you expect? This is Hollywood, baby! You’ve got to think like an executive! Don’t sweat the small stuff … hire some writer to put the pieces together, and if you don’t like what he gives you, claim he’s ruined your vision and fire the poor bastard.
TOM: And after you’ve hired a writer to clean up your mess, there’s only one thing left to do.
PAUL: What’s that?
ULM & TOM: Lunch!!
NEXT WEDNESDAY AT LONGBOX GRAVEYARD: #77 Longbox Graveyard Comic Book Holiday Gift Guide
Marvel Comics: The Untold Story by Sean Howe arrives this week, and you should get it. The publisher provided Longbox Graveyard an advance copy for review several weeks ago (and there’s that disclosure out of the way), but even if I’d paid full boat for this book it would still receive my stamp of approval. Marvel Comics: The Untold Story is a terrific read, a literal page-turner that I couldn’t put down as it swept me through the glory (and failure) that as been Marvel Comics through the decades.
Author Sean Howe cites hundreds of original interviews he conducted in developing the book, but much is also based on prior publications, and to an extent the degree to which this book will prove new to you depends on your familiarity with the far-ranging books, magazines, and journals cited in the extensive end notes. For a general audience this book will prove a revelation, and even the most dedicated, broadband-equipped Marvel Comics gossip-monger is bound to discover things he didn’t know. Even for a grizzled comics fan such as your humble narrator, there was plenty of new gristle to chew upon.
Following Marvel Comics from its wartime origins with the birth of Captain America, the Sub-Mariner, and the Human Torch; through the Silver Age explosion that brought us Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four; through the growth of the company in the direct market era and the crazy bubble of the image-driven nineties; Sean Howe takes us inside the company that has become one of the most powerful intellectual property vaults in the world.
There are booms and busts, layoffs and expansions. Time and again Marvel is saved from possible extinction by sales success of Star Wars comics, or a Kiss comic, or a reinvention of the X-Men perfectly suiting the zeitgeist. There are near-misses, too, with Marvel almost assuming control of half of DC Comics line under license in 1984 before an anti-trust suit field by First Comics against Marvel and printing partners at World Color Printing warned them off. How different might the comics world be today if Superman and Spider-Man were under one roof?
Marvel Comics: The Untold Story is primarily narrative of the business and editorial history of Marvel Comics. The content of the comics themselves is not often considered, but when Howe does describe comics he walks the walk. His summary of Marvel’s greatest craftsmen is insightful and masterful: “Kirby delivered large-scale visions of awe-inspiring alien technology and brutish monsters, while Ditko depicted jittery, ambitious outcasts humbled by the consequences of their hubris and imprisoned by their own psyches,” Howe writes. “In both of their works, men endured excruciating scientific transformations and traumatic gains of knowledge that permanently separated them from the civilizations to which they’d once belonged.”
Howe delves into the mechanics of Marvel’s newsstand business, and how it drove the shape, size, and content of Marvel’s line; he looks at Marvel’s haphazard early approach to licensing characters for television and film; and he examines the parade of owners that have controlled Marvel through the years, each bringing their own (sometimes odd) outlook to what Marvel’s core business should be. It’s a publishing company! It’s an intellectual property house! It’s a front for a toy company! It’s a collectables company! It’s out of business (almost!). Along the way, readers who lived through the company’s history will get a behind-the-scenes look at what drove the content of their favorite books, learning the reasons behind sudden changes of editorial direction, and the unceremonial departure of beloved creative teams.
Where Howe is at his best is in painting a picture of the many men and women that made up Marvel through the years. The book is vivid and rich in incident, bringing Marvel’s personalities to the fore, whether it is Ike Perlmutter counting staples, Roy Thomas tacitly looking the other way while half-mad creators pushed the boundaries of the form in the early 1970s, or the angry young men of Image comics sticking it to “The Man” of Marvel Comics, only to (largely) end up becoming The Man, themselves.
Fascinating figures emerge from the narrative. Jim Shooter brings order to a chaotic Marvel, makes the trains (and the books!) run on time, and ushers Marvel through it’s first tottering steps toward becoming a multi-media conglomerate (Shooter’s Secret Wars would begin life as a focus-tested Mattel toy title). But in time his autocratic style would wear thin, and a revolt of freelancers and his editorial staff would contribute to his ouster from the company. Bill Jemas emerges as a bull-headed visionary, unafraid to slay sacred cows and enact sweeping reforms that seem substantially less radical in hindsight — such as directing the creation of an “Ultimates” comics line that would appear familiar to millions of outsiders coming to Marvel for the first time through the company’s movie success — but he too would overreach, alienating Marvel’s core audience with incendiary quotes in the press, and doing himself no favors by authoring the high-profile flop, Marville.
But if there is a central figure to this sprawling history, it must be Stan Lee. He wanders in and out of the narrative, from his origins as an office assistant and jack-of-all-trades at Timely Comics, through his ascendency as Editor-In-Chief during Marvel’s 1960s golden era, through his long and largely fruitless quest to bring Marvel’s characters to television and film, and finally to his role as Marvel’s elder statesman — grandfather, figurehead, and ambassador all-in-one.
Lee’s controversies receive fair examination, and Lee’s feuds with Steve Ditko and (especially) Jack Kirby will prove familiar to seasoned fans. Howe offers a picture of a free-wheeling collaboration between Lee and Kirby, with the two men often talking past each other — and not always recognizing each other’s strengths — with Kirby sometimes giving lip service to bull sessions with Lee, before returning home to mill out pages in isolation, turning in work that frequently had little to do with the “agreed upon” plot. Howe characterizes Kirby as a creator eager to go off on his own, and Lee as a collaborator happy to let Kirby do it, laying the groundwork for decades of resentment and misunderstanding between the men, arguing over credit and creations. In the end, Kirby was marginalized while Stan Lee, the politically-savvy Marvel insider, seemed to benefit disproportionately.
Still, Kirby is painted a bit less of the victim that other histories might have us believe. Comics pros pick up the torch for Kirby — Frank Miller is several times quoted as championing Kirby’s cause — and due exmination is given to Marvel’s petty refusal to return Kirby’s original pencil art. But the picture of Kirby that emerges is of a man who probably should have known better, who trusted others to do the right thing, who was aware of his artistry and unique talent, but was bedeviled by insecurity and his own blue-collar nature into accepting short-term money and handshake agreements. So, too, would Kirby sometimes act against his own best interests, as when he signed a deposition on Marvel’s behalf disputing claims of his wartime partner, Joe Simon, over ownership of Captain America.
Less familiar may be Howe’s look at Lee’s unhappy history with an unscrupulous internet start-up — Stan Lee Media, which drew hoots and catcalls from Marvel insiders when it failed in 2001 — or the sometimes dispiriting picture of Stan Lee wandering the Hollywood wilderness, chasing deals that came to naught, and so out of touch with the company he helped create that he needs to be briefed on the names of Chris Claremont’s X-Men. So, too, do we see a restless and unfulfilled side of Lee. Despite a career that has seen him earn millions and emerge as the beloved public face of this unique enterprise, Lee still longs for a different kind of respect, lamenting that he never became a novelist, a screenwriter, a playwright.
It is this unguarded and humanizing portrait of Stan Lee that most sticks with me from Marvel Comics An Untold Story (and most makes me wish for a thorough, academic biography of Lee). As Marvel’s mythologizer-in-chief, Stan Lee whistled up the interconnected Marvel universe, and created an image of a Merry Marvel Bullpen that didn’t (quite) ever exist, yet inspired generations of comics and media pros to follow. His chummy editorial approach made readers feel part of a club that existed only in their imaginations, but was no less real for all of that. For all his success, it is worth noting even Stan had to sue Marvel to receive many of his millions and to continue benefiting from his lifetime contract. In this, at least, Lee proved the ultimate Marvel man, equally adept at creating stories and characters as he was at securing his compensation from a company that Howe’s narrative does little to dispel as having a shabby reputation for treating creators.
There’s gossip, of the juiciest and most petty kind — probably enough gossip from the Shooter years to fill a book all by itself. Howe describes Jim Shooter burned in effigy at a party at John Byrne’s house, the effigy stuffed full of New Universe comics, a pet publishing initiative Shooter had championed. We get to eavesdrop on the fights. (Of Lee and Ditko, Howe writes “Even when they weren’t speaking, they managed to disagree.”) We see old pros like Sal Buscema and Herb Trimpe pushed around — and pushed out of the company, too. When disgruntled Marvel creators flocked to rival Atlas Comics, Stan Lee would pen a memo to freelancers extolling Marvel’s virtues in employing artists and writers and continually raising rates, while directly comparing his old boss’ new company to Nazi Germany. (And what goes around would come around, as Jack Kirby would later compare Stan Lee to the SS).
There’s a dark side to the squabbling, too, in the near-nervous breakdowns of a succession of Marvel Editors-In-Chief, and the untimely deaths of several Marvel staffers — John Verpoorten (37), Carol Kalish (36), and Mark Gruenwald (43) — all of them stressed-out, overworked, and often in impossible middle-management positions where they absorbed disappointment from below and unpopular decrees from above.
The 1990s will make your head spin, with maneuverings and alliances formed to fight for control of a company that had been driven into bankruptcy, addicted to spiraling sales for variant covers and polybagged special editions of books printed in ever-escalating numbers. The collector-fueled frenzy climaxes with multiple versions of X-Men #1 selling eight million copies, which Howe notes was roughly seventeen copies for every regular comic book reader at that time. Howe writes Marvel had indications the bubble would burst, but could not wean itself from the short-term spikes their gimmicks were generating. The era bottoms out with Marvel’s misguided attempt to boost profits by doing their own distribution, wrecking their own business and delivering a death blow to a reeling direct market, resulting in the closure of hundreds of comics shops across North America.
There are seventies creators tripping on acid, a look at how the Spider-Man “Clone Saga” ballooned from a four-month arc to a two year saga (which saw sales dip by fifty percent), and the priceless tale of a clueless New World Pictures executive enthusing that in purchasing Marvel, they’d just bought Superman. In short, if it happened at Marvel, it’s probably here … and you should be too, if you consider yourself a comics fan.
They say you shouldn’t look too closely at the way sausages or laws are made, and if you are part of that vanishingly-small cadre convinced the Merry Marvel Bullpen was one big happy family, then maybe you should stay away from Marvel Comics The Untold Story … but I found that being reminded of Marvel’s all-too-human flaws only deepened my appreciation for the role the company played in the pop culture explosion of the past half-century. This is a brilliant book, for True Believers and non-believers alike, and I regret only that it had to end as Marvel transitions into yet another fascinating and unexpected role — as captains of the most potent action film franchise on the planet. Hopefully Mr. Howe will return to his work in due time with a revised edition to keep us up-to-date on Marvel’s evolving Disney years … and in the meantime, it is my sincere wish that he set his pen to creating an equally illuminating history of DC Comics, a company long overdue for this kind of examination.
Read this book! ‘NUFF SAID!
(Thanks again to Harpers for providing my review copy of Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, and my apologies to Mr. Howe and readers of this blog for the incomplete and unedited version of this review that was inadvertently published at Longbox Graveyard last month).
NEXT WEDNESDAY: #70 Reopening The Tomb of Dracula
This gallery contains 21 photos.
Did it! Also — Made It! Got It! and … you get the idea
This gallery contains 29 photos.
Masterful faces from the masterful Steve Ditko!
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