I was surprisingly shaken by the recent news that Spider-Man will NOT be returning to the Marvel Cinematic Universe for the foreseeable future. (I understand that CARING about which superheroes, played by specific actors, will be in upcoming superhero fantasy films makes me a bit of a nerd… Just a bit… But I’m OLD, and I like what I like. I love Air Supply and Culture Club and Scorpions and vanilla ice-cream and 50-50 blend t-shirts and Disneyland and Star Wars and talking about the weather and painting on recycled cardboard and playing Minecraft and reading comic books and watching superhero movies---and I don’t care who knows it!) BUT, just because the next Tom Holland Spider-Man movies won’t be set in the MCU doesn’t change the COMICS, right? So I thought it was time to go back to the SOURCE, the ORIGINAL Spider-Man stories, and see where this pop culture icon actually came from… As surprising as this might be for some people to believe, I’d never bothered to read the early Spider-Man comics before, even though I grew up reading TONS of Spidey books---mostly from the 1970s and later. Come with me now, through the magic of the Marvel Masterworks reprint collections, to where it all started!
[This is a photograph that I took of the actual digital comic that I read. The image is included for review purposes only!]
Stan Lee & Steve Ditko – The Amazing Spider-Man – Marvel Masterworks Volume 1 (2017)
Spider-Man made his dramatic debut in the final issue of Amazing Fantasy, issue #15, which had a cover date of August 1962, and this Masterworks collection includes his first appearance as well as the first ten issues of The Amazing Spider-Man series. Spidey got his own book about seven months after his debut---issue #1 was dated March 1963.
That initial comic appearance is a story we all know. Nerdy kid is picked on by classmates, he gets bitten by a radioactive spider, gains fantastic powers, tries to be a selfish jerk, which leads directly to the death of his Uncle Ben, and decides after this tragedy to use his powers for good. Eleven pages that changed the world. (Hopefully, I didn’t reveal any spoilers there, but considering the story is about 57 years old, and it’s been told and retold a thousand times in comics, movies, cartoons, and so on, it’s safe to say it’s pretty much common knowledge. Like, do I have to say, “Spoiler!” before mentioning that Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker’s father? Probably not.)
What makes this original story interesting, considering how many times I’d already encountered it, is Steve Ditko’s odd, angular artwork. He plays fast and loose with physics and geometry, and he creates some truly awkward and uncomfortable looking poses and facial expressions. It’s funny just to look at his artwork---although perhaps in a way that it wasn’t meant to be. Kind of like Jack Kirby, who draws these fantastically weird faces and poses---but where Kirby’s work is stylized and exaggerated and creates this crazy intensity, Ditko’s drawings look more freaked out and manic. The faces look SHOCKED a lot of the time, big circular eyes, and snarling, grotesque mouths and weird noses on nearly every “bad guy” character. (You rarely have a hard time guessing when a character is going to turn out to be evil---they almost always LOOK disgusting.)
I’ve seen and read a lot stuff about how Stan Lee was usually credited for the “story” in the early Marvel Comics, and yet the tales invariably differ dramatically from artist to artist. A Jack Kirby story is always epic and grandiose and full of POWER and action. Yet a story supposedly written by Lee but drawn by Steve Ditko is weirdly claustrophobic and angry and full of morally compromised characters. The idea, from several documentaries and introductions that I’ve read to Marvel reprint collections, is that Stan Lee would come up with the IDEA for a story, maybe suggest a villain and a few of the main plot points, then he would hand these sketches of a story off to Kirby or Ditko or Don Heck or Gene Colan, and they would DRAW THE COMIC, (creating the story flow, the action, the character interactions, etc.,) then these pages would be given back to Lee, and he would write in the dialog and captions. Eventually, folks like Kirby and Ditko ended up having some serious fits about getting the WRITING credits they felt they deserved, having plotted the entire book when the laid-out their art, even ignoring Lee’s suggestions when they actually created the tale. (You get a look at this process in this collection, as some of the original artwork, with editorial marks in pencil, are included. It might not interest EVERYONE to know how the creation process for a Marvel Comic worked, but for people who are themselves writers or comic artists, this is a fascinating inclusion!)
Why did I bring all that up? Because I want to impress on people how DIFFERENT these stories are to the other Marvel books I’ve read from this era, most of which were drawn by Jack Kirby or Don Heck---things like The Fantastic Four and The Avengers. Ditko’s entire MOOD is different from those other guys… And I’m not sure exactly how much I liked it. I mean, this is DEFINITELY where we get Spider-Man, and it’s surprising how fully formed he seemed to be as soon as he popped into existence. Within these first eleven comics we get a great many of the KEY elements of the Spider-Man universe that we still know today: Aunt May (although she is NOT Marisa Tomei! Aunt May in these stories looks like a skeleton or mummy, like she’s about a hundred years old---and she is SICK a lot; in one dramatic story, she even ends up in the hospital in need of an operation, and Peter Parker has to FAKE some photographs, which seem to suggest that he may be a bad guy, just so he can sell them to The Daily Bugle and help pay for Aunt May's medical expenses!) Speaking of The Bugle, J. Jonah Jameson, millionaire owner of that prestigious paper, arrives in issue #1 of The Amazing Spider-Man, and he HATES the web-head, right out of the gate.
Also appearing in these first few books are some of Spider-Man’s greatest foes. In these pages we find Flash Thompson (the school bully and primary rival for all of Peter Parker’s early romantic interests), the Vulture, Doctor Octopus, Sandman, the Lizard, Electro, and the Human Torch (from The Fantastic Four, who is also a teenager, and therefore has a serious rivalry with Spider-Man, especially because Spidey sees the Torch driving around in fancy cars and dating attractive women, while he is poor, nerdy, can’t really get a date, and lives with his doddering old aunt---and not in a fancy penthouse!) That’s a pretty significant number of well-known villains to show up in fewer than a dozen books! Ditko and Lee knew how to create quirky characters, and they were on FIRE with these early Spider-Man stories…
Now here’s where we get to the parts that I didn’t enjoy as much. First off, these stories are often depressing---and MEAN. Have you ever watched a Charlie Brown cartoon and thought, “GAWD! Why are they so awful to poor Charlie Brown? All he wants is for people to like him!” Well, that’s not what’s going on here. I mean, the kids at school definitely pick on Peter Parker---but he’s kind of a jerk. Peter is quick to anger, vindictive, and says some terrible, hurtful things. He’s known as a smart-ass to most of us who like Spider-Man as a character, a quick-witted jokester who is almost always portrayed making snarky comments while he’s engaged in his various battles, but he is ALSO usually kind and…well…“good.” The Peter Parker in these early stories, however, is constantly hitting on girls, yelling nasty things at Flash Thompson, faking various photos to sell to make money, and even, in one particularly unpleasant moment, he considers letting Flash Thompson die at the hands of Doctor Doom, just so he doesn’t have to deal with Thompson anymore. The look on Peter’s face as he’s thinking about this is genuinely disturbing. He contemplates, “What a break for me! The FF will never agree to Doom’s terms, so all I have to do is keep out of it, and Flash Thompson will never bother Peter Parker again! Things are finally going my way!” Eventually, he decides to do the right thing and save his high school rival, but…. Can you imagine Tom Holland’s Spider-Man even contemplating such a horrible possibility---let alone grinning from ear-to-ear while doing it!? Nope. We think of Spidey as a good guy now---but this original version can be pretty nasty. Not ALWAYS, but frequently enough that it made me uncomfortable.
[From issue #5]
Another complaint that I have, and this one might just be my personal bias, is that the “EVIL VILLAINS” here (with the exception of Doctor Doom, who isn’t technically a Spider-Man nemesis) are fairly petty. Sandman, Electo, the Vulture, and a few lesser lights are all, truthfully, just crooks with gimmicks---robbing and stealing. Simple motives---not much narrative interest for me. The Lizard and Dr. Octopus are a bit more complex, falling more into the “take-over-the-world” mold, which is marginally more entertaining---and one story, which probably seemed like hard science-fiction at the time, involves a robotic computer, called the Living Brain, which threatened not only to reveal Spider-Man’s true identity to the world (utilizing its complex logic circuits to discover who he really was) but also tried to murder all of the kids at Peter Parker’s high school when an attempt to steal the Living Brain went bad, and the crooks accidentally activate the machine’s defenses---wildly swinging metal fists!
Overall, the stories here are pretty standard comic book affair, I THINK, although to be honest, I’m not sure EXACTLY what the comic landscape was like in 1962! (I wasn’t even born until 1972!) From what I’ve heard (from Stan Lee and others, in documentaries like Comic Book Confidential), people liked Marvel Comics at the time because of the HUMAN elements of the tales. The fact that Peter Parker was picked on, that he had money troubles, that his aunt could become ill and need medical attention, that things didn’t always go Peter’s way (hardly EVER)---these types of “real life” plot elements supposedly hadn’t been in comics before. These tales were more relatable than Superman, the impossibly strong, flying alien---or Batman, the millionaire playboy detective, who could build any gadget or machine he needed. Parker is always broke, and his web shooters, although still basically magical, (especially in these early stories where he can make everything from snow shoes to parachutes out of webbing,) they DO sometimes run out of fluid leaving him in dire situations. As hard as it may be to believe today, Marvel Comics were more REALISTIC than the competition was (!!!), and people really responded to this new STYLE of comic storytelling.
I would definitely say that these are IMPORTANT stories, and that what Ditko and Lee created with these first few Spider-Man comics DID have a massive, lasting impact on popular culture. For this reason alone, it’s probably worth reading this book, just to see how it all began. Ditko’s art is janky and weird, and the faces and figures he drew can be both terrifying and humorous, and I enjoy that weirdness. For the artwork alone, this book is probably worth the price of admission, even if the stories didn’t really appeal to me as much as some of the other books I've read from this era. It’s completely possible that these WERE exciting tales when they first appeared, but that the plots have been told and retold so many times that they’ve lost their initial GLOW. I’m willing to admit that. These stories were also Comic Code Authority approved, so there's nothing in here that's going to be offensive to ANYONE (even though Peter is a bit of a creeper, when it comes to women. He’s desperate for a date, until maybe issue 7 or 8 when he sparks up a romance with J. Jonah Jameson’s secretary!) So, historically and culturally, this is important work---but personally, I’m more of a horror / weirdo / cosmic nonsense fan---unless the story I'm reading is SERIOUSLY FUNNY. I’ll read just about anything if it makes me laugh!
[From issue #10]
Alright. Enough from me. Go read a damn book…
---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Holy Fool)
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