Friday, August 02, 2013

Marvels: Amazing Fantasy #15

"Spider-Man!" by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko
(August 1962)

In the burgeoning Marvel Universe, there have been two teenage characters so far. Johnny Storm is a cool kid who works on hot rods and fights villains alongside a team of superpowered characters. Rick Jones was a rebel, and now accepts a heavy responsibility as the young man who makes sure that the man who saved his life isn't forever consumed by the uncontrollable Hulk.

This story, which lasts all of 10 pages as the main feature in the final issue of a series of Twilight Zone-style science fiction horror anthologies, introduces Marvel's signature character: Peter Parker. Another teenager (just like you, dear readers!), but this one an outcast. He's a nerd, studying hard in hopes of being a scientist; not only is he cut off from the life of a "normal" teenager by his brains and his non-athletic build (Steve Ditko draws him as your stereotypical scrawny milquetoast), but also by his status as an orphan being raised by his kindly, doting Uncle Ben and Aunt May.

It's a brilliant conception: every teenager has, at some point, felt alone in what they go through. They've felt overwhelmed, felt powerless, felt what it is to be crushed by the weight of personal responsibility. Spider-Man will embody all of these things, but Stan Lee brilliantly pushes the screws in further on his teenage hero.

When Peter gains his spider-powers via a radioactive spider bite, he excitedly sees it as his way out of the problems he has. He begins appearing on television, demonstrating his powers: here is popularity, money, fame. His powers have given him literal power, strength, control. He doesn't have to be fearful and he doesn't have to endure being pushed around anymore.

And then it all goes away.

Because, of course, Peter lets his ego get to him. As soon as he doesn't have to worry about being bullied by the likes of school sports star Flash Thompson, he becomes a bully himself, an arrogant jerk who doesn't stop a thief when he has the chance... a thief who, of course, goes on to murder his beloved Uncle Ben. I always thought this was brilliant plotting: Peter hasn't gained a way out of his problems at all; he's been given great power but not acted responsibly, and it's not only taken the life of someone he loved, it's made his problems much worse. He'll always feel alone; he'll always feel powerless, overwhelmed, crushed by the weight of personal responsibility. And now he'll always feel guilty.

This type of story was fairly typical in Amazing Adult Fantasy: someone has an opportunity, they misuse it, and they learn an important lesson (sometimes just before getting killed). The lesson here, as Stan tells us (not Uncle Ben), is that with great power comes great responsibility, as every comic book fan knows. This story, however, is twice the length of most Lee & Ditko Amazing Adult Fantasy stories, and the two get to build the character, give him more dimensions. So when the tragedy comes, it's not just a clever plot twist: it stings. I feel sorry for this kid because, hey, I remember being a teenager and making stupid decisions that came back to haunt me.

What makes Spider-Man so interesting is that, even in costume, he's an overwhelmed kid trying to take control of his life and make the right choices. As we'll see in issues to come, a lot of the arrogance he'll display in the future is just bluster born of terror.

Observations:

:: The styling of Spider-Man's name changes a bit. The title of the story is "Spider-Man!" In the issue's narration and dialogue, the name is styled "Spiderman." And in a special announcement, he is referred to as "The Spiderman." Pick one, gentlemen. (And I always thought they picked the right one.)

:: The special announcement references the issue's dropping the word "adult" from the series' regular title, and promises that from now on, Amazing Fantasy will feature one story (or perhaps even two) with Spider-Man as its main feature. But, of course, when Spidey does return, it'll be nearly a year from now in his own new series, Amazing Spider-Man.

:: I love the Spider-Man costume. I wonder how it looked when readers first saw it in 1962.

:: I've mentioned this before, but I have to say again: I think Peter Parker inventing his web-shooters and his webbing fluid is stupid. I'm willing to buy that he could make them because we keep establishing what a genius he is and that he conducts these science experiments. But on the other hand, much of Peter's motivation in the future will be that he desperately needs money to pay the rent or other bills so that he can take care of Aunt May. I think it's stupid to force me to accept this motivation without acknowledging that Peter's created--in his bedroom--a marvelous advance in adhesives that he could patent and license the hell out of. Aunt May would never have to worry about money ever again! But no, he uses his invention to swing around and fight crime to make freelance photo money that also contributes to his continued character assassination by J. Jonah Jameson. What a genius.

I know people weren't a fan of the organic webs in the Sam Raimi movie because fanboys hate it when anything's different from anything, but it made so much more sense. It's how spiders do it, and it doesn't create story-altering implications only to ignore them.

Other than that one irritation I have, this story's a classic. The Hulk may be--eventually--my favorite Marvel character, but The Amazing Spider-Man will be the Marvel comic I enjoy the most.

Next time: the first team-up of villains in Marvel history!

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