Monday, October 28, 2013

Marvels: Amazing Spider-Man #1

"Spider-Man" by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko
(February 1963)

I'm so excited that Spider-Man (or Spiderman, as his name is still being styled here) is now an active member of the Marvel Universe that I promise not to go off any more on how stupid I think his webshooters are. (It's all back in my Amazing Fantasy #15 post, anyway; I'm on record.)

The energy that accompanied Spidey's original appearance is still apparent; Stan Lee and Steve Ditko both seem really excited about this character and his possibilities, and on his first mission in his title mag, they want to give him something big and dynamic to do.

We start with a recap of the origin, re-establishing Peter Parker's guilt over his Uncle Ben's death, and right to one of the hallmarks of the character: his constant anxiety over money. Maybe part of the reason I identified so much with these early stories in particular when I was a kid is that Peter seems to genuinely have some kind of undiagnosed anxiety disorder. He's prone to despair and desperation, to emotional outbursts born of frustration, and a heavy sense of guilt. He can also be really selfish and self-pitying. He's a teenager, alright. Here, his guilt and anxiety are pulled to the surface when he sees his Aunt May begging the landlord to let her make a late payment this month.

Peter figures there must be some way to make money out of being Spider-Man, and goes back to his original idea: performing on television. The problem is, he doesn't want to reveal his secret identity, and the producer can't pay him in cash, so Peter's left with a check made out to Spider-Man that's worthless to him. No one will cash it.

If that weren't bad enough, enter J. Jonah Jameson, publisher of the Daily Bugle, who takes to his newspaper and to television denouncing Spider-Man.

That's a lot of anger based on a single (arguably two, because of Amazing Fantasy #15) television appearance by a guy in a costume doing stunts. Jonah argues that children could imitate Spidey and hurt themselves, but seems especially incensed that Spidey wears a mask like a man with something to hide. Still, the editorial damages Spidey's reputation enough that the same TV producer won't even touch him.

While Peter is smarting from this bruise, he sees Aunt May pawning jewelry in order to make the rent payment, which dredges up more guilt and anxiety for Peter. Now that Jonah has turned the public against him, he can't perform in public; and if he can't get money to help take care of Aunt May and the house--if he can't take responsibility now as man of the house--what can he do?

What happens next is exciting, dynamic 1963 comic book stuff: a space launch. John Jameson is the test pilot for a capsule that's supposed to enter low orbit. But soon after launch, the guidance system breaks and Jameson loses control. When the attempted rescue fails, Peter steps into action as Spider-Man, saying that he can attach another device to the capsule if the military can get him close enough. Despite Jonah's protests, the government takes a chance on Spider-Man. A plane gets him into position, he snags a ride, replaces the guidance chip, and then takes off, relieved to have done a good deed (and succeeded), and hoping that this gets him back in with the public.

But it doesn't! Jonah writes another editorial calling Spider-Man a menace, demanding his surrender to the authorities, and even accusing him of deliberate sabotage, staging the incident to steal the spotlight from his own son, John. Which... you know, you could easily accuse Jonah of attacking Spider-Man in the first place to get publicity for John. I mean, all Spidey did was perform on television doing stunts, and suddenly Jonah took to the airwaves and said, essentially, "This guy's dangerous, kids should worship my son, instead!" And now that the guy has saved his son's life, maybe JJ feels more like a fool and is doubling down on the rancor, or something. I don't know: J. Jonah Jameson represents the often inscrutable, seemingly unreasonable voice of adult authority in Peter's teenage world. It's why this title and character are going to work so well over the years: because in many ways, it's Archie with superpowers. Peter's not always going to understand why he's under fire and getting blamed, he just will be, and that's going to be enough to make him frustrated, angry, and feeling powerless.

JJ's anti-Spidey onslaught is enough to make Spider-Man a wanted man and even turn Aunt May against Peter's alter ego. He's left frazzled, confused, and anxious, and darkly wondering whether a life of crime will in fact be the only option left open to him in the future. This is the power of a teenager's potential and the danger of that time in a young man's life when he suddenly feels powerful but undirected: will he accept that with great power comes great responsibility, or will he let himself be pushed into the darkness and give in to his anger?

Time will tell.

Stray observations:

:: I've been thinking about stuff like this panel:

Over the years, people have said a lot of things about Spider-Man quipping while fighting battles or doing something dangerous. Many find it unbelievable; some find it charming. Some writers have used the explanation that he's so nervous that he needs to joke about the situation he's in to keep himself calm and able to act. But my own opinion is that he's a teenager, and teenagers can be real jerks. With his face hidden by a mask, Peter is free to say things that come right to his head without being called on them. He's frustrated and angry and overwhelmed, and quipping and being belligerent (even hostile) and sneering at adults for doubting him becomes a secondhand, reflex thing with him. It's like teenagers who scream and call people names on Xbox Live: it's unchecked teenage rage let loose. Peter Parker may be the milquetoast holding it all in, but Spider-Man doesn't have to be polite if Peter feels he's being screwed over or threatened.

:: Am I the only one who thinks Ditko's Flash Thompson tends to resemble Jack Kirby?

He certainly doesn't look like a teenager to me, anyway.

Ditko's art, by the way, always reminds me of Joe Shuster's Superman art. I love that style.

"Spider-Man vs. the Chameleon!" by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko

In this issue's second story, Spidey faces his first costumed villain and we get to what the issue's cover promises: an appearance by the Fantastic Four.

Having Spider-Man appear with the Fantastic Four is a great way to show off Spider-Man's powers and give the readers a sense of where this new character stands on the power scale. Here, he's quite the show-off, but also quite the force to be contended with. His webs can stop Mr. Fantastic; he can actually throw the Thing; his spider-sense can detect the Invisible Girl; he's agile enough to jump rings around the Human Torch. When he busts into the FF's lab, they can't stop him. And the whole thing was just so Spidey could showcase his abilities as a sort of impromptu audition to join the Fantastic Four, all because Peter thinks they must pay well. When Reed tells Spidey that the FF is strictly non-profit and no one makes a salary, he storms off, frustrated again.

Then we move to the Chameleon, who is pure 1930s pulp. He's not exactly a commie spy, even though all of the Marvel heroes fight commie spies or aliens pretty much right away. But this guy is stealing missile defense plans on behalf of the Soviets. He also doesn't have any powers; he's just really, really good at disguising himself. He figures that he can use the public distrust of Spider-Man to his advantage by framing Spidey for the theft of top secret information, which he successfully does by using a radio to send signals on the same frequency as Spider-Man's spider-sense.

The spider-sense, which warns Peter of danger but also allows him to sense people and objects he's trying to track, is a great idea making its debut in this story. Spider-Man puts it to use when tracking the Chameleon's getaway 'copter, and also when the lights go out and he has to determine which building security guard is the Chameleon in disguise. (He also has to do it without his web fluid, which has run out.) Stan and Steve are also trying to think of new uses for Spidey's webs; here, he's able to make himself a parachute out of them.

What's interesting about this story is that Spider-Man doesn't really catch the bad guy at all. He tries, and he even scares off a Soviet submarine, but because of the frame-up, security guards tackle him before he can expose the Chameleon. Overwhelmed, frustrated and angry, Spidey runs off and leaves the security guards to deal with the Chameleon themselves. They catch him and realize that he merely impersonated Spider-Man to steal military plans, but Spidey's already running home, sobbing, angry over the way nothing ever seems to turn out right. "Every time I try to help, I just make things worse."

Been there, Spidey. Been there.

Stray notes:

:: In this story, overworked Stan keeps calling Peter Parker "Peter Palmer."

:: If no one in the FF makes a salary, how do Johnny and Sue have that house in Glenville, Long Island? How does Johnny keep buying cars? Where are their parents, even? Without money, how is anyone able to keep Johnny Storm, a teenager, rolling in carcinogens so he doesn't set the bed on fire?

:: Is this the first actual crossover in Marvel history? Other than the return of the Sub-Mariner (a Golden Age character) and Johnny Storm reading the first issue of The Incredible Hulk, I can't remember the characters of one mag interacting with another before... am I just not remembering?

(Looked it up: according to Marvel Wiki, the first official crossover is the next issue I'll tackle, Fantastic Four #12, which features a major appearance by the Hulk. However, both that issue and this one were released the same month, and my covering this one first is only because I'm going alphabetically by month. So as far as my post series goes, this is it, true believer.)

This is a great debut issue; Stan and Steve are just getting started with this character, but they've already managed to tap into what makes him special: that he's a teenager with teenage problems (just like you, reader!) who has gained incredible powers that should solve all of his problems; instead, they just make things harder. Spider-Man here is a character approached with great emotional sincerity; he wants to be the swashbuckling, devil-may-care hero, but things never work out right. It's all about growing up.

Next time: because the fans demanded it, the Fantastic Four face the incredible Hulk!


bliss_infinte said...

Thanks for that Spidey #1 analysis. I always thought Romita captured Parker's 'depressive' attitude in the mid-late 60's but Ditko and Stan set the tone. The FF were busy this month tacking Spidey and coming face to face with the Hulk!

SamuraiFrog said...

When I think of Spider-Man, I realize I'm usually picturing Romita's. His art really feels like the definitive version.