Monday, January 27, 2014

Marvels: Amazing Spider-Man #3

"Spider-Man Versus Doctor Octopus" by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko
(July 1963)

This is the first issue of Amazing Spider-Man that features one book-length story rather than two stories, and the format suits Spidey much better. This is also the story that introduces Spider-Man's greatest arch-enemy. Yeah, some people will tell you that the Green Goblin is Spidey's greatest foe, but I'm one of the many who disagree: it's Doctor Octopus all the way.

Doctor Octopus is the first foe Spider-Man's faced that's capable of doing more than just confounding and embarrassing him. He's faster, he's stronger, and he's a better thinker. When we first meet the man, he's Dr. Otto Octavius (here spelled "Octavious"), a brilliant scientist at an atomic research center who uses a device he created that gives him four metal arms; that way he can manipulate radioactive materials while hidden behind protective shielding. But when something goes wrong (the explanation we're given by a panicking tech is "the radiation meter has gone whacky!"), the explosion fuses the arms to his body and to his mind. We're also told in no uncertain terms that his brain has been damaged by the radiation, making him more bitter and, I guess, evil. One of the Marvel Universe's greatest super villains is born!

I think another of the interesting ways Doctor Octopus and Spider-Man are so evenly matched is in their arrogance. You look back at these stories and you can see how arrogant Peter Parker really was; he's brilliant and he knows it, and he bristles with anger when the other kids make fun of him or J. Jonah Jameson dumps on him, and he's often thinking of how he might have revenge one day. He also thinks very highly of himself as Spider-Man. This story, in a way, flows out of Peter's hubris; when we first see him, he's very annoyed because, after the Vulture and those ridiculous aliens last issue, he feels like the petty criminals he's catching now are just too easy to beat. He wants a real challenge. Meanwhile, it's Doctor Octopus' hubris that drives him to become "the supreme human being on Earth." And the first meeting between hero and villain only occurs because Spidey simply wanders into a hostage situation while trying to get pictures of Octopus for JJ, assuming that the Octopus will be another pushover for Spider-Man. One of the last complaints Spidey makes before getting his ass handed to him by Doctor Octopus is "It's great being Spider-Man! I can do almost anything! The only problem is--my jobs are too easy! I'd welcome a little competition once in a while!"

What I always dig is the way Stan and Steve love to take Peter Parker and karmically smack him down for being such a shit sometimes.

Yeah, Doctor Octopus kicks Spider-Man's ass. Hard. In his arrogance, he thinks Doctor Octopus' long arms are too clumsy and slow, but they're actually fast, hard and powerful, and they can snap through Spider-Man's webbing when he tries to stick them together. It takes all of one page for Doctor Octopus to hand Spider-Man a demoralizing and thorough defeat. (I was going to say it took two pages, but the second page is mainly Octopus toying with Spidey and slapping him around before just chucking him out a window.)

Being an arrogant kid, Peter doesn't take the defeat very well, asking himself for the first time, "Is this the end of Spider-Man?"

Jack Kirby had Sad Hulk; Steve Ditko has Angsty Peter. Kind of kills me. Seriously, Peter is so upset that he basically kind of quits his job as a freelance photographer and mopes his way to school while Doctor Octopus--seemingly unstoppable--takes over his old lab and packs it with enough booby traps to keep the armed forces at bay.

What turns Peter around is a school assembly; the Human Torch puts in an appearance, demonstrating his powers to the school and giving a motivational talk in which he admits that the Fantastic Four have experienced defeats, but that the important thing is to learn from defeats, don't get discouraged, and never give up. His resolve reignited, Peter puts his costume back on and heads out to face Doctor Octopus again at his lab, handily defeating the booby traps and whipping up a chemical compound that fuses two of Octopus' arms together. There's a lot of great tension and suspense in Spidey getting backed into a corner, but he's able to work his way up Doctor Octopus' heavy arms until he's close enough to just punch the guy in the face, knocking him unconscious and trussing him up for the police to collect.

Spider-Man's victory here is hard-won, and this is always the best kind of Spidey story to me--one where he's so overwhelmed that his victory doesn't seem assured. I think I said this before: it doesn't bother me when he has multiple villains in movies because I always think of these early stories where Peter Parker's resourcefulness really comes from having to face overwhelming odds and crushing insecurities. And his victory is just that much sweeter, even popping in on the Human Torch to thank him for his talk (much to the Torch's confusion) and--even though the narration notes he didn't get any pictures for JJ--regaining his self-confidence. It's an exciting issue; the best issue of Amazing Spider-Man so far, and the introduction of one of the Marvel Universe's best villains.

Stray observations:

:: Can't say I was ever a fan of the spider-signal attached to Spider-Man's belt. This issue marks its first appearance.

:: Steve Ditko's art in this issue is just tremendously good and dynamic, but I especially love this seeming throwaway panel. That lighting effect is neat!

:: The first letters page is in this issue; mostly people are just really enthusiastic about the character, even more than they were about Fantastic Four last year. One reader recently got his stated wish that Spider-Man would last for the next 50 years!

Great, tremendous stuff, and one that really solidifies the tone for the series to come.

Next Marvels: At last! The return of Doctor Doom!

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