Friday, March 21, 2014

Marvels: Amazing Spider-Man #4

"Nothing Can Stop the Sandman" by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko
(September 1963)

What's so great about Amazing Spider-Man is that, whatever's going on, it's really a book about how difficult it is to be Spider-Man. Which means it's really a book about how hard it is to be a teenage boy. Outside of this issue's villain, Spider-Man has to deal with the fear-mongering of J. Jonah Jameson's anti-Spider-Man campaign, his tenuous position as a costumed vigilante, and having to repair his own ripped mask. But on top of that, as Peter Parker, he has to deal with financial burdens, bullying at school, and caring for his over-protective aunt. The self-confidence issues alone are pretty staggering, and even still he's in the position of defending a school full of students who think Spider-Man is a hero, but despise Peter Parker.

Added to all this is that Sandman is a real threat. Stan Lee and Steve Ditko invent some pretty great villains. Sandman isn't Doctor Octopus--that's a pretty high bar--but he's capable of killing Spider-Man. Stan Lee and Steve Ditko did something great last issue when they created Doctor Octopus: they gave Spidey a villain who could not only defeat him, but kill him. It's a great pattern. It's not exciting to watch a hero fight someone he can get the drop on handily. What makes Amazing Spider-Man so suspenseful is that his victories aren't assured.

This issue starts with Spider-Man getting the drop on some hoods who are casing one of Marvel New York City's many, many jewelry stores. Rather than surrender, the hoods figure Spider-Man has no real legal authority, so they threaten to sue him for assault and call a cop over. Spidey, realizing he has no evidence (he didn't wait until they actually broke into the store), simply takes off, embarrassed.

Spotting a police chase, Spidey sees the suspect headed to a rooftop. And that's where he gets his ass kicked by the Sandman. Not only is he a bad guy who gets the drop on Spider-Man with his powers, he also taunts Spidey about it while he's doing it. Sandman can make himself sandier, so Spidey's punches harmlessly pass through him, or harder, so that Spider-Man almost breaks his fist on Sandman's jaw. Once again, Spider-Man's humiliated, and we all remember how badly he takes defeat. He's forced to flee when Sandman rips his mask; Peter can't let anyone see his face, and imagines all of the consequences of people knowing who Spider-Man is. (He even imagines Aunt May homeless on the street selling shoe laces out of a tray!) So Peter Parker runs off, the Sandman still taunting him, his failure burning in his ears.

After spending half the night sewing his mask back together (with frequent interruptions from Aunt May), Peter stops by the Daily Bugle offices to ask J. Jonah Jameson for an advance, which of course makes JJ explode. He was already in a foul mood--the night before, Spider-Man had left sticky webbing all over Jameson's chair, ruining a perfectly good pair of pants. Now, I don't think this counts as one of those karmic moments where Peter's impulsive mean streak comes back to haunt him--it's not like J. Jonah Jameson is going to give you or anybody else an advance in the first place--but it's probably not a good idea for Spider-Man to keep antagonizing the guy who's trashing your reputation; he just trashes harder. To add another humiliation to the pile, Peter is forced to break his date with Liz Allan--and I'm not sure how he even managed to get one in the first place!

On the run from the police, Sandman decides to hole up in Peter's high school, where he immediately starts threatening Principal Davis and demanding a diploma, because why not? When you think you're on an unstoppable roll, you get ridiculous. Peter changes into Spider-Man to get Sandman away from the kids. For all of his faults--namely arrogance and a mean streak--Peter feels it's his duty to defend his fellow students, even as he thinks about how he's fighting to protect the very kids who bully and tease him.

The fight itself is fantastic; Steve Ditko's art conveys both suspense and clarity of action. I can't overstate the importance of clarity. That's the reason I don't like the overwhelming majority of modern comic art, which hews to closely to the Jim Lee/Rob Liefeld/Todd McFarlane school that I always want to call "Coolness Is Everything." That's where artists sacrifice anatomy, clarity, logic, emotional believability, sincerity, communication and style in favor of slick embarrassments like this. The panels of this scene never stretch the bounds of credulity, even though it features a guy who can turn his body into sand trading fists with a guy who can jump and crawl like a spider. The art never crosses that weird line into out and out ridiculousness, which is its own skill, because you never know for sure where the line is, but you know damn well when it's been crossed.

The way Spider-Man defeats Sandman is just the right amount of goofy and functional to be fun: he sucks him into an industrial vacuum cleaner. I mean... that's kind of brilliant. It's like how I kept reading those early Ant-Man stories and kept saying "Just step on him, already." Or like I yelled at a character in a horror movie not to go in there, and they didn't go in there. I mean, it's so simple it's almost elegant: just vacuum him up, already.

Not only is it a victory for Spidey, he also throws a bunch of sand from a fire bucket into the air and punches it around to pose for pictures of Spider-Man locked in deadly combat with the Sandman. So, to recap: Peter Parker got the best of a taunter by making him look stupid and got paid for half-assing his work. On the internet, we call that... the dream. You, sir, lived it.

But, of course, this is Amazing Spider-Man, so Peter's victory doesn't live long. He asks Liz Allan if she's still up for that date he had to break, but she's already going out with Flash Thompson, whose taunting is the straw that breaks the camel's back. Peter actually shoves Flash and raises a fist before stopping himself.

After tasting triumph, it's the bitterness of defeat that fills Peter's mouth. And another adventure of Spider-Man ends in self-doubt and confusion.

This is a great issue of a great comic book.

Stray Notes:

:: As always, Steve Ditko's art is amazing. The Sandman is a character with great visual possibilities: physically, he's like an evil version of Reed Richards, stretching out his body or simply dissipating into sand.

Flint Marko, the Sandman, got these powers through a nuclear accident. He was hiding on a beach outside a testing facility, and somehow the radiation merged his molecules with the sand molecules around him. Good thing there weren't any needles on that beach!

In addition to being a great menace for Spider-Man (the guy can turn his hands into anvils), it also makes him a great bank robber: he can put his finger in the lock, contour it to the key's exact shape, harden his finger, and then simply turn and unlock the vault. Convenient.

:: "Boy, if the world ever found out that Spider-Man had to carry an umbrella and promise not to exert himself!!!"

:: This issue introduces us to Betty Brant, J. Jonah Jameson's pretty, young secretary.

:: Boy, those are some freakishly excited kids.

Apparently the brunette girl in the lower right corner is supposed to be Jessica Jones. (Well, not supposed to be, but given that assignation by later writers.) I don't really know much about Jessica Jones; she's one of those characters who emerged during the 12 or 15 or more years when I wasn't following Marvel Comics anymore. I had no idea she was supposed to have been a classmate of Peter Parker's until I read about it just now on Marvel Wiki.

:: When the police gather outside of the high school, J. Jonah Jameson urges them to just go in and overpower the Sandman, regardless of all the kids trapped inside. JJ reminds me of those assholes on Fox News who hear about school shootings and wonder why someone didn't just run up to a guy with an armory of weapons and start smacking him around in the way they consider manly.

He also becomes hysterical when the police don't move to apprehend Spider-Man as well as the Sandman. One cop even says that the police force appreciates Spider-Man's help! The kids love him, the cops understand what he's trying to do, but it's always the voice that screams the loudest about how bad you are that rings in your ear.

:: "Hey, what gives? You oughtta feel his arm under this jacket, Flash! Parker's got muscles like a weightlifter!" Remember, real strength is knowing when not to fight.

:: In the letters page, Stan cops to the mistake of calling Peter Parker "Peter Palmer" throughout the Chameleon story in Amazing Spider-Man #1. There's also a letter from Paul Moslander, editor of the fanzine Jeddak. Stan explains, too, what happened to Amazing Adult Fantasy (sales weren't high enough to continue it), and Rick Wood of Tennessee thinks Peter's spider-sense is too much of a crutch. (That Chameleon story did make it look a little too much like ESP... well, it's kind of ESP, but it was almost magic in that story.)

Important announcements here: Amazing Spider-Man is going monthly, Spider-Man will appear in this month's Strange Tales Annual and cameo in this month's Fantastic Four Annual, but he won't be doing a lot of team-ups anytime soon. Also, something called X-Men is coming.

About that: September 1963 is one of the best months in the history of Marvel Comics. There is so much great stuff that I'm going to be getting to over the next couple of weeks, including X-Men #1, the huge Sub-Mariner story in Fantastic Four Annual #1, the big pairing of Spider-Man and the Human Torch (establishing their rivalry), a new issue of Sgt. Fury (always a big deal in my book), and the first appearance of the Super-Skrull. Not every story will knock it out of the park, but there's so much good stuff here! And in that vein...

Next Marvels: The return of the Hulk! The return of Loki! Earth's Mightiest Heroes! It's Avengers #1!

1 comment:

bliss_infinte said...

"That's the reason I don't like the overwhelming majority of modern comic art, which hews to closely to the Jim Lee/Rob Liefeld/Todd McFarlane school that I always want to call "Coolness Is Everything." That's where artists sacrifice anatomy, clarity, logic, emotional believability, sincerity, communication and style in favor of slick embarrassments like this."

The "Coolness is everything" school is even more of a schlock when compared to classic comic story-tellers like Ditko, Lee, Kirby or pretty much anyone from the 60's and 70's.