Friday, July 25, 2014

Marvels: Amazing Spider-Man #8

"The Terrible Threat of the Living Brain" by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko
(January 1964)

This is the issue where it finally comes to a head and we get the epic battle we've been waiting for. I'm not talking about Spider-Man and the Living Brain. I'm talking about Peter Parker getting in the boxing ring with Flash Thompson.

Tensions are really frayed this issue, with Flash bullying Peter especially hard, right from the outset. Flash even breaks Peter's glasses right away, and after that, a fight is unavoidable. They're ready to tear each other apart in class, but Liz Allan at least manages to make them agree to fight after school, instead.

Then Mr. Warren comes into the classroom to introduce Mr. Petty from the International Computing Machines Corporation, with their newest invention, a robot with "the greatest mechanical brain ever built," which ICM cheekily calls the Living Brain. The robot is so smart and has such computational power that Mr. Warren challenges his class to come up with a question to stump the Living Brain. Peter is given the honor of programming in all the pertinent data so that the Living Brain can answer the students' query: "What is Spider-Man's real identity?"

Peter's in panic mode as he waits for the Brain's answer. But it comes out in the form of a piece of paper that needs to be decoded, something Peter volunteers to do as homework so that he can buy himself some time to think of a way out. Flash volunteers to do it also, saying it's too important to be handed over to Parker, and the two blow up at each other some more, and that's when Mr. Warren, demonstrating the kind of old-fashioned thinking that would actually get you fired today, tells Peter Parker and Flash Thompson to go down to the gym and settle this in the ring.

Of course, you and I know that Peter can tear Flash apart handily, so the real tension here isn't who will win, but whether Peter can hold his super strength in check enough to not hurt Flash too badly.

The answer is no. (Great, great expression work by Steve Ditko in this story.)

Now, meanwhile, the two workmen who helped move the Living Brain into the school are duly impressed by how smart the machine is, and have decided to steal it for themselves. So that it can predict elections and horse race winners and make them rich. Because that's a great idea. No one will ever notice two rich day laborers who have a powerful (and missing) supercomputer in their hideout. Well, no one ever said the thieves in the Marvel Universe were smart.

They have a scuffle with Mr. Petty, and one of the would-be thieves backs into the Living Brain's control panel, causing it to go haywire in the middle of a crowded high school. A high school where, let's remember, two kids are boxing to settle a fight without any adult supervision whatsoever. The noise of the ensuing panic distracts Flash at just the moment where Peter throws a punch. It connects harder than Peter planned, knocking Flash unconscious. And do the kids at least give Peter credit for standing up to a bully? And for even doing it on the bully's turf, in the gym, where there's more honor in it than just getting into a fistfight at the bike racks or something? No, of course not. Instead, everyone calls it a cheap shot because Flash's head was turned.

Are you sure you really want the respect of these kids, Pete?

Well, no time for that now. Peter slips into his Spider-Man costume and fights the Living Brain. This entry's getting long enough, so I won't rehash the play-by-play, but it's another great, exciting battle in a Spider-Man comic. As the fight goes on, the Living Brain learns, and its speed is comparable to Spidey's, so it only gets deadlier and deadlier as the Brain tries to crush Spider-Man with a door, smash him against a wall, and ends the whole thing by rushing him and nearly knocking the two through a window. It's fantastic stuff.

In a nice, Archie-style twist, Flash Thompson winds up accidentally catching the thieves when they trip over him in the locker room and knock themselves unconscious on the floor. The students enter just in time to see him standing over them and assume he jumped them and saved the day. Peter uses this opportunity to declare that Flash Thompson must really be Spider-Man, laughing at how befuddled he is (and how readily the other kids believe it).

Great stuff. This is a fun story.

Stray observations:

:: Peter Parker doesn't ever wear glasses after this.

:: I don't know what the Living Brain's casing is made out of, but it sure is shiny!

In every panel, it's gleaming and glistening.

:: When the students are giving factual information they know about Spider-Man, Liz says "He's the most wonderful, heroic, glamorous man in the whole world!"

:: This is the second time, I believe, that Spider-Man's showed up at Midtown High. Couple that with Flash's assertion that Spidey's been spotted in the Forest Hills neighborhood a lot, and I'm surprised no one's really close to figuring out his identity without the Living Brain's help.

:: As much as I enjoyed this tale, it does bug me that it falls into that trope I hate where we invent artificial intelligence and then it turns against us. This has grown into such a tired cliche that we seem to now have the idea that it's a scientific inevitability (and a source of cheap, obvious jokes on apparently every science fiction news site I read now). It does get dull. How about exploring that in an interesting, meaningful way instead of just being depressingly robophobic? Come on, you're science fiction fans. Choose optimism.

:: Peter decides to throw away the piece of paper with the Living Brain's answer on it. I kind of wish they hadn't left that hanging. I mean, whether he shares it with the class or not, I'm just curious about whether the Living Brain actually figured it out!

"Spider-Man Tackles the Torch!" by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Steve Ditko

A six-page back-up story appears!

It's not very effective.

This is a cute filler back-up, a little nod to keep the rivalry between Spider-Man and the Human Torch going. In this one, Spidey shows up at Doris Evans' party and taunts Johnny Storm, and the two have a fight on the beach. After reading a story where Peter tried to hold back in his fight with Flash, it's interesting to see Spider-Man and the Torch just going full-bore at each other. I think there are at least three occasions where one of them could have killed the other. What starts of as pranks, wisecracks and one upmanship turns into just flat-out trying to murder one another. Teenagers are volatile, man.

The other members of the Fantastic Four show up to break up the fight, and Spidey retreats, leaving behind a heart made out of webbing for Sue.

Stray observations:

:: Sorry to be a fanboy, but Jack Kirby's Spider-Man still doesn't look right to me. Not as fluid as Ditko's. I think John Romita really split the difference between the two styles later. (Romita draws my favorite Spidey. I also love Ross Andru's.) For what it's worth, there's a letter this issue regarding Kirby's art in the Strange Tales Annual that agrees with me. And it's from Buddy Saunders, future Nebula nominee, Rocket's Blast contributor and Lone Star Comics founder.

:: The cover of this issue proudly declares Amazing Spider-Man #8 a "SPECIAL 'TRIBUTE TO TEEN-AGERS' ISSUE!!" I think Marvel was just thrilled to have characters that were big hits with teenagers. If you look back at the history of Timely Comics, you can see just how quickly superheroes burned out; by a year or two after World War II, most of their comics--Millie the Model, Georgie, Jeanie, Willie, Nellie the Nurse, Tessie the Typist, Junior Miss, Mitzi, Mitzi's Boyfriend, Oscar, Cindy, Margie, Frankie, Lana, Rusty, Patsy Walker--were aimed at teenagers. After the crime comic and horror comic boom of the early 50s was stomped on by Congress, Timely was forced to lay off almost all of their employees, leaving only a handful of books running. Some of the Westerns and a couple of the teen books were obvious sellers, and the horror comics got turned into science fiction comics. With Fantastic Four (and the attendant Johnny Storm stories in Strange Tales) and Amazing Spider-Man, Stan and Marvel had something that combined teen comics, science fiction and superheroes, and it was renewing the company. Now that Marvel had the teen audience again, you could bet Stan was going to be very careful to play to them.

Now if he could just figure out his problem with writing girls, we'd be set...

:: The special announcements section teases some upcoming features and changes, including officially making Doctor Strange the second feature in Strange Tales (with eight pages per story), the return of the Mole Man in Fantastic Four, my beloved Tales of Asgard stories, and a bunch more that we'll get to. It turns out that fan opinion on X-Men is sharply divided: "It seems like those of you who like it LOVE it--but those who dislike it LOATHE it!" Well, after that second issue...

But let's not worry about that now. In the next Marvels: the Sub-Mariner! The Hulk! Another epic battle awaits in Avengers #3!


bliss_infinte said...

"...trope I hate where we invent artificial intelligence and then it turns against us."

Uh-oh, you do know that's pretty close to what Avengers 2: Age of Ultron is about. Avengers! Ultron! 'Nuff Said!

"Romita draws my favorite Spidey. I also love Ross Andru's"

Same here! Ross Andru doesn't get enough love!

SamuraiFrog said...

True, but the Ultron story is one where they did it well. For every good example there are 15 hacky ones.

I dig Ross Andru. Superman vs. Spider-Man is one of my favorite comics!