Monday, January 24, 2011

Amazing Fantasy #15

I consider Spiderman the single best Silver Age character. For starters, he has the best motivation for putting on the outfit and fighting crime: Because when he failed to stop a criminal, it resulted in the death of his uncle Ben. That is a simple, direct and personal motivation.

Second, of all the Silver Age superheroes, he has the best-realized secret identity. As I have mentioned before, all of the superheroes have a pretty strong cast of supporting characters when wearing the mask and tights. But only Peter Parker seems to have much of a life outside the spandex.

Think about all the characters that Peter interacts with. He has Aunt May at home. He's got (initially) Flash Thompson and Liz Allen at school; after graduation that expands with the addition of Gwen and Harry. He's got J. Jonah Jameson, Betty Brant, Joe Robertson and Fred Foswell at the Daily Bugle where he works. And most of those characters have supporting actors of their own. There are even people that we hardly notice in the Silver Age: Professor Warren and Doctor Bramwell, for instance.

So I thought I would go through the Silver Age Spiderman in a bit more detail than I have in the past. The book he debuted in, Amazing Fantasy, had debuted as Amazing Adventures, then switched to Amazing Adult Fantasy with the seventh issue. For this finale to the series, the word "Adult" had been dropped.

Characters introduced: Peter Parker, Uncle Ben (dies), Aunt May, Flash Thompson, the Burglar (kills Uncle Ben). In addition, we meet Peter's high school science teacher, who is named (in ASM #15 as Mr. Warren (apparently not the same man as Professor Warren). All (except for the Burglar) are introduced on this second page, which does a good job of introducing us to Peter:

That's a solid introduction to the character, giving us the general outlines: Good-hearted, studious but a bit geeky. He attends a science lecture that night, where he is bitten by the famed radioactive spider. He discovers his odd powers and uses them to win a hundred dollars by lasting a round in the ring with Crusher Hogan. This results in his brief TV career. At the studio, he makes a critical mistake:

A short while later, Uncle Ben is murdered by a burglar. Peter tracks him down in an old warehouse, but is stunned to realize:

Note the pupils in his eyes in that bit; the idea that his mask was opaque had not yet been developed. And in the end, comes the phrase that the Spiderman movie made famous:

The story closes with an exhortation to buy the next issue of Amazing Fantasy for the further adventures of Spiderman. Of course, that next issue never arrived, and it was not until seven months later that ASM #1 hit the newsstands.

Comments: An argument can be made that aside from the compelling motivation, there is not that much new about Spiderman in this introductory story. Clark (Superboy) Kent had some troubles fitting in with his classmates, although it was never a continuing theme, just an occasionally recurring one.

But look a little harder and you'll realize that there is a great deal of novelty in this story. Was there ever a superhero before this whose reaction to his powers was the quite natural, "How can I make a buck off this?" Was there ever one who had a continuing antagonist like Flash Thompson, who was not a villain per se, just a bully?

A very solid introduction to the series.


David said...

I'd say the novelty goes further than that: Spider-Man is the first superhero I know of who was motivated by guilt.

Plenty were motivated by revenge, or a sense of civic duty, or patriotism or noblesse oblige...before Spider-Man one of the most interesting to me was the Hangman, who was motivated by the murder of his brother, fellow super-hero The Comet. That's fairly "innovative," especially for the Golden Age, but not nearly as radical as having a superhero take on his duties because of a monumental screw-up he will spend the rest of his life trying to atone for.

I'm not the biggest Spider-Man fan (to say the least), but this story does represent a quantum leap in the sophistication level of superhero comics writing. Dr Strange was more to my personal taste, but in his way he's a kindred spirit; a self-centered louse who has an epiphany and devotes himself to being as selfless as he once was selfish. Stan was quite canny to tap into that rich vein of dramaturgy; vengeance is an identifiable motivation, but ultimately shallow and empty. Redemption is a much more fulfilling theme. But it took guts to introduce a new character with the story of his greatest failure.

Pat said...

Excellent point, David! I note too that there have been efforts to graft guilt onto Batman by claiming that the reason he and his parents left the theater was because he got frightened by the bats in the movie.

Allan said...

I'd go so far as to say that the 41 issues of Spider-Man plotted/drawn by Ditko and scripted by Lee are the apex of the single character super-hero comic full stop. It doesn't get any better than this -- which is somewhat sad given that these stories are nearly 50 years old.

A genuinely superb run of comics, and one that is still capable of reminding me just why I fell in love with the medium in the first place.

Whalehead King said...

So many years later, after so many permutations of the character and gimmicks to boost sales, it's interesting to go back to his roots to see the original appeal in its rough form. Lee and Ditko stumbled across a diamond here and there is nothing like the original incarnation to remind us of that.

The same is true of so many series and characters that have been mucked up over the years. I suppose that's the nature of the beast though.

Anonymous said...

I was annoyed by the "efforts to graft guilt onto Batman." It is sad to see one of the oldest and most famous comic book heroes reduced to imitating a more recent character. And it is also another example of the unrelenting angst and soap opera in modern comics. Every hero, without exception, has to have deep-rooted psychiatric issues.