Friday, February 04, 2011

Amazing Spiderman #1

George M. Cohan once observed that plotting a three-act play was relatively simple. In Act 1, you get the hero up in a tree. In Act 2, you throw stones at him. In Act 3, you get the hero down from the tree.

Many comic stories follow this simple formula. Where Spiderman was different, was that Stan and Steve never got him down from the tree; they just kept throwing the stones at him.

This issue offers a classic example. After a quick summary of the events in Amazing Fantasy #15, we see that Uncle Ben's death has put Peter and Aunt May in a rough situation:

Peter considers taking up crime to pay the bills, but he knows it would break his aunt's heart if he were ever arrested. So he gets the bright idea of going into show business. Problem solved? Nope, because there's another stone waiting:

Spidey indeed finds it impossible to cash his check. And things get even tougher with the first appearance of his longest-running nemesis:

The inspiration for J. Jonah Jameson is probably found in the works of Ayn Rand. In the book The Fountainhead, Howard Roark runs afoul of a character named Ellsworth Toohey, who sees it as his duty (as a socialist) to tear down heroic individuals in favor of the ordinary working man. Ditko was famously a Rand fan, and echoes of her philosophy often appeared in Spiderman and in the Question series, as I discussed here.

Jameson's son is an astronaut (note: astronauts were huge celebrities in 1963), and is being launched into space shortly after Spiderman is basically drubbed out of the entertainment biz. But his space capsule develops a problem and he appears to be doomed until Spiderman steps in:

He commandeers a plane and a pilot from a nearby base and:

He rescues Jameson's son and emerges a hero to all, right? Well, yes to the former, but Stan and Steve haven't finished off their pile of stones:

Jameson has trumped up a patently ridiculous charge that Spidey had caused the problems with the capsule in the first place, so that he could look like the savior. So our friendly neighborhood Spiderman remains treed:

In the backup story, Spiderman tries to join the Fantastic Four, figuring that he ought to command a good salary with them. But:

The remainder of the story features Spiderman's first battle with the Chameleon, a quick-change artist. At one point, the Chameleon impersonates Spiderman himself. Peter captures him but the Chameleon gets away and does another makeover. We see the first appearance of Spider-Sense here:

The Spider-Sense is an ingenious gimmick that would become an important weapon in Spiderman's arsenal. But when he catches the phony cop, the Chameleon claims loudly that Spiderman is really the Chameleon in disguise again. This results in Peter fleeing, angry and hurt:

Like I said, the stones never stopped coming.


Blaze said...

Being "up in the tree" is why I could never be a regular reader of "Amazing Spider-Man". I love the character and his general backstory, but his ongoing life was too unrelentingly miserable.

Give my heroes conflict, give them feet of clay, give them problems. However, there has to be a blue sky, sunshine day every now and then. Nonstop misery rings as false and flat to me as nonstop sunshine and lollipops. Being a good writer is balancing the two conditions.

David said...

I'm with Blaze on this one; of all the super-heroes in the world, Spidey is definitely the Charlie Browniest.

As a kid I was drawn to that fantastic costume -- still one of the best in the history of the genre -- and Spidey's freewheeling, smart-mouth attitude in costume, but as soon as the mask came off and we went back to Peter's miserable soap opera of a private life, my interest went right out the window. Obviously I'm wired differently from most fans, since those same constant trials are often cited as the chief strength of the book.

Maybe I'm crazy, but I could swear there was a sort of post-modern angle to the Stan-and-Steve run, as if they were lampooning the whole genre. I mean, a hero who has to sew up the holes in his costume, and at one point has to wear a substitute that doesn't fit...who goes home not to a stately manor but a cramped bedroom in his elderly aunt's rented house. It just seemed to me they were purposely upending all the conventions for the heck of it, and in that light I could tolerate the "angst" as just another part of the gag; see what would happen if you tried this in real life, kids?

But then Ditko left and so did the parody angle, if it was ever really there. What stayed was the angst and heartbreak, made even more soap-operaesque by the romance comic art of John Romita. The pretty pictures only carried me so far before I bailed.

Pat said...

I don't see it as lampooning so much as making it more realistic by showing how tough it would really be. And the bit with Peter having to sew up that cheap costume worked as comic relief.

I don't mean to say that Spidey never had his moments of triumph, or times when Peter seemed to be on top of the world. But because of the continuous (yes, soap opera) nature of Marvel's stories, you always knew that more stones were coming. Maybe that wasn't as obvious in the DC world because of the "reset at The End" nature of their stories, but it's there just the same.

Blaze said...

Well, well. I mentioned this entry and discussion on Spider-Man to a chum. He collects the webslinger and he educated me to current events. Apparently, the most recent issues have given Peter Parker and Spider-Man a moment in the sun.

- He is a member in good standing with the Avengers. In the current storyline, Spidey is up to his armpits in foes, and he hits the panic "Assemble" button. And the Avengers show up to lend a hand!

- He has a cool scientist/roller derby girlfriend.

- People of influence have finally realized Peter Parker is a genius. He's been hired by a very rarified R&D firm for big bucks and prestige.

- Speaking of prestige, Steve Rogers (the new head of SHIELD and more) put the pressure on Mayor (!) JJ Jameson to give Spider-Man the Key to the City as a token of recognition of recent victories.

Knowing the policy of writing Spider-Man, this will no doubt all crash spectacularly down. But it does sound like a nice break for our beleagured hero.

Marc Burkhardt said...

Spidey's status as the Charlie Brown of heroes is exactly what makes him one of my favorites. As cool as Bruce Wayne is, even as a young teen I knew my life would never, ever resemble that of a millionaire crime-fighter. Peter Parker, on the other hand, had the same troubles as many adolescents yet still persevered. I always found it inspiring, not defeatest.

Marc Burkhardt said...

P.S. Ditko is king.

Anonymous said...

Stan Lee once said in the introduction to a TPB collection that Spider-Man allowed the fans to feel superior. You knew that if you had those super powers, you would cope and solve your problems better than Peter Parker ever did. I agree with Blaze and David, though. Nonstop misery is as false as nonstop happiness.