Sunday, 31 January 2010

Amazing Spider-Man #12. Dr Octopus unmasks Spider-Man

Amazing Spider-Man #12, Dr Octopus unmasks Spider-Man
(Cover from May 1964.)

"Unmasked By Doctor Octopus!"

Written by Stan Lee.
Drawn by Steve Ditko.
Inked by Steve Ditko.
Lettered by Art Simek.


Expectations, according to that masterful master of words Charles Dickens, they can be great.

But we also know they can lead you astray or, worse than that, they can simply lead you nowhere. Take me. Some stories you find you have a whole kaboodle of things to say about, even when you wouldn't have thought you would, and some tales you find you have next to nothing to say about, even though you know you should.

Issue #12 of the Amazing Spider-Man falls into the latter camp. I mean, here's a tale to build epochs around, isn't it? Our hero's made it to his first dozen issues and we get to see Spider-Man unmasked by Dr Octopus.

So why then do I have so little to say about it?

Is it the artwork?

No.

Is it the writing?

No.

Is it the villain?

No.

Then what is it?

I don't know. Some critic I turned out to be.

So Spider-Man gets his first two parter as, having failed to capture Dr Octopus last time round, he gets another go at him.

And what a sad case Dr Octopus turns out to be, committing a string of crimes around the country purely to force Spider-Man to fight him, before returning to New York to kidnap Betty Brant purely to force Spider-Man to fight him. Not that he's obsessed or anything. But really, what does it say about a super villain when his only motivation for committing crimes is to pick a fight with his arch-enemy?

As with last issue, Spider-Man doesn't actually defeat Dr Octopus, he just gets lucky, which is a pleasing touch. It doesn't pay to make a super hero too successful against the opposition. After all, we might want him always to win but if he always triumphs no matter the odds, what happens to all the tension?

Highlight of the tale has to be Spider-Man and Doc Ock's fight in the sculptor's studio. It doesn't last long, thanks to Octopus getting himself trapped under a falling statue, but it's a pleasingly surreal venue for such a clash.

In fact, this issue's memorable for two things. One, Spider-Man gets to fight a bunch of animals Octopus has released from the zoo and, secondly, as touched on before, it's the tale where Spider-Man's true identity is at last revealed to the world, as, having defeated our flu-weakened hero, Dr Octopus pulls off his mask to reveal the face of Peter Parker beneath.

But there's the twist. No one believes Peter Parker could be Spider-Man and so, although people have seen his face, his identity remains a secret. It's those expectations again. If only Dr Octopus hadn't had expectations about how difficult to beat Spider-Man would be. If only J Jonah Jameson and Betty Brant hadn't had expectations about how puny Peter Parker is, his secret would be out. Maybe, from the viewpoint of our hero, sometimes false expectations are a whole lot better than great expectations.

Saturday, 30 January 2010

Amazing Spider-Man #11. Dr Octopus is back

Spider-Man cowers as Dr Octopus closes in on him, Amazing Spider-Man #11, Steve Ditko
(Cover from April 1964.)

"Turning Point"

Written by Stan Lee.
Drawn by Steve Ditko.
Inked by Steve Ditko.
Lettered by Sam Rosen.


Forget jet packs, ray guns and rocket ships, I sometimes think the invention we need most in this world is the robot from Lost in Space, the one that kept declaring, "Warning! Warning!" while waving its arms around. Certainly, the characters in The Amazing Spider-Man could do with it.

The judges and juries of Marvel Comics' New York city could definitely do with it. Only eight issues after being sent to jail for trying to take over the world - or something - Dr Octopus's sentence is served and he's free to go and look for alternative work. It's hardly surprising New York's crawling with crooks if sentencing in the city's this lax. Still, it does however mean Spider-Man's never short of someone to fight.

Another person in need of a good warning's Betty Brant who, in time-honoured tradition's done a runner. It seems her brother Bennett Brant has got himself mixed up with a crook called Blackie Gaxton who's blackmailing him into aiding his escape from prison. To do so, Gaxton's enlisted the aid of Dr Octopus and so, by the sort of coincidence that only happens in comic book land, Spider-Man's search for Dr Octopus and his search for Betty Brant lead him to the same place.

In fact, it's a slightly disappointing return for Octopus. Established as a major menace on his first appearance, here he's merely working as a lackey for someone we've never heard of before and, to my knowledge, never hear of again. Still, on the plus side, at the tale's climax, Spider-Man merely escapes Dr Octopus, rather than defeating him, thus preserving some of the not-so-good Doctor's menace.

In the first appearances index: we get the debut of the spider-tracer, although the idea that Spider-Man can detect it with his spider-sense has yet to be hit upon and so he uses a portable radio, hung around his neck, to detect it.

Steve Ditko's art goes from strength to strength. It may seem quite dated - and even quaint - these days but it has a simple elegance to it and it's quite surprising to see Betty Brant looking quite so glamorous.

As for Blackie Gaxton, he hangs around long enough to shoot dead Betty Brant's brother, making Betty the first of Peter Parker's girlfriends to lose a relative thanks to her involvement with Spider-Man's other half. Warnings again. If only she'd been able to warn Gwen Stacy what she was getting into. But hindsight, it's a wonderful thing.

Friday, 29 January 2010

Amazing Spider-Man #10. The Enforcers

Amazing Spider-Man #10, Our hero squares up to the Enforcers first appearance
(Cover from March 1964.)

"The Enforcers!"

Written by Stan Lee.
Drawn by Steve Ditko.
Inked by Steve Ditko.
Lettered by Sam Rosen.


"With this classic tale, the Marvel Age of comics reaches a new plateau of greatness!" You have to hand it to Stan Lee, he's never believed in under-selling things, and he doesn't do so here.

But is he right? Does the Marvel Age of comics reach a new plateau of greatness with this issue?

Well, inevitably not. I've never heard this tale being referred to as the high watermark of Marvel Comics history, or even of that month - although it does set a few things up for the future, in that it introduces the Enforcers who, despite the build-up they're given, prove to be more an annoyance to Spider-Man than a threat. Even with him weakened by having given a blood transfusion, the Ox, Fancy Dan and Montana still can't do anything more than distract him for a short while.

The other thing the tale does is introduce would-be crime lord the Big Man, and also the reporter Frederick Foswell. As it turns out, the Big Man and Fred Foswell are the same person, which I suppose is obvious as we've never seen either of them before this issue.

Exactly why Foswell is the Big Man's a whole other matter. After all, why's a major crime lord working as J Jonah Jameson's doormat at the Daily Bugle? I suppose it could be put down as a cover. But then, I don't see the Kingpin working at McDonalds, or Kraven the Hunter busting his gut in Burger King.

Steve Ditko's art's superb in this issue, although his tendency to show Peter Parker with his face half Spider-Manned is over-used as we see the trick repeated in panel after panel.

But my big let-down of the tale arrives on the final page where we get J Jonah Jameson pontificating to himself as to why he hates Spider-Man. He declares it to be because he's jealous of a man who's clearly so much better than him. While it might be true that that's the reason for the antipathy, it doesn't feel right for him to be acknowledging it. Happily, I don't think this explanation - or its level of self-awareness - was ever displayed again. So, if we choose - and I do - we can brush it under the carpet and put it down as a rare lapse from Lee and Ditko.

My favourite moments of the tale actually come from Flash Thompson. It would've been easy for Lee and Ditko to have always portrayed him as nothing more than the school bully/loudmouth but, twice in this tale, Flash displays his more caring side, as he first visits Aunt May in hospital and then, later in the story, warns Peter Parker about the risk he's taking in telling everyone that he knows the Big Man's true identity. Needless to say, Peter Parker responds with sarcasm, which does start to give you insight into why Flash has a problem with him in the first place.

Can it be? Can it be that, all along, we've been on the wrong side and that, in the end, the attitude problem's been with Peter Parker and not with Flash Thompson?

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Amazing Spider-Man #9. Electro

Amazing Spider-Man #9, Electro makes his debut and knocks Spider-Man out
(Cover from February 1964.)

"The Man Called Electro!"

Written by Stan Lee.
Drawn by Steve Ditko.
Inked by Steve Ditko.
Lettered by Art Simek.


Time to say hello to what would become two familiar enemies. In this tale, we get the first appearance of Max Dillon, AKA Electro, and we get the first appearance of Aunt May's sick bed.

To be honest, it's the arrival of Electro that's most welcome. Maybe if Aunt May's sick bed hadn't turned up in nearly every story from this point on, it would have been more welcome but, as it is, it's a rather ominous arrival for both Peter Parker and for us.

But this tale seems a little odd. It sort of feels like there's been an issue in between the last one and this. One we've not been privy to. All of a sudden Aunt May's at death's door and Betty Brant seems an awful lot closer to Peter Parker than she ever has before - even visiting Aunt May in hospital, although, before now, there's been no indication she's ever even heard of May Parker, let alone met her.

Nice to know there's a psychic available. As Electro climbs up a building - Spider-Man style - an onlooker kindly explains the principle by which he's managing to do it. Clearly that's one clever onlooker.

As with other villains so far in the strip's brief history, Electro's plan makes no real sense. In fairness, at first he doesn't have one. He's happy just to rob people. In fact, in these early pages, he seems quite nice, only giving his victims a mild electric shock that, in all honesty, seems to be doing nothing more than tickling them. He even expresses regret at having to hurt Spider-Man.

But then he decides the best method in the world to avoid being captured and sent to prison is to break into the local prison. His plan? To free the prisoners so they can work for him and protect him from going to prison.

But you're already in prison, you buffoon!

You've just broken in! And now you can't leave because the place is surrounded by cops who'll shoot you like a dog if you try to. And then super villains wonder why they never win.

And of course he doesn't win. Following on in his tradition of defeating seemingly unbeatable opponents in unlikely ways, Spider-Man stops Electro with a hose pipe. First the Sandman with a vacuum cleaner, now this. The super villains union will not be happy.

Some might point out that Electro's powers break the laws of physics in places, his own brand of special electricity seeming not to need to be grounded to work. But, hey, it's a comic book, what can you do? If anyone practised any kind of scientific accuracy there'd be no story. "Peter Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider and then his hair falls out and he dies," probably wouldn't have spawned a strip that's lasted nearly fifty years and launched a clutch of movies.

Electro's debut aside, the issue's main interest comes from the supporting cast, with both Flash Thompson and Betty Brant being fleshed out noticeably. Flash has second thoughts about the way he's been treating Peter Parker and tries to bury the hatchet, only to be ignored by the teenager who has other things on his mind, instantly turning Flash back into being an enemy.

Betty Brant meanwhile reveals she once knew a boy like Peter Parker, who she had to break up with, seemingly because of his love of danger. Keep watching this space, kids. We're clearly being set up for future events.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Amazing Spider-Man #8. The Living Brain

"The Terrible Threat Of The Living Brain!"
Amazing Spider-Man #8, Living Brain, first appearance and origin
(Cover from January 1964.)

Written by Stan Lee.
Drawn by Steve Ditko.
Inked by Steve Ditko.
Lettered by Artie Simek.


If you're looking for trouble, you've come to the right place. You've come to Peter Parker's high school. Trouble certainly does seem attracted to it. Only four issues back it was hi-jacked by the Sandman and now it's the turn of a homicidal robot.

Meanwhile, no one could ever accuse Stan Lee of lacking commercial nouse or of not knowing his market, and so Amazing Spider-Man #8 finds itself billed as the, "Special, 'Tribute to Teenagers' Issue!!" A matter so important it even gets two exclamation marks.

It has to be said that, when you get inside, this tribute to teenagers is nowhere in sight. I mean, there are teenagers but where the tribute is anybody's guess.

Oh well, what can you do? These are comic books, the medium that used to sell you Sea-Monkeys and X-Ray specs. They're not the place to go if you demand honest advertising.

Instead, we get one of the sillier tales of the era, when Spider-Man find himself up against the Living Brain, an out of control robot that may or may not know his secret identity. He finds time to do this and, in one of the early years' most memorable scenes, have a boxing match with Flash Thompson.

I said it was silly, and it is, as the Living Brain blunders around the school on castors, as poor old Flash becomes comic relief. But that's not to say it doesn't hold a special place in my heart. As with the previous issue, there's a sense of fun here and one that probably works better in this tale, than it did in that.

Slightly odd to discover that Peter Parker's high school teacher's called Mr Warren. Apparently, it was later retconned that this Mr Warren and the later Professor Warren were brothers. I can't say I can see the family resemblance.

In terms of significance, this is the issue where Peter Parker broke his glasses and decided he didn't need them anymore.


"Spider-Man Tackles The Torch!"

Written by Stan Lee.
Drawn by Jack Kirby.
Inked by Steve Ditko.
Lettered by Sam Rosen.


Fixated with the Fantastic Four?

Stan Lee?

It seems like it. I've lost count of how many times Spider-Man's come up against one or more members of the group in his first few issues but he's at it again, first gatecrashing the Human Torch's party and fighting him for no reason at all other than to fill some comic book pages, and then picking a fight with the rest of the Four, again for no reason whatsoever. I suppose the tale's real importance is that it's drawn by Jack Kirby, the man originally pencilled in (sorry) to draw Spider-Man before the task was given instead to Steve Ditko.

So, What kind of a job does he do?

A pretty good one, though it has to be said the difference is most apparent in the nature of the tale, which, in good old Jack Kirby tradition is one non-stop fight. Kirby's love of gimmicks shows through, with him having Spider-Man make a web bat, two web parachutes, two web scoops, a web heart and a pair of webbed wings - all in the space of just seven pages, which I suppose gives us some insight into what the strip would've been like if, as planned, he'd drawn it.

In the end it's just a throwaway tale - and the reason for Spider-Man and the Torch's antipathy to each other's never explained. They'd shown no sign of it before, though it was to surface over and over again over the years before they finally admitted they were friends.

Monday, 25 January 2010

Amazing Spider-Man #7. The Vulture's back

Amazing Spider-Man #7, the Vulture and Spidey confront each other in the sky above New York City
(Cover from December 1963.)

"The Return Of The Vulture!"


Words by Stan Lee.
Art by Steve Ditko.
Lettering by Artie Simek.


Well, here's an odd one. Only five issues after he last showed up, the Vulture makes his return appearance.

Admittedly, the fact he makes it's mostly down to the New York prison authorities who conveniently let him make use of their equipment to create a new anti-gravity device. Leaving aside the stupidity of those authorities for giving him the means to make his escape, it has to be some prison workshop they have that can be used to make anti-gravity devices.

But then, this is, presumably, the same prison workshop that enabled the Shocker to make his vibro-equipment, so it seems to be better equipped than the average mad scientist's lab.

What's also odd about this tale is it's mostly played for laughs, as though both Steve Ditko and Stan Lee know the Vulture isn't really that heavy-duty a villain (one punch from Spider-Man would take his head clean off) and therefore they'd better concentrate on the "fun" side of the tale.

I still don't have a clue how Spider-Man defeats the Vulture in this story. He shoots some webbing at the Vulture's wings, the Vulture says he can't fly because his wings are webbed and begins to plummet from on high till Spider-Man saves him by attaching a web parachute to him, allowing the feathered fiend to fall gently into the no doubt waiting hands of the authorities.

Why would webbing the Vulture's wings make him plummet? It's already been established that the Vulture flies via an anti-gravity device on his shoulders, and his wings have nothing to do with it. He even manages to fly at the start of the tale without the aid of his wings.

In fact, the most significant thing that happens in this issue is right at the end, when Peter Parker and Betty Brant start to get romantic behind a desk in the Bugle's office. Don't worry, The Amazing Spider-Man hasn't suddenly gone all X-certificate. When I say, "romantic," I mean, "romantic," and it's first time we've seen the smooth-tongued flirtatious side of Peter Parker that'd become especially evident in the John Romita years.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Amazing Spider-Man #6. The Lizard

Amazing Spider-Man #6, Spidey and the Lizard fall down a stone shaft as they fight, first appearance and origin
(Cover from November 1963.)

"Face-To-Face With The Lizard!"

Words by Stan Lee.
Art by Steve Ditko.
Lettering by Artie Simek.


Scientists, will they never learn not to tamper with things that're best left to God, and God alone?

Well, not in the mighty world of Marvel Comics, they won't. And I suppose we should be glad of it or Spider-Man would have a very dull life and we'd have nothing to spend our 12 cents on each month. That's right, pilgrims, this is the issue when out favourite comic book goes monthly and, to celebrate, we get a trip to Florida.

This time out, the scientist who doesn't know to leave things to God and God alone is Dr Curt Connors who, in an attempt to grow back the arm he lost in the war, has drunk some reptile serum and promptly turned into the Lizard, scourge of the swamps and supreme photo opportunity for Peter Parker. Of course, Peter Parker has to survive this particular photo opportunity before he can get his money but what can you do?

I love this story. I love it for two reasons. One, it has the Lizard in it, who's probably my favourite Spider-Man villain. And, two, because of the dialogue.

In fact, the dialogue starts spectacularly badly, with the Lizard uttering the sort of cornball lines that monsters used to utter in the monster stories Marvel produced by the bucketful in the early 1960s. But then we switch to Peter Parker in New York and it's blatantly obvious Stan Lee's hit his stride with his characterisation of our hero, as Peter quips his way through a series of incidents before finally getting to meet his foe.

It's easy to credit Steve Ditko with a huge part of Spider-Man's early success - it is, after all, a visual medium - but I can't help feeling it was Stan Lee's voicing of our hero that was the real secret. Had there ever been a super hero before written quite liked Spider-Man? For me, that's why the strip made such a smooth transition from the Ditko era to the John Romita epoch. The style of art may have been dramatically different but Lee's dialogue stayed true to the spirit of old.

As for Florida, that's when the joking stops and our hero's in a fight for his life.

Like Dr Doom's plan last issue, the Lizard's scheme probably doesn't make any great sense. He wants to give the serum, that turned him into the Lizard, to the reptiles in the Florida swamps, to turn them into what are presumably meant to be an army of Lizard-Men. Except the formula was derived from lizards, so wouldn't it just make them more lizardy?

Happily we never get the chance to find out, as given the chance to administer the formula to all the creatures of the swamp, the Lizard, or Liz to his friends, spends all his time, boasting of how he's going to give the formula to the lizards while never actually doing it. Instead, he spends all his time, trying to squish Spider-Man. Something he very nearly manages. Happily, as is his wont, Spidey's whipped up an antidote in double-quick time and pours it down the Lizard's throat. Cue, one cured scientist and a friendship to last for life.

One friendship that's not on such firm ground is the one between Peter Parker and Liz Allan. Having been rescued from jewel thieves by him, in the museum, she's developed a crush on Spider-Man and has no time at all now for Peter Parker. As Peter Parker says, talking to no one in particular, as he does, "Only a guy with my nutty luck could end up being his own competition." You said it, tiger, but then we wouldn't want it any other way.

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Amazing Spider-Man #5. Dr Doom

Amazing Spider-Man #5, Dr Doom fires shots at Spidey as the wall-crawler jumps out of the way, Steve Ditko, first meeting(Cover from October 1963.)

"Marked For Destruction By Dr. Doom!"

Written by Stan Lee.
Drawn by Steve Ditko.
Inked by Steve Ditko.
Lettered by Sam Rosen.


Need legal advice? Then Dr Doom's your man. The man who the Fantastic Four are convinced they can never arrest because he's broken no law, despite breaking just about every law under the sun every time he sets foot out of his castle, is back; and Spider-Man discovers that the best kind of attorney is a punch in the face.

As if flinging Dr Octopus and the Sandman at Spider-Man over the last two issues wasn't enough, now Stan Lee and Steve Ditko bring in the biggest gun in their arsenal, as arguably Marvel Comics' greatest villain makes a house call on Spider-Man's mag.

In fact, its a somewhat silly version of the good Doctor that we get; one who comes up with a plan that, like most super villain plans, makes no noticeable sense. You see, having decided he can't defeat the Fantastic Four on his own, our villain's decided to enlist the aid of Spider-Man.

The only trouble is, Spider-Man doesn't want to team up with Dr Doom and doesn't want to kill the Fantastic Four. Upon hearing this, Doom does what you expect him to do in such circumstances and, instead, tries to kill Spider-Man. You can't help feeling Doom's life would be so much less stressful if only he'd stop trying to kill everyone.

Needless to say, his latest attempt at homicide fails and Spider-Man escapes.

Doom, however, is really into this killing thing, like other people are really into the hula hoop, and later captures Flash Thompson who's disguised as Spider-Man. He then uses this captive "Spider-Man" as bait to lure the Fantastic Four into fighting him.

It's a great plan.

There's only three things wrong with it.

1. He doesn't actually tell the Fantastic Four where he is.

2. He doesn't need to give Reed Richards, Ben Grimm, and Sue and Johnny Storm a reason to fight him. In case he hasn't noticed, he's their arch-enemy and menace to mankind. All of which means they'd be perfectly happy to smack him in the kisser any old time.

3. He's said, at the start of the tale, that he wants to enlist Spider-Man because he can't beat the Fantastic Four on his own. So how come now, eight pages later, he's planning to take the Fantastic Four on on his own?

Actually, just like Victor's plan, as a tale it's somewhat unsatisfactory. Basically it's Dr Doom throwing unlikely gadget after unlikely gadget at Spider-Man who keeps dodging them, until, at last, Steve Ditko gets bored with it and Spider-Man finally fails to dodge one, at which point the Fantastic Four turn up and Dr Doom, who wanted the Fantastic Four to turn up, so he could defeat them, decides he can't defeat them and runs away. Oh, Victor, will you never learn?

So, despite it being Spider-Man's first run-in with an established Marvel villain, and his millionth encounter with the Human Torch in just five issues, the tale's more notable for the private life of Peter Parker, as Flash Thompson, who's been a somewhat two dimensional character so far, is revealed to be a huge Spider-Man fan, even to the extent of dressing up as the super hero in order to give Peter Parker a shock. Interesting that when Flash goes missing, it's Peter that Liz Allan and the other kids phone to try and sort the mess out for them. Clearly, they must, deep down, have plenty of respect for Peter, no matter what they say.

Meanwhile, Betty Brant reveals she has certain feelings for Peter Parker. Feelings that it seems are mutual. Peter Parker's remarkable ability to attract attractive women - despite him always claiming to be unlucky in love - has at last made its debut.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Amazing Spider-Man #4. The Sandman

Amazing Spider-Man #4, first appearance and origin the sandman, flint Marko(Cover from September 1963.)

"Nothing Can Stop The Sandman!"

Words by Stan Lee.
Art by Steve Ditko.


"Nothing can stop the Sandman," boasts the story's title. Well, nothing except the sea coming in, presumably.

But, despite that and the less than magnificent cover, the strip really had hit its stride by this point. After giving us one great villain last issue, the comic gives us yet another in the Sandman, a villain so powerful, he went on to become a recurring foe for both the Fantastic Four and even the Incredible Hulk. Anyone who can hold their own in such company's clearly not to be sneezed at.

Well, not unless his sand gets up your nose.

Admittedly his menace in this tale's somewhat undermined by the fact he's defeated by a vacuum cleaner, a device that wouldn't even defeat me but he gets some good knocks in first, including a surprisingly brutal scene, for the early 1960s, where he repeatedly head butts Spider-Man.

The humorous side of the strip really hasn't been in evidence before but, here, we can see it first start to show through, as Spider-Man's threatened with legal action by a gang of crooks he prevents from robbing a jewellery store, Peter Parker's forced by Aunt May to take an umbrella to school, J Jonah Jameson loses his trousers, and Peter Parker has girl trouble. Bit by bit, the elements that made The Amazing Spider-Man unstoppable are being added - presumably intuitively - to the strip.

It's clearly an issue for first appearances because not only do we get our first meeting with the Sandman, we also get our first encounter with two women who'll rapidly become important in the life of Spider-Man; Liz Allen/Allan and Betty Brant. When we first meet Liz, it seems Peter Parker's already made a date with her, a date he inevitably has to cancel, and Betty Brant's trying to avoid J Jonah Jameson.

Something that doesn't make its debut is Aunt May's ill health. Four issues in and there's still no sign of Aunt May fainting, having a heart attack or being in any way shape or form ill. Just when will all the facets that made May Parker so annoying make their debut?

Amazing Spider-Man #3. Dr Octopus

Amazing Spider-Man #3, spidey helpless as dr octopus holds him aloft, dr octopus first appearance and origin
(Cover from July 1963.)

"Spider-Man vs Dr Octopus!"

Words by Stan Lee.
Art by Steve Ditko.
Lettering by John Duffy.


If a man's only as old as he feels, a hero's only as good as the villains he defeats. At last, after messing about in the minor leagues for his first few months of existence, Spider-Man gets to move up to the big-time with his first fight against his first major villain.

That villain's Dr Octopus and, just to show how major he is, he beats Spider-Man up on their first meeting and tosses him aside like a scrunched up sheet of notepaper.

But is our hero downhearted?

Too right he is. He's so downhearted he cancels his photographic commitments to the Bugle and wonders if he'll ever dare be Spider-Man again. Happily, a quick pep-talk from the Human Torch, and he's back in action.

After defeating the Vulture with a quickly knocked up gizmo of dubious scientific likelihood, last issue, this time he again whips up something in a hurry - a chemical that fuses two of Dr Octopus' tentacles together - before knocking him out with a sock to the jaw. In this instant are the two faces of Spider-Man unveiled; man of science and slugger. With a combination of talents like that, how could he ever have doubted himself?

It has to be said the Human Torch's excuse for not going to fight Dr Octopus is as lame as you can get. Apparently, he can't fight him because he's been using his flame too much lately and needs to rest it for a few days. So, instead, he gives an annoying lecture to the kids at Peter Parker's high school about how they should work hard at their exams. As I can't remember the Human Torch ever even sitting an exam in his entire life, I'm not sure it's advice then anyone, apart from Peter Parker, is likely to have been listening to.

Happily, by the tale's end, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko have thought better of it and we're told it was actually a virus that was preventing the fiery one from doing his duty.

Having read the tale a number of times now, I'm still not totally sure what Dr Octopus' plan is. He takes over a nuclear facility...

...and then what?

Well, he stands around for a bit, doing nothing much in particular until Spider-Man turns up. Earlier in the tale, Spider-Man was bemoaning the fact he didn't have anyone decent to fight. Maybe Dr Octopus has a similar mentality and prefers to do nothing until there's someone to hit. Oh well, he is an evil madman, after all. Perhaps he doesn't need a rational plan.

Actually, the evil madman thing is what's most interesting about this tale. Over subsequent appearances, the full-on insanity Octavius displays here became dramatically watered down till he could be seen as just bad, rather than mad. Here, it's on display in full-on Technicolor.

Steve Ditko's art in this issue's superb. It's not so much his pencilling that impresses, as his inking. His use of light and shade's astonishing and, from looking at it, I get the feeling it must've been an influence to some degree on Neal Adams. The similarity in the way areas of blackness are used leaps out at you in places.

Nomenclature alert! Now Magazine is no more. Suddenly the publication J Jonah Jameson owns is called the Daily Bugle, the strip's first ever mention of the newspaper.

Quiz of the Month.
Spot Dr Octopus's slight continuity error.
Amazing Spider-Man #3, on his first appearance and origin, Dr Octopus calls Spider-Man Superman
Now you know why he needs those glasses.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Amazing Spider-Man #2. The Vulture and the Tinkerer

Amazing Spider-Man #2, Spidey battles the Vulture over the skyscrapers of New York City(Cover from May 1963.)

"Duel To The Death With The Vulture!"

Words by Stan Lee.
Art by Steve Ditko.
Lettering by John Duffy.


A super-hero without a super-villain is as much use as a door without a handle; and, so far, Spider-Man's been bereft of any such foe. After all, the Chameleon had unusual abilities but could hardly be called super-powered.

But, at last, in issue #2 of his own title, Spider-Man gets his first outing against a foe of the super variety.

It'd be true to say the Vulture isn't one of the all-time greats but he is a suitably off-beat foe for an off-beat hero and there're none of the problems that'd later surface with the question of how a frail looking old man can take a punch from a man with the proportional strength of a spider. For most of their encounter, Spider-Man simply doesn't land a punch on him and, when they finally do get to grips, Spider-Man doesn't need to use fisticuffs because his brain does the job for him.

Why? Because Peter Parker really is a genius. Not only does he somehow work out that the Vulture flies by means of magnetism - despite the fact he has wings, whose presence would seem redundant in such a circumstance - but, in the space of just a few hours, he invents a device that negates magnetism. All of which poses the obvious question as to why he's always short of money. With talent like that, he should be making a fortune selling patents. Instead, he has to settle for selling photos of Spider-Man to Daily Bugle publisher J Jonah Jameson.

Except, he's not the Daily Bugle publisher.

Not yet.

It's interesting that, at this stage in the strip's history, there's no sign of the Daily Bugle. Instead Jameson's credited with running Now Magazine. It'll be interesting to see at what stage in Spider-Man's personal time-line Now becomes the Bugle.

I've not exactly been effusive about Steve Ditko's art before now, mostly because I think there was still an element of him finding his feet with the strip but this is the issue where his work really starts to come to life. In places, especially his close-ups of the Vulture's hands and face, it's absolutely beautiful.

But it's not all positive. In this story we get to see the first instance of a trend that'd carry on throughout the history of Spider-Man; that of the stupidity of the penal establishment in Marvel Comics' version of New York, as we're shown the Vulture in his prison cell, at the tale's conclusion.

And guess what?

That's right, he's still wearing his Vulture suit - complete with wings. I wonder if he'll just happen to escape at any point?

What am I on about? With prison security like that, you might as well ask will the sun rise tomorrow.

Amazing Spider-Man #2, the Terrible Tinkerer zaps Spider-Man from behind with a ray gun in his underground lair
"The Terrible Tinkerer!"

Words by Stan Lee.
Art by Steve Ditko.
Lettering by Art Simek.


Aliens!

They're here!

And Spider-Man's up against them!

As I've mentioned before, it seemed de rigueur for Marvel Comics' heroes to encounter aliens on their first or second outing. Spider-Man's had to wait for his fifth before meeting them.

And when he does, he meets them with style.

The impression I get is this tale's been pretty much dismissed for years as little more than a bit of silly filler but I love it, mostly because it gives Ditko the chance to make full use of his background in drawing horror, mystery and sci-fi stories and it therefore looks great, easily the best looking tale he's produced so far.

As for the main villain of the piece, the Tinkerer; I wonder if Stan Lee and Steve Ditko had something against senior citizens? No sooner has Spider-Man despatched his first super-villain in the ageing form of the Vulture but now he's up against another old bloke, in the Tinkerer who, gratifyingly, is shown to be one of the aliens. Admittedly, in later appearances, the whole thing was retconned so the aliens in the story aren't really aliens at all, just actors - including Mysterio - pretending. That retcon was a mistake. The story works best when they're seen as the real deal - and so does the oddly Brothers Grimm-esque Tinkerer.

There's some strange science going on here again. How exactly is the air being forced out of Spider-Man's resisto-glass prison? Whatever the method is, it enables him to shoot his webbing through the air holes through which we're told it's being forced and thus make his escape. So, I suppose the world has reason to be grateful for technology that makes no sense.

Monday, 18 January 2010

Amazing Spider-Man #1. The Fantastic Four and the Chameleon

Amazing Spider-Man #1, Spidey is trapped in a glass tube at the Baxter Building as the Fantastic Four prepare to fight him
(Cover From March 1963.)

"Spider-Man!"

Words by Stan Lee.
Art by Steve Ditko.
Lettering by Johnny Dee.


They knew how to pack things in in the old days. With this landmark issue, we get not one but two Spider-Man stories and, rarely for Marvel Comics of this era, not one of them features aliens. If I'm remembering right, the Hulk met aliens in his second adventure, as did the Fantastic Four, and Thor met them in his first. Here, Spider-Man does get to ride a rocket, as did the Fantastic Four, while Daredevil got to ride in one in his second issue, but our hero never quite makes it into space.

Already the effects of the Marvel Method are there to be seen. For anyone who doesn't know, the way it worked was that, instead of writing a full script for the artist to draw, Stan Lee would give an outline to the artist who'd go off and work out the details of the plot for himself. Lee would then, upon receiving the artwork, try to make sense of the story the pictures were telling him and add dialogue and captions to them. In some cases, he wouldn't even do that, he'd just say, "Jack/Steve, wouldn't it be a great if Antman grew two heads?" and then leave Jack/Steve to work out the story.

Here, we seem to get one of those occasions where the artist's idea of what's going on isn't quite the same as the writer's. I think, from looking at the pictures, that Steve Ditko's telling the tale of an out of control space capsule that can't land because its lost its parachute, which Spider-Man duly replaces by fixing a new one to the nose cone, thus saving the life of John Jameson; whereas Stan Lee's words tell of a missing part that's sent the capsule out of control and needs to be replaced before the capsule can release its parachute and land.

Either way, Spider-Man proves his mettle by doing the job. There's some insanely brilliant artwork here as Spider-Man stands atop a speeding jet and snags the hurtling capsule with his webbing. Overall, Ditko's work is stronger this issue than it was for Spider-Man's origin tale, an improvement that'd continue for a good two years beyond this point.

It has to be said there are some unlikely happenings in this tale. For a start we get to see a space rocket that seems to be launching from the middle of New York City. Clearly safety standards at NASA were a lot laxer in those days. We also get to see jets flying higher than a supposedly orbiting capsule, and Spider-Man having no difficulty breathing miles above the Earth's surface.

And, as for the capsule landing on solid ground. Ouch!

Amazing Spider-Man #1, the Chameleon looms over the skyscrapers of New York as Spidey swings in to stop him. The disembodied heads of the Fantastic Four watch
"Spider-Man vs The Chameleon!"

Words by Stan Lee.
Art by Steve Ditko.
Lettering by John Duffi.


So, we've had the, "Our hero gets to ride on a space rocket," motif, now we get that other Stan Lee favourite of the age, "Master of disguise frames our hero." It happened to the Fantastic Four in their second outing, with the skrulls, and now it happens with Spider-Man and the Chameleon.

It has to be said it's a more mundane tale than the one the Fantastic Four endured. Being just a bloke with a bunch of masks, the Chameleon doesn't quite have the glamour of the skrulls but it is a chance for Spider-Man to show off what he can do, making full use his spider-sense to locate the villain's helicopter. Even though this tale appears to be the first time he's ever used it, somehow the Chameleon knows all about it and how to use it to contact him.

He also shows off his ability to whip up a parachute and to operate in the dark.

He does, as well, something I'm not sure he ever did again, where he effectively flies by creating a web catapult to send himself soaring into the air. It seemed to be de rigueur for Marvel heroes at that stage to be able to "fly" in some way, whether it be via the Torch's flame or Thor's hammer or the Hulk's leaping. Any old excuse to get them airborne seemed good enough.

But, nefarious as he is, the Chameleon's really just a sideshow. The real point of this story is, of course, Spider-Man's battle with the Fantastic Four, clearly thrown in to get readers of that mag to pay up for this one. And it's nice to see Spider-Man more than holds his own against them. It's the first time we've really got a sense of his full power and potential. Here he is fighting Marvel's mightiest heroes, including the Thing, to a standstill.

Despite his secret identity, our hero turns up at the Baxter Building, for his, "audition," in his Peter Parker guise. Someone ought to tell him that's not exactly the best way to preserve a secret identity.

We're told Spider-Man's wanted by the police. For what exactly, isn't clear.

On the art front, this story has a great splash page, with Spider-Man firing his webbing at a giant version of the Chameleon who looms like the Shadow over the skyscrapers of New York as the FF watch on. Not a natural super hero artist, Ditko's work seems to be getting more and more stylish as he goes along.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

Amazing Fantasy #15. Spider-Man's origin

Amazing Fantasy #15, Spider-Man first appearance and origin, cover
(Cover from August 1962.)

"Spider-Man!"

Words by Stan Lee.
Art by Steve Ditko.


With great power comes great responsibility and with great success comes the benefit of hindsight. It's easy to look back on it now and view Spider-Man as a strip that pressed all the right buttons from Day One but, at the time, there was no reason to believe it was going to be anything but a one-shot story in a mag that had already been cancelled.

This is a strange experience for me because I haven't read this tale for a good ten years and I've already reviewed well over a hundred issues of The Amazing Spider-Man before getting round to doing this. There wasn't any good reason for that approach, I just felt like starting with Amazing Spider-Man #42, which, with its introduction of Mary Jane Watson, I feel was in its way as pivotal a story as Amazing Fantasy #15.

Amazing Fantasy #15, Spider-Man first appearance and origin, Spider-Man discovers the identity of the burglar who killed Uncle Ben
Interesting then that so few of the elements that made Spider-Man a success are there at the start. Aunt May's there but totally different from the May Parker we came to know. No heart attacks for this hale and hearty looking lady. Peter Parker's there, and a social outcast, but his problems fitting in are more down to his personality than to the vagaries of life coming between him and others. No J Jonah Jameson. No photography. No Gwen Stacy. No Osborns. No super-villains. Not even a Betty Brant. Apart from Aunt May, the only future regular present is Flash Thompson. Surprisingly, there's not even any sign of high school crush Liz Allan/Allen.

Spider-Man as Public Enemy #1 isn't there either. Shock of all shocks, he's actually popular; lauded and applauded wherever he goes. It's interesting that the more altruistic he became, the less people liked him.

One thing I'd never noticed before is that not only is the killer of Uncle Ben the thief Spider-Man failed to stop, but the cop who tells Peter about the death of his uncle's the same cop who was chasing the thief back at the TV Studio. Clearly New York was a smaller place back then, or the fickle finger of coincidence was working overtime in New York on that day.

I have to admit Steve Ditko's not my favourite Spider-Man artist of all time. Don't get me wrong, I still like his artwork but I do prefer the artists who came after him. In this issue, the art isn't as sophisticated as we later became accustomed to but is arguably more sophisticated than Jack Kirby was producing at the same time and with a more low key appearance than we were used to from a super-hero strip.

I believe Jack Kirby produced around ten pages of artwork for the origin story before the task was given to Ditko. I've always wondered if that artwork survives and is available anywhere. It'd be interesting to see what I think Joe Simon once described as, "Captain America with webbing."

Amazing Fantasy #15, Spider-Man first appearance and origin, Spider-Man walks off into the night, alone, with great power comes great responsibility

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Amazing Spider-Man #162. The Punisher and Nightcrawler

Amazing Spider-Man #162, Spidey and Nightcrawler from the X-Men are confronted by the Punisher sat on top of a New York cable car
(Cover from November 1976.)

"Let The Punisher Fit The Crime!"

Words by Len Wein.
Pencils by Ross Andru.
Inks by Mike Esposito.
Lettering by John Costanza.
Colours by Glynis Wein.


They say you should never hate in life. You should merely try and understand.

But you know what? I hate this tale. Just the fact the Punisher's in it's enough to make me hate it. The fact that Spider-Man yet again, and for no good reason, chooses to team up with him, straight after the gun-toting imbecile's threatened to kill him, only makes it worse. Why Spider-Man doesn't just smash him in the face and hand him in to the police is beyond me. Instead, he teams up with him and blah blah blah blah blah.

Fortunately, although Nightcrawler ends up fighting on the same side as the Punisher, he never actually formally agrees to team up with him, so at least the X-Man comes out of this with his hands clean.

Anyway, it turns out the real killer's some nutjob called Jigsaw who captures Spider-Man and holds him hostage to try and force the Punisher out into the open. It also forces Nightcrawler who, by means totally unexplained, has been following the Punisher, to come out into the open too and, suddenly, there's a mass brawl going on in the middle of a street party. Quite where the police are while all this is all going on is anyone's guess.

The presence of Frank Castle apart, there're other problems with this tale.

How come Jigsaw just happens to be at the cable cars at the same time that Spider-Man, Nightcrawler and the Punisher are?

How come Spider-Man loses all ability to fight when confronted by Jigsaw's two-a-penny hoods, enabling them to beat him up?

How come...?

Aw who cares how come? The story's loathsome. That's all there is to it. Even Ross Andru's dynamic layouts can't disguise how repellent the whole thing is. It's just a shame the issue that ends the era I'm reviewing has to be such a contemptible one.

What could have saved the tale and made it into something worthwhile (apart from Spider-Man smacking the Punisher in the jaw) would've been if the story's obvious ethical question had been addressed.

It isn't.

The point is this - and it leaps out at you - the only reason Jigsaw's a deadly homicidal maniac who's killed four people and is out to kill more is because of what the Punisher did to him back when he was a minor crook. The Punisher's lunatic methods have created a monster who's modelled himself completely on his ex-persecutor. And yet neither the Punisher nor Spider-Man nor Nightcrawler pick up on this at all.

The truth is the only parts of the issue I enjoyed were the parts that had nothing to do with the main story. First, Mary Jane and Flash Thompson colluding to try and make Peter Parker jealous. And second, J Jonah Jameson meeting up with the enigmatic Dr Marla Madison for reasons yet to be revealed. If only the rest of the tale had been that appealing.

Friday, 15 January 2010

Amazing Spider-Man #161. Nightcrawler

Amazing Spider-Man #161, Spidey fights Nightcrawler from the X-Men, on a New York amusement park ferris wheel
(Cover from October 1976.)

"And The Nightcrawler Came Prowling, Prowling."

Words by Len Wein.
Pencils by Ross Andru.
Inks by Mike Esposito.
Lettering by Irv Watanabe.
Colours by Gynis Wein.


Fun. According the Beatles, it's the one thing money can't buy.

Then again, they also claimed money can't buy you love.

Regardless, bear with me, because money certainly can't buy fun at New York's Coney Island. If Marvel Comics are to be believed, all a ticket there will buy you is a one way trip to the morgue. Whenever a Marvel character goes there, it ends in trouble and, when Peter Parker and his squeeze Mary Jane Watson go there, it ends in murder. Needless to say, our hero's soon on the case.

But he's not the only one, as the X-Men's Nightcrawler turns up. It seems a friend of his, who lived on Coney Island, was murdered a few days ago (See? I said it was no place for fun) and he's there to investigate. Cue instant misunderstanding and a fight between the two heroes.

Someone who's not misunderstanding is J Jonah Jameson, well-heeled entrepreneur of the Daily Bugle, who has in his possession some very interesting photos of the webbed wonder disposing of his own dead clone. JJJ knows exactly what it means....

Meanwhile, Nightcrawler and Spidey are back to fighting each other, even though it's clear by now that neither of 'em'll be wagering this week's salary on the other having done anything wrong. It's the Marvel way; when heroes collide, they just have to fight.

And the artwork?

It's great. Ross Andru seems to be having a whale of a time with the freedom the tale's various settings give him, the money shot being our hero and Nightcrawler running up the rims of a Ferris wheel to confront each other.

Almost as pleasing is the conclusion's cable car fight. I have to admit - never having been there - I never knew New York had a cable car system. Perhaps it doesn't. Maybe it's just something Len Wein and Ross Andru cooked up between them but, whichever's the case, it lends itself perfectly to a fight between Marvel's two greatest wall crawlers.

Lowlight of the tale has to be the return of the Punisher. Haven't we seen enough of this card carrying psycho? Needless to say, he thinks both latter day demon and arachnid adventurer are killers.

Why?

Because he learns nothing. Every time he meets our hero, he thinks he's a killer - and, every time, he's proven wrong. Let me guess, after a bit of gun play, next month, will he be teaming up with Spidey and the Nightcrawler to deal with the real villain of the piece?

You bet your bottom dollar he will.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Amazing Spider-Man #160. The Tinkerer and the Spider-Mobile

Amazing Spider-Man #160, Spidey slides down a wall as the Spider-Mobile attacks him and the Terrible Tinkerer watches on a monitor
(Cover from September 1976.)

"My Killer, The Car!"

Words by Len Wein.
Pencils by Ross Andru.
Inks by Mike Esposito.
Lettering by Joe Rosen.
Colours by Glynis Wein.


A car, like a dog, is a man's best friend but, like the ravenous wolf, it may become his deadly nemesis.

Then again, if that dog's a dachshund, the threat somehow seems less real.

The Spider-Mobile is that dachshund.

It's hard to know what to make of this tale. It's clear from our hero's thought balloons that Len Wein's fully aware of the ludicrousness of it all and simply can't bring himself to take it, or the threat of the Spider-Mobile, seriously.

All of which makes you wonder why he decided to go with the concept in the first place.

You do wonder if it was his idea at all or if it was one of those Steve Ditko/Stan Lee situations where the writer was given the artwork as a fait accompli and had to try and write his script around it. The sight of the Spider-Mobile crossing a gap between two skyscrapers on a makeshift bridge of webbing, and the explanation that this is how the world's most recognisable car has been getting around Manhattan unseen is insane. Who the hell would fail to notice if a car went driving past his skyscraper window?

You also have to wonder what the deal is with Gil Kane and John Romita's front cover, a retread (excuse the pun) of the cover to issue #98. Except it's not as good. Not by a long shot. In fact, it's terrible. It seems this tale brought out the off-day in all concerned.

I'm actually quite happy to see the Tinkerer back. I like it when foes from the early days reappear, and it's been so long since we last saw him that we can hardly complain he's been over-used.

On a side issue, there's a sequence in this tale, where Peter Parker's back at his apartment, testing his powers by walking up the wall. It all strongly reminds me of a sequence I'm sure Jack Kirby once drew in another comic but I don't have a clue what the comic was. If anyone can tell me, I'd be more than happy to hear it.

Peter Parker, in his Spider-Man costume, walks up the wall of his apartment and lifts a refrigerator from the floor as he hangs from the ceiling

This is also the tale when our hero says ,"Cripes," one time too many. I realise we can't have our characters swearing but it does sound ridiculous, especially coming from a grown man whose life is on the line.

At the end of it all, all we can do is look forward to the next issue and hope it sees a return to some sort of sanity.

What's that?

It guest stars the Punisher?

Why are my hopes of sanity not high?

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Amazing Spider-Man #159. Dr Octopus and Hammerhead

Amazing Spider-Man #159, Hammerhead smashes through Spidey and Dr Octopus
(Cover from August 1976.)

"Arm-in-Arm-in-Arm-in-Arm-in-Arm With Dr Octopus."

Words by Len Wein.
Pencils by Ross Andru.
Inks by Mike Esposito.
Lettering by Joe Rosen.
Colours by Glynis Wein.


Moonraker. It was the James Bond movie where 007 owed it all to Star Wars. This is the issue where Spider-Man owes it all to James Bond, as the lab from last issue is stormed by both a SWAT team and Hammerhead's previously forgotten henchmen.

In the tale's second half, we get more of the same as Hammerhead's men try to kill Spider-Man and Dr Octopus in the super-villain's secret lair. Throw in Hammerhead's somewhat ostentatious helicopter and you almost expect Sean Connery to turn up in his Aston Martin.

Amid all the chaos, there's just one question.

Just why do both sides insist on using, "anaesthetic bullets?" OK, at a stretch, you could just about credit a SWAT team with doing it, trying to avoid hurting innocent hostages, but Hammerhead's men? They're supposed to work for one of the most ruthless criminals this side of Los Angeles.

I admit it. I lied. There are in fact two questions, not one.

The second is Aunt May. How come she seems to have heart attacks at the drop of a hat but, whenever things are going on around her that'd give the average man in the street a cardiac arrest, it seems to do her no harm at all? She manages to get caught up in two armed sieges in this tale, get abducted, sees a ghost come back to life and gets directly threatened with physical violence and suffers no ill effects at all other than fainting.

For that matter, when he finally gets her free, Spider-Man doesn't seem at all concerned for her well-being He's clearly more intent on giving Dr Octopus the punch in the mouth he thinks he owes him than getting his aunt medical treatment, even though she's lying there, spark out. Perhaps he suspects what we must all suspect by now, that that "sweet old lady" is putting it on. Time to call in the lawyers, I reckon.

Lowlight of the tale has to be the return of Hammerhead's spinning office. It was a lame enough gimmick before without us having to endure its resurrection.

If the room's the lamest moment, compensation for it comes from Dr Octopus using a rubbish bin to bring down Hammerhead's helicopter. For that matter, the incident makes it a very strange issue indeed. It means we have a tale where Spider-Man's irrelevant in his own comic. The truth is, if Spider-Man was excised from this issue altogether, it'd make no difference at all to its settlement.

But, before we go, there's one more thing to be dealt with in this tale, because the revolving office isn't the only lame gimmick that returns, as the Spider-Mobile's revived by hands mysterious. Who is the man in the chair, working so hard on it? And who is his mysterious employer? You know, the large looking man? With the cigarette holder?

How could we ever hope to guess?

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