Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Amazing Spider-Man #41. The Rhino

Amazing Spider-Man #41, making his first appearance, the Rhino smashes through a wall, John Romita cover (Cover from October 1966.)

"The Horns Of The Rhino!"

Written by Stan Lee.
Drawn by John Romita.
Inked by Mickey Demeo.
Lettered by Artie Simek.

Anyone worried the end of Steve Ditko might see the end of Spider-Man introducing us to cool new villains had nothing to fear as, only two stories into his tenure, John Romita brings us the first classic villain of his era. The Rhino's on the rampage and he's after John Jameson.

But why is he after J Jonah Jameson's astronaut son?

Because, the last time he was in orbit, that astronaut was exposed to space spores. Why this means anyone would want to kidnap him I'm not altogether sure but, apparently, being exposed to space spores makes you unbelievably valuable to enemy nations who'll stop at nothing to get their hands on you. And, just to prove it, one of those nations has hired the Rhino to do just that.
Exactly which enemy nation the Rhino's working for isn't clear. When he first appears, the implication is he's entering USA from Mexico. Does this mean he's working for the Mexican government or has he entered Mexico from somewhere else?

We're not told.

In fact, we're told nothing about the Rhino. We don't know who he is, how he got his power, how he goes to the toilet in that get-up, or even whether his power is his own or down to his costume. Rarely has there been a super-villain so badly explained but somehow it doesn't seem to matter. He looks great and you get the feeling that, given half a chance, he could do our hero some serious harm.

If Romita's first couple of issues on the strip seemed designed to reassure readers that nothing much had changed since Steve Ditko's departure, this issue hits us full in the face with change at every possible opportunity. On the domestic front, Betty Brant's back in town but this is an issue for bringing past eras to an end and starting new ones and so, Lee and Romita bring the curtain down on that chapter of Peter Parker's life by having the reunited Peter and Betty swiftly discover they have nothing to say to each other. It's a nicely drawn scene by Romita who captures their sense of estrangement perfectly.

Back at college, suddenly, Peter's almost getting on with all those characters who he'd previously not got on with. Suddenly, he's horny for Gwen and she's horny for him.

There are more changes afoot as well, as Peter Parker buys a motorbike while Aunt May discusses moving out of the house she shares with him, and in with Anna Watson. And, to cap it all off, as he rides off into the sunset on his brand new motorbike, Peter ponders on his upcoming meeting with Anna Watson's niece and wonders what she'll be like.

Monday, 29 March 2010

Amazing Spider-Man #40. The Green Goblin's origin

Amazing Spider-Man #40, Spidey stands over the defeated Green Goblin, flames all around them, the origin of the Green Goblin, John Romita  cover(Not that they want to give away the ending or anything. Cover from September 1966.)

"Spidey Saves The Day!"

Written by Stan Lee.
Drawn by John Romita.
Inked by Mickey Demeo.
Lettered by Sam Rosen

Parenthood, it can be a tricky art to master. On the one hand you can be too lenient with your children, leaving them spoiled and complacent. On the other, you can become a crazed, homicidal maniac, out to kill Spider-Man and to become boss of all New York's criminal underworld. Happily for comic readers, Norman Osborn chose the latter.

In fairness it wasn't all his own fault. he'd been driven mad by the explosion of a mysterious green chemical whose formula he'd found lying around. Then again, he came across the formula by framing his business partner Professor Stromm. So, on the side of the angels he never was.

But this is the big one, the final and decisive showdown between the Green Goblin and the Amazing Spider-Man.

In fact, as the above summary suggests, we have to wait quite a while for it as the Goblin, unmasked, gives the captive Peter Parker the rundown on his entire history.

Actually, this really impresses me. Stan Lee's notorious for his poor memory and, so, to get a potted history of all of Spider-Man's meetings with the Goblin's quite a feat. I suspect he may have dug out the old back-issues for this one. Then again, given the nature of the Marvel Method, maybe it was John Romita who did the digging out.

John Romita always reckons that, when he first started drawing the strip, for the first few issues he was trying to ape Steve Ditko's style. I have to say I can't see any great signs of it here. The difference between his and Ditko's approach leaps out at you, with Romita's style being far more dynamic, dramatic and urgent. For the first time since he was introduced, the Goblin comes across as being genuinely dangerous and genuinely psychotic, as Norman Osborn sweats his way through his delusional self-justifications and tells of a sequence of events that he sees as having been a release for his true potential although it's clear to the rest of us that it was merely a descent into madness.

Needless, to say, despite this "potential" Spider-Man comes out on top as, kicked across the room by our hero, Osborn finds himself crashing into a mixture of chemicals and electricity that robs him of all memory of his notorious alter-ego. On one hand, the sudden amnesia's clearly a cop-out way of dealing with the problem that Spider-Man's arch enemy knows his secret identity. On the other, it leaves the way open for the future return of the Goblin and would later enable the strip's artists and writers to add to the sense of him as a menace that never quite goes away.

And so, the threat of the Green Goblin gone for now, the tale concludes with Peter Parker back at home, being mollycoddled by Aunt May, and Harry and Norman Osborn getting the chance to start all over again with each other. Who says the Amazing Spider-Man always has to have an unhappy ending?

Sunday, 28 March 2010

Amazing Spider-Man #39. The Green Goblin unmasks Spidey

Amazing Spider-Man #39, John Romita makes his debut and the Green Goblin carries off a helpless and unmasked Peter Parker, having discovered his secret identity(Cover from August 1966.)

"How Green Was My Goblin!"

Written by Stan Lee.
Drawn by John Romita.
Inked by Mickey Demeo.
Lettered by Artie Simek.

I feel like Alexander the Great getting back to Babylon after trekking through the desert.

I know I shouldn't feel like that, Steve Ditko was, after all, the artist who did most to define what Spider-Man was about and there's no denying the elegance and beauty of much of his work but, somehow, I've always been grabbed more by John Romita's more dynamic, simpler and more conventional story-telling, and he makes a bang and a half in his debut tale, with the unmasking of Spider-Man and the revelation of the Green Goblin's true identity.

And, when it arrives, in that last panel, what a shock it is.

Well, alright, I admit, it's not much of a shock, There are only two people in this issue who he could realistically be; either Dr Bromwell or Norman Osborn. As The Goblin doesn't recognise Peter Parker when he sees him without his mask, it clearly can't be Bromwell, therefore, unless Lee and Romita really were going to pull something from out on our blind-side, it has to be Norman Osborn - you know, the man who's spent the last few issues trying to get rid of Spider-Man? In hindsight, the decision could never have been much of a surprise to readers but, given how things developed over the next few years, it was clearly the right one.

As for the tale itself, it's great. Following the long established pattern of mixing Peter Parker's domestic life with his super-hero one, we get a trip to ESU, a trip to the Daily Bugle, a trip to Peter Parker's house, complete with brief appearance from Aunt May who we're told earlier in the tale is a sick woman and must have no sudden shocks in her life. It's almost as though, fearing there might be resistance to the arrival of a new artist from out of the blue, John Romita and Stan Lee had decided to pack as many familiar elements in as they could, to reassure readers that it'd continue to still be the same old comic they'd always loved.

That's not to say there're no changes at all though. Clearly, with Ditko no longer on plotting duties, Lee was happy to start to make things the way he thought they should be and so, leaving aside that fact that everyone's suddenly better looking than they used to be, the major change is a distinct thawing in the relationship between Peter Parker and his classmates Flash Thompson and Harry Osborn.

It's no bad thing. Frankly, the, "Peter Parker's unfairly ostracized by his classmates," routine had grown tired long ago and should have been ditched when he first started going to university.

So, all in all, it's the start of a new era and it kicks off in style.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Amazing Spider-Man #38. Ditko departs

Amazing Spider-Man #38. Just a Guy Named Joe, last ever Steve Ditko Spider-Man story(Cover from July 1966.)

"Just A Guy Named Joe!

Scripted by Stan Lee.
Plotted, drawn and inked by Steve Ditko.
Lettered by Artie Simek.

After 38 issues, Steve Ditko leaves behind the strip he helped create and, judging by the front of it, he couldn't wait to get out the door, as it's clearly cobbled together from panels taken from the comic within. All of which implies he left before even doing a cover for it. Did he leave in a huff over the planned revelation of the Green Goblin's true identity? Did he leave in protest at publisher Martin Goodman not honouring financial promises he'd made? Did he leave over both? Did he leave over neither?

I've no idea.

Did he leave on a high?

Well, not really. I don't think the story's going to be regarded by many as an all-time classic, although it's entertaining enough, as Joe Smith, a no-hope boxer-come-wrestler, lands a small job as an extra in a movie, only to get zapped by a mixture of electricity and chemicals , giving him the inevitable super-strength and a temper to match. Needless to say it's all resolved with a punch-up and - restored to normal - he gets the good news that the movie company loved the footage they got of his rampage and're offering him a film deal on the strength of it. Hooray for Hollywood and everyone's a winner.

Well, no. Spider-Man's not. He's discovered Betty Brant didn't leave to be with Ned Leeds, meaning Peter Parker has no idea what happened to her. On top of that he's discovered there's a twenty thousand dollar reward out for his demise. On top of that, he's just seen some bloke called Joe Smith land a movie deal while all anyone wants to offer Spider-Man is a knuckle sandwich.

Meanwhile, Harry and Flash are still Peter Parker's fiercest critics and Gwen Stacy's still obsessing about him. I mean really obsessing about him. Every time we see her - every time we've ever seen her so far - there're no thoughts in her head but thoughts of Peter Parker. I'm telling you, that's one girl he needs to avoid like the plague.

If only there was another girl, around, one who's so far stayed behind the scenes, maybe a neighbour or a relative of a neighbour...

Aw but where's he ever going to meet a girl like that?

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Amazing Spider-Man #37. Professor Stromm

Amazing Spider-Man #37, Professor Stromm and his deadly robots, Steve Ditko cover(Cover from June 1966.)

"Once Upon A Time, There Was A Robot...!"

Scripted by Stan Lee.
Plotted, drawn and inked by Steve Ditko.
Lettered by Artie Simek.

If I confess that I fell asleep while reading this tale it shouldn't be taken as proof that I didn't like it. It's just proof that I'm not always bright enough to get any sleep the night before and that our past actions have a knack of catching up with us.

Norman Osborn could tell you about that. His past actions have well and truly caught up with him as, cheated of his inventions by the businessman, Professor Stromm is out for revenge.

Who he? Well, the truth is that, apart from a few brief cameo appearances by Osborn, we've never heard of either character before. But we have heard of Norman's son Harry Osborn and, for those of use familiar with later events, it's odd to see how unpleasant Harry is in this tale. Within just a few issues of it, he's Peter Parker's best friend in the whole wide world but, here, he's a complete jerk and really does look weird. You do have to wonder if Steve Ditko's plan, even at this stage, was to reveal that Harry was the Goblin. He's certainly drawn in a way that suggests it was.

Then again, maybe it was just Ditko throwing us a curve ball.

As for Norman, from the outset we're left in no doubt that he's not on the side of the angels, revealing that he ripped off Stromm, talking of, "dealing with Stromm," hoping that Stromm's robot will kill Spider-Man and then, just to let us know he's up to no good, bashing Spidey over the back of the head when the webbed wall-crawler's trying to save him!

The big mystery of the tale is that, after Spidey sees off Stromm's robots and is about to administer some justice to the sinister scientist, some unknown assassin tries to shoot Stromm dead from a window that could only be accessed by a person who can fly, a person who can move fast enough to vanish from the scene before Spider-Man can even reach that window to investigate. On the next page, the would-be assassin's revealed to be Norman Osborn, which is hardly a shock, bearing in mind his behaviour all through the story.

I have to say this tale's much better than most recent offerings from Ditko, and proof there could still be lead in his plotting pencil as he approached the end of his reign. After far too many issues that have been nothing more than protracted punch-ups, we get one with barely a punch-up in sight as Ditko concentrates instead on introducing us to Norman Osborn and letting us wonder just what the deal is with him. OK, so Spidey has a couple of battles with distinctly odd looking robots but neither battle could accurately be labelled a punch-up and neither outstays its welcome. I also have to praise the art too. It's startlingly fluid and clean-looking in this tale. It really does feel like Ditko's style is changing slightly from tale to tale and, here, it's at its most elegant. His figure work on Spidey is particularly impressive.

But, let's see... ...Norman Osborn was at a window that could only be accessed by a man who could fly, and he left the scene so fast that Spider-Man could find no trace of him mere moments later. Norman Osborn can fly? He has a high-speed mode of transport? Whatever can it all mean?

Monday, 22 March 2010

Amazing Spider-Man #36. The Looter

Amazing Spider-Man #36, the Looter throws a punch and hits Spidey in the jaw as our hero leaps at him, Steve Ditko cover(Cover from May 1966.)

"When Falls The Meteor!"

Script by Stan Lee.
Plotted, drawn and inked by Steve Ditko.
Lettered by Art Simek.

A wiser human being than me once said, "Names are for Tombstones, baby," and someone else once said, "A rose is a rose by any other name."

Well, they might've both been wiser than me but they were both wrong.

If you suddenly gained super powers from hitting a meteor there's only a small range of names you could call yourself. Right? You could call yourself Meteor Man or The Living Meteor. If you were a complete and total imbecile who'd been reading too many Stan Lee/Jack Kirby monster comics of the early 1960s, you might even call yourself Meteoro; The Asteroid That Walks. Well, having got his powers from just such a source, Norton G Fester knows exactly what to call himself.

He calls himself...

...The Looter.

Not only does this demonstrate he doesn't have a clue what a good name is but such a hum-drum appellation guarantees he's never going to achieve any kind of immortality as a Spider-Man foe.

And, you know what?

He doesn't.

The truth is he's a rubbish villain, no more than a petty crook with just enough strength to make Spider-Man take three pages to pummel him unconscious instead of one. His total naffness is exemplified by the fact he has a helium balloon built into his costume.

Oh yes, and, as usual with Ditko plotted tales, Spider-Man defeats him simply by beating him up.

Thankfully, things are more interesting on the domestic front, where the only recently introduced Gwen Stacy's doing an impression of a top-class loon.

First, for no reason other than he doesn't seem to fancy her, she starts stalking Peter Parker, then she starts randomly bursting out in fits of laughter to try and convince everyone else that she doesn't fancy him. Trouble is, in the process, she also manages to convince Peter that she doesn't fancy him, which isn't necessarily the best way to get a date. At this stage in her development, she's certainly a more interesting character than Betty Brant ever was and a zillion times more interesting than the simpering wimp she herself later became. The only problem is, she comes across as being half-deranged and totally unlikeable. There can't really have been any readers, way back in the Spring of 1966, who were hoping Gwen Stacy and Peter Parker were going to get together, could there?

Friday, 19 March 2010

Amazing Spider-Man #35. The Molten Man returns

Amazing Spider-Man #35, upon his return, Spidey launches himself at the Molten Man(Still not actually molten. Cover from April 1966.)

"The Molten Man Regrets...!"

Scripted by Stan Lee.
Plotted, drawn and inked by Steve Ditko.
Lettered by Artie Simek.




This story's rubbish but it has great sound effects. In fact, pages 11 and 12 are virtually all sound effects as Stan Lee (I assume it was he who wrote them) reaches into his full repertoire of noises. My favourite has to be Spwat! a word that's probably never featured before or since in the long annals of literary history.

Frankly, this issue needs all the sound effects it can get to keep us interested because the story quickly degenerates into yet another Steve Ditko slug-fest. Mark Raxton, the Molten Man, is out of jail, having been released from custody with a suspended sentence. So, it's time for that all-important question. Has he learned his lesson?

Of course he hasn't. No sooner is he out of jail than Raxton almost immediately sets out to rob a jeweller's store.

But, wouldn't you just know it? Spider-Man turns up and thwarts him. Cue protracted punch-up.

This time, for once, Steve Ditko doesn't end the fight with Spider-Man simply knocking out his opponent. This time he does it by tying the Molten Man up with a rope. Under normal circumstances, such a change of methodology'd be welcome.

Except for the fact it's exactly the same method by which Spider-Man beat Raxton last time round.

You can't get away from it, by this stage in Ditko's tenure, the strip was running out of steam badly. Ditko might have been handy with a pencil and brush but, when it came to plots, the sad truth is he was no Stan Lee.

Ditko's artwork looks slightly different in this issue. Because I'm not too bright, it took me a while to figure out why. At first I thought he was using bigger panels but there's the same standard six or so to each page that we're used to from him. However, comparing this tale directly to last month's issue, it quickly becomes clear there's noticeably less black in it than we're used to. I don't know if this was a conscious choice on Ditko's part or if he was simply using new pens/brushes and it affected his style. Either way it's an appealing change of visual direction and, with an eerie propheticism, almost drifting towards the look of John Romita Sr in places.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Amazing Spider-Man #34. Kraven again

Amazing Spider-Man #34, Kraven returns, descends from above on our hero, Steve Ditko cover(Cover from March 1966.)

"The Thrill Of The Hunt!"

Scripted by Stan Lee.
Plotted, Drawn and Inked by Steve Ditko.
Lettered by Sam Rosen.

Poor old Kraven the Hunter. He just doesn't seem able to grasp that, when it comes to fighting Spider-Man with his bare hands, he's completely out of his depth. And so it is that, still smarting from his last defeat, the rain-forest wrong-doer comes up with yet another scheme.

It's not much of one. It involves dressing up as Spider-Man and annoying Daily Bugle publisher J Jonah Jameson till Spider-Man comes looking for him, before spraying Spider-Man with perfume for no noticeable reason then having a punch-up with him.

Needless to say, as always with Kraven, Spider-Man wins the punch-up and that's the end of that, another Steve Ditko plotted tale ending with our hero winning purely by beating up his opponent. Oh for the days when Stan Lee was in charge of plotting, and our hero won his fights by showing wit and invention.

When I say Kraven has no reason for spraying Spider-Man with perfume, Stan Lee tries to rationalise the pictures he's been given, by saying it's designed to switch off Web-Head's spider-sense. Sadly for this explanation, Ditko shows that self-same spider-sense working perfectly normally throughout the entire rest of the tale. I suspect Ditko's intention was the perfume'd make Kraven able to follow Spider-Man wherever he goes, meaning he can neither hide nor escape. Either Stan Lee was having difficulty understanding the infamously uncommunicative Ditko's pictures or he decided such a use for perfume wasn't suitably dramatic. Either way, the perfume does indeed serve no purpose whatsoever.

On the domestic front, we see the last of Betty Brant for a while as, following a nightmare that Peter Parker's Spider-Man, she quits the Bugle and flees town.

Not that Peter Parker should be that worried because like an Exocet of desire, Gwen Stacy's becoming obsessed with the only boy in college who never pays her attention.

Actually this subplot is the real interest in this tale, and the panel where she slams her foot down hard on her dropped book, in order to prevent Peter Parker picking it up is, however unlikely as it might seem, the highlight of an otherwise workmanlike issue. You do have to worry when Gwen Stacy's foot is a highlight.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Amazing Spider-Man #33. Dr Octopus and the protracted straining

Amazing Spider-Man #33, Spidey trapped under machinery as he struggles to break free, Steve Ditko cover(Cover from February 1966.)

"The Final Chapter!"

Scripted by Stan Lee.
Plotted, drawn and inked by Steve Ditko.
Lettered by Artie Simek.

If a certain Dutch duo were right and there really are no limits then, this tale sets out to prove it, as we get to see Spider-Man pushed to what should be his limits and beyond as he takes a full five pages to get a gigantic lump of machinery off him then gets half drowned and then has to take on all of Dr Octopus' men single-handed.

Granted, five pages doesn't sound a lot by the standards of normal story-telling but, when all's said and done, it's a quarter of the length of this tale, all devoted to Spider-Man lying around battling with gravity and his own inner doubts and demons. Steve Ditko and Stan Lee add a whole new dimension to comic book story-telling with this scene, and the sequence's legendary status is clearly deserved; "Anyone can win a fight -- when the odds are easy!" Opines our hero. "It's when the going's tough -- when there seems to be no chance -- That's when -- it counts!" Just dig those double dashes. You can practically feel the weight with him as he strains and struggles to lift it.

This scene, plus the battle with Octopus' men, shows us the sheer strength of Spider-man's will. There's really no way he should come out on top after all this but still he does. In that sense, it can be seen as a continuation of his first battle with the Scorpion where, no matter the level of physical punishment he has to endure, he just keeps on going.

Meanwhile, of Dr Octopus there's no sign but, somehow I get the feeling he probably survived the flooding of his base and'll be back before we know it.

But even after all his trials and tribulations, Spider-Man still doesn't yet have his reward because, having liberated it from Octopus, our hero has to get the serum that'll save Aunt May to the hospital. Needless to say, he manages it with barely a second to spare and she's saved.

This is great stuff, the second consecutive issue where the drama's ramped up to Eleven on the dial.

But it's not all triumph for our hero. Having dealt with his various crises, he finds himself having to do all he can to drive Betty Brant away, having finally realised there can be future for him and her as long as he puts his life in danger every day of the week. The big question is, now that Steve Ditko and Stan Lee have got the strip well and truly back on the right track, can they keep it there? Well, according to the last panel, next month we get the return of Kraven.

Somehow, I fear the camp factor may be about to boom.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Amazing Spider-Man #32. Dr Octopus and the Master Planner

Amazing Spider-Man #32, dr octopus master planner, steve ditko cover
(Cover from January 1966.)

"Man On A Rampage!"

Scripted by Stan Lee.
Plotted, drawn and inked by Steve Ditko.
Lettered by Artie Simek.

This is more like it. After a whole string of stories that would've made me give up on the project if not for my bloody-mindedness, at last the Amazing Spider-Man gets good again as Peter Parker discovers that, thanks to his radioactive blood, the transfusion he gave Aunt May back in Amazing Spider-Man #10 is what's responsible for her condition now. Seeking the help of Dr Curt Connors, AKA the Lizard, he realises that, to save her, he's going to need to get his hands on a rare isotope.

The only problem is, as it's on its way, it's stolen by the Master Planner's gang. Cue Spider-Man tearing half of New York apart to try and find the Master Planner.

He finds him, in his underwater base, and learns that his opponent's none other than his old foe Dr Octopus. For once, Octopus is no match for his hyped-up nemesis and tries to flee but, in his fight with the villain, the ceiling collapses, trapping Spider-Man beneath a pile of concrete and steel as the river starts to leak into the base, and time ticks away for poor old Aunt May.

It's great to see some genuine urgency and drama back in the strip, the sense that events actually matter; also the irony that it's Peter's earlier attempt to save Aunt May that's now responsible for her potential demise. We might love Peter Parker but that's the kind of torment we want to see him put through at every possible opportunity.

The ending's the sort of torment we want to see him put through too, as the odds are stacked well and truly against our hero as he gives in to despair and the knowledge that he's failed when he most needed to succeed. There's even been time for Peter Parker to cram in a bust-up with Ned Leeds along the way. If only every issue of Spider-Man from this era had been like this.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Amazing Spider-Man #31. The Master Planner

Amazing Spider-Man #31, Dr Octopus, Master Planner, Steve Ditko cover
(Cover from December 1965.)

"If This Be My Destiny...!"

Written by Stan Lee.
Drawn and inked by Steve Ditko.
Lettered by Sam Rosen.

As well as inventing baby powder, Dr Johnson once wrote, "When a man is tired of Spider-Man he is tired of life." Well, OK, he didn't. But, if he hadn't been too busy with the baby powder, I'm sure he would've done.

And, if that analysis is true, I might as well end it all right now because I really can't muster any great enthusiasm for this tale. People tell me it's a classic but, for the most part, it just feels like bog-standard Spider-Man to me. There's a gang going around committing crimes under instruction from a mysterious mastermind called the Master Planner, who, unlike previous would-be masterminds like the Big Man and the Crime-Master, at least has the originality and coolness to have an underwater base. He's also got his act together enough now to realise his name shouldn't be the Cat.

Also on the familiarity breeds contempt front, Aunt May's at death's door again.

The one new element, apart from Spider-Man having the sense to wear a gas mask against foes he knows are carrying gas, is that Peter Parker starts university. And so we get the first appearance of both Gwen Stacy and Harry Osborn who does look remarkably like the Green Goblin in his depiction here.

Could it be Harry and not Norman Osborn that Steve Ditko was at this stage intending to reveal as being the villain? Then again, was wily Steve just toying with us and trying to lead us all up the pixie-garden path with it?

Sadly, given Mr Ditko's lack of enthusiasm for interviews, maybe we'll never find out. The trouble is, the whole Goblin thing aside, while these are new characters in a new setting, they act just like the kids did in high school in the strip's early days so it doesn't feel like the strip's making any kind of move forward. In fact, if anything, it feels like it's going backwards. It does worry me that, as I review these issues, I increasingly find myself longing for the moment we get to the John Romita issues and a fresh new slant on things.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Amazing Spider-Man #30. The Cat and the other Cat

Amazing Spider-Man #30, the Cat(Cover from November 1965.)

"The Claws Of The Cat!"

Scripted by Stan Lee.
Plotted, drawn and inked by Steve Ditko.
Lettered by Artie Simek.

"Confusion," said ELO, "it's such a terrible thing." Presumably, they'd been reading Amazing Spider-Man #30, as we're handed a tale that seems designed to bamboozle the life out of the best of us. Why? Because Spider-Man comes up against a break-in artist called the Cat Burglar or occasionally the Cat. He also comes up against a gang of crooks working for a never-seen villain called the Cat. Now, obviously, those crooks work for the Cat Burglar.

No they don't. They have nothing to do with him. What possessed Stan Lee to give both villains in one story the same name is anyone's guess. I can only guess that, like Jeff Lynne, he was feeling somewhat confused at the time and it does make the story completely baffling for large chunks of it as you try to figure out why a high-powered gang are working for a small-time crook who seems to work alone.

On matters more personal, Betty Brant announces Ned Leeds has asked her to marry him, although it turns out she doesn't want to because it's Peter Parker she loves. However, she also makes it clear she could never marry a man like Spider-Man whose life is one of non-stop danger, meaning Peter Parker finally realises his relationship with Betty can have no future. Cue spectral image of Spider-Man pushing Betty and Peter apart in the final panel.

Interesting that, having been written out, seemingly permanently, just two issues ago, Liz Allan's back already, and having problems with Flash Thompson hanging around. It gives the impression she's going to remain a regular character after all, which is odd as, to my knowledge she disappeared from the strip for years after this brief appearance. As we see the final break-up of Peter and Betty in this tale, it gives the impression that Stan Lee and Steve Ditko were intending to pursue a relationship between Liz and Peter but, for whatever reason, the idea was promptly ditched. There are times where you'd just love to know what was going on behind the scenes and why certain decisions about the long-term future of the strip were made.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Amazing Spider-Man #29. The Scorpion returns

Amazing Spider-Man #29, Spidey thrashes around in the water as the Scorpion attacks, Steve Ditko cover(Cover from October 1965.)

"Never Step On A Scorpion!"

Script by Stan Lee.
Plotted, drawn and inked by Steve Ditko.
Lettered by Sam Rosen.

Qualifications, they always reckon a man's nothing without them, which does make you wonder exactly what qualifications you need to work in New York's penal system.

Seemingly none whatsoever as the local prison authorities are at it again. The people who'd later let the Tarantula create a new pair of deadly shoes and the Shocker create his vibro-equipment in their workshops show their genius here by giving the captive Scorpion his costume and tail back, in order to cheer him up a bit. And what a surprise, upon being given them, he promptly uses them to escape.

On the face of it, while this might be bad news for the jewellers of New York city - not to mention Spider-Man and the Scorpion's creator J Jonah Jameson - this should be great news for the reader. On his last appearance Mac Gargan's alter-ego, more than any other super-villain, displayed the credentials to be Spider-Man's number one nemesis, twice defeating him with ease in one issue.

Trouble is, that was Ditko's stint at its peak and we're now on the downhill slide, where, all semblance of plotting and ingenuity are out the window and the tales have a wearyingly linear quality, so the Scorpion shows up, Spider-Man fights him, Spider-Man beats him and it's all over.

It's as simple as that, with no twists, no turns, no surprises and no rugs pulled out from beneath our hero's sticky feet. This time Spider-Man wraps it all up by squirting the Scorpion with webbing, just like he beat the Molten Man last issue by squirting him with webbing. The fact that it's previously been established that the Scorpion's pincers can cut through Spider-Man's webbing, making it useless against him, is completely ignored. The story's running out of pages and so Spider-Man (and Ditko) ends it.

There's some nice action sequences in this tale and it's pleasing to see the Daily Bugle's J Jonah Jameson get so much of the issue devoted to him and his cowardly, opportunistic scheming as he seeks to trick Spider-Man into fighting on his behalf and then, when the fighting's over, take all the credit for the villain's capture but you can't get away from the fact that it's another disappointing outing, with none of the Scorpion's original menace even being hinted at here. It's back to the increasingly used idea of Spider-Man being a fun romp rather than a life or death battle.

Meanwhile, on domestic matters, Ned Leeds is back and spending far too much time with Betty Brant for Peter Parker's liking and, ooh dear, Aunt May's back to having her turns again.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Amazing Spider-Man #28. The Molten Man

Classic Steve Ditko cover, Amazing Spider-Man #28, Spidey, in the dark, confronts the Molten Man who is making his first appearance(Cover from September 1965.)

"The Molten Man!"

Scripted by Stan Lee.
Plotted, drawn and inked by Steve Ditko.
Lettered by Sam Rosen.

Schooldays may or may not be the happiest days of our life but one thing's for certain, they have to end at some point. And this is the tale where Peter Parker's do just that as he graduates from high school. I once read an interview where Steve Ditko said he thought Peter Parker should always have been in high school and should never have gone to university. He's wrong, of course, the strip hit its peak when Peter Parker was at university and I doubt that's coincidence.

I wish I could say our hero leaves school with a tale that fully explores and exploits the inherent metaphors but the simple truth is it doesn't. The B plot, Spider-Man's latest adventure, is simply pants. Whatever Mark Raxton's later revival as a man driven mad by the pain of burning-up beneath his inferno-like skin, here the Molten Man's a damp squib. Leaving aside the fact he's not actually molten - he doesn't seem to be giving off any heat at all - his fight with Spider-Man's like a walking definition of the word pedestrian. Basically they throw punches at each other in his house for page after page until Spider-Man ties him up with his webbing, the fight seemingly ending when Steve Ditko gets bored with it.

And I think that's the major problem with the strip at this point in its history; snowed under with work, Stan Lee was now giving Ditko total freedom to plot the comics. The problem is Ditko's an artist not a writer and, just as the Fantastic Four suffered with the more freedom Lee gave to Jack Kirby, so this tale desperately needs a writer to inject a few twists, turns and a dose of ingenuity into proceedings. A story that's just two people throwing punches at each other until the artist runs out of pages is never going to grab anyone.

But that's enough of the fighting. Given its importance in Spider-history, we have to view Peter Parker's graduation as the A plot. In fact we don't hear too much about it until the last few pages, so it can hardly be said to dominate proceedings. What does stand out is the odd behaviour of Liz Allen who writes herself out of the strip for no noticeable reason. It's an odd development, not properly explained, and you wonder if there ever was any plan to explain it or if it'd just been decided to dispense with her and this was the quickest way to do it.

Of course, what could've been behind Liz Allen's departure could be an identity crisis. At one point in the story, Peter Parker calls her Liz Hilton. In an earlier tale, she suddenly became Liz Brant and, of course, there's the endless confusion as to whether she's Liz Allen or Liz Allan. With an identity crisis like that, no wonder she wanted to run away and hide.


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