I plan to a post this week regarding some of the TV that's been on lately, but for now I want to talk comics.
When I was a boy, I had three paperback books of Spider-Man that collected his first 20 issues from 1963 and 1964. And then I started buying Spider-Man comics in 1990, and I had to get used to all the changes that had happened in his universe. That comic collecting lasted about two years before it tapered off. And now, since Iron Man's release in theaters, I am back in comics.
Due to DVD-ROM collections and the magic of bit torrent, I have been able to re-begin my journey through the saga of the amazing Spider-Man from the beginning. Lifelong dream coming true right now. And it's been great.
Tonight, I finished the December 1969 issue of Amazing Spider-Man. I have now read every issue of Spider-Man from the 1960s. I can't describe how much I'm enjoying this.
You've seen the movie. Amazing Spider-Man is, of course, the tale of Peter Parker, a high school teen who is endowed with spider powers through the bite of a spider that has mistakenly been caught up in a radioactivity experiment. He joins a wrestling gig and begins to cash in through show business. Getting a bit of a swelled ego, he decides *not* to step in as a crook runs by, being chased by a cop. Blowing off the angry policeman, he soon regrets his nonaction when the same crook shoots and kills his uncle, leaving Peter alone with his elderly aunt. (His parents had died when he was very young.) Realizing that his great power obligates him to a great responsibility, he turns from showbiz wrestler to night-time crime-fighter. And so the saga begins.
Spider-Man was one of Marvel's first heroes since their World War II hits like Captain America and Sub-Mariner had fizzled alongside the war fervor in the late 40s; and he was their second superhero concept to be given his own magazine. In a day when most comic superheroes were cardboard cutouts and non-superhero comics were horror and sci-fix anthologies, Marvel's presentation of super-powered people with true-to-life personalities and hang-ups helped to revolutionize the industry and give it some much-needed life in the early and mid-60s. (Ten to 15 years later, this will have fizzled again, but for now Marvel was riding a surfboard on a very high wave.)
Spider-Man appealed to readers of all ages. Unlike other heroes, Spider-Man didn't have to put on glasses and pretend to be a loser. He wore glasses and really was a loser. He couldn't get a girl at school and so he started pursuing a high-school dropout who worked in the same place where he had a part-time job, and that only worked because she was a needy girl who flamed in jealousy every time she saw some other girl even look Peter's way. Fortunately, most losers eventually grow out of it (or at least that's what I keep telling myself) and Peter eventually found himself in college dating a rather lovely blond, whose father was an ex- police captain and had a great respect for Spider-Man, and sharing an expense-paid apartment with the son of one of the wealthiest businessmen of New York City.
In this era, you have three main creative teams. Stan Lee is the writer throughout. The three chief artists are Steve Ditko, John Romita, and Jim Mooney, successively.
Lee had been writing comics since shortly after Captain America hit the scene in 1942. He and other artists like Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby worked to bring back the superhero for a new generation in the early 1960s. Jack Kirby took the pencil for their initial hit The Fantastic Four, and Steve Ditko drew the less superstar-oriented Spider-Man. He designed a slim, not-so-muscular figure who could be believed to be a high-school kid in tights. When Ditko took the mask off, his Peter Parker was not too attractive, even somewhat naifish, and went to school dressed in the necktie and vest or suit of the far-from-hip.
Ditko and Stan had a falling out for some reason that is still debated. Some say it was a disagreement over the creative direction of the book, specifically the identity of Spider-Man's chief villain, the Green Goblin. Other say this can be discounted, and the true reason is between Stan and Steve. In any case, after three years on the book, Ditko was replaced by John Romita. In retrospect, where Steve is known for his action drawing, John is known for his women. Romita took Peter Parker, now in college, and finally worked him toward getting laid. At least that's what I like to think. In any case, he introduced readers to new glamor girl Mary Jane Watson and prettied up Ditko's Gwen Stacy creation, giving Peter a love triangle that finally seemed to be drifting towards Gwen. He hipped Peter up a bit in other ways, taking him out of his aunt's house and putting him in a pad with college buddy Harry Osborn, even giving him a motorcycle to cruise around town with. (Modern Spider-Man has made the joke that he still doesn't have a drivers' license. After all, when you learn to swing on webs at 15...) This went so far as to cause fans to write letters complaining that the Problem Peter Parker of old had been replaced by an unrecognizable Swinger Pete.
After a couple of years, Romita seemed to take more of an overseer role with the art. Marvel tried to do a second Spider-Man title that would be magazine-sized and would be sold with regular magazines rather than comics. So Romita's duties were stuck between the regular monthly title, and this new higher-priced quarterly. So Romita started being given credit as Layouts or Innovator, rather than Penciller or Artist. And in the last year or so, Jim Mooney began to pencil the ideas given him by Lee and Romita (with Romita sometimes being substituted with John Buscema).
Jim Mooney increased the darkness of the Spider-Man title. I don't mean this as post-modern psychological darkness, although a little of that may have been a side-result. But actual darkness in the art. Increased shading. More grunge to the backgrounds. Increasing the mystery-feel of the mag. In addition to fighting super-villains, Spider-Man has always been a mystery crime-fighter as well. It was also during this time that the stories began to incorporate non-white characters more, increasing the modern and relevant feel of the stories. Mooney also began to cement the ties between Peter Parker and his beautiful blonde Gwen Stacy. Mary Jane was a thing of the past, supposedly dating roommate Harry Osborn, but she was rarely seen in the mag anymore, if at all.
With villains like the Vulture, Doctor Octopus, the Lizard, and the Rhino, Spider-Man seems to attract animal-themed villains. Recently, I understand, they even did an arc exploring that very concept, but that was before my return. I hope to read it some day. But possibly his greatest villain during this era, possibly during all eras, was the Green Goblin. Beginning as a cooky character who sought to take over the mob rackets of New York City, the Green Goblin quickly rose to be a fan favorite, partly because his origins and identity were kept in secret, unlike virtually all other villains in the series. Romita's first story, after taking over the reins from Ditko, was to tell the story of how the Green Goblin becomes the first person ever to unmask Spider-Man (that is, without it being immediately explained away by extenuating circumstances, which had happened once or twice before). This was immediately followed by his removing his own mask, revealing himself to be the father of Peter's friend from college, and later roommate, Harry Osborn. This mutual unmasking appointed the Green Goblin as Spider-Man's first psychological enemy, whose threat was beyond the mere physical.
Other great villains from this time include Doctor Octopus, a man whose mechanical arms created for dealing with radioactive experiments behind a lead shield were fused to his body by such an experiment going sour; the Lizard, a one-armed scientist who sought to use reptilian biochemistry to regenerate his missing limb, only to cause his entire body to mutate into a man-sized reptile; and the Kingpin, who would later come to be one of Daredevil's main menaces, but who now threatened Spider-Man by being both a physical threat in his own right and a master-planner behind many criminal schemes which Spider-Man was obligated to thwart.
Overall, this was some solid storytelling. Yes, there were some lulus. The Looter and the Ringmaster come to mind. And others like the Vulture and Mysterio were used both well and badly. But I think I may be descending from here, as I move into the 70s. Later editor-in-chief Jim Shooter has gone on record saying that Marvel's contract to adapt the new science fiction movie Star Wars, and their continuation of that series, saved the company from going under in 1977, so I'm afraid of where Spider-Man will be at that time. I know there's a Spider-Mobile somewhere in there, and that causes me to shudder a bit. But here's to the journey.