Spider-Man: For Better or For Worse? This Week's Reading List: Amazing Spider-Man 25-30 and Amazing Spider-Man Annual 2! Okey-dokey, here we go, folks, our first all Lee/Ditko week in some time, and at the rate ASM is about to start going, there won't be too many more of these. Ah, the pain of creative changes. Knowing what's going to be coming actually makes it a little bittersweet to write these reviews this week, because this week's books are, by and large, really, really good. BTW, sorry for the late post, but it's summer, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
Let's start at the beginning for the week: Amazing Spider-Man 25. It's funny, but this is another one of those early ASM issues that have just kind of passed me by over the years. I've read this one before, but after reading it intently this week, I'm not sure I've ever really paid attention to it before. This is an awesome, awesome issue. Supporting characters are key, there's lots of Spidey in costume, and it's just a cool story. What really makes the story for me, though, is Ditko's Randian, Objectivist philosophy coming through in a way that really makes sense. See, what I basically never saw before is how the whole thing is basically Peter's fault. When Smythe comes in, Jameson wants to brush him off, but Peter talks him into listening to Smythe, thinking that it'll give Spidey a chance to humiliate Jameson and Peter another chance to sell some photos. Betty acts as the Greek chorus this issue, constantly protesting Peter's actions and trying to help Spider-Man, who, she rightly points out, saved both her and May Parker back in ASM Annual 1. Peter doesn't tell the truth, he doesn't advance the truth. Instead, he pushes lies for personal gain, and it comes back to bite him in the ass. Spidey really was his own worst enemy, wasn't he? I'm trying to think of a time in recent memory where Peter caused as many of his own problems as he solved. (Don't bring Civil War up there, because Peter was not acting rashly with that decision, and he had May and MJ's blessings. It's not the same kind of thing.) I'm also sad that Busiek never got to do the untold tale where Peter is swinging around Manhattan in his underwear after losing his costume to the robot, because that would have been funny. It... also doesn't sound so appealing now that I've actually typed it up. Scratch that one. The idea, I mean. So, anyway, that brings us to one of my favorite Spidey stories of all time, the Goblin/Crime-Master story from ASM 26 and 27. It's a bit silly in places, I must say. I mean, we're supposed to believe that people are scared of the Crime-Master because he throws a red ball through the window? Oh noes! Of course, he does clear out an entire room of goons by himself, which is impressive for a guy with no super-powers. I don't buy the part where Spidey gets blind-sided by the Goblin. I guess his Spider-Sense is about as reliable as the Tick's nigh-invulnerability: Spidey is only precognitive when the plot calls for it. Still, there are great bits in this two-parter, and all-in-all, it holds up. The cheap imitation Spidey suit is a great gag that is worked into the plot well, as it saves Spidey from being unmasked in front of the entire underworld. Having the cops come in and hold their own and be an important factor in the eventual capture of the gangs does a good job of showing that the entire weight of the world does not rest on Spidey's shoulders. Finally, Peter putting off sewing his new costume so that he can take a lonely Aunt May to the movies is great character-building stuff, especially with her as-yet-unknown-but-impending illness. ASM 28 introduces the Molten Man and ties in several threads from previous issues. Remember how I said I obviously didn't pay much attention to ASM 25 in the past? Well, there was a time when I had missed that particular issue of Marvel Tales, and so I didn't know who Spenser Smythe was, I didn't know anything about his robot, and I didn't know what had happened with Spidey losing his costume. In short, I was a sporadic reader somewhat unfamiliar with comics who wasn't following the continuity very closely at the age of nine, and still this entire story was understandable to me. No recap pages or annoying “flashback panels” are necessary when the story is told well. (Notice the same in the beginning of ASM 27, which featured exactly zero flashback panels and only a one-sentence recap on the splash page.) The Molten Man is basically a strong, slippery bronze dude who had his clothes ripped off by a teenager. That's enough said about that. A standard plot that does involve a well-thought out use of webbing and its properties. What's important about ASM 28 is Peter's high school graduation. Liz Allen (or is that “Hilton”?--see page 2) is ignoring him for attacking Flash and the gang a couple of issues back, thus proving that she's been serious about her “I don't like Flash Thompson or any boys who are bullies” thing, which I honestly never believed. Liz reveals some real character depth here, but that's not terribly surprising, as this is the end of her arc for the foreseeable future. Flash, despite his attack of conscience in telling the principal the truth a couple of issues back, has not really matured, as his arc is definitely not over. All in all, it really says something for the kind of writing Marvel--and Ditko in particular--was doing at this point in its history. And then, at least in my copy of Marvel Masterworks, comes Amazing Spider-Man Annual 2, featuring Doctor Strange, who was not yet Sorcerer Supreme at this time, as the Ancient One still lived. In this story we find out a couple of things. First, hypnosis can make you as strong as the Hulk, who can tear webbing like tissue paper. Second, Voldemort should have been looking for the complete Wand of Watoomb, which is a slut of a wand once it's two-headed. Third, Spider-Man really can work in just about any kind of story, even a run-of-the-mill Doctor Strange one like this. Fourth, Stan Lee wrote some cuh-ray-zee dialogue back in the day. Fifth and finally, the “Gallery of Spider-Man's Most Famous Foes” was a tremendous help to me when I was nine or ten and trying to learn everything I could about Spider-Man in the dark, pre-Internet days. (Also, for years, I thought that when it said “Boy, did this villain [the Crime-Master] come close to writing “finis” to Ol' Web-Head's career!” that CM had gotten close to “finish” but had been killed before he could complete the word. Just, you know, FYI.) ASM 29 is interesting to read, as it and ASM 20 were adapted into a single Scorpion episode of the old 60's cartoon. This issue is fairly standard, but it's a fun one. We have the return of Ned Leeds and the further complication of the Peter/Betty relationship. In the long run, I think this is really important to show, that someone living a so-called normal life really does have things to offer a potential partner that an “abnormal” person cannot. Even though Betty eventually insists (to no one) that “it was always you [Peter]!”, she can't deny that Leeds offers her something substantial in being “normal”. We also have Jolly Jonah acting alternately fearless and courageous. Ditko clearly had fun showing the windbag at his best (“Get my courageous expression... My iron fists, clenched and ready!” and then later, when learning the Scorpion may return, “I wonder if it's time for fearless Jonah to take a long trip...?”). The action between Spidey and Scorpy is plentiful and entertaining, and Spidey's one-liners are great. Finally, we have Aunt May's first clear fainting spell that leads into the Master Planner storyline next week! Hooray! (Not that May's sick, of course, but... Master Planner! WHOO!) In our last issue for the week, we are introduced to that most interesting of Spidey villains, the Cat-Burglar. Apparently not the same burglar as the father of Felicia Hardy as I'd thought. I think I'll go on thinking that, as it gives her a nice link to the Spidey mythos. If anyone out there can explain to me why I can't or shouldn't think that, I'd like to hear why. Anyway, the Cat has apparently rented out the Master Planner's gang, and they all think he's swell. At least, he's swell until he's caught by Spidey and the cops in what I consider a fairly inspired ending, even if the overall story is boring. Give me the Black Fox any day. Oh, Liz Allen and Flash Thompson show up just to show up, and Aunt May's still fainting. What's really important in this issue is Betty's announcement that Ned has asked her to marry him. Is it just me, or does this seem very, very sudden? I've definitely noticed that Spidey time seems much closer to real time in these early issues (Peter only graduated in #28, but he and Liz act like they haven't seen each other in, oh, about two months in #30), but Ned and Betty have gone out semi-steadily for only a year, and he was abroad for much of that time. What's even more amazing to me, having read this and UTSM, is that Peter is seriously thinking about popping the question to Betty here, too! Huh? Anyway, Betty gives Peter a speech about how she wants a man who has a steady job and comes home to her every night. She's apparently leading into something about “If you [Peter] can do that, then I'd rather marry you,” but Peter, understandably, takes the speech as “You and Spider-Man, your connection with whom I don't know about, cannot be the husband I want.” Peter then gets mad and storms out, saying some rather insensitive things in the process. I absolutely love the scene. I love everything about it. Ditko and Lee both had experience with romance comics, and that comes through here. I imagine that the layout of the panels is very standard for soap-opera stuff, but the small panels on page 9, leading to the “widescreen” panel at the top of page 10, coupled with Ditko's facial expressions... It all just works for me. I love the fact that Ditko's faces in general aren't conventionally or repetitively beautiful as many artists' are. Look at Betty, page 10, panel 1. She's all nostrils and lips, and her body has weight and inertia and she's off-balance and staggering... She's not a model of pretty here, but who among us is at such a moment? This, combined with page 10, panel 3, where a shadowed Betty leans against the door and bemoans Peter's secret, which she knows about but cannot uncover, is heartbreaking for me. The desperation in her dialog, even though I'd do panels 2 and 3 with thought balloons instead of word balloons, just rings so true. I love everything about the Peter/Betty stuff in this issue, including his refusal to talk to her for the rest of it and the final panel showing a spectral Spidey keeping the two of them apart. Forget the Cat--for this issue, Peter Parker really is the star, and deservedly so. This is good Spider-Man (especially for those of us who know the “future” and know that we're going to be getting action in spades for the next three issues). Some of the best Spider-Man, really. Anyway, let's check my Spidey-Standards against this week's reading list: 1) Spider-Man stories were better then than they are now. Um, with the exception of Annual 2, which was enjoyable but forgettable because it had no Parker-heart and just random fights and villains? Yeah, check, these were all better than Spidey is now, with Spidey being on what, his fourth issue tracking down the Kingpin to “kill” him? I'll believe that when I see it. (Actually, I don't see an ending to “Back in Black” that will satisfy me. We'll see if JMS can pull it off, I guess.) 2) Spider-Man's supporting cast is essential to good Spidey stories. Um, Jonah and Betty are absolutely essential to 25, 28, 29, and 30, while other supporting cast have important moments sprinkled throughout. Yeah, big ol' checker-roonie on this one. 3) Peter Parker is not just a secret identity. Please. Check, check, triple-check. All right, that's it for this week. Up next week will be Amazing Spider-Man 31-35! Until the Green Goblin is on a super hero team, Make Mine Marvel! Eric