The Tables Turned

http://www.andrewrilstone.com/2017/11/the-tables-turned.html



Stan Lee introduces Amazing Spider-Man #29 with the following words.

"On the surface, this may seem to be a super-hero action thriller! But if you probe down deep, if you analyse each subtle nuance, if you dissect each philosophical phrase, if you study each non-existentialist panel you’ll discover that it actually is… a super-hero action thriller!” 


What is the purpose of this panel? Why does Stan Lee introduce this particular superhero story with 50 words saying not much more than “this is a superhero story”? Why is this the superhero story into which he is particularly worried about people reading too much significance?

And what the heck does he mean by "non-existentialist"?

An existentialist thinks that human beings create their own meaning in an essentially meaningless universe. So I suppose a non-existentialist must believe the opposite: that life does have some kind of meaning and purpose if you are prepared to look for it. 

The Beatles’ German friends were described as “exis”, but this just seems to have meant that they thought you should challenge authority. Adrian Mole was a “nihilistic existentialist”, which meant he took “being bored” a stage further than everyone else. When I was at college a lot of people used “existentialist” to mean “gloomy”. The Christian Union took it to mean “all the bad things that people believe in this terrible modern world.” In this latter sense it has been largely replaced by “post-modernism”.

Peter Parker is a non-existentialist. He believes that his life has a meaning. He thinks that Someone or Something behind the scenes expects him to behave in a particular way. The name he gives to the Person Behind The Scenes is usually Fate or Destiny. But we know that its true name is Stan Lee. 

Parker’s belief in Luck and Fate is really the perception that he is a character in a comic book. It isn’t fickle fate that determined he would be at the science exhibition at the same moment the spider got irradiated. It isn’t blind luck that means that his life keeps getting tangled up with Doctor Octopus’s plans. And it isn’t destiny which forces him to carry on being Spider-Man even though the sensible thing to do would be quit. It’s all the fault of Stan and Steve who keep thinking up more and more far-fetched plot-devices to throw at him. Because if they didn’t there wouldn’t be a comic. 

In real life, the chances of the guy who is going to murder your uncle happening to run past you down a corridor is billions to one. The chance of it happening to Peter Parker is about one hundred percent. “With great power comes great responsibility” isn’t a moral statement so much as a description of the way stories work. This story, at any rate. The argument about the Green Goblin’s identity was an argument about whether Spider-Man’s life should be directed by the Fickle Finger of Fate or whether it should be just one thing after another. Between non-existentialist Lee (”Gosh, how ironic! My best friend’s father!”) and existentialist Ditko (“this guy I never saw before”.) 


“Yeah, well, that’s not the way it would be in real life.”

“Yeah, well, in real life, there’s nobody called The Green Goblin.’



Analogies between God and The Author have been a bit overdone, not least by me. I doubt if Stan Lee has read The Mind of the Maker or The Death of the Author. But he does talk about creating all the Marvel superheroes and resting on the seventh day. Being a writer and being God are sort of kind of the same. If you are a non-existentialist, then the universe has whatever meaning and purpose God intended it to have. So surely the Marvel Universe must mean whatever Stan Lee says it means. 

And what does the voice of Stan say? He says that every single panel has the quality of non-existentialism. It means something. But at the same time — in the same breath — he says that the comic has no deeper meaning. It’s just a comic. 

This comic means whatever I say it means. And what I say is that it doesn’t mean anything. 

How is that even worth saying? 



Amazing Spider-Man #28, #29, #30 and #31 were not published by Marvel Comics Group: they were published by Marvel Pop Art Productions. 


“Remember” enthused letter-col Stan “from now on, Brand X, Y, and Z are comic books, but when you ask for a Marvel mag, you ask for a pop art book.” 


This is, I assume, a joke. But a joke is only funny if the people hearing it share certain beliefs. They all know that “comic” is a bit of pejorative term. They all know that Marvel comics are qualitatively different from DC and Atlas. And they all know what Pop Art is. Or, at any rate, they know that there is a thing called Pop Art, even if they couldn’t state the difference between Andy Warhol’s screen prints and Roy Lichtenstein found panels in any form that could hold water for five minutes. 

But what does it mean for Stan to stick a “Marvel Pop Art Productions” logo on his cover? Is he  saying “Look! These really aren’t comics any more!”? Or is he saying “Isn’t it funny that some pretentious people think these aren’t comics any more!”?


Quod scripsi, scripsi. Pow, zap, comics aren’t just for kids.



Amazing Spider-Man #33 included a fan-letter from one Betty-Anne Lopate who asked “Have you ever considered the close ideological connection between your Spider-Man and the Dadaist-Pop Art Movement?” Whether you have or not, it’s a very good letter, nailing what makes Spider-Man tick and comparing Stan Lee with Hugh Heffner into the bargain: 


“Whether you realize it or not, your Spider-Man has become the Hipper Man’s Playboy Magazine. While Hefner has capitalized on the boyhood dreams of many men to consider themselves suave and sophisticated, Spider-Man calls up a different, much more realistic and subtle form of sophistication; it caters to the young thinking man’s need to consider himself also a man of action.” 


It takes Stan Lee three exclamation points to express how bemused he is by this letter: 


“How about THAT!!! Here’s a chick who spends her 12c and end up getting fodder for a psychological dissertation! Betty-Anne, we think you’re great - and let us know what you’ll charge to psychoanalyze the gang in the bullpen when you get the chance! Okay, pussycat!” 


Stan is very proud that clever people are studying his comics, but nevertheless wants to be seen as a plain ol’ joe who doesn’t understand a word of it. Betty-Anne uses pop art and dadaism (which were not at all the same thing) to introduce a fairly transparent exposition of Spider-Man’s appeal, which Stan Lee immediately conflates with psychoanalysis. The humanities — art, lit-crit, Freud — are all equally impenetrable to us mere mortals. Peter Parker wrote off art after one glance at a modern painting, and can’t tell the difference between a psychiatrist and a psychoanalyst. 

(Brief pause to acknowledge the sexist language.)


In Origins of Marvel Comics, Stan Lee he presents himself, less as the onlie begetter of an entire menagerie of super-people, more as a professional word-smith. It turns out that it's the dialogue, not the original concept, which defines a character: 

“The best stories of all… are the stories in which the characters seem to be real….And what makes them so? Mostly it’s their dialog. The well-written character is the one who is always verbally true to form…”


“When I began to write the strip (which means actually putting the words in all their little pink mouths) I decided that I wanted the hammer holder to speak more like a god…”


This is one hell of claim, if you think about it. "Writer" means “the guy who writes the dialogue”, and dialogue is what makes characters real. So regardless of who “dreamed up” Spider-Man or the Fantastic Four, Stan Lee is indubitably the one who makes the characters real. 

Stan Lee has admitted elsewhere that Steve Ditko “dreamed up” Doctor Strange without any input from him. But if anyone but Stan had been putting words into Doctor Strange’s – er – “little pink mouth” he might have said things like “Hocus pocus go to another dimension” or “Like, split to another dimension, man.” But as we all know, what he really says is things like “In the name of the dread Dormammu…” and “By the all-seeing eye of Agamatto…”. It is this vocabulary of authentic sounding magic words which makes Doctor Strange seem real. 

As Doctor Strange got more and more popular -- and what could be hipper than a Greenwich Village wizard -- some of the Betty-Anne's among his fan base started to wonder where Stan Lee had sourced all this magic vocabulary. 


“Suddenly, mail started pouring in — from colleges, if you will… And the pay off was, many of these explained, in detailed chapter and verse, how I had obviously borrowed from the ancient Druid writings, or from forbidden Egyptian hieroglyphics, or at least the writings of H.P Lovecraft.”


It isn’t clear how college students got their hands on these Egyptian texts if they were forbidden, or indeed who it was who was forbidding them. It’s even less clear where they found ancient druid writings, given that we only know about the druids from secondary sources. Stan Lee is, as usual riffing on a theme. But his response to these supposed letters is, again, to be flattered that people are taking his comics seriously, but bemused by the specifics of what they are saying: 


“After they had done all that research, all that probing and digging, how could I tell them that it wasn’t so — that I had made it all up?”


So he told a white lie: he’d read very widely, and doubtless filled Doctor Strange with references and allusions at a sub-conscious level. 


“No need to tell them I’d never studied Egyptian hieroglyphics and wouldn’t know any ancient Druid writings if they were tattooed on my dome.”


This is the standard Artist’s Plea. My ideas don’t come from anywhere. There is no hidden meaning or subtext. I just made it all up. Out of my head. All right, all right. If you insist, maybe I put some hidden meanings in there subconsciously. But I really really didn’t. It’s all – meaningless. 


“The first phrase I thought of was as totally meaningless as all the others that were to follow: “by the hoary hosts of hoggoth”. No matter what he said, no matter what he wanted, no matter what he said, it always seemed to sound more dramatic when preceded by “by the hoary hosts of hoggoth.” 


He’s riffing again. Hoggoth wasn’t the first magic word to be used in Doctor Strange, and it was never quite as ubiquitous as he suggests. No-one sensible – not even those imaginary college students – thinks that Lee had secret knowledge of occult forces and was hiding them in his comic book. But it doesn't quite follow that the phrase is “meaningless”. 

“Hoary” is a real word. It means ancient. It has connotations of whiteness and cold. It’s an old-fashioned word. We never use it accept as a conscious archaism. 

A “host” is an army, but we only ever use the word in a religious context. We probably have some vague sense that it has something to do with angels: “the heavenly host” and the “lord of hosts”. We might also possibly associate it with the “consecrated host” in a Catholic church. “Hoggoth” is a strange collection of sounds: nothing rhymes with it. H.P Lovecraft independently spotted its strangeness when he named one of his alien monsters a “shoggoth”

I suppose we could translate “hoary hosts of hoggoth” as “Hoggoth’s ancient army” or just possibly “Hoggoth’s ancient and holy bread”. But this isn’t what we hear. What we hear is more like “ancient-white-archaic-mysterious-religious-sacred-things”. We probably imagine Hoggoth as a venerable old man with white hair and a beard. It has echoes of Christian sanctity, but the lilting alliteration is the kind of thing a guru in an Arabian Nights market might say. Like Doctor Strange, it has one foot in a Western world of angels and devils, and one foot in an Eastern world of carpets and Turkish delight. 

You could doubtless play similar games with “agamatto” and “dormamu” and “vishanti”. Lee says that when he made the names up he relief entirely on phonetic: on what sounded mystical. But I don't think that there is any such thing as pure phonetics. Lee may never had read an occult text in his life, but his words mean things, however much he doth protest that they do not.


Stan Lee wrote Spider-Man’s dialogue. So by Stan Lee's arguments, it was Stan Lee who mainly made Spider-Man seem real. But Steve Ditko was making up the stories and Steve Ditko had some very specific, very idiosyncratic, very deeply held political beliefs. And they were increasingly finding their way into his stories. We are only four issues away from The Final Chapter: Spider-Man’s supreme act of self-conquest. No-one reading that iconic episode would dispute that it means something: that Steve Ditko meant something by it. The young people on the internet who say “all that happens is that Spider-Man lifts something really heavy” are simply wrong. 

Stan must have been able to see what was happening. Stan must have known that left to himself Steve would have turned Peter Parker into the poster-boy for his newfound Randian faith. Would Stan have been relaxed about that? Using comics to say that hatred was bad and love was good was one thing: but using them to proselytize a specific political position was something else. 

So this breezy little joke is part of the Lee vs Ditko struggle, which is part of the words vs pictures struggle, which is part of the Peter Parker vs Spider-Man struggle. Ditko wants his comics to say something. Stan smiles and says that if you look carefully enough you’ll find that there is nothing to see. They really are just superhero comics and nothing else.

A couple of issue later he admits that the “Pop Art” logo was a terrible, terrible mistake.


When a writer tells critics not to bother interpreting his story, what he really means is that his interpretation is the only true one – that you have to read the story his way, or not at all. Some writers find deeply threatening the idea that there might be truths in the story they created which they themselves are unaware of. “This story is meaningless” is the cry of a creator trying to keep control over his creation. 

There is a very well known story about this. About a creator who creates a Creature with the best of intentions only to watch the Creature run amok and destroy him and everything he loved. (The Creature even steals his Creator's name.) 

I assume that Lee had read Mary Shelly. He had certainly seen the Karloff movie. He quite explicitly evokes Frankenstein when recapitulating the story of the Scorpion. It isn’t mere a tale of science gone awry. It’s a tale of the Creation rising up against the Creator. Jameson created the Scorpion to destroy Spider-Man; the Scorpion wants to destroy Jameson; Spider-Man has to defend Jameson from the Scorpion. “I am doomed…” cries Jameson “Doomed by the very creature I myself unthinkingly helped to create.” The language can hardly be a coincidence. 

Ditko provided a splash page which encapsulates the super-hero action thriller side of the story very adequately. Jameson looks on helplessly as Spider-Man fights against the Scorpion (tearing up his office) in the process. Stan Lee could have underlined this, say by repeating the blurb from last issues letter page “A fighting mad Spider-Man battles to protect his worst enemy.” But instead he looks through the image and sees the deeper meaning. The Creation that the Creator has lost all control over. 

Lee’s 50 word introduction is one last attempt to take back control over the character he created. Helped to create. And he knows it won’t do any good. He is J. Jonah Jameson. His office has been flattened. Fifty years in the future people he has never met will be discovering new ways in which Spider-Man #29 is something more than a superhero action thriller.


Amazing Spider-Man #29

http://www.andrewrilstone.com/2017/11/amazing-spider-man-29.html

Never Step on a Scorpion!


Villain: 
The Scorpion

Supporting cast: 
J. Jonah Jameson, Frederick Foswell, Betty Brant, Ned Leeds, Aunt May. 

Spins a Web, any size
Spider-Man makes web bolas to entangle the Scorpion.

Peter Parker’s financial position. 
Buying new clothes for college “practically cleans him out”. A suit would cost about $25 and a shirt about $3, so he can hardly have blown more than $50. He has spent through the $1,000 the Globe paid him in #27 in about 2 months. 

Chronology
Peter Parker graduated in issue #28, so that story almost certainly took place on June 25, 1965.

Peter Parker starts college in issue #31, so that story almost certainly takes place between 23 - 27 August 1965.

Amazing Spider-Man #29, #30 and #31 must be consecutive: Betty Brant gets an attack of the vapours in #29 and is still in bed in #30; Aunt May feels unwell in #29 and is hospitalized in #31. 

It follows that this issue takes place a few days before Peter starts college, say 20 Aug 1965; and that there has been a two month gap between the end of Spider-Man #28 and the opening of Spider-Man #29. This is consistent with Liz not having seen Peter “since graduation” in #30, and Peter not having seen Betty “for a long time” in #29. It also allows Ned and Betty a few Peter-free weeks to get to know each other.

The events of issue #28 comfortably take place in a few hours.

Observations

Page 2 "Last year's clothes are getting too tight on me!"
Guys can grow and inch or two between age 16 and 18, and Peter Parker is perpetually working out and presumably gaining muscle mass, so it's not surprising he needs new clothes. He withdraws some cash to go shopping with; but then changes his mind and goes to the Bugle instead.

That said, I find these panels baffling. Peter is generally shown wearing a blue suit, yellow waistcoat and red tie. From this issue he will largely abandon the jacket and tie and wear a much less formal non-buttoning yellow vest. It would not surprising for Ditko to flag this change of look with a trip to the shops. 

But Peter is clearly already wearing the new waistcoat in panel 2; and he doesn't get to the shops because they are too crowded. This is no Lee/Ditko miscommunication: the text accurately reflects the pictures -- Peter struggling to fit into a shirt, Peter going to the bank; Peter walking away from the crowded shops. But Peter definitely wears a new outfit from this point on.

Page 2 "I outsmarted them by pretending to crack up! They returned my costume to me in order to calm me down!"
Does Stan Lee think that the Scorpion's powers come from his suit? Or has he spotted a problem in Ditko's pictures (why on earth does the Scorpion have his costume on when he escapes from jail?) and hastily come up with an explanation? Is there an ironic contrast between the Scorpion getting his costume back and Peter Parker entirely failing to buy a new waistcoat? We know from Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1 that it was common practice to allow super-criminals to wear their costumes in jail.

Page 3 "It’s a long time since I’ve seen Betty”
Betty last appeared in issue #26.

Page 3 “Ned Leeds is back to stay” 
Nine issues ago, Ned stated that he was going away for 6 months.

Page 4 Ned is taking me to see Golden Boy tomorrow night!”
Golden Boy was a musical which ran on Broadway from 1964-65, starring Sammy Davies Jnr, about a boxer who accidentally kills an opponent and commits suicide. 

Page 7 “Spider-Man and Scorpion are Partners, says publisher”
Once again, Jameson seems to be able to write, typeset and print a new edition of the Bugle in a matter of seconds…

Page 9 “This is only a temporary respite.”
A respite is temporary by definition.

Page 9 "As for you, Scorpy, we've just got to get rid of your deep rooted-hostility complex."
A "hostility complex" isn't really a thing: psychologists do occasionally refer to someone having an "anger-hostility complex". Like "non-existentialist", it's a five buck word that doesn't really mean anything: Lee/Parker thinks that sticking the word "complex" on the end of another word makes him sound clever. Peter is a bookworm, but pretty ignorant about the humanities.

P15 - "Whither I go, you go!” 
The second time in two months Spider-Man has mangled this piece of scripture. (It is echoed in the cover copy this issue "Whatever you do...wherever you go..." and again in the final cliffhanger of issue #32.) 

P16 Say! I wonder what Ed Sullivan would pay for an act like this!”
Lee and/or Peter Parker has forgotten that Spider-Man started life as a TV entertainer. Indeed, his agent originally promised to get him a slot on the Ed Sullivan show.

P18 “To paraphrase an old cliche: this'll hurt you lots more than it does me!”
“This will hurt me more than it will hurt you” is proverbially said by a father or school-teacher to indicate that they are administering corporal punishment only reluctantly. Considering the way Aunt May scolds the adult Peter Parker in #22 and #25, it is quite possible that he heard the phrase from her once or twice when he was smaller. He isn’t paraphrasing the proverb (saying the same thing in different words) so much as reversing or parodying it. 

P18 "I've got him now! He can't hold his breath as long as I can!"
Why not? The Scorpion is meant to be Spidey's physical equal, and Spidey has never had a specific breath-holding power before. Ditko's pictures simply show Spider-Man knocking the Scorpion out with a punch: the breath-holding idea is added in the text, presumably because Stan Lee thought Spider-Man's victory required more explanation. 



This comic reminds us of just how good Stan and Steve could be when they were working together.

No: let’s try that again.

This issue shows us just how good Stan and Steve could be when they were banging their heads together, pulling a story in two different directions, openly at war with each other in the pages of their own comic book. This book has "creative tension" written all over it. And it's great. 

You need look no further than the first page to see what is going on. Steve Ditko opened last issue with a nice little school scene in which Principal Davies reassured Peter that he wasn’t mad at him after all; and Stan Lee poked fun at it. We can discuss the precise position of his tongue relative to his cheek, but fun at it he unquestionable poked. Is this any way to begin a superhero thriller? And so this issue Steve strikes back. This story actually begins with a jail break. The first panel could perfectly well have been the Scorpion bursting through the prison wall. But no: Steve opens the comic with Peter Parker in his bedroom putting on a shirt. And then he goes shopping. 

This dramatic enough for, you, Stan? Has the impact of a falling feather, does it?

The splash page points out that Stan – Stan Lee, me, me, me – came up with the title, Never Step On a Scorpion and was very, very clever to have done so. It also chastises uppity plotter-artists who think that comic books are about something. Because they’re totally not. This may look like a superhero comic. But if you study it carefully, you’ll find out that it really is only a superhero comic. 

Take that, Randian subtext! 

On the other hand, this issue is a bit of a counterpoint to our working hypothesis that Stan and Steve haven't been on speaking terms since issue #23 or thereabouts. Maybe they haven't. But if so, isn't it rather surprising that J Jonah Jameson so specifically asks Frederick Foswell about next month’s baddie (that Cat Burglar) and the month after next’s baddie (the very famous Master Planner)? How did heroic writer Stan no what homeric scripter Steve had lined up for issue #30 if they weren't talking to each other? I suppose it is just possible that Stan Lee plucked “Cat Burglar” and “science thief” out of thin air because J.J.J had to be saying something, and Ditko saw the copy and said “Cat Burglar, is it? Then I’ll damn well give you a Cat Burglar, see if I don’t.” But I think there must have been some kind of conference, if only through an intermediary in which Steve said “I think next month I’m going to do a Cat Burglar” and Stan said “Sure, Steve, I’ll foreshadow, shall I?” or Stan said "What about a story about a villain stealing scientific equipment?" and Steve said "Yeah, I can run with that idea." 

And if Ditko thought that a story was a skein of multiple threads that eventually tangled themselves into one big narrative knot, while Lee thought that a story was a kind of prelude which set up the fight scene then this issue is as pure a Stan Lee plot as was ever been committed to low grade pulp newsprint. Nine page set up; nine page fight scene (with a bit of an interlude at half-time) two page wind down.

The Scorpion gets out of jail; the Scorpion wants to kill J. Jonah Jameson; so Spider-Man has to defend J. Jonah Jameson — even though Jonah created the Scorpion to kill him. Gosh! How ironic! There is a little bit of waffle in which Jameson tries to goad Spider-Man into fighting the Scorpion (which he was obviously going to do anyway) and Spider-Man swings around the city trying to draw the Scorpion out (which leaves the Scorpion free to attack an unprotected Jameson), but basically “The Scorpion tries to kill J.J.J and Spider-Man tries to stop him” is as sophisticated as it gets. The Scorpion gets to the Bugle first and menaces J.J.J; Spider-Man arrives in the nick of time; they bash each other all round the office, then over the rooftops, and finally in the river. Spider-Man wins the day because he can hold his breath underwater for longer than the Scorpion can. (It’s okay for your ordinary decent superhero to half drown opponents, apparently.) J. Jonah Jameson claims that he defeated the Scorpion single handedly; Betty Brant goes into shock and is taken care of by her new boyfriend; and Aunt May has an attack of Aunt May disease but doesn’t tell Peter so as not to worry him. The end. 

Did Ditko comes up with this astonishingly un-Ditkoesque story out of his conservative head, or did Stan Lee send him one of his famous two line plots? Or must we think of Stan Lee expressing his displeasure at the lack of action in the last few episodes, and Ditko saying “A fight scene, is it? I’ll give you a damned fight scene….”



Artistically, Steve is at the top of his game, which is a pretty impressive place to be. The web swinging sequence on page 5 is one of the most perfect things he ever drew. We start up among the rooftops, on Spider-Man’s level; we swoop down to ground level with him; and end up on the sidewalk with the crowd, looking at Spider-Man swinging above us. We see him in mid-swing; then diving at the ground, and then swinging up again with the momentum, shooting a new web from his left hand as he does so. (And then we pull back, so we are watching the Scorpion watching Spider-Man.) If you want to understand how Spider-Man moves, this is the page to study.

The fight scene has an energy which the punch up with Molten Man was desperately lacking. Look at Spider-Man simultaneously falling and punching the Scorpion in panel 3 of page 9: neither of them appears to have a foot on the ground, but both of them are accidentally kicking J.J.J. whose limbs are flailing wildly. The pacing is perfect; we see the Scorpion chasing Jonah round the Daily Bugle building, and then cornering him against a well; at which moment Spider-Man swings in through the window. There is a neat one page interlude between Spider-Man and the Scorpion leaving the building and the fight resuming on the roof, in which Jonah surveys the wreckage of his office and realizes he can make a profit on the insurance.


But this is not a one man show. Stan Lee’s dialogue lifts a very good fight scene to a whole nother level. It is true that there are a lot of speech bubbles, and quite a lot of captions and it is true that not all of these speech bubbles are strictly necessary. If you are inclined to regard comic books as things that you look at rather than read than five speech bubbles on a single panel maybe be overdoing it a bit. But I submit that Stan Lee knows exactly what he is doing. The panels are crowded with dialogue; but J.J.Js offices are crowded with people. There is slightly too much to read; but Spider-Man feels that J.J.J and Ned and Jonah and Betty are all shouting at him, and he wishes they would keep it down and let him concentrate on the fight. Everyone has their own voice. The Scorpion sounds like a proper Republic Serial villain: “This is only a temporary respite! I’ll dispose of Spider-Man and then we’ll continue where we left off.” Ned Leeds is continually, infuriatingly, chivalrous “Don’t worry Betty. I’ll see that nothing happens to you.” Jameson is moronic, sell-centred, cowardly and very funny. “No! You can’t get me! Get Spider-Man instead!” And Spider-Man, of course, is an endless stream of sarcasm. 

Jameson: It’s Spider-Man’s job to fight killers like you!

Scorpion: Well, if he knows what’s good for him he’ll resign, real quick!

Spider: If I knew what was good for me, I wouldn’t be here in the first place, mister! 

I recently read through a couple of issues of Captain Atom, the comic Ditko did for DC after leaving Marvel in '66. The pictures are as pretty as ever, but I find the comic practically unreadable. Speech bubbles and captions have hardly evolved beyond silent movie intertitles or Rupert Bear rhyming couplets. When the villain appears, he says “I expected to meet you Captain Atom, but not this soon.” When the villain punches him, Captain A says “Just have to take the blows so they won’t suspect I have my powers back.” When he returns to HQ he says “Where is the general. I freed myself so he doesn’t have to pay the ransom.” Everyone sounds just like everyone else. These are not illuminations or embellishments: merely stage directions. Stan Lee really was taking comic book writing into places it hadn't been before.


Look at the first panel on page 12. We are following through on a punch. The previous panel showed the Scorpion hitting Spider-Man; this panel shows him flying through the air, past J.J.J and into a bookcase. If we were scripting the panel Captain Atom style, we wouldn't need anything more than “The Scorpion hit me pretty hard!” or “Look, the Scorpion has knocked Spider-Man into that piece of furniture!” or, simply “Ouch”.

Indeed, Stan Lee puts Spider-Man's reaction ("Uhhh!" rather than "Ouch!") into the previous panel. He notices that Jameson is in the panel, and realizes that the scene is not about Spider-Man getting clobbered, but about J.J.J’s reaction to Spider-Man getting clobbered. And he decides that, since J.J.J is an idiot, his reaction is to tell Spider-Man off: 

“You over-rated clown! You bumbling incompetent! He’s making you look like a bum!”

(Settle down at the back. It means “tramp”.) He puts Spider-Man’s reaction to Jonah's reaction into the same panel. 

“Think you can do better, buttercup? I’ll lend you my costume!”

Spidey flies across the room; Jonah scolds Spidey; Spidey snarks at Jonah. You might think that that was enough for one panel: but Stan has noticed that Spider-Man has been thrown against a desk, and adds a second round of conversion: 

“Look out for that desk!”

“Relax J.J.J,; I'm not hurt!”

“Who care about you!!? That furniture set me back a fortune?” 

A panel which by itself “means” one thing — “Spider-Man has been thrown across the room” — has had two additional “meanings” inscribed into it — Jameson is nasty (and Spider-Man gives as good as he gets); Jameson is a skinflint. I don’t think Jameson’s concern about the cost of his office furniture — or his plan to claim on the insurance — is implicit in any of the artwork, although Ditko sure does show a lot of stuff getting broken. Stan Lee's text does not merely draw out what is in the pictures; it adds new elements. 

This episode does have a structural purpose in the overall story arc: it transforms Ned Leeds from a plot device into an actual character. When Leeds first appeared he was little more than a stick to hit Peter Parker over the head with. When our hero was at his lowest ebb, he happened to see Betty Brant having a pleasant evening out with a charming, good looking journalist. Ned was almost immediately written out — dispatched to Europe to cover the nuclear non-proliferation treaty in #20. Since he learned that Betty has been corresponding with Ned in issue #23, Peter Parker has been incredibly jealous of him. This is a bit of a role-reversal -- from issue #13 to #22, pretty much Betty Brant's whole personality was reducible to "the jealous one". It is also typically unfair and sexist of Peter: he has openly dated Liz Allan, and specifically told Betty that he was okay with her seeing both Ned. But this is the first time Ned has really appeared as a character. And it’s a skillful piece of characterization. He does nothing but nice things — he laughs at Peter’s weak jokes, he comforts Betty during the fight and takes her to the doctor when it all gets a bit much. But by the end of the episode both we and Spider-Man are sick to death of the great big goody two-shoes. Which is an important set up for next issue's Not Particularly Surprising twist.

On page 10, we see Ned hugging Betty (in a brotherly, comforting sort of way) while calling out “Hurry, Spider-Man…you’ve got to stop the Scorpion. I’ll look after Miss Brant…You concentrate on your fight…and watch out for that tail of his.” This, of course, antagonizes Spider-Man ("first he muscles in on my girl, and now he’s giving me advise on how to protect myself.”) He rushes in to attack the Scorpion (who isn’t even in panel) and is immediately thrown back against the wall with a dramatic Wham! 

“I told you to watch out for his tail!” says Ned.

“Aw, shuddup!” replies Spider-Man. 

Lee spots that “Shuddup” is funnier than “Shut up” and “Aw shuddup” is funnier still. The icing on the gag is that the balloon is printed upside down. It’s the most perfectly judged moment in one of the  most perfectly judged of all Spider-Man stories. It may appear to be about Spider-Man fighting the Scorpion. But if you study it more closely, and analyze ever panel and nuance etc etc etc it’s actually about J.J.J and Ned Leeds watching Spider-Man fight the Scorpion; or, in fact, about Spider-Man reacting to being watched by Ned and Jonah.  

The Sinister Six may be the perfect example of a Stan Lee's vision of Spider-Man, and next month's Cat Burglar may be the perfect example of Steve Ditko's. But Never Step on a Scorpion is the perfect example of what the two men could produce when they were in sync — or creatively out of sync. 

Light, funny, witty, with a sting in the tale: this is my Spider-Man.