Cool Channel Commentaries: The Spider Chronicles: Amazing Spider-Man #1-10 Posted by J.D. Dunn on 05.23.2009
Before the movies and Ultimates and alien costumes, there was simply "The Amazing Spider-Man."
The Essential Spider-Man Vol. 1
We all know the story by now. Puny lad, bitten by radioactive spider, gets spider powers but abuses them, causing the death of a loved one. As a result, he develops a crushing sense of responsibility and guilt and spends the rest of his life trying to fight evil.
But, obviously, there's so much more to it than that. Spider-Man became a cultural icon in the 1970s. In fact, in a poll of college students (Ivy Leaguers, at that), Spider-Man ranked right up there with Malcolm X and Che Guevara when respondents were asked who their top political figures were. Well, Spidey went a bit more corporate in the 1980s with a cartoon and several actions figures, but his popularity only grew.
And now, with the turn of the century, Spidey is more popular than ever, with a series of feature films, a reboot in his own series, and an "Ultimate" retelling of the original story, Arachnophila shows no signs of letting up.
So how do you review the history of one of the most recognizable figures of the latter half of the 20th century?
Easy. You start at the beginning.
Amazing Fantasy #15 Written by:Stan Lee Illustrated by:Steve Ditko Originally Published August 15, 1962
The Story: Peter Parker is a shy, unassuming nerd who is loved by his Aunt May and Uncle Ben and virtually no one else (outside of maybe his teachers). He's picked on at school, derided by women, and basically a hapless shmoe. One day, while having fun at an atomic science symposium (and really, who wouldn't?!), Pete is bitten by a spider that has become irradiated by the experiment. Once outside, Pete realizes that he can jump like a spider, cling to walls like a spider, and he has a weird sort of mental acuity soon to be known as "Spider Sense." Like all teenagers, he doesn't really think about what he could do to help mankind, he just wants to make money. He creates a mask and costume to hide his identity and challenges superstar wrestler Crusher Hogan to a match. When a talent agent sees him get over with the crowd, he decides to take this new "Spider-Man" on the road doing tricks and such. Then, one fateful evening, Spider-Man is backstage, just chillin' when a man robs the studio. At a crucial moment, Spidey lets the robber go rather than stick his neck out to help the guard. Later, as Pete returns home, he finds the police. Peter's Uncle Ben has been shot…murdered during a robbery, and the thief is holed up in a warehouse. Pete dons the Spider-Man costume, this time as a hero. Tragically, as Spider-Man corners the robber in the warehouse, he learns that it's the same robber from the studio. Had he just reached out and stopped him, Uncle Ben would be alive. And that's when Pete realizes that with great power comes great responsibility.
History: Amazing Fantasy was a series almost as hapless as Peter Parker. The series was simply a Twilight Zone-ish attempt to do a sci-fi anthology geared toward older readers. It didn't see much success and was redesigned and renamed several times (in fact, this was the only issue to bear the name "Amazing Fantasy" for over 30 years). By the time #15 rolled around, the series was already cancelled, and Marvel decided to let Stan Lee experiment by creating a super-powered teenager who wasn't just a sidekick. The response was overwhelming, and Spidey received his own series after AF was cancelled.
Introduces: Many of the major players. Peter Parker. Aunt May. Uncle Ben. Resident bully Flash Thompson.
Analysis: This is the very definition of "humble beginnings." Because it was just one story of in the issue, Spidey's tale takes up only eleven pages. To say the pace was brisk would be an understatement. Nerd. Bitten. Super powers. Robber. Revenge. That's basically how Lee tells the story. In the ensuing years, the story has been fleshed out and retconned by other writers, but this bare-bones version plays like bad fifties sci-fi (which is basically what it was). C
The Amazing Spider-Man #1 W:Stan Lee I:Steve Ditko Originally Published March 1, 1963
The Story: Part One: It's been a rough couple of months since the death of Uncle Ben. Pete and Aunt May are barely making ends meet. Pete tries to resume his showbiz career as Spider-Man but finds he can't cash the checks without proper ID. To make matters worse, The Daily Bugle Editor J. Jonah Jameson begins a smear campaign against Spidey. When Spider-Man saves Jameson's astronaut son John during a botched space mission, it just makes matters worse. Jameson runs a front page story demanding Spider-Man be arrested for setting the whole thing up.
Part Two: Spidey breaks into Fantastic Four HQ hoping to join them and make a little money. After a brief brawl, Reed sets him straight about the FF being a "non-profit" organization. Meanwhile, The Chameleon reasons that Spider-Man must be hard up for cash because he wanted to join the FF (those are some amazing deductive powers). Chameleon decides to frame Spider-Man for stealing some missile defense plans, but Spidey foils him as he's trying to sell them to the Soviets.
Introduces: Super spy The Chameleon, J. Jonah Jameson & John Jameson.
Analysis: This is the a much more traditional Spidey tale. The first part focuses on Pete's inability to cope with his surroundings while the second shows that Spider-Man is, indeed, a bad-ass mofo. This paradigm of weak Parker/strong Spider-Man would continue throughout the Lee/Ditko era. C+
The Amazing Spider-Man #2 W:Stan Lee I:Steve Ditko Originally Published May 2, 1963
The Story: Part One: The mysterious flying criminal known as "The Vulture" replaces Spidey in the headlines, but no one can get a picture of him to publish. That gives Pete an idea – he can snap pictures for cash! A huge fan of irony, Peter Parker decides to sell his photos to Spidey-hater J. Jonah Jameson. When the Vulture announces he will steal some imported diamonds, it's up to Spidey to save the day using his scientific know-how.
Part Two: A crazed old man known as "The Tinkerer" is really part of a (fake) alien conspiracy to put mind-reading devices in all of our radios and TVs so that the aliens can learn human weaknesses. Spidey gets suspicious when the Tinkerer offers him a great deal to fix a radio and decides to investigate. When he learns of the alien plot, Spidey crashes the party and sends the creatures back to their homeworld.
Introduces: The Vulture. Quentin Beck (later known as Mysterio)
Analysis: Both stories introduce the tried-and-true formula that will guide Spidey through his first twenty (or so) issues: Introduce new villain, villain beats Spidey, Spidey uses his scientific acumen to come up with a way to best the villain in their second go-round. Lee and Ditko haven't quite refined Jonah Jameson yet as he's actually quite grateful to Parker for the pictures and actually offers him (**gasp**) a bonus. C+
The Amazing Spider-Man #3 W:Stan Lee I:Steve Ditko Originally Published June 3, 1963
The Story: Brilliant physicist Dr. Otto Octavius is involved in a horrible accident that leaves his mechanical arms fused to him both mentally and physically. The accident also warps "Dr. Octopus's" mind, turning him into a bitter criminal. Not only is he a criminal, he's even more powerful than Spidey himself. Spidey is defeated in their first battle and considers giving up being Spider-Man, but thankfully, the Human Torch is in town giving a pep talk to all the teens. Spidey gets back on the horse and uses his wits to defeat Doc Ock in the end.
Introduces: Doctor Octopus.
Analysis: One of Spidey's most enduring villains makes his debut. More than any other villain, Doc Ock is identifiable as sort of the "other side of the coin." Like Peter, he's a brilliant scientist given powers by an experiment gone wrong. Unlike Peter, though, Ock never had that life-changing moment (until much later). B-
The Amazing Spider-Man #4 W:Stan Lee I:Steve Ditko Originally Published September 4, 1963
The Story: Jonah Jameson's smear campaign is taking its toll on Spidey's reputation. It gets so bad that the police actually start siding with the criminals Spider-Man apprehends. Enter Flint Marko, or "The Sandman" as he calls himself, a criminal with the ability to turn himself into grains of sand (or solidify as hard as granite). How does one get such an ability? Atomic radiation, of course. Spidey rips his mask in their first encounter and has to flee, but he goes back to the drawing board and comes up with the perfect solution – use a vacuum to suck up all of the Sandman's particles. In a subplot, Peter finally gets a date with school beauty Liz Allan but blows it when Sandman shows up.
Introduces: The Sandman, Betty Brant, and BGOC Liz Allan (by name).
Analysis: The story formula is already starting to get tiresome, but at least the villains are cool. Lee was clearly drawing on his love of B-movie clichés and plot devices at this point. Flint is about as "generic 1940s" as you can get with an origin straight out of American International Pictures. This one earns points, though, for the introductions of Betty Brant and Liz Allan, the two first romances of Peter's life. B
The Amazing Spider-Man #5 W:Stan Lee I:Steve Ditko Originally Published October 5, 1963
The Story: Thinking that Spider-Man is a menace to society just like himself, Dr. Doom offers him a chance to team up. When Spidey refuses, Doom declares all-out war. Unfortunately for Flash Thompson, he decides to dress as Spidey to play a joke on Peter Parker. When Doom abducts Flash and holds him for ransom, it's up to the real
Spidey to save his longtime tormentor. Spidey's battle with Doom is a virtual draw until Doom's rivals, the Fantastic Four arrive to turn the tide.
Analysis: Flash Thompson's character gets a little more depth as we learn that he has a man-crush on Spider-Man. Transporting a villain from another title is an interesting idea, and one that makes sense given Spidey's close ties with the Fantastic Four. Unlike early issues, though, nothing is really resolved at the end. B-
The Amazing Spider-Man #6 W:Stan Lee I:Steve Ditko Originally Published November 6, 1963
The Story: The hideous creature known as the Lizard is seen stalking the Florida Everglades. When J. Jonah Jameson offers Spidey a reward to face the creature, Pete wrangles his own trip to take the pictures. Spidey discovers that the Lizard is actually brilliant researcher Curtis Connors, who accidentally turned himself into the creature while trying to grow back his amputated arm.
Introduces: The Lizard
Analysis: The first story to take Spidey out of his element, and it works. Connors is another one of those cautionary "that could be Spider-Man" tales (and, in fact, it would be as Spidey mutated later in the series only to have Connors save him). Plus, it's more Parker 90210 as Liz falls in love with Spider-Man. I don't think I'm in the minority when I say Peter's personal life is as interesting as Spider-Man's heroism. B-
The Amazing Spider-Man #7 W:Stan Lee I:Steve Ditko Original Published December 7, 1963
The Story: The Vulture escapes from his prison* and goes on a crime spree. The neutralizer Spidey used to foil him last time won't work on Vulture's new wings, and Spidey gets a sprained elbow for his trouble. Now, he has to figure out how to defeat the Vulture while explaining his injury to Aunt May and the gang.
(*see ASM #2, I've always wanted to do that!)
Analysis: Basically the same Vulture story as before only with Spidey fighting with one arm tied behind his back. Thankfully, we get more of Pete and Betty's budding romance, which is really kind of sweet. B-
The Amazing Spider-Man #8 W:Stan Lee I:Steve Ditko Originally Published January 8, 1964
The Story: Part One: Scientists from the ICM Corporation construct "The Living Brain," a robot that can answer any question if given enough data. When the other students ask the brain who Spider-Man is, Peter gets a bit nervous. Things take a turn for the worse when a couple of crooks try to steal the Brain for themselves only to have it go haywire and start mayhem. In a subplot, Peter finally gets sick of Flash's barbs and agrees to settle things in a boxing match. Unfortunately, Flash is distracted at just the wrong time, making it look like Peter suckerpunched him, thus earning the disdain of Liz and the others.
Part Two: The B-story is just filler to showcase Spidey and the Human Torch. Spidey picks a fight with Torch, who is always in the spotlight.
Analysis: One of my favorite early issues, even if it only has a one-shot "villain." The interplay between Flash and Peter is great, and the best moment of the series so far comes when Peter is able to turn everything that's been happening into a rib on poor Thompson. The second section with Spidey and the Torch is good too, especially since they will be friendly rivals for most of Spidey's first few years. A-
The Amazing Spider-Man #9 W:Stan Lee I:Steve Ditko Originally Published February 9, 1964
The Story: When electrical worker Max Dillon is struck by lightning while up on a pole, he develops the ability to harness electricity and dubs himself Electro. Using his newfound abilities, Max sets out on a life of crime. Jonah Jameson sees this as an opportunity to sell more papers, so he claims that Electro is actually Spider-Man. Peter would like to prove otherwise, but Aunt May is in the hospital and needs an operation. Meanwhile, things between Pete and Betty begin to get more serious.
Analysis: Lee and Ditko finally hit their stride by mixing in more of Peter's personal life with the usual formula. Spidey's method of defeating Electro is pretty simple (I'll give you a hint; it involves rubber boots), but the coda with Betty breaking down into tears because she fears for Peter's (not Spider-Man's) life is what makes this issue so great. We also learn that Betty dropped out of high school to get a job. See, she's more than just a pretty face. B+
The Amazing Spider-Man #10 W:Stan Lee I:Steve Ditko Originally Published March 10, 1964
The Story: A bunch of hoods known as The Enforcers do some petty crime stuff while taking orders from the mysterious masked "Big Man." It turns out Betty Brant borrowed some money from a lone shark, and the Enforcers now own that marker. That pulls Spidey and Peter Parker smack dab in the middle of organized crime.
Introduces: Frederick Foswell, The Enforcers
Analysis: The Enforcers are just another of Stan Lee's 1940s crime movie fetishes, but the story is pretty good for deepening the characters of Betty, Flash and Jolly Jonah. Betty cuts off all ties with Peter so he doesn't get hurt by the Enforcers. Peter takes this as her not loving him and becomes depressed. Flash shows some uncharacteristic (until now) touches by showing up to visit Aunt May in the hospital and expressing concern for Peter's well-being (albeit out of sight so he doesn't ruin his rep). And finally, we get a reason for Jonah's hatred of Spider-Man: Spider-Man fights evil in a way that Jonah can only dream about, so Jonah thinks of himself as inferior. Lee and Ditko finally begin to move the stories from month to month instead of writing them as self-contained units. Just why did Betty borrow that money? You gotta read to find out. B
The 411: Good start so far in spite of the dated writing and art. This represents only half the book, though. More to come.