Jun 28, 2012

Retrospective: Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's Amazing Spider-Man

Tomorrow sees the debut of The Amazing Spider-Man here in the Philippines. I'm looking forward to it because, obviously, Spider-Man is my favorite superhero, but also because I can't wait to see just how far the technology for superhero movies has come since the first Spider-Man 10 years ago. Although the trailers thus far have had a gigantic share of "What in the world are they doing?" moments for me (Peter Parker's parents were always the weakest part of the mythos to me, and no JJJ?), it's also had a fair amount of "Oh my God, that looks awesome!" moments, and I'm just of the firm belief that Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone will outdo Tobey Maguire's and Kirsten Dunst's performances because, well, nothing can be worse. Mostly.

A couple of Christmases ago, my mom gave me THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN OMNIBUS, VOLUME 1, which collects the entire Stan Lee and Steve Ditko run on the character. It comprises AMAZING FANTASY #15 (the first appearance of Spider-Man), AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #1-38, and a couple of annuals.

Let's get to it, shall we?

The first thing that jumped out at me when reading this was the idiosyncratic artwork. Ditko seems to be incapable of drawing conventional superhero faces, or normal faces in general. Everyone kind of looks ugly or neurotic, which is perfect for Spider-Man, since Peter Parker is a guy dominated by his neuroses and psychological failings. I would hesitate to call Ditko's faces "expressionistic," partly because I'm not really sure what that means, but certainly his style more conveys the emotion of a situation rather than the realistic accuracy of a given image.

What we see with Ditko's style, under Stan's pen, is the perfect depiction of motion. People always say no one draws power like Jack Kirby, but I would say that no one draws motion like Steve Ditko. He's an excellent storyteller who sticks very much to the three-tier, six-panel grid, but doesn't adhere to it — he messes around with the sizes, and he uses it to control the pacing with surgical precision. I don't think anyone's done more with the grid (Maybe Jack Cole). Just compare the following pages and note how the figure of Spider-Man guides your eye in such a way that the flow is smooth and fluid.

Lee and Ditko's Peter Parker is, of course, an outcast in school, and because he has to keep his secret identity as Spider-Man, he can't let loose in school and do things that would make him more popular (like joining the football team). But the thing is, he's not like Superman or Batman, or any of the ones that came before. He doesn't handle his personal life with levity; sometimes Peter Parker gives in to his urges, and that's part of why it was so radical back in 1963. Here's Peter actually taking up bully Flash Thompson's offer to fight. There's an anger in Peter that translates to the humor Spider-Man uses when fighting his villains — a very superego/id relationship.

That's not all for Peter; there are a couple of instances in the run where he does some flat-out questionable things to serve his own interests. He needed money, so he had to take a picture of Spider-Man capturing Electro. He failed to capture Electro, so he decided to fake photos showing that Spider-Man is Electro.

It's hard for me to dole out percentages on how much Stan did and how much Steve did (aside from Stan doing all the dialogue and Steve doing all the actual drawing), because even reading it, it feels like such a collaborative effort. It's a creative dance that Stan led in the beginning, leading to the comic having a more controlled structure. Ditko's talents and capabilities of composing a page just elevate themselves the more he controlled the plotting. The Green Goblin vs. Crimemaster storyline in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #26-27 was a turning point in the series, as it's where I noticed that the pacing was more fast-paced and more organic.

It takes a big writer to step back and know that his artist is more than capable of telling the story at hand, and Stan Lee, for all the flak he gets, for all the complaints levied his way, knows when to step back and let the artist take over, except maybe for dialogue, in which case, he does sometimes go overboard. However, at the time, Stan's dialogue was the big unifying element of the Marvel books, so I'm willing to give that a pass.

This collaboration culminates in the Master Planner Saga (AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #31-33). This is a watershed storyline in the history of comics containing one of the most iconic moments ever, which itself has been homaged several times since (most recently three weeks ago in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #687).

Stan never told Steve how to do this scene; Steve is the one who decided he was going to take multiple pages to do it, to change the panel sizes to increase the drama, to use a full splash page to do the climax. And the thing is, Stan let him do it, and Stan didn't have to. Stan was the writer and the editor, and I think he did his very best to really match that emotion Ditko conveys (note how well he does it — Spider-Man's face is completely covered) with his dialogue. Whether or not it succeeds or fails is up to the reader.

The entire Master Planner Saga is also a key point in the entire history of Spider-Man, because this is the story where Peter goes from being a teenager to a man. This is the story where Peter decides to quit taking crap from anyone and stand up for himself as Peter Parker. In the span of a few pages, he breaks up with his first girlfriend Betty Brant, putting his foot down and asserting himself, then he reasserts himself in front of his boss, J. Jonah Jameson, whom he's sick of dealing with.

He needs the money for his Aunt May. While she is in the hospital, he, and only he, has the power to save her, thus making her his responsibility. I thought that was a nice touch, showing that the whole "moral" of Spider-Man story — "With great power must come great responsibility" — was most exemplified by this moment of Peter Parker asserting his responsibility, not Spider-Man.

The Master Planner Saga ends on a real down note, and frankly, if I were to give any new reader a batch of Spider-Man stories, I would end it right there, at number 33, because the closure is almost perfect. Spider-Man wins, everyone around Peter wins, but somehow, Peter loses.

It's kind of funny looking at it now how much of a downer Spidey is. Here's the ending to his first appearance in AMAZING FANTASY #15.

Here's the ending to his next story.

And here's a happy ending, which has to state, "Hey, who says we never give Spidey a happy ending?"

So there's a real "down" feeling to Spidey's adventures, and it's very prevalent, but it's not overwrought and is well-balanced with lightheartedness and levity.

I think as a general rule, when you read older comics, it's important to take into account the time period in which it was made. Of course it's going to look cruder, sound more dated, and be a bit archaic, and that's true for maybe the first half of the Omnibus. However, once you get to around issue #18, you're fully immersed in that era and that's no longer a consideration. You'll be reading the work on its own merits. At that point, I forgot I was reading a 1960s comic book. It was legitimately engrossing, and it was well-told and well-composed.

I think AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #1-38 really showcase how good Lee and Ditko were as a tandem, how good Ditko was at conveying motion, and how good Stan was at steering the ship. I think it holds up very well in this day and age. I won't say you'll enjoy it if you're a new reader, because I'm well aware of the prejudices newer readers tend to have against older stuff, but if you're the type of guy who can take into context the time something was made in, then yes, I would still highly recommend it.

And now, to close us off, here's Spider-Man breaking into the Ringmaster and the Circus of Crime's lair!

Yep, those sneaky sinners in the sleazy hotel room
in the shabby hotel better get ready to fight now.

Once again, thanks to Back Issue Ben for some of these scans.


snowkatt said...

not to sound pedantic but lee and ditko did 38 issues of asm

with issue 38 being a guy named joe http://marvel.wikia.com/Amazing_Spider-Man_Vol_1_38

all in all lee and ditko did 41 issues

asm 1-38
amazing fantasy 15
and 2 annuals

Duy Tano said...

No worries. Thanks for spotting that!

yacine said...

I agree with you about the great team effort by Lee & Ditko. I apreciate your balanced view and the fact that you don't give credit to only one of them.

Dimitris said...

"It's hard for me to dole out percentages on how much Stan did and how much Steve did (aside from Stan doing all the dialogue and Steve doing all the actual drawing), because even reading it, it feels like such a collaborative effort."

To be fair, we can be sure that from #25 onward Ditko was the sole plotter on the book since it is credited as such and Stan Lee wasn't on speaking terms with Ditko anymore meaning he was getting a complete story and putting in the dialogue. That's not to meant to lessen Stan's contribution since his dialogue imbues the characters with such personality.

A couple of things I'd like to mention regarding this run

1. I really think that it's the one run that holds up the best out of all of 60's marvel output, even though my favorite is Lee-Kirby Fantastic Four, due to its strong plotting and remarkable character development (considering the times that is). In my experience reading old American comics, Ditko is the first to use long-term planning in his storytelling, something that's quite common in modern comics. In the 60s FF, my favorite run mind you, Sue is in a love triangle with Reed and Namor and then out of the blue she gets married. Johnny has a girlfriend, Dorris, that, when outruns her usefulness, just disappears. When Stan and Jack wanted to get rid of Jane Foster over in Thor, they did it in one issue (#136), including a cheesy happy ending for her. But when Ditko wanted to dissolve the relationship between Peter and Betty, it happened over a period of issues, in a natural and organic way.

Then there is this excerpt from Dick Giordano's foreword to th Action Heroes' DC Archives volume, concerning Ditko's claim to a writing credit: "To make his point, he indicated a chart on the wall that clearly outlined the Spider-Man storyline for the next three or four issues". I really think that Ditko pioneered this level of meticulous longform storytelling, considering DC was doing one-and-done stories at the time and the Lee-Kirby collaborations had continuity and progression but in a more haphazard and on-the-spot manner.

2.Even though, as you point out, Lee and Ditko usually worked great as a unit there are two notable exceptions. One is ASM #30, the cat-burglar issue, where Ditko introduces the Master-Planner's costumed lackeys, that will have a bigger role in the next issue, and Lee scripts them as if they are the catburglar's lackeys, which makes no sense storywise.

The other is ASM #34 where Ditko has plotted it so that Kraven creates a special scent that he uses on Spider-Man so that he will always sense him approaching (to get the same advantage that Spidey has with his spider-sense), while Lee scripts it so that Kraven invented a formula that can take away Spider-Man's spider-sense. This leads to some nonsensical moments in the story where the script practically fights the art.

From what I've read this was mostly on Ditko who, kinda childishly, wasn't always putting enough inforamation on his notes over the drawn pages. Still a standout run though.

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