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Marvel Masterworks: Amazing Spider-Man Volume II

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Thanks to the box office numbers of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, we’ve been getting a raft of good reprint collections devoted to the character: none so great as the recent “Marvel Masterworks” re-issue of Amazing Spider-Man, Volume Two. Spent the weekend re-reading the stories in this book for the first time in decades. I was delighted to see that they almost worked as well for a geezerly adult as they did the nerdy adolescent reading ‘em for the first time.

A hardbound collection of the second ten issues of Amazing Spider-Man (circa 1963-4), the book shows the character’s original creators Stan Lee and Steve Ditko as they really start to hit their stride. Having already exhaustively ballyhooed Spidey as a Different Kind of Superhero, Lee & Ditko were now in the position of actually having to prove how different he was. This they did: by upping the soap opera elements with their now-established cast (frail Aunt May, blustery editor J. Jonah Jameson, perpetually forlorn secretary Betty Brant and the chorus of high schoolers led by Flash Thompson) and by bringing in two of the series’ best long-running antagonists (Green Goblin and Kraven the Hunter).

The Spider template had already been established in the first ten issues: nerdy science guy who blossoms into a smart-ass once he puts a mask over his face (you always had the sense that his wisecracks had festered in the back of his brainy mind for years – and that the supervillains he battled were surrogates for the bullies he’d known all his life); guilt-ridden kid whose best intentions were regularly misunderstood by a fickle outside world. All that was left was to put poor Peter Parker through his paces.

Spider-Man artist Ditko was the not-so-secret factor in the series’ success. No one then or since has shown the same straight-faced ability to depict adolescent doubt and self-pity as this uniquely clunky great. One of Ditko’s standard images – it crops up repeatedly in these stories – was of hero Peter hunched over, solitary, oppressed by the shadow of his spider role. As Ditko drew it, it works every time. Even when our hero is victorious, he remains a friendless figure: swinging in the distance over the NYC skyline, watching a ship steam off and fantasizing about escaping on it. If great power brings responsibility, it also brings loneliness. Particularly for a bookish boy in Forrest Hills in the 60′s.

These days, with computer art and color embellishing today’s comics, Ditko’s plain and sometimes unpretty linework can be distancing for modern readers. Like watching an urban drama from the early talkie era, the technological simplicity can initially be off-putting. But read two or three of these full-color reprints in a row, and you’re sucked in. Like the great early sound directors (Fritz Lang, for instance, whose influence can be seen in Ditko’s art – particularly in the mob scenes), the artist has a purity of focus that pulls you through even the hokiest moments.

Scripter Lee provided his share of hokey bits, too. Take the first story in Volume Two, “Turning Point.” Featuring the return of regular Spidey bad-guy, Dr. Octopus (equipped w./ a set of large mechanical tentacles, which Ditko delights in posing via menacing swirls around the villain’s head), the prime plot involves Betty Brant’s brother, who is into the mob for money. You know he’s gonna redeem himself with a final ennobling gesture in the end.

Or consider the issue introducing Green Goblin (#14, “Grotesque Adventure of the Green Goblin”), which revolves around the mysterious villain’s desire to lure Spider-Man into a trap. (Why? We don’t know: the villain’s motivation and identity were kept secret for several years. For that matter, neither Norman Osborne nor his son Harry have been introduced yet.) Our hero’s lured out into the desert with the promise of a role in a movie by the director of The Nameless Thing from the Black Lagoon in the Murky Swamp (an “Oscar-winning” film, we’re told), little knowing that the Goblin has brought a trio of hired thugs named the Enforcers on set to battle Spidey for real. Lee had already used the movie-as-trap plot in the first year of Fantastic Four, and it was just as strained the second time.

Such genre goofiness notwithstanding, the Lee & Ditko Spider-Man lived up to its billing. A three-issue series (#17-19) shows the team at its peak: forced once more by the Green Goblin into a confrontation – this time at a charity country club dance – our hero ducks out mid-battle when he learns Aunt May has just been sent to the hospital with her first heart attack. Branded a coward and agonizing over his responsibility for his incapacitated mother figure, Peter Parker spends a whole issue hiding from confrontations that are waiting for him around every corner. (Though it’s since become commonplace, this has to be one of the first times a superhero comic devoted a full ish to character over physical confrontation.) Our guy snaps back to take on a slew of baddies in the subsequent issue, but I’ve gotta tell ya – as an early adolescent reading that series when it came out, for a month there I know the core readership had its doubts.

An even more compact sample of coolness can be found in issue #12′s “Unmasked By Dr. Octopus.” In this ‘un, the mechanical cephalopodist pulls off a series of crimes through the country just to taunt our hero. Frustrated by Spidey’s no-show (he doesn’t realize that since Peter is just a teenager, he can’t just up and fly across country), he returns to New York to kidnap Betty Brant. Peter, meanwhile, is battling a 24-hour virus that makes him woozy even as he swings off to rescue Betty at the seasonally closed Coney Island. In this incapacitated state, he’s easily defeated by Doc Ock – who unmasks his foe in front of Betty and Peter’s editor J. Jonah Jameson.

Fortunately for Spider-Man, everyone thinks Peter has just been impersonating the super-hero in a foolhardy attempt to rescue his girl. (“Take your puny hero,” the villain sneers as he tosses the passed-out Parker into a policeman. “It’s the real Spider-Man I’m after!”) Feeling humiliated at the hands of a “mere teenager,” Dr. Octopus decides to escalate the conflict by freeing zoo animals onto the city. What follows gives Ditko the chance to render amuck animals and a climactic battle between hero and antagonist in a deserted sculptor’s studio filled with giant statues that look like they could’ve appeared in the Babylon sequence of Intolerance.

Does any of it make sense? Not really. Spider-Man’s best villains primarily exist to torment Spider-Man. They’re part of the penance he must serve for failing to protect his own family. What Lee and Ditko captured in Spider-Man was the trying ambiguity of “typical” teenhood: the swings from elation to self-loathing, the fear of impending adulthood, the release that comes with stepping up and showing what you can accomplish. If the writer and artist regularly stacked the deck against our hero: well, that’s what we wanted to see. Too many other super-guys had it easy.

“Boy,” our hero reflects in a telling moment, “when I used to read comic mag adventures of super heroes, I always dreamed of how great it would be if I could become one! . . . It’s great alright – for everyone except Spider-Man! Aw nuts!”

Sorry, Peter, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.

About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.