By Stan Lee & Steve Ditko, with Jack Kirby (Marvel/Pocket Books)
Perhaps I have a tendency to over-think things regarding the world of graphic narrative, but it seems to me that the medium, as much as the message, radically affects the way we interpret our loves and fascinations. Take this pint-sized full-colour treat from 1978.
It’s easy to assume that a quickly resized, repackaged paperback book collection of the early comics extravaganzas was just another Marvel cash-cow in their perennial “flood the marketplace” sales strategy – and maybe it was – but as someone who bought these stories in most of the available formats over the years I have to admit that this compact version has a distinct charm and attraction all its own…
During the Marvel Renaissance of the early 1960’s Stan Lee & Jack Kirby followed the same path which had worked so tellingly for DC Comics, but with less obviously successful results.
This is another brilliant glimpse at how our industry’s gradual inclusion into mainstream literature began and is one more breathtaking paperback package for action fans and nostalgia lovers, offering yet another chance to enjoy some of the best and most influential comics stories of all time.
After a few abortive attempts in the 1960s to storm the shelves of bookstores and libraries, from the mid-1970s Marvel made a concerted and comprehensive effort to get their wares into more socially acceptable formats. As the decade closed, purpose-built graphic collections and a string of new prose adventures tailored to feed into their all-encompassing continuity began oh, so slowly to appear.
Whereas the merits of the latter are a matter for a different review, the company’s careful reformatting of classic comics adventures were generally excellent; a superb and recurring effort to generate back-history primers and a perfect – if perilous – alternative venue to introduce fresh readers to their unique worlds.
The dream project was never better represented than in this classy little crime-busting collection. Marvel was frequently described as “the House that Jack Built” and King Kirby’s contributions are undeniable and inescapable in the creation of a new kind of comicbook story-telling, but there was another unique visionary toiling at Atlas-Comics-as-was: one whose creativity and even philosophy seemed diametrically opposed to the bludgeoning power, vast imaginative scope and clean, broad lines of Kirby’s ever-expanding search for the external and infinite.
Steve Ditko was quiet and unassuming, voluntarily diffident to the point of invisibility, though his work was both subtle and striking.
Innovative, meticulously polished, and often displaying genuine warmth and affection, Ditko’s art and storytelling always managed to capture minute human detail as he ever explored the man within. He found heroism, humour and ultimate evil; all contained within the frail but noble confines of humanity’s scope and consciousness. His drawing could be oddly disquieting… and, when he wanted, certainly scary.
Drawing extremely well-received monster and mystery tales for Stan Lee, Ditko had been given his own title. Amazing Adventures/Amazing Adult Fantasy featured a subtler brand of yarn than Rampaging Aliens and Furry Underpants Monsters which, though individually entertaining, had been slowly losing traction in the world of comics ever since National/DC had successfully reintroduced costumed heroes.
Lee & Kirby had responded with Fantastic Four and the ahead-of-its-time Incredible Hulk but there was no indication of the renaissance to come when the already cancelled Amazing Fantasy #15 cover-featured a brand new and somewhat eerie adventure character.
Of course, by now you’re all aware of how outcast, geeky school kid Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider and, after seeking to cash-in on the astonishing abilities he developed, suffered an irreconcilable personal tragedy and determined henceforward to always use his powers to help those in dire need…
After a shaky start The Amazing Spider-Man quickly became a popular sensation with kids of all ages, rivalling the creative powerhouse that was Lee & Kirby’s Fantastic Four and soon the quirky, charming action-packed comics soap-opera would become the model for an entire generation of younger heroes elbowing aside the staid, (relatively) old costumed-crimebusters of previous publications.
This second resized, repackaged Fights ‘n’ Tights bonanza (reprising Amazing Spider-Man #7-13 from 1963-1964) opens, after the mandatory Stan Lee Prologue, with an encore appearance of the Wall-crawler’s first super-powered foe, as a murderous septuagenarian flying bandit at first defeated his juvenile nemesis before falling to the Web-spinner’s boundless bravery and ingenuity in a spectacular duel above the city in ‘The Return of the Vulture’.
Fun and youthful hi-jinks were a signature feature of the series, as was Parker’s budding romance with “older woman” Betty Brant, a secretary at the Daily Bugle where Peter Parker worked part-time.
Such “Salad days” exuberance was the underlying drive in #8′s lead tale ‘The Living Brain!’ when an ambulatory robot calculator threatened to expose Spider-Man’s secret identity before running amok at beleaguered Midtown High, just as Parker was finally beating the stuffings out of school bully and personal gadfly Flash Thompson.
This riotous romp was accompanied by ‘Spiderman Tackles the Torch!’ (a short and sweet vignette drawn by Jack Kirby and inked by Ditko) wherein a boisterous wall-crawler gate-crashed a beach party thrown by the flaming hero’s girlfriend… with explosive consequences.
Amazing Spider-Man #9 was a qualitative step-up in dramatic terms as Peter’s aged Aunt May was revealed to be chronically ill – adding to the lad’s financial woes – and the action was supplied by ‘The Man Called Electro!’ a super-criminal with grand aspirations.
Spider-Man was always a loner, never far from the dark, grimy streets filled with small-time thugs and criminals and with this tale, wherein he also quells a prison riot single handed, Ditko’s preference for tales of gangersterism began to show through; a predilection confirmed in #10′s ‘The Enforcers!’, a classy mystery where a masked mastermind known as the Big Man used a position of trust at the Bugle to organize all the New York mobs into one unbeatable army against decency.
Longer plot-strands were also introduced as Betty mysteriously vanished (her fate to be revealed in the next issue and here the next chapter), but most fans remember this one for the spectacularly climactic seven-page fight scene in an underworld chop-shop that has still never been topped for action-choreography.
The taint of tragedy again touched Parker with a magical two-part adventure ‘Turning Point’ and ‘Unmasked by Dr. Octopus!’ which saw the return of the lethally deranged and deformed scientist – complete with formidable mentally-controlled metal tentacles – and the disclosure of a long-hidden secret which had haunted poor Betty Brant for years.
The dark, doom-filled tale of extortion and excoriating tension stretched from Philadelphia to the Bronx Zoo and cannily tempered the trenchant melodrama with stunning fight scenes in unusual and exotic locations, before culminating in a truly staggering super-powered duel as only the masterful Ditko could orchestrate it.
This tension-drenched tiny tome concludes with the introduction of a new super-threat and ‘The Menace of Mysterio!’ as a seemingly eldritch bounty-hunter hired by Bugle publisher J. Jonah Jameson to capture Spider-Man eventually revealed his own dark agenda.
Of course the menace was only ended after another mind-boggling battle, this time through the various exotic sets and props of a TV studio…
These mini-masterpieces of drama, action and suspense immaculately demonstrated the indomitable nature of this perfect American hero, and I suppose in the final reckoning how you come to the material is largely irrelevant; just as long as you do…
These immortal epics are available in numerous formats.
© 1978 Marvel Comics Group. All rights reserved.