Friday, April 24, 2009

Superhero Theory: The Extended Origin of Spider-Man

Two weeks ago, in my discussion of Henry Pym, I said that the Marvel heroes grew and changed somewhat organically in their early years. Iron Man’s armor evolved from issue to issue until they hit upon the classic red-and-gold look. The Hulk drifted from status quo from status quo; originally, Banner turned into the Hulk at night like a werewolf, and they hit on the anger-driven transformation later. The Avengers began with the Hulk as a founding member, but he quits in #2 and comes back as an enemy with the Sub-Mariner in #3, which directly leads to the Avengers discovering Captain America in #4, and by the time #16 rolls around, you’ve got Captain America, Hawkeye, Quicksilver, and Scarlet Witch on the team with all the founders gone.

But the most fascinating and most fluid transformation, I feel, is Spider-Man from Amazing Fantasy #15 through Amazing Spider-Man #3. I never hear anyone talk about it, though, so that’s what I’m gonna do today. Graphics-wise, this one's a bit of a doozy, but hey, pictures are fun.

So, Amazing Fantasy #15: Bitten by a radioactive spider, unpopular student Peter Parker gains superpowers and tests them out at a wrestling event. But he’s afraid of looking stupid if his powers don’t work (which is logical; he has no way of knowing if this is permanent or some weird passing thing), so he wears a mask. An agent tells him that’s a great gimmick, so Peter elaborates on it by designing the Spider-Man costume. So this isn’t technically meant to be a superhero costume, even though it looks exactly like one; the costume is a marketing angle, and the mask is motivated by a fear of embarrassment.

And you know how the rest goes: A burglar runs by, and Spidey thinks there’s no reason to get involved (the movie totally screwed this up, by the way, by giving Peter a motive to let the burglar go, rather than just a natural inclination toward inaction). The burglar coincidentally breaks into the Parker house and shoots Uncle Ben (as a plus for the movie, it elegantly gets around that mighty coincidence by having Ben get shot in a carjacking while waiting to pick up Peter). Spider-Man tracks down and captures the burglar, and you get these parting panels:

Conventional wisdom is this is the moment Spider-Man’s status quo crystallizes: Peter Parker leaves behind his selfishness and becomes a superhero.

Except he doesn’t.

Amazing Spider-Man #1 opens with this:

And then this:

Not only is Peter Parker not a superhero yet, he’s actively contemplating becoming a super-villain. But ultimately, he is neither: he’s still an entertainer, as evidenced in the last panel, and he needs money. And in fact, Peter never actively gives up performing; he’s forced out of it…

…by this guy:

(By the way, the title of this story may or may not be "Spider-Man: Freak! Public Menace!" It's a far cry from "The Skrulls From Outer Space!")

The interesting thing here is, we’re inching toward the status quo, but we’re not there yet. Peter’s not working for Jameson yet, and for all you know, Jameson is a one-shot character who could disappear after this story.

Now, Jameson’s son John is an astronaut, who’s going into orbit, and Peter Parker attends the launch. John Byrne likes to say that this means the early Spider-Man stories must take place in some fictionalized city instead of New York because there’s no place in NYC to launch a rocket from but, you know, whatever. Anyway, something goes wrong with the capsule, but Spider-Man rescues him by getting a military pilot to fly him close to the capsule, getting onto the capsule via a webline, and attaching a guidance unit to repair the failing one.

This is a superheroic act on Peter’s part (“There’s only one person who can save John Jameson,” Peter says, “and that is … Spider-Man!”), but there’s a hint after the rescue that cuts into the altruism a bit: “Anyway, from now on I guess I shouldn’t have any trouble about performing in public! I’ll bet even Mister Jameson himself would hire me!” He’s not going to make this superheroing thing a habit; he’s just looking for exoneration so he can perform again.

But of course, Jameson accuses Spider-Man of sabotaging the mission for the glory, gets the FBI to offer a reward for his capture, and the story ends with this panel:

We still do not really have a status quo, and Peter’s contemplating supervillainy again. Jeez.

The second feature in the comic is “Spider-Man vs. The Chameleon!” and it begins like this:

Sure, Spider-Man’s intending to become a superhero, but not for its own sake; he’s just looking to make some money.

He goes down to the Baxter Building, a scuffle with the FF ensues, and Spider-Man leaves in a huff when he finds out they don’t pay a salary, and even if they did, they’d be unlikely to hire a wanted outlaw.

The Chameleon, a Soviet spy and master of disguise, figures out Spider-Man must be hard up for cash, and sends a message for Spider-Man to show up “on the roof of Lark Building at ten tonight! It will be very profitable for you!” Again, Spidey makes the scene, but for the promise of payment and not to stop the supervillain he doesn’t know is lurking about.

Anyway, the Chameleon impersonates Spidey and frames him for the theft of missile defense plans, but Spider-Man captures the real spy. But the Chameleon slips away and puts on a policeman disguise, planning to escape from under the noses of the cops and Spider-Man, who are now working together. But Spider-Man’s spider-sense, still vaguely defined at this point, tells him one of the cops is a phony, just as the Chameleon douses the lights:

Jeezly crow! Two issues and three stories later, and we’ve still not got Spider-Man’s status quo set up! He’s just an outlaw who’s caught one burglar, rescued a space mission of his own accord, and captured a nominal supervillain he never intended to get mixed up with. Heck, Reed Richards, the lead in the Marvel line's flagship superhero book, is telling his team "Yeah, we might have some trouble with Spider-Man down the road..."

Which brings us to the first story of Amazing Spider-Man #2: “Duel to the Death with the Vulture.” In it, the titular villain goes on a crime spree, leading to this scene:

Spider-Man goes to track down his first real supervillain, but again it’s to make money and not because defeating the Vulture is intrinsically the right thing to do.

So Spidey finds the Vulture, they fight, and Spidey kind of loses; he gets trapped in a water tower, and the Vulture escapes.

This is the first turning point in the Spider-Man mythos contained in this issue:

Y’know, when Barry Allen got his Flash powers, he rigged up all the accoutrements and the expanding-uniform thing right away, but it’s taken Spider-Man four whole stories to really nail down his crimefighting setup. “If I’m really going to be a secret adventurer” indeed … it’s still an “if” at this late stage in the game!

Anyway, Spider-Man figures out a way to neutralize the Vulture’s wings and sells the photos to Jameson. (There’s a clause originally that Peter doesn’t want his name used on the photos he takes, but this seems to get forgotten eventually.) The issue ends like this:

That’s right, Spider-Man does not earn a happy ending until his fourth story. It also looks like the status quo is in place now, but … I don't know, not quite? “Spider-Man fights supervillain and Peter Parker sells photos to his biggest detractor” is there, but it’s still about the money, isn’t it? It’s not “With great power must come great responsibility,” it’s “With great power I can make some money so we don’t lose our house.” Securing finances for his aunt certainly is heroic, but it’s still not what you think of as traditionally superheroic.

No, I’d argue that final piece of the puzzle only falls into place after the next story, “The Uncanny Threat of the Terrible Tinkerer!”

To summarize: Peter gets a sort of internship with “electronics expert” Dr. Cobbwell. His first order of business is to pick up a radio from The Tinkerer Repair Shop, run by the wizened old figure of the Tinkerer, who fixes electronics equipment for outrageously low fees.

As it turns out, the Tinkerer is an agent of a ring of alien spies (!):

But the device in Cobbwell’s radio triggers Spider-Man’s spider-sense, he goes to investigate, discovers the spy ring, and breaks it up.

“The Uncanny Threat of the Terrible Tinkerer!” is generally considered one of the weaker early Spider-Man stories; the alien aspect doesn’t really fit into Spidey’s usual milieu of costumed crooks, and it was later retconned that the aliens were actually, like, a gang of criminals (including the future Mysterio) who were just disguised as aliens for whatever reason, and were just really really in character the whole time, I guess. And the “Tinkerer’s rubber mask” thing was just a ruse, it turns out. A lot of later Spider-writers, I suspect, would like nothing more than to forget this story ever happened.

And yet! For the first time, Spider-Man intervenes in a crime for no personal gain! He takes no photos and doesn’t tell anybody what happened. Finally, after five stories, we get a completely selfless act. Heck, he saved the world, as far as he knows! Only after this point does he really living up to the “great power … great responsibility” credo. He still takes photos for money, of course, but his primary motivation is responsibility -- to fight the Vulture or Electro or the Sandman because it’s the heroic thing to do -- with the money coming as a nice bonus.

And on the first page of Amazing Spider-Man #3, we get the first-ever “Spider-Man stops a random crime in progress,” which we will see in practically every other issue for the next zillion years.

Spider-Man, it seems, was out on patrol, which is something he’s never done in a story yet. He’s no longer purely motivated by an angle, or stumbling onto something accidentally; he’s actively looking for crime to fight. And it makes a sort of sense in continuity; after the last story, he's no longer just an ex-stuntman who managed to make some money taking out a supervillain, he's the guy who single-handedly repelled an alien invasion! Yeah, I might be a little cocky about that, as he is in the last panel.

Only now is Spider-Man a true superhero, and appropriately, he meets his archenemy Doctor Octopus in this, his first full issue-length story. (Dude, forget the Green Goblin. In your heart you know Doc Ock is thematically Spider-Man’s archenemy.) In this story, Doctor Octopus beats Spider-Man so badly that he considers giving up the gig -- it’s the first germ of “Spider-Man No More!” -- but is able to overcome his self-doubt and defeat the supervillain (setting a pattern in the early Spider-Man stories of "Spider-Man fights a villain, loses, licks his wounds and learns from his mistakes, and succeeds on his second try). And with that, Spider-Man had arrived.

By the standards of comic book storytelling of the time, then, Spider-Man’s journey from entertainer to proper superhero is a remarkably gradual process. I’m certainly not saying this was intentional, that Stan Lee had this storyarc mapped out months in advance and carefully executed it. This is a guy who had trouble remembering his protagonists’ names from issue to issue! Chances are he was winging it like he was winging everything else,* tweaking the formulae for his infant superheroes until he finally found the right flavor.

But I’ve always believed that how a narrative does work trumps how it was intended to work every time. And so, in retrospect, I would make the case that Spider-Man’s origin story is not contained to Amazing Fantasy #15; that the true origin story is spread over four issues of two separate comic titles, with Amazing Spider-Man #2 as the turning point and Spidey’s defeat of Doctor Octopus as its satisfying conclusion -- a six-part story forming a sort of “pilot” for the series, containing most of its core concepts and conventions.

* -- This sounds like a criticism of Stan Lee, but it’s not. I love the man (or The Man), and a large part of it is because of the freewheeling inventiveness (and re-inventiveness) you find in those early Marvels. Look at the copy at the end of those stories in issue #1 -- it's totally pushing the whole "What will Spider-Man do next?" to turn a lack of status quo into a selling point!


cease ill said...

VERY well done, Justin! Figuring out how to combine freewheeling imagination with slow-burning development is the challenge for the newest of super-heroes (like the ones I'm making via Integr8d Soul), and your notes go to show that at some point, even on one's way to a successful formula, the good news, the interesting part, is that it's not all to be taken for granted---and that will always come back to inform the narrative!

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