Two degrees and a lifetime living away from my hometown later, I still find Amazing Spider-Man, by Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, and John Romita, eminently readable. Even when I want to strangle Peter for behaving anti-socially, there’s something in either alter ego that draws me cozily back up to those original issues. I read much of the last year of Ditko’s run and the first year of Romita’s- reprinted from 1965 and 1966- when I faithfully collected Marvel Tales.
I’ve never owned it, myself, but my absolute favorite was a 1964 issue where Spider-Man becomes the first costumed adventurer to try, out of his sense of responsibility, to hang up his super-hero career. What an inversion of formulaic comics! I was maybe eleven when I read that one; I borrowed it multiple times, a worn back issue with a rolled spine. That battered 1983 reprint left one of my strongest adolescent memories. I can still smell the near-century-old elementary school building on whose steps I first pulled it clandestinely from David’s Trapper Keeper folder. I wouldn’t be the first or last to comment on the feel of three-dimensionality I found in the characters of my very favorite issues (like my first X-Men, #188). My own budding mix of emotions as I crested adulthood-earnest, serious, curious, privately comical-found a reflection in a hero- a character-a person brought to life by imagination and those kid-worn pages.
Spider-Man is in my earliest memories; I knew who he was when I was three. There was already a sense of personal history mixed in with childish delight in our wall-crawling wonder. My Sunday School teachers thought my name, for months, was really, truly Peter Parker when I was five. I thought they were simply in on the joke- didn’t everyone realize Peter Parker is Spider-Man? My refuge with those old Spider-Man comics was a refusal to turn my back on imagination and the enchantment of stories. Perhaps that’s where the poignancy lay with that reprint of ASM #18: we were supposed to engage in ferreting out any and all knowledge of adult things, especially the forbidden adult things. Here I was, all but alone in my unwillingness to give up -to give up“being”-- Spider-Man.
Aunt May- the woman who raised Peter Parker- fell ill, and the news of her sickness affected Peter deeply while in battle as Spider-Man. In fact, Spidey left a fray with the Green Goblin, leaving the Human Torch to run off the macabre mischief maker. Already Peter examined why it is he would anonymously risk his life over and over again – not for the mixed reactions of a realistically fickle public, but at least other heroes seemed to garner respect for their sacrifices. Meanwhile, he’s got an unwell relative who would be alone, and devastated, should he be lost. Does his great power really eclipse that responsibility? He failed to act as Spider-Man, and his uncle paid the price. Now, if he acts- will his aunt suffer? Tricky, huh?
Hesitant to appear again in costume, Spider-Man even evades a battle with the rampaging Sandman, to the jeers of the crowd and the villain. But just when Peter resigns himself to trashing his secret identity for the better, he talks to his now-recovering aunt. He finds, in her words, the desire to fight on. Thus the first and shortest retirement in the pages of the newly-minted Marvel Comics superhero line comes to a close, with a last page guarantee from Spider-Man- who was given to melodramatic declarations spoken aloud and alone, but who wasn’t, hey- he’s back, he’s ready to teach the bad guys a lesson!
I think shy kids of any era can relate to the fear of being ostracized, of being thought a coward because you don’t wanna fight. But on second thought: did it work?
I’ve said before of, for example, daytime soaps that, on some level, the storytelling will forever remain at a kind of ‘B’ level because there are societal norms and predictable reactions built in with their audiences, who expect a very certain kind of story to be told, though told well, with the best plot twists and acting possible. There are also constraints found inside mass media, itself: however many feints you get, the bomb threat can’t be revealed to the characters until at least the cliffhanger Friday if the Nurse’s Ball runs all week. The heroine won’t realize she’s bisexual and bring together her lovers into a polyamorous triad. Relationships are more likely to fail and even be reunited multiple times, because viewers want a different fantasy that tries out different chemistry, and in break ups, there’s reliable amounts of drama intended to reflect the ideals as well as the pitfalls of romance. With any serial, the title character can’t be killed off (though hats off to Rick and Morty on their A-game), which is why a team makes for slightly less predictable stories, as demonstrated by the then-shocking death of the Phoenix in Uncanny X-Men. Murders get solved, marriage proposals get turned down- this observance of formula is entirely why we’re often cited as living in a golden age for television writing, when programs brutally part with formula for the kind of anything-goes daring possible in a novel (which, again, can become formalized for commercial reasons according to certain perceived audience needs). It’s the savvy creator, indeed, who will let a story tell itself in ways the story needs, and simultaneously hit upon less obvious, but deeper, audience needs by taking risks. Such risks make or break commercial storytelling.
So here, at the time, hero triumphs over villain’s plot is the strong expectation built in, limiting the sorts of stories told in 1964 superhero comics. We’re not heading for a run of issues of The Amazing Spider-Pacifist, but Stan and Steve are relying on a certain degree of self-awareness, portraying faith in the intelligence of the readers, to risk their hero’s reputation in schoolyard conversations, back when comics could BE in schoolyard conversations, the way their successors in the movies are, today- the way geek culture’s emerged from the shadows along with other behaviors once considered deviations from the social norm, when for someone, this IS normal!
Since the riff’s returned with variations several times- even bringing gravitas to the middle act of Spider-Man 2 in 2004- I can conclude “The End of Spider-Man” was a smash with more readers than not. Some may have found it average, some, boring, and many of those might’ve checked back in some other month to see if Spider-man fought anyone cool-looking in clever or brutal ways, depending on your tastes. For some, it may’ve been the end of Spider-Man, for them- but many of those, already dallying with a medium often defined by outlandish violence, were not on their way to a preference for subtle storytelling. It’s not a ruse so that Batman can foil Two-Face with an unexpected disguise or other trap. It’s a layer of self-doubt, rumination and reality never seen before in this kid’s stuff medium, which was now growing up with its baby boomer audience. Amazing Spider-Man #18 touched upon a more honest sort of depiction of the kind of less-escapist, existential problems you can’t solve with your fists, in a memorable, lasting fashion.
Transcend your fears, the negativity of others- in the clarity of intention, seek your inner hero.