Monday, June 5, 2017

1st Marvels: John Romita on Spider-Man, The End of the Green Goblin; review: Amazing Spider-Man #27 (2017)

The image of Spider-Man most seen in toys and other 1960s, ‘70’s and 1980s merchandise was not usually derived from his rather creepy, gangly, unique look from his visual creator, Ditko, but rather, the more formulaic interpretation by Marvel’s art director, his second regular artist, John Romita. (And yes, his first-ever appearance in the throwaway Amazing Fantasy #15 was on a cover drawn by the other Marvel legend, Jack Kirby. By that count, it was the third time that was the charm, commercially.) I’ve been, in absence of sleep between part-time job shifts, flipping through Ditko’s last issues of Amazing Spider-Man, anticipating something to say for this essay, which tells the story of the passing of the torch (or web shooters) to Marvel’s new hire, John Romita, better known at this point for drawing the kinds of popular romance comics that, until recent years, not one in a hundred collectors sought anymore. The newest issue of Amazing Spider-Man, as #27, under the current numbering, contains a common thread to Mr. Romita’s first work on the character: The Green Goblin. The kid whose superheroes first publicly appeared on a school play backdrop had made the forefront.

Put in pop culture perspective, spring of 1966 still found Jimi Hendrix walking the streets of New York City with cardboard stuffed over the hole in one shoe. (If that sentence left you asking “Jimi who?” type in “Purple Haze,” “All Along The Watchtower,” and “Foxy Lady” and end your cultural deprivation!) The Viet Nam War rose in the public consciousness as more young men got draft notices. To be topical (but not so political as over in Iron Man’s Tales of Suspense), Stan Lee picks Parker frenemy Flash Thompson to be drafted- though he’ll reappear on furlough often and stay in the strip. Mostly because of said war- but also over changing attitudes about race, cultural norms, and eventually, pollution, campus protests became regular nightly news. You’ll notice a sharp change in how this is portrayed. In 1966, Ditko’s depicts protesters in an ugly light- Stan scripts them as part of the shallow, egotistical students sharing abrasive vibes with Peter. When they begin reappearing in a couple of years, ex-Army John & Stan take their concerns seriously, sympathetically. Their misunderstandings and hot tempers remain fodder for dramatic exploitation, with villains like the Kingpin wading in!

When I read the Marvel Tales #178 reprint of “How Green Was My Goblin!,” I’d regularly followed that book over the year since I’d started earning a few dollars for chores and A’s. I loved ‘60’s pop/rock music; I was beginning my fascination with that time period, and reveled in imagining the Marvel line coming out alongside the culture of the times. I’m inclined to think I was reading the best representative of what Marvel could do in 1966, with Mighty Thor and Fantastic Four and Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. to round off the top of the pack.

The new artist on Amazing- the only new artist the title’d ever had!- would bring the culture of the times into Spidey’s pages in a way his visual creator, Steve Ditko, never envisioned. John Romita worked on romance comics, mostly, for eight years, with some Captain America issues back in 1953 as well. The childhood fan of the Golden Age Daredevil tried out on a couple of Marvel Daredevil stories (#13 and 14), studied Jack Kirby and Ditko’s recent work, then played to his strengths with, as they say, bated breath. His influences included Milton Caniff, Charlie Biro, Alex Raymond and Hal Foster, as well as Kirby, whose pacing, “camera distances” and angles he’d understood intuitively as a reader.

Ah, but let’s start with the covers!
In the Silver Age, as it’s often called, a cover showing the title hero, his identity, shockingly exposed, grabbed prospective readers, but c’mon, weren’t those a bluff? Usually, any development that shattered the storytelling engine’s status quo reversed itself by the end of the tale, if it wasn’t dubbed “imaginary” in the first place! But Peter Parker’s world’s always been a lot more grounded.
He’s bound! He’s openly being kidnapped by the Goblin, flying over the city! The Goblin almost certainly knows who Spider-Man is- and all the cover teases, verbally, is “Spider-Man and The Green Goblin: Both Unmasked!” This time, when the hero’s identity is uncovered by the villain, we’ll have a deadly recurrent problem. So, when you see the cover, as time’s gone by, you not only see something crying “read me!” but also, a standing milestone.
In interviews, John’s stated he tried to maintain some stylistic continuity with the years of Spider-Man before. He never quite gave Spidey Ditko’s depiction wirey sense of flowing movement during his shows of agility, and with some web-crazy misfire exceptions probably added by inker Mike Esposito (credited as Mickey Demeo) early on, drew more symmetrical webs on a more heavily-muscled, less teen-looking frame. His consistency with faces, however, made Peter and his new campus frenemies more appealing than before. His less-cartoonish J. Jonah Jameson developed a bit more dimension as a character, particularly when his astronaut son John becomes afflicted with space spores in #42. New York City remained a recognizable character of its own- a little less waterfront and water towers, but lots of identifiable landmarks like Penn Station. His knockout punch, in this artist’s opinion- and pretty women are as close to a strength as I have- was the study of fashion and new hairstyles, brought to some tastily-wrought femme figures.

It’s been said many a time, but thank Irving Forbush that the reveal of Mary Jane Watson was saved for the pencils of John Romita! Though it sat unnoticed in reference pages, Steve had already plotted the reaction of Liz Allan and Betty Brant, issues earlier, as “Peter knows someone like that? She’s beautiful!” Romita thought they were still deciding what MJ would look like up to the panel she opens the door.

The run of the new artist- who would eventually plot more and more of the stories, as did Ditko- begins by inadvertently leaning thematically on sympathetic villain portrayals, several story lines in a row. Granted, we did also get the debut of the Rhino- a raw powerhouse, in contrast to the macabre, bizarre looks overall of the classic Spider-Man Rogue’s Gallery (even Kraven had that strange divided lion face vest). I think this establishes a renewed influence of Stan Lee, if not perhaps a change to reflect the increasing complexity of the times and the emergent college-age audience growing in readership.
We also get a continuing storyline built around John Jameson’s condition, so Lee/Romita give us an ongoing story without needing a cliffhanger ending for any of them.

Even better, just as #37 set up Norman Osborn as the Goblin- at least, a villainous sort, but there are two big clues, it’s just no one realized Gobby’s I.D. was a mystery to solve!-#43 sets up Curt Connors’ return as the Lizard, when he helps Spider-Man figure out the solvent that destroys the Rhino’s protective hide! #38 also depicts Osborn with both a vendetta against Spider-Man (for mixing it up with Norman’s vengeful ex-partner? That seemed quite unclear- initially!) and a penchant for disguises, as he personally does the dirty work of circulating reward offers for Spider-Man’s defeat among toughs and underworld types. It seems Peter’s fellow student Harry Osborn’s father’s set to become a shady new foe- but cleverly, he’ll instead be revealed as pre-existing super criminal! No wonder this upsets Spidey: that’s not even covered under his health care plan!

(OH! Incidentally, you can find my interviews with J.M. DeMatteis on Integr8d Fix- I just posted one May 19th-and he’s said before this two-parter from Amazing #39 and 40 was his favorite, growing up!) (And yes, I'd love to tell the story of Marvel comics being published in other languages, as that would really be the story of how Spider-Man took over the world...I'll learn it in full for you one day.)Neat, huh?

Amazing Spider-Man #39 opens with Gobby ranting, posed nearly as he is on the cover. Stopping off at his hideout, Romita teases his hidden, true face (who knew he had one?), as for some reason (stinky mask sweat?) the villain unmasks in the shadows, opens a panel concealing him from the reader as he reaches for a new mask, and prepares his Bag of Tricks with some stun bombs (no mention of the more clever arsenal elements he’ll unload on Spidey). He brags while tuning his glider, which he alone continually refers to still as his Flying Broomstick- which was not nearly as versatile and cool as what quickly became, decades before real world science perfected a safe one, a hover board. He repeats himself a little, but Stan is, after all, underscoring his madness- and his obsession with uncovering Spider-Man’s identity this time, to humiliate him before destroying him.

The story quickly shifts to introducing Romita’s Parker and supporting cast. WE get two panels of the new Spider-Man depiction, swinging to Doctor Bromwell’s office, and one comical change and dip out of the Maintenance closet later (poor confused janitor), we get Romita’s take on Pete. JR’s Parker tends to smile a bit more and displays less scowling and anxiety-ridden countenances. He’s properly shocked and crestfallen after Bromwell informs him Aunt May can’t have any sudden shocks after this last operation (call back to the Master Planner saga in #31-33), which initially isolates him from Flash and Gwen Stacy.
Harry’s dropped off by his dad Norman, who at least seems like an a-hole, absorbed in his own world, grumpy, and unmoved by Harry’s concern. This sets up Harry brushing off longtime friend Gwen and Flash, himself, but opens the door to Harry unburdening himself for the first time to Pete- to the surprise of Gwen and Flash across the class laboratory. Peter finally buries the hatchet with Ned Leeds, his rival for Betty Brant, who will pop up for a moment next issue reconsidering her decision to leave New York. So the first thing changing under Romita’s tenure is Parker’s constant alienation from his supporting cast- a step towards maturing our socially maladjusted hero.

There’s a fight atop the Empire State Building- according to a sheepish reply in the letters page regarding this issue, much beloved and often quoted by our friend Johann, a friendly eagle’s flying by, so Spidey has something to which his webline’s attached while he swings over the highest skyscraper in the vicinity! The robbery’s apparently bait- this is a slight stretch. How many of these would it take before they encountered the high-flyin’ wall crawler?

Spidey notes how well prepared the thugs seem to pile on and tackle “someone like me”- a suspicion cemented by use of “the gimmick,” a gas that doesn’t apparently work. But as the observing Goblin notes, it’s meant to dull the Spider-Sense- that extra-sensory-like premonition of danger that tells Spidey when and how intensely trouble’s coming his way. It also would tingle whenever he’s being observed. After the fight, he’ll change and go to the Bugle before heading home in Forest Hills- and we’ll be treated to the Green Goblin hovering ominously on his glider, using a shotgun mike to pick up Peter using his own real name in conversation with Ned Leeds. Gobby’s surprise at Spider-Man’s secret youthfulness is a nice touch. After all, this strip did begin with, essentially, a kid putting on a costume and being taken for a grown man- though Romita’s already begun filling out his frame a bit more, to a more robust musculature.

When Gobby reveals his presence on the front lawn at May and Peter’s shared residence, we get Peter fighting in civvies- a first! It’s a terrific confrontation, with an underlying note of worry for Peter for his aunt’s safety, and that terrible threat of “the shock could kill her!” From the start, he remembers his web-shooters are down on his belt. He doesn’t fight as well- in a scene that works great for playing pretend in anyone’s yard- and Goblin’s surprise weapons include an asphyxiating gas he once used, he observes, on the Human Torch. The cover proves no mere hyperbole: Peter Parker, with a few modest torn bits revealing his costume beneath up close, flies away bound and towed to an unknown fate by the Green Goblin!
As if that wasn’t exciting enough, for reasons I connect to sheer ego, if not a subconscious cry for help, the victorious Goblin unmasks- and Peter recognizes him as the industrialist father of his troubled classmate Harry!

“End of the Green Goblin”

Stories excite us as much with their quantum-position-like possibilities of “what next?” as much as where they’ll go. Peter, bound and unmasked, by a deadly criminal who’s just revealed his own identity- one with personal repercussions- that’s a thrilling opening! Only upon reading it this time did I first question, I think, why Peter didn’t wonder why his spider-sense gave no warning when the Goblin spied on him. I also questioned how the Goblin had deduced he even has a spider-sense, much less how to neutralize it! Since Romita stated, in his 1999 interview with TwoMorrows, everyone anxiously anticipated the entire business folding up any year, as it had nearly done in ‘57 and ‘47, it’s a wonder this quickly-churned-out entertainment often holds together so well.

Peter observes Norman’s anxiety at being discovered as the Goblin- yes, despite having unmasked himself to what he claims is essentially a dead man- and with trepidation, taunts him into gradually unburdening himself of his origin. The art and his narrative about raising Harry alone clash ironically. Peter’s often a great point-of-view character, but for the first half of this issue, that’s his entire role- a first in Amazing Spider-Man. We see Norman blown up by a formula stolen from the partner, Professor Stromm, he swindled on a financial technicality. I don’t recall seeing brain damage used to set up a criminal’s psychopathy before this, but subsequent research has made that detail seem realistic.

Next we have an interlude threading May and her best friend Anna Watson through to a call to J. Jonah Jameson, callously dismissive of her intuitive concerns for his whereabouts. Use of sedatives, on the rise in the Sixties, has moved from strict doctor care to self-dosage since then. May might’ve been a struggling prescription pill addict if writers did not gradually break her out of this more old-fashioned, neurotic mode. Betty’s looking glamorous in a Chicago railroad station, nervously pondering her return to New York City. The haunting image of Spider-Man, whose dangerous life seems enigmatically entangled with the young man she’s believed herself in love with, veers her close to sussing out Peter’s dual identity. Thrill junkie female characters were not a supporting cast staple in those days- outside of Lois Lane. Betty dreads facing Leeds and Parker again, but never considers looking for other work besides the Bugle. It’s typical romance comic dilemma time, in the capable hands of John Romita. My one quibble is the WLS radio announcer “wondering why nothing has been heard of Spider-Man these past few days.” Breaking up a robbery at the Empire State Building’s a pretty high profile appearance, and the Goblin kidnaps Parker later that night, with no indication from the hideout scenes nor even from May and Anna that days have passed. It’s a forced bit clumsily scripted to set off a Brant inner monologue. A caption soon assures us the yucky stuff’s almost over if you’re here for web-spinnin.’

The waterfront hideout argument gains a visual element from a device called the Retroscope Helmet (“past views”- quite a gadget for a chemical company financier to have on hand). Now we get Romita’s take on scenes from each of the Goblin’s confrontations in over two years’ worth of stories. It’s good for building up the epic sense of conflict and connecting the appearances as a cumulative effort to become underworld crime lord. Five issues out of fourteen featured the Goblin, before his stated plan in #27 to lay low until he can return, forgotten, to strike unexpectedly; this underscores his intended importance to the strip. Perhaps this was lost during the last year of Ditko’s plots, but if we accept Sturdy Steve intended Osborn to be the Green Goblin, he got back on track, his last two issues.
These scenes very directly quote postures from the originals, a way of smoothing the artist change.
Interestingly, Romita believed he was filling in temporarily for the Spider-Man co-creator, rather than becoming co-author and design guru for the strip and Spidey’s public image in merchandise.
Goblin’s aware that Peter’s nearly worked his way free of his steel-coil bonds, so he frees him with a handle pull, so Peter might don his full costume for a final battle. When you count in the action-packed flashbacks and this five page battle, you get more super-charged fight scenes than any issue in memory, with much better personal stakes than anything since the Master Planner arc (which only had a Doctor Octopus/ Spider-Man battle to end its middle chapter). These fights, I maintain, always work best when they serve as metaphors for conflicting personal intents. His home base advantages don’t afford the Goblin the upper hand, in part due to the lack of room to maneuver “my greatest weapon,” the glider, and with that, “swingin’ Spider-Speed?!! It’s so sublime, I’m surprised no one’s written a sonnet about it!” Stan’s witty and clever at a peak in this era, scripting Spidey.

With an agile kick, Spider-Man sends the Green Goblin flying, though he thinks “he lost his footing!”- well, even with Gobby’s apparent super-strength, that’s hardly a shock. More likely, Spider-Man didn’t anticipate his enemy’s trajectory “knocking live wires into the vials of chemicals!” The greatest unintentionally wobbly racist sound effect in the book’s history- Sssspikkk, complete with KKK- heralds Norman’s accidental electro-shock therapy. The trauma removes the years of his criminal identity from his memory, a twist that relieves Spider-Man, for now, of his greatest feared outcome: survival and victory, but with his identity now Osborn’s knowledge. In what will prove to be his most haunting miscalculation someday since letting that studio burglar go in his origin, Peter acts as judge and jury, chalks up the brain damage as the root of Osborn’s aberrant behavior, and disposes of the costume quickly before fire fighters respond to the intense flames following the electo-chemical charge.
He mentions relying on his Spider-Sense to know Norman’s not faking. I don’t think his weird extra-sensory power can necessarily diagnose the reality of his enemies’ self-delusions, but it’s worth noting he never mentions it buzzing during the fight, and Green Goblin’s gas dulled it for an unspecified amount of time. He didn’t necessarily realize it was ever gone, though it’s a logical theory, when one thinks about the Goblin following him for what was at least an hour. Its return is taken for granted by both Spider-Man and Stan alike- but hey, they were very, very busy guys. At any rate, Peter wants to save Harry’s family further grief- a big-hearted move, for sure- but he’s depriving Osborn of adequate diagnosis for his psychosis. Perhaps analysis, with knowledge of the Goblin identity, would have uncovered Peter’s identity, but he takes a chance that all is cleanly forgotten- that the Green Goblin is dead. Understandable. But eventually, tragic.

It’s in keeping with Peter’s own great fear that his escapade has endangered his aunt, making the triumph vanish in meaning before the specter of his powerlessness to protect those who love him from the fallout of his secret life. For now, May recovers all the more quickly, attending to his flame-induced apparent fever, while Harry and Norman, at his father’s East Side luxury hospital suite, begin putting together pieces of a relationship that always suffered distance, but hopefully, less so now, with the enigmatic secret of the Goblin defused.

I never analyzed the potential plot holes until I’d been working carefully with comics scripts for a little while, myself- we’ve had a lot of time to “kick the tires” and think it through. I can only hope to achieve such an entertaining level of pathos from personal stakes in my work with artists like Joe Phillips, but I’d like it if my loving attention to detail in any way encourages you to check out IDW’s Hero Duty and other upcoming work. I drive Joe crazy trying to ring the maximum effect out of his plots! I think he'd have it no other way.

With this coda, I’d like tie together comics today- Amazing Spider-Man #27 by Dan Slott, Stuart Immomen and Wade Von Grawbadger - and comics, fifty one years ago. With Romita aboard, we’ll soon have a motorcycle coming up for Peter- and you can see a cool high tech motorcycle for Spidey now in the new issue!

You’ll also see how, while ASM #40 marked a then-very-rare ending to a villain’s story arc- handled in a humane, thoughtful way- you just can’t keep a good villain down. Returned even from years of certain, dramatic death, Osborn has been haunting the Marvel Universe, in a very-much-alive fashion, as a villain freed from the sympathetic twist on his motivations (or destroyed as a character, take your pick) to be a manipulative, Lex Luthor-like power broker bastard. More recently, his face has been ruined by a Goblin formula, a present he wishes to share with an entire country!

In the present story arc, Osborn’s taken over the Symkaran nation by becoming its primary employer- building weapons of devastation with its intimidated populace, under the aegis of its remaining royal. In a continuing development of rising stakes on both sides, Peter Parker’s changed from a crime fighting student scraping by to a connected head of a large technology development company. His inventions and aid are now primary weapons in returning the Silver Sable and her new Wild Pack as insurgents in a small scale war! Aunt May and Harry Osborn have moved from anxious victims to involved players, talking to Nick Fury himself on behalf of Parker’s company. Everyone’s so far removed from the low-key, flip side of daily reality soap opera drama that defined the strip five decades ago. Some toy enthusiasts will be more excited than ever that a legitimate story basis now exists for an outlandish array of Spider and Goblin themed vehicles and weapons. It’s either everything that’s wrong with today’s Marvel, or everything that’s right with status quo changes. Spider-Man’s still a wit, and stories still build upon characters from previous adventures. Perhaps now there’s simply too many to track- a Retro Scope flashback would take a limited maxi-series!
I do sympathize somewhat with the reality that either something different had to be created, or for story purposes, one of comics’ sacred cash cows needed a genuine ending. It’s the bane and delight of the trademarked pop culture character, is it not?

John Romita, evolving beyond a talented caretaker in an industry he expected to vanish any day, became the most important link between Lee’s era of deep hands-on involvement and the years to follow, alongside Roy Thomas on the authorial side. As Art Director, Romita developed young talent, coordinated work by industry lights such as John Buscema and Gil Kane, designed costumes for lasting characters like the Punisher, the Kingpin, and Wolverine, and worked as hard as Lee and Marvel could ask, while creating a more popular veneer for Spidey and his cast that led to stunning sales success.
I was floored by Jazzy Johnny’s son’s interpretation of the wall-crawler, years later, if I might date myself; Junior was the regular title artist in the many issues I would find posed in spinner and magazine racks, unable to buy but positively magnetized, looking. They are probably the most influential father-son team in comics history, not only talented, but very lucky to share such a fun profession together. Mom Virginia meanwhile became Art Traffic Director, getting the wild and wooly freelance teams in on time as often as humanly possible, in the Wild West days of postal delivery. I think marrying and working with your childhood sweetheart and son on one of the most enduring and fun characters in all of popular media surely constitutes, scary job pitfalls and all, some kind of charmed life!

Will someone feel the affection for the latest ASM #27 that those early issues engender? A lot of time's flown under the bridge to build (or erode) that opinion. But thanks to the movies, kids of all ages will continue bonding with the wall-crawler. In fact, we're just one month away from the very latest new Spider-Man franchise addition, spun out of the wildly-successful Avengers Marvel Cinema franchise. It's to be expected that Spider-Man: Homecoming simply won't achieve universal acclaim- not only because Spidey's a big "meh" to some people, but expectations for a Spider-Man springing from such high-profile roots, and as a sort of junior partner to Tony Stark, provide more strikes for some fans, out the gate. But those very qualities bring the movie a huge audience, and I'll be among them, with my money for two tickets already set aside. I'm still on the fence, personally, about collecting new issues of the series, though for what it is, it's very well done. But I'm ready to see how the movie continues creating a new interpretation of a character that it can- and I think, will- get right! There is something about young Spider-Man that I think moves on quite fluidly with the changing times. for the first pages of the TwoMorrows Romita interview, here!

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