By an odd coincidence, I’d started rereading the Stan Lee/Steve Ditko run of Spider-Man shortly before Ditko died. I’d just bought the new TPB containing the first year of Lee/John Romita and I figured I’d enjoy it more if I read the TPBs of everything leading up to it.
Damn, that run was some good stuff. Brian Cronin has a good in-depth look at Ditko’s contributions to the strip (he co-plotted it as well) and Atomic Junkshop has a look at his overall body of work. I’m just going to talk about the storytelling he and Lee accomplished during their years on the strip. Though if you want an example of Ditko’s style and the odd angles he used, this is a good one.
While of course I know the outline of Peter’s story — the tragic death of his Uncle Ben, his turning to fighting crime, J. Jonah Jameson turning the city against him, Peter’s constant struggles with money — rereading brought up a lot of details I’d forgotten. For one thing, Lee and Ditko apparently didn’t think the origin was all that iconic. In Spidey’s first issue they recount the origin (which had appeared in Amazing Fantasy of course) but don’t mention Peter’s failure to stop the burglar; his failing is that he was out being a celebrity while Uncle Ben was dying. Did they forget the details? Worry about making Peter too big a screw-up?
That said, everything follows surprisingly logically from the origin (well for comic books, where a high-schooler can invent his own spider webbing). With Uncle Ben dead, Peter has to find a way to support Aunt May. After Jameson makes Spidey too unpopular to get any more show biz gigs, Peter hits on selling the Daily Bugle photos of Spider-Man battling the new supervillain in town, the Vulture. The irony of profiting off the man who hates him gives the stunt extra zing. And now he has a reason to fight crime — taking care of Aunt May. Though as time went by, protecting people would be just as important.
Making Peter a teenager was a surprisingly smart move. The idea of a hero who constantly draws the short straw in life is common in comics now, but it was groundbreaking back then. If they’d written Peter as an adult, it would come across mopey and wimpy (as several later adults following the formula did). But a teenager who’s lonely and struggling? That’s a lot more plausible. When Doctor Octopus kicks Peter’s butt in his first appearance Peter’s so shaken he decides to quit (doesn’t take, of course). It wouldn’t have worked half so well if he’d been Ben Grimm’s age.
On top of which, Ditko and Lee actually let Peter grow and change. After three years, he graduates high school and goes to college. He gets more confident as he goes along, playing the occasional joke on Jameson and in one story going toe-to-toe with an arrogant classmate who keeps picking on him. Girls become interested in him, though it never seems to work out. It’s not easy to keep changing the status quo, but they pulled it off.
Even after Lee and Ditko stopped speaking to each other, they managed to do some solid work. The story that climaxes in #33 is a classic: Aunt May’s deathly ill, Doctor Octopus has stolen the miracle drug that can save her, Peter tears apart the underworld to find him and finally reaches Ock’s underwater base. There he winds up trapped under a ton of debris, water filling the chamber, the vial of the drug just out of reach … And yet he finds the strength to triumph. Things weren’t as good in Ditko’s few remaining issues, but he and Lee did give us the Looter, one of the first villains (maybe the first?) to be intentionally written as a loser.
While Ditko was a devout Objectivist, you wouldn’t know it from Spider-Man. Ayn Rand thought there was virtue in selfishness; Peter’s selfishness costs him his uncle’s life. He redeems himself by helping people, even when they regard him as a menace. Selfish characters — Jameson, most of the villains — are bad. Apparently Ditko’s brand of Objectivism didn’t rule out rescuing people (this is something I’ll return to in a future column).
Tomorrow, a look at the worst part of the Lee/Ditko run, J. Jonah Jameson. Until then, here’s the cover of the first Spider-Man book I ever read.