AFTER THEY WERE FAMOUS: "THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN" #39
In AFTER THEY WERE FAMOUS, I look at the issue of a comic series that came out immediately after a super-famous run. Like Rick Veitch's post-Alan-Moore "Swamp Thing," and Peter Milligan's post-Grant-Morrison "Animal Man," and, most recently, Roger Stern's post-John-Byrne "Superman."
This time, I'm looking back at an unusual case. It's unusual because it's a series in which the co-creator and artistic mastermind of the comic walked away and the series smoothly shifted into something even more commercially appealing. It's also unusual -- for this column -- because it features Spider-Man. I don't ever remember writing about Spider-Man before, and if I have, I've written very little. But this isn't about me: This is about Steve Ditko and John Romita and the month everything changed for your favorite wall-crawler.
This is "The Amazing Spider-Man" #39, and nothing would ever be the same again.
Steve Ditko was not just the co-creator of Spider-Man, but for months (possibly even years) before he left Marvel, Ditko was also plotting and drawing the series without any input from Stan Lee, according to what Sean Howe describes in "Marvel Comics: The Untold Story." Howe cites a 1966 "New York Herald Tribune" article in which Lee is quoted as saying, "I don't plot 'Spider-Man' any more…Steve Ditko, the artist, has been doing the stories. I guess I'll leave him alone until sales start to slip…He just drops off the finished pages with notes in the margins and I fill in the dialogue. I never know what he'll come up with next, but it's interesting to work that way."
Lee added the bouncy -- and bombastic -- charm to the banter inside the pages of each issue, but the stories were all-Ditko, all the time, and, in retrospect, it's obvious. "The Amazing Spider-Man" #38 shows a disgusted Peter Parker pushing his way through a throng of protesters on the college campus, the young hero clearly disdainful of the cultural zeitgeist and more representative of Ditko's black-and-white Randian political point of view than Lee would likely have been comfortable with. That issue, Ditko's final issue of the series, ends with Spider-Man punching a bunch of greedy citizens unconscious as they try to capture the webbed vigilante for the promise of reward money. Then he punches a department store dummy. Then he karate chops the television to turn it off. The world is against Peter Parker, and he reacts with physical force.
Ditko's run from "Amazing Fantasy" #15 through all the regular issues of "The Amazing Spider-Man" up through July, 1966's issue #38 remain legendary. He defined Peter Parker's world and helped create one of the first -- if not thefirst -- superheroes who was defined not by a square jaw and a sense of righteousness but by the burdens of everyday life and an effort to try to do what's right, even though everything seems to go wrong. Peter Parker wasn't quite a tragic hero in the Ditko run (other heroes before had lost loved ones as part of their origin stories, though Uncle Ben's death was more personal than most), but he was an incredibly human hero. He was akward. He was unlucky in love and he couldn't catch a break. There's more to the subtext of a gangly, nerdy teenager calling himself Spider-MAN than Stan Lee or Steve Ditko make apparent in the text, but that's part of the power of the first 38 issues of the series.
It all changes with issue #39. Ditko had left, for reasons we know little about. Some rumors attribute Ditko's departure to unhappiness with the direction Lee wanted to take the series (or direction he wanted to "take back" with the series, since he had left Ditko alone for so long). Others speculate that it was just a widening gulf between Ditko and Lee, and Ditko had suffered fools long enough. Sean Howe's book addresses some of these rumors and offers no concrete certainty about Ditko's motivation for walking away from the iconic character he co-created. He does point to one other nugget of information, though. A mention by Ditko, years later, that he would never return to draw another issue of Spider-Man until, in his words, "[Marvel Publisher] Martin Goodman pays me the royalties he owes me." Spider-Man had already become a cultural sensation by the time he left, and Ditko never saw a penny of that.
But what's interesting about "The Amazing Spider-Man" #39 is that the tone of the issue more closely matches the wider cultural impression of the character and his world that the Ditko issues ever did. In other words, Ditko's portrayal was the seminal work, but it remains weirder and more insular and less broadly appealing. When John Romita comes in to take over as the regular artist with #39, all of a sudden Peter Parker is more of a leading man. Romita obviously tries to ape some of the same fashion choices and hairstyles Ditko drew in previous issues -- not just for Peter Parker, but for essential supporting characters like Gwen Stacy and Harry Osborn -- but the artist can't help but make everyone look prettier. Scenes are less claustrophobic. Chins are more pronounced. Peter Parker might still have bad luck, but he no longer hunches in the corner awkwardly. And as Spider-Man, he's the very picture of a super-hero. Straight from a lunch box or an iron-on decal. It's Romita's vision of the character that would go mainstream and appear in coloring books and find its way to television shows like "Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends" a generation later.
This is the rare case of a series and a character becoming more famous "After it Was Famous." A spider-paradox, and Steve Ditko walked away before it happened. But I'd also argue that he had to walk away for it to happen. The Ditko issues are great -- I appreciate them more each year as I understand more about the Ditko aesthetic -- but they remain weird and off-putting in a way that the John Romita issues just aren't. Ditko's run is like a strange, discordant independent film. Romita's run looks and feels like a glossy prime time soap opera. It glows.
That makes it sound like I read Romita's arrival on the series -- and his entire lengthy run, really -- as something superficial and shallow. It is and it isn't. It certainly lacks Ditko's idiosyncrasies and though the tonal shift between issue #38 and #39 isn't particularly jarring for anyone who reads the issues back to back in the larger context of the Spider-Man comics of 1966, there's certainly a major change in storytelling philosophy happening beneath the surface.
Gone is the overt social commentary -- about frivolous protests or celebrity culture or personal greed -- and it's replaced by character-driven melodrama. If it's true that Ditko had been writing and drawing everything in the year or two before his departure, then it's also true that in Stan Lee's return to the driver's seat with issue #39 he immediately started shifting the series into its next gear. The one-off costumed bad guys of previous issues would return, mostly, but the biggest change was apparent in the cover blurb of number #39. "Spidey and the Green Goblin…Both Unmasked!" This was neither a hoax nor an imaginary story. This was Stan Lee at his melodramatic finest, with John Romita providing a glossy sheen.
When the Green Goblin reveals himself, at the end of the issue, to be Norman Osborn, it changes everything. First of all, earlier in the issue, the Green Goblin had figured out Spider-Man's identity, and that added a new dimension to the conflict. But then the nefarious villain turns out to be the father of Peter's schoolmate? That's the kind of soap opera stuff I was talking about earlier. Readers clearly loved the reveal. It remains one of the central moments of the entire Spider-Man franchise. Sam Raimi's 2002 movie was based almost completely on the Stan Lee and John Romita issues of the comic, with the Ditko issues just providing some of the background details -- and other than what's in the origin story from "Amazing Fantasy" #15, not many of them.
Issue #39 also shifts the series into longform mode. While the previous 38 issues were mostly single-issue stories (or two issues at most) with recurring subplots for a page or two, the Green Goblin/Spider-Man melodrama which rapidly escalates in "The Amazing Spider-Man" #39 would continue for years. You could argue that it's been going ever since, but it definitely didn't even climax until at least seven years later, with the death of Gwen Stacy in issue #121, a year after Stan Lee stopped writing the series. What I'm saying is that Marvel, as we know it -- longform stories that build and escalate and return, year after year -- didn't really begin until issue #39, and Spider-Man, as most people think of him, kind of begins there as well. I'd guess that if you asked random folks about Spider-Man, even regular comic book readers, they'd be hard pressed to name any single plot point from a Spider-Man story from Ditko's run, other than what appeared in "Amazing Fantasy" #15 and maybe the scene where he lifts up some heavy machinery in "The Amazing Spider-Man" #33. But other than that? I think as much as we all think of Spider-Man as one of Steve Ditko's major contributions to the medium, we don't much think of Steve Ditko's actual stories. Instead, when we think of classic Spider-Man stories and events we think of Green Goblin as Norman Osborn. We think of Mary Jane Watson. We think of the death of Gwen Stacy. We think of calmly crusading journalist Robbie Robertson. We think of that time Harry Osborn got messed up on drugs. All of those things happened after Ditko left the series.
Yes, we think of the Vulture and Sandman and Doctor Octopus, but not much about the actual stories they were in from the early years. The images mattered more with Ditko. With Lee and Romita, the series became a kind of adventure-strip-meets-romance-comic ongoing saga. And it's remained that way ever since. Even when Mephisto makes promises and Otto Octavius overstays his welcome.
"The Amazing Spider-Man" #39. After it was already famous.
In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.