Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Frustrated — by J. Jonah Jameson!

J. Jonah Jameson, Spider-Man’s perpetual nemesis cum comic relief character, doesn’t have as high a public profile as comics’ other famous editor, Perry White. Still, between the comics, the movies and multiple TV series, he’s better known than most comic-book supporting characters. He is also, for me, the weakest part of the classic Steve Ditko/Stan Lee run on Amazing Spider-Man.

(this is, by the way, another rewritten post from my own blog)

Going through Spider-Man as part of my Silver Age reread, I’m impressed once again by how sharp the Lee/Ditko team could be at characterization. There’s a moment in #21, for instance, where Johnny Storm thinks Peter has been trying to make time with the Torch’s then girlfriend, Dorrie Evans. Johnny confronts Peter, who shrugs it off — until he sees Betty has overheard them and assumes Peter’s two-timing her (Betty’s characterization in this period was to cry a lot).

Furious with Johnny for hurting Betty, Peter gets in his face but Johnny backs off instead of taking him on; he’s the Human Torch, it wouldn’t be fair to beat up some nerd. Later, Peter thinks about how much he wanted that fight, how much it stings that the Human Torch thought Peter wasn’t a match for him — and he’s so mad, he breaks the table he’s touching at the time. Like the scene where Peter contemplated letting Flash Thompson die, it’s a moment that makes him very human.

Jameson, by contrast, gets worse as the series progresses. When we first see him, he’s running an anti-Spidey crusade in the Daily Bugle, warning against making this freak a hero.

While not everyone buys it (the cops never do) the effect of this PR blitz is to make Spidey a pariah.

A few issues in, Jameson tells Peter it’s all about the Benjamins: he has nothing against Spider-Man, but crusading against him sells papers. Then in Amazing Spider-Man #10, he reveals there’s more to it: he’s jealous.

Here Steve Ditko is channeling his objectivist streak: a newspaper publisher in The Fountainhead (at least the movie version) gives exactly that motivation for destroying Howard Roark. Regardless of the source, I found the rationale forced when I first read it. As I’ve grown older, I find it a lot more plausible — people really can be that petty.

The trouble is, Lee and Ditko promptly forgot Jameson even said this. Not in the sense that he never brings it up again (I could buy that) but that later stories’ thought balloons show Jameson really does believe Spider-Man’s a rotten egg. That isn’t compatible with the guy above who knows the webslinger’s a hero. Instead, Jameson’s convinced Spider-Man’s a coward who doesn’t have the courage to fight villains — no, no, he thinks he’s a criminal in league with them! He switches back and forth, depending what the story seems to require.

While Flash Thompson got at least a little depth beyond being a jock and a bully, Jameson only gets more cartoonish as the series progresses. More cowardly. More egocentric. Cheaper. In an early issue he gives Peter a bonus for doing great work; in later issues Peter’s reward is an autographed photo of the publisher. When Jonah rehires Frederick Foswell — a former Bugle columnist and secret crime boss — as a crime reporter, it’s a smart move; who knows the underworld better than the man who ran it? But instead of showing Jameson making a shrewd call, the story explains it’s PR, boosting his “reputation as a lovable do-gooder.” I can’t buy that’s anything Jonah’d even aspire to.

While Jonah does get an attack of sanity after he creates the Scorpion ——that was about it until John Romita took over the art. There’s a scene in the first Kingpin arc where Fisk orders Jameson to stop printing stories about there being a Kingpin of Crime; Jameson tells him to go to hell. It’s the first time I was impressed with him.

In short doses, the Lee/Ditko Jameson’s an amusing enough buffoon. If I’d been reading ASM once a month instead of at an accelerated rate, it wouldn’t bother me. But I’m accelerated, and it does.

#SFWApro. Art by Ditko, all rights remain with current holder.


  1. Le Messor

    I’ve wondered whether the JJJ is Jealous thing came from the original comics or Marvels. Now I know.

    Though honestly, I can see somebody like him changing his motivation all the time.

    I’ve always loved the scene where he stands up for Peter Parker in the first Raimi movie; made him seem less a caricature.

    1. Untold Tales of Spider-Man does a good job showing that Jonah starts out attacking Spidey for money (and also because his rescue of John Jr. stole Jonah’s boy’s thunder) but as Spidey consistently puts his life on the line without getting any thanks, the gnawing realization Jonah is a lesser man worms its way in.

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