Celebrating the Unpopular Arts
 

Spiderman No More? Say it ain’t so, Joe!

When I read a reprint of Spider-Man #50, “Spider-Man No More!”  by Stan Lee and John Romita, I thought it was a good story but no more than that. It took an article (I don’t remember where it appeared) marking the 20th or 25th anniversary of the story to show me how much bigger it had been when it was new.

Multiple interviewees said that even though it was ridiculous to think of Marvel canceling it’s top book … it was Spider-Man. The book that went where others didn’t. like having Peter contemplate the death of Flash Thompson with delight. Who’s to say Peter couldn’t quite and embrace a happy, normal life? I’m sure it helped that even thinking seriously about quitting the hero game was unprecedented; by the time I read it, plenty of heroes had contemplated No More and decided against it. The idea was no longer fresh.

For those who haven’t read it, here’s the gist. We open on Spidey saving a couple of business owners from a robbery only to have one of them react like a total jerk.As if that wasn’t bad enough, Peter’s personal life is going down the tubes because of all the time he spends wall-crawling.(Side note: it’s really weird seeing Professor Miles Warren when he was just a kindly teacher). And Jonah’s constant anti-Spider-Man campaign is giving even Peter second thoughts about his alter ego.Finally Peter snaps. Enough is enough! Wall-crawling was exciting but it’s time to get real.It works out great, too. Time to care for Aunt May. Time for friends. Time, maybe, for romance. However his retirement is also good news for this guy—Yep, that’s the first appearance of the Kingpin. With Spider-Man gone, he unites the New York mobs and declares open season on law and order. Peter refuses to get involved, not even when the Kingpin’s mob robs a welfare office: that’s the cops’ job now. Then he sees some thugs beating up an elderly watchman and can’t help himself.Finally Peter remembers why he became a super-hero — because his selfishness cost him the life of his Uncle Ben. With that memory comes the realization he can’t ever quit, not if it means someone else might pay the price because Peter stayed on the sidelines. Now and forever, Peter Parker must live with the burden of being Spider-Man.

This works better as part of my Silver Age Reread than it did when read in isolation that first time. I’m much more conscious now of how much of a pressure cooker Peter’s life is and how many opportunities he’s had to pass up because of Spidey. But the point of this post is several added details that struck me.

First, there’s the idea that Peter would ever take Jonah seriously. This seems to be part of Stan Lee’s effort to make Jonah less of the Ditko-era caricature. Just a few issues earlier, we saw Jonah as a guy who truly loves his son. The following issue the Kingpin tells him to stop writing about a “kingpin of crime” and Jonah tells Fisk (as yet unnamed) to go to hell. But it doesn’t wash. Jonah’s a chiseler, a braggart and a hypocrite and Peter knows this perfectly well. Even if Jonah was sincere, he’s still wrong. Peter should know better. Fortunately the story’s character arc works even if we take Jonah out (though his gloating, then his dismay at Spidey’s return, is a lot of fun).

Second, there’s Peter’s internal monologue as he talks himself into quitting.I can buy Peter wondering if he’s hooked on the thrill-ride but “the paranoiac thirst for power which can never be quenched”?  Peter never talks like that; no teenager, even a smart one, talks like that. Heck most adults, even in comics, don’t talk like that.

Lee at his best wrote terrific dialog but by 1967 I think he was slipping. Consider the Gladiator’s musing on that plane from Daredevil Annual #1. “I always thought Electro was just a legend”? That phrasing works when referring someone as shadowy as the Mandarin in his early appearances but Electro’s been widely covered in the news. He’s been arrested and entered into the legal system. Gladiator sounds deranged questioning his existence. Admittedly he sounded deranged in his first appearance but it was a different kind of crazy.On the plus side, the debut of the Kingpin shows John Romita’s amazing sense of character design. Back in the Silver Age, comic-book crooks, even top mobsters like Gene Colan’s “Boss” in the scene below from Daredevil, dressed cheap.Ditto hoods drawn by Sheldon Moldoff and Carmine Infantino in the Bat-books over at DC. The Kingpin, by contrast, dresses to impress. He’s Money, and he wants you to know it.Hell, his first appearance earlier has him in his bathrobe and pajamas without detracting from his presence. As Le Messor commented on one of my earlier posts, “Kingpin” isn’t inherently a better name than the Organizer or the Boss but Romita’s look for the character elevates him above the ordinary. That’s why Wilson Fisk went on to greatness while the Boss and the Organizer don’t even rate bar-trivia night questions.

Then there’s Gwen. In the Ditko years Gwen was initially annoyed by Peter, whose personal crises made it look like he was giving everyone at college the cold shoulder. Yet she was also intrigued.After Peter became friends with Harry Osborn, Gwen became more interested. In this issue she’s a lot more than that, even if Peter doesn’t know it.The thing is, I think her whole character’s changing and softening. I can’t imagine the Ditko era Gwen calling him a “lovable, blind goof.” I know it’s Lee writing the dialog in both eras but it definitely feels like she’s becoming … cuddlier. Though I think that’s also part of why I never cared much for Gwen — as time went on, IIRC, Gwen had no role other than “love interest” and “Captain Stacey’s daughter: (we’ll see if I’m write as this reread progresses)

Finally, there’s Uncle Ben, and the idea Peter, up until this issue, has forgotten about him, or at least about his death. I have trouble believing this. It might have been easier to swallow then when Uncle Ben and Peter’s origin rarely came up; I think Peter’s mentioned Ben Parker’s once in all the years since he died. For a lot of readers this would be new information. And sure, Peter clearly does enjoy his secret life — it’s not like his motivation is purely guilt for not catching the burglar.

Even so, it still feels odd.

#SFWApro. The Boss and the plane are by Gene Colan, everything else is Romita.

3 Comments

  1. Le Messor

    I forgot I’d made that comment! 😀

    I’ve read that Kingpin was actually designed to look like a kingpin (a bowling one, not a crime one). That may be what makes him so distinctive.

    “Finally, there’s Uncle Ben, and the idea Peter, up until this issue, has forgotten about him, or at least about his death.
    That bugged me too when I read this issue recently.

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