How Green Was My Goblin: A Look At Norman Osborn

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DISCLAIMER: Reading, summarizing and examining every appearance of Norman Osborn would be both overly time-consuming and messy. As such, this post will focus on his most significant early appearances and a large part of his recent storylines.

One of the reasons the Spider-Man franchise has lasted so long is due to how personal the character’s world is. Peter Parker is a human being before he’s a superhero, with all of his conflicts having human consequences. Parker isn’t a representative of anything lofty, he’s just a kid in a suit trying his best to help people. With that in mind, what kind of asshole would go out of his way to pick on the poor guy?

Amazing Spider-Man #39 (1966)

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Dick

Green Goblin/Norman Osborn is one of the oddest comic villains in terms of initial concept. He’s a green skinned (or is it garbed?) man with a purple Legend of Zelda tunic, a flying bat-thing (which was originally a fucking broomstick) who threw exploding pumpkins. And frogs for some reason.

Amazing Spider-Man #17 (1964)

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Even his original introduction is wacky as hell: seeking to take over the underworld of NY, Goblin hires three previous Spidey villains named the Enforcers, who consisted of a guy with lasso, a midget karate master, and a “strong for a normal guy” guy. His plan? Approach a film producer and casually suggest to him that he should fund a Spider-Man film. He does this in full costume.

Amazing Spider-Man #14 (1964)

 

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The guy agrees and just stands on a roof top waiting for Spider Man to just happen upon him (which actually works) He pitches him the film, which Spidey agrees to quite easily. The Goblin, having apparently written an honest to god script, has them shoot the first scene in a cave, where his “master plan” this whole time was to just to have himself and the gang (who Spidey thought were just guys who just happened to look like enemies of his) beat him up.

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Even as a 60’s comic lover, this debut has to be one of the dumbest i’ve ever read. We don’t even get a passing explanation of the Goblin’s powers, weapons, or even who the fuck he is in the first place. Apparently, writer Stan Lee and artist Steve Ditko disagreed on who the Goblin should be. Ditko felt he should remain anonymous whereas Lee felt he should be someone close to Peter. When Ditko left the series, Lee had his way with the Goblin (that sounds dirty!), which leads us to the revelation that he’s Norman Osborn, father of Peter’s then-new friend, Harry Osborn.

Amazing Spider-Man #39 (1966)

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The backstory: Normie had a routine freak lab accident while working on (of course) green chemicals, which increased his mental and physical capabilities. It also increased his crazy as well, which manifested as the character of Green Goblin. Which doesn’t explain the gimmick AT ALL, but whaddaya gonna do? Much later on it was retconned that Norman Osborn had a recurring childhood nightmare of a literal “green goblin” that inspired his motif. So he’s basically an even more fucked up Batman.

The revelation of Norman Osborn as the Goblin is where he goes from being a silly Joker-esque madman to being a truly unique character. Like many villains, Osborn attempts to explain to Peter his origin, but what makes this moment particularly unique is that there’s a clear disconnect between how he views himself as Norman Osborn and the reality of his actions even before he became the Goblin.

Amazing Spider-Man #40 (1966)

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In his mind, he was a great father to Harry, whereas we can clearly see he was emotionally distant. In his mind, he’s a pragmatic businessman, whereas we can clearly see he’s quite corrupt. Osborn is completely delusional about his own villainy, a rare trait in comic villains. At this point, most super-villains are just crooks and despots, but he actually thinks his actions are for the best. By the end of this issue, Norman conveniently gets amnesia but this characterization sticks with the character for awhile anyway. His delusion reaches it’s zenith when blames Peter (without cause, of course) for his son’s drug abuse.

Slipping back into his Goblin persona, his method of “justice” is killing Peter’s girlfriend at the time Gwen Stacy. Your welcome for the spoiler.

Amazing Spider-Man #121 (1973)

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This sets off a chain of events that leads to his own (of course temporary) death.

Such a heinous act not only codified Osborn’s delusion, but also his pettiness. In a way, this is why he makes such a good antagonist for Spidey. Characters like Superman and Captain America represent lofty ideals, so their antagonists have to be equally as lofty. Generally, Lex Luthor is portrayed as having a sense of purpose so grand that he could just as easily be as heroic as he is villainous. In a Silver Age story, this was realized when he found his own planet (which he un-egotistically dubbed “Lexor”) where he got to play hero. 

Superman #164 (1963)

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Far from heroic, Osborn’s goals are no more lofty than fucking with Peter. His reintroduction to the Spider-Man franchise was orchestrating an elaborate plot to create clones of Spider-Man and Gwen Stacy just to fuck with him for…ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. Once again, Spidey didn’t do anything to him or Harry before his resurrection and even spared his life after killing Gwen. 

Osborn went on to plague Spidey in a number of ways after his resurrection. For example, one story reveals he raised two Spidey-hating kids who he had with Gwen Stacy before her death. Comics, lol. The character continued to be singularly a Spidey villain till the Thunderbolts series, where he led a team of villains who were tasked with policing superheroes. The series illustrates the distinction between Norman’s personalities. Norman is a mixture of Lex Luthor and the Joker. As a businessman and leader, he’s very Luthor-like, with a massive sense of importance and superiority. Then there’s the Goblin persona, which is more Joker-like with an obsession with Spidey and massive bloodlust.  

Thunderbolts #111 (2006)

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His growing positive reputation combined with a strange set of events allow Norman to become Earth’s greatest hero when he defeats an alien queen during an invasion. His newfound admiration not only allows him to finally rewrite public record of his past crimes, it also means that he’s able to take the role of both Nick Fury AND Iron Man as director of S.H.I.E.L.D. (which he aggressively re- dubs H.A.M.M.E.R.) and leader of the Avengers (having jacked himself some sweet-ass armor and recast the team with equivalent super villains).

New Avengers Annual #3 (2009)

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This is definitely his “Lexor” moment, where Stan Lee’s Norman Osborn really comes to fruition. As mentioned, the two defining attributes of Norman are a) delusion b) pettiness. So seeing him in a role where he has to deal with characters like Dr. Doom and Namor, men with both a clarity and grandeur of vision, allows for both humor and tension.

Dark Avengers #6 (2009)

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He becomes, dare I say it, almost sympathetic. Osborn is so out of his depth and he knows it. Ironically, he becomes an almost Peter Parker like figure in the larger Marvel Universe. Spidey has also been in the big-time as an Avenger for over a decade now, but he’s often still written as the low man on the totem pole. Spidey’s role on the team is essentially comic relief. Parker and Osborn are both people of just enough ability to reach the peak of Olympus but with the barely the strength to survive the climate once they get there.

Brian Michael Bendis uses the persona of Norman to seemingly comment on  the irrationality of real life government leaders (most likely George W. Bush). Norman becomes increasingly obsessed with ” protecting America ” and letting his presence be known. When Asgard ends up hovering near Earth (don’t ask) he immediately views it as a threat despite the fact that NOTHING suggests that at all. As he did with Spidey, Norman delusions created a threat. In order to legitimize Asgard as a threat, he tricks an Asgardian into committing mass murder.

Siege: The Cabal #1 (2010)

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Norman’s war with Asgard is most likely meant to reflect the War on Terror, where many feel the American government purposely caused fear of Iraq in order to justify war, some even going as far to claim that 9/11 was engineered by them. Using Norman as a stand-in for Bush is a stretch, but fits into the public perception of what people considered “evil” at the time. Like the ‘corrupt corporate executive’ version of Lex Luthor in the 80’s, Norman reflected America’s distrust of those in power.

Despite losing his war with Asgard and his public clout, Norman continues to be a major villain in Marvel Comics. Norman Osborn/Green Goblin’s continued prominence is a testament to the ability of skilled writers to reinterpret characters. Lets hope the wacko always has a place at Marvel.

For more posts on Spider-Man

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 Review

The Lois Lane Effect

Top 5 Fictional Bullies

Spidey Tackles The Torch: Spider-Man As An Anti-Hero

From Amazing Fantasy to Amazing Spider-Man: The Journey of Peter Parker

For more posts on Marvel Comics

Captain America: The Winter Soldier Review

Thor: The Dark World Review

Iron Man: Real American Hero

 

 

 

 

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The Amazing Spider-Man 2 Review

 

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The Amazing Spider-Man series has had some big shoes to fill. Sam Raimi-directed Spider-Man (2002) was basically our generation’s Richard Donner-directed Superman (instead of, y’know, Man of Steel). It not only reinvigorated the already successful Spider-Man franchise, it legitimized superhero film in general. This led to the current explosion of superhero films and, to quote the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Baron Strucker, “the age of miracles“. With all that in mind, what could the new Spider-Man series distinguish itself beyond adding on an adjective? The first film was both familiar and different. Mark Webb and Sony Pictures used many music and visual elements from the Raimi films but created a lore that impacts each film (Peter’s parents, Oscorp Industries, etc). Probably it’s most contentious element is Peter Parker himself as played by Andrew Garfield. This Peter Parker beckons more to the Stan Lee’s original vision: a smart alecky scientist with a nerdy-but-charming way with the ladies. I wouldn’t personally call this better or worse than Tobey Maguire’s portrayal, since Raimi’s Spider-Man was meant to be more of a “classic” superhero story with a more earnest protagonist. Overall, I think The Amazing Spider-Man was a solid iteration of the franchise. So what about the second film?

The premise: High school graduate Peter Parker is having turbulence in his relationship with Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) due to her father’s last request for them to be apart. Exacerbating his woes is the return of childhood friend Harry Osborn (Dane Dehaan), who believed that Spider-Man is the key to curing his family’s hereditary illness. Further exacerbating things is the arrival of the villain Electro (Jaime Foxx), yet another victim of Oscorp’s piss-poor science regulations.

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Assuming that action is the first thing viewers for looking for, this film’s got a pretty decent amount. As with the previous film, Spider-Man’s acrobatics are portrayed  as more freeform and impulsive than practiced. He doesn’t move like an acrobat, he moves like a normal guy with massive strength and agility. This really shows itself while fighting the villain Electro, who he has to combat more evasively. One can tell that Mark Webb probably got excited when he realized that Spidey’s “Spider-Sense” meant that he could use gratuitous slow-mo, which he seemingly incorporated into every scene. While somewhat cliched at this point, at least it fits here. Unfortunately, the film’s so chock full of everything that there really aren’t many action scenes in it. It appears as if the filmmakers realized that themselves, given that we’re treated to an opening action scene that doesn’t even include Spidey and “action-packed” web-making scene similar to the one from the first film.

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While the film might skimp on action, it has plenty of romance. Now normally I roll my eyes at the cliche superhero romance, but I feel that Spider-Man – as the everyman – makes more sense with a love interest that characters like Thor or Batman. It helps that Garfield and Stone have natural chemistry, probably due to actually dating each other. They both have very natural humor and wit that makes their interactions fun rather than sappy. In a scene where they’re hiding in a closet (long story) they both connect on how cliched hiding in a closet is before having a bit of seemingly unscripted kissing. Many of their scenes wouldn’t be out of place in films like 500 Days Of Summer or Nick And Norah’s Infinite Playlist. Oh that hipster love!

Despite my enjoyment of the film’s romantic elements, it ends up being part of what makes the film inconsistent tonally. While I hate to draw too many comparisons between the Raimi films, one of their strengths was that they knew what they were. They were earnest and melodramatic superhero stories without much irony. These films attempt to be more modern (Peter wears a fucking Thrasher t-shirt at one point), which makes the moments where it slips back into cliche a bit more awkward.

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For example, hollywood nerd Electro wouldn’t be out of place in Batman Forever. Foxx plays him as a nebbish scientist with an inexplicable combover who becomes obsessed with Spidey after he saves his life. One scene has him (hilariously?) celebrating his birthday alone as he talks to a picture of Spider-Man on his wall. While I appreciate the film’s attempt to give him some humanity, because the character himself has no significance thematically, he lacks the same emotional weight of Green Goblin or even Sandman from Raimi’s trilogy. The tragedy of the character seems kind of insignificant to the film’s overall narrative as he becomes a generic villain.

Osborn and Parker Amazing Spider-Man 2

Harry Osborn also seems to be in a different movie at times; it’s hard to believe that the melodramatic Harry (who has a bit of a Children of the Corn vibe) was ever friends with the more laid-back Peter. To be fair, i’m not saying that Foxx or Haan put in bad performances, i’m just saying that they don’t necessarily fit into the film as well as they could have.

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Visually, the film is as gorgeous as one would expect from a Sony film. Electro is rendered magnificently as an electrical entity. Rather than just painting him blue and calling it a day, the filmmakers took the time to conceive elements such as making his skin slightly translucent in order to portray his vein’s lighting. As he grows in power, there’s visible reds and oranges underneath his skin which give off the impression of electric combustion. It shows that the effects guys really explored the idea of how an electric man would work visually. As far as cinematography, the only thing I noticed was an intriguing inclusion of a few dutch angles (a scene shot at a tilt). I suspect that they’re included just because the 60’s Batman series decided that all superhero shows and films have to contain dutch angles. To be honest, this is more of a stray observation and has little impact.

As an overall narrative, this film is okay when focusing on any of it’s constituent parts, if not necessarily forming a coherent whole. As mentioned, the love story between Peter and Gwen is fun and makes sense in context. Electro’s story is sad despite having a secondary focus. Harry Osborn’s conflict at Oscorp is equally as sad as his sympathetic goals fail to come to fruition. Do these elements sync up? Not really. They do end up impacting each other but more through contrivance than theme. Just look at how disjointed my premise summary was. As a sequel, it’s possible that the film slightly suffers from what happened the Spider-Man 3: there were several plots that they had to get through and no one thought through how they would intersect. What makes this better than Spider-Man 3  is that these plots are all solid on their own.

Final Verdict

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a fun film with an enjoyable love story and some good action. While it’s not as focused or as action oriented as it’s predecessor, it furthers the narrative journey of Peter Parker. While I wouldn’t call this film anywhere near the depth of it’s superhero contemporaries, it does manage to entertain.

Easter Eggs

Ravencroft Institute

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The facility where Oscorp takes Electro is basically Marvel’s equivalent to Arkham Asylum, used to house crazy supervillains such as the symbiotic Carnage and master of illusion Mysterio. It’s founder was Ashley Kafka, the lead scientist in the film.

Vulture’s Wings

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When showing Oscorp’s various powered armors, one of them appears to be a harness with wings. This is based on the villain Adrian Toomes aka the Vulture, who was an old man who invented a harness that allowed him to fly.

Felicia

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Harry’s secretary Felicia is most likely a reference to the Felicia Hardy aka the Black Cat, a thief who alternated between antagonist and ally of Spider-Man. They also had a fling. This sure sounds like another cat-themed supervillain…

Smythe

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The douchey scientist played by BJ Novak is a reference to Alistar Smythe, a member of the Smythe family responsible for creating the robotic Spider-Slayers. He went a little bit further and turned himself into a spider-slayer.

For more reviews:

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

American Hustle

Thor: The Dark World

Gravity

Don Jon

Riddick

Iron Man 3

Oblivion

Fast And The Furious 6

For more thoughts on Spider-Man:

The Journey of Peter Parker From Amazing Fantasy to Amazing Spider-Man

Spidey Tackles The Human Torch: Spider-Man As An Anti-Hero

10 Thankfully Obscure Spider-Man Villains

For more thoughts on superheroes:

The Lois Lane Effect

Superstitious And Cowardly Cops: Police Corruption in Gotham City

Superman As Defined By Lex Luthor

Bats In His Belfry: Batman As A Heroic Psychopath

Ben Affleck As Batman: Why So Serious?

Iron Man: Real American Hero

Three Forms Of Comedy As Seen Through Justice League

Flash: The Quintessential Superhero

Hoverboy: The Most Racist Superhero Ever

From Comic To TV: Arrow As An Adaptation of Green Arrow

10 Freaky Yet Awesome X-Men You Forgot About

10 Stupid Attempts At Rebranding Famous Comic Characters

Top 5 Bullies in Fiction

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Everyone’s had a bully at some point of their lives. If not, then you probably are / were a bully ( if so: not in the face, please ). Either way, we can all relate to bullying, which is why bullies are so familiar in fiction. The stereotypical bully is bigger than the protagonist, an athlete and most of all, monstrously violent. And yea, many times a bully really is just a brute with a gland disorder, but they are people as well. People who can fuck you up. So i decided to compile a list of some bullies who are particularly noteworthy.

5. Terry Filkins – Drillbit Taylor ( 2008 )

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This school is boring. Watching you freak out amuses me.

Fun Fact: This film was written by Seth Rogen and John Hughes under his pen name “Edmond Dantes” . Yes: “Breakfast Club – Sixteen Candles – Home Alone” John Hughes. This was also the last film he was involved with before his death. The premise: three nerds hire a bodyguard to protect them from two bullies. As a final film it’s…ok. Owen Wilson has his moments but the nerds are fairly trite and nothing else stands out either…except for the main bully, Filkins. Whereas the nerds in the film are a little too generic to be interesting, Filkins’ takes the equally generic bully stereotype to new heights. He begins as a standard bully, stuffing nerds into lockers and whatnot, but then quickly shifts into outright insanity. It turns out that he’s an extremely wealthy emancipated minor, which in the film’s logic means he can get away with destroying a student’s laptop, driving a car through people’s yards, attempting to run over people in broad daylight, and cutting off a man’s arm with a katana ( offscreen, unfortunately ).

Normally I hate the casually violent bully cliche because it’s hard to imagine in a modern school where adults are more reactionary. But the combination of Seth Rogen’s brashness and John Hughes’ 80’s nostalgia makes it more of an homage to the cliche itself. Rather than pretending as if he’s a normal bully, the film portrays Filkins as a violent psychopath who couldn’t and shouldn’t possibly exist in a modern school. His comeuppance at the end of the film is due to him chucking a sword at the nerds in the middle of a partyThis guy is so committed to being a bully that he’ll literally murder someone in front of several witnesses. I don’t care how you feel about bullying, that’s admirable.

4. Alan White – Freaks and Geeks ( 1999 – 2000 )

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” You like Bill Murray? Oh yeah? Bill Murray sucks! “

The stereotype of the bully is so ingrained that few writers actually question it’s validity. Bullies are the jocks. They’re the big men on campus. Everybody likes them, right? More often than not, no. Kids who often become bullies are often just as marginalized as the people they pick on. One of the few bullies to embody this is Alan White from Freaks and Geeks. Paul Feig and Judd Apatow’s short lived dramedy series is well known for subverting many high school tropes. The designated geeks’ oppressor Alan is even more odd than they are. Skinny and awkward, the “threat” of Alan is more due to his aggressiveness than his physicality. The pilot of the series builds up to a fight between the geeks and Alan, which amounts to this:

After such a pathetic show, Alan’s bullying became more verbal, throwing out brilliant jabs such as changing the name Sam Weir to Sam Queer. Ah high school. The character gained some depth in the episode Chokin’ and Tokin’. Thinking his allergies aren’t life-threatening, Alan tricks one of the geeks into eating peanuts, leading to him become hospitalized. Whoops. Concerned, Alan visits him in the hospital and has a candid moment while the geek is unconscious ( you can watch the actual clip here )

” I’m sorry. I was just goofing on you. It’s not like you guys were ever nice to me. In the 4th grade i used to think you guys were really cool. I remember when you guys brought a model of the Saturn 5 in for show and tell and I asked if I can shoot off rockets with you and you said no. So i’m supposed to be nice to you? I like comics and sci fi too but you never ask me to hang out. “

We see a great commentary on one of the often overlooked causes of bullying: the cycle of victimhood. Alan, clearly lacking social skills already, perceives the geeks’ probably unintentional dismissals in the past as rejection. Afraid of being vulnerable, he strikes back against them in order to justify his alienation. This blurs the nerd / bully distinction, since it forces us to view the protagonists as part of a culture of abuse. Earlier in the episode, two of the three geeks abandons plans to attend a convention. When one of the other characters in the series, a fellow geek with weight and odor issues, offers himself to go, the geek seems less than excited. Later on, he claims he can no longer go due to an issue at home, but it’s suspect whether or not he’s just blowing him off. Alan’s view of the geeks now has a bit of credence to it; it’s possible that their desire to be insular marginalized him. This scenario highlights the often murky milieu of high school power dynamics.

3. The Tannens – Back To The Future Series ( 1985 – 1990 )

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” Make like a tree and get out of here! “

Bullies come in all shapes and sizes. Nowhere is that more true than in the Back To The Future trilogy.

Back to The Future ( 1985 )

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To start, lets look at Biff Tannen: the definitive bully. He hits every single trope: he’s bigger than the protagonist, he’s a jock, he’s popular ( for no apparent reason ), he’s dumb, he extorts favors, he’s a rapist ( ! ), he’s a racist, and most of all, he’s a murderer ( at least in one timeline ) ! Tom Wilson puts in an underrated performance as Biff; he manages to be as funny as he is threatening, vacillating between being just obnoxious and being a physical threat.

Back to the Future 2 ( 1989 )

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He also portrays the settled nature of an older, more sinister Biff well in the second film. Rather than being a negligible schoolyard bully, he becomes a deeply corrupt sadist. This version of Biff is a Mr. Potter-esque figure who’s so evil that it permeates all of Hill Valley, turning it into a dystopia.

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Wilson’s performance as his great- grandson, inventively named “Griff”, is wonderfully uncanny. The implication is that he’s a cyborg, which comes through in his staccato movements and manic pitch. He’s a futuristic fantasy version of the schoolyard bully: Biff was a slow, Archie-style meathead while Griff is a robotic speedfreak.

Back to The Future 3 ( 1990 )

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The Tannen line stretches back to the Wild West, where Biff’s ancestor was a cowboy ( the closest thing to a bully in that backdrop ). Fittingly, Wilson based his performance on Lee Marvin in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance? ( 1962 ). Lee Marvin’s titular Liberty Valance begins the film by robbing an honest lawyer ( Jimmy Stewart ) and then beating him savagely just for talking back. Likewise, Buford Tannen has a massive sense of entitlement that makes him think something as minor as a $80 dispute is worth murder. Overall, this family shows that evil is sometimes in the blood.

2. Butch Deloria – Fallout 3 ( 2008 )

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” I could be out there and kicking butt in my own gang and everything. The Tunnel Snakes could ride again! Or, y’know, slither again. Whatever! “

Most media that depicts 1950’s American youth incorporates the gang subculture of ” Greasers “,  a primarily Italian and Hispanic social group associated with hot rods, leather jackets, and their titular greased hair.

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Given Fallout 3 1950’s influences, it was natural for them to draw upon this culture for the Lone Wanderer’s lifelong tormentor. We see this primarily through his design, but also through a deconstruction of the archetype. For example: his obsession with hair makes him want to be a barber, which a career assessment test refers to only as a ” hairdresser ” to his chagrin. Butch is generally characterized as a chump: when his room is infested with giant roaches, Butch enlists the Wanderer to save his mother because he’s terrified of them. You can also beat the shit out of him and his entire gang as a teenager. It’s funny to think that in a post-apocalyptic world where violence becomes a norm, the resident gang-banger is a a bit of a pussy.

In spite of ( and partially due to ) these aspects, i feel as if Butch is a pretty interesting character. As with Alan White, the character is marginalized from the insular vault community. His mother is a promiscuous alcoholic, which led him to be born not knowing his father. This is probably the cause of his asshole behavior. Once the character makes it to the wasteland, he becomes interested in expanding his vault gang, the Tunnel Snakes. Which consists of just him and the wanderer at that point. At least the jackets are pretty cool.

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So why is this guy such a big deal? Well honestly, he isn’t in the canon of the game; he’s statistically the worst partner you can have. His starting weapons are a switchblade ( being a gang-banger and all ) and a 10 mm handgun. Mind you, this is a game where powered armor exists. The only unique thing he offers the player is, I shit you not, free haircuts.

Despite his gameplay shortcomings, i always felt the character had great potential as a foil to the Lone Wanderer. Like the Wanderer, he’s a teenager from the vault without battle experience. He also has a missing dad as well. Whereas the wanderer wants to leave to find his Dad, Butch just wants freedom. If Fallout 3 was more character-driven, he’d probably be the most interesting guy in the game. One of the primary themes of the Fallout series is letting go of the past and looking to the future. That fits in perfectly with Butch and the archetype he draws from: in West Side Story ( 1961 ), the greaser hoods have all been marginalized into their paths by their race and economic backgrounds. Even Fonzie from Happy Days, a heroic greaser, was shown to have redeemed himself from a tragic urban back-story with a missing father and gang connections. Imagine a story that powerful, but with laser guns! And i’m not the only one who thinks the guy has potential; some players have even modded Fallout: New Vegas ( 2010 ) to include the overlooked Butch Deloria. Hopefully, the actual game creators could take note and include the guy in the future of the franchise.

1. Eugene ” Flash ” Thompson – Spider-Man ( 1962 – Present )

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Puny Parker!

In a heroic tale, antagonists elevate a protagonist into heroism. For superheroes, this is mostly accomplished by supervillains. Given that the Spider-Man franchise draws much of it’s appeal from how the fantastic affects the mundane, Peter Parker also got a high school bully. As you can tell from the panel, the initial conflict in their first appearance ( Amazing Fantasy #15 1962 ) was pretty standard: Thompson was a popular and attractive jock and Peter was an unpopular and unattractive bookworm. While now a cliche, it’s important to remember that there weren’t as many bully / nerd stories then, which makes the conflict more specific. Despite being a smart dude, Peter does lack several heroic qualities. In the mundane high school world, the primary qualities he’s lacking are humor, confidence, and sexual charisma.

The Amazing Spider-Man #2 ( 1963 )

Umm...yea. Great comeback.

Umm…yea. Great comeback.

This is something most modern media don’t get about these archetypes: while audiences are often either “nerds” themselves or sympathize with nerds, that doesn’t mean nerdy characters are inherently admirable. This is a problem in media such as The Hard Times of RJ Berger, The Big Bang Theory, and the aforementioned Drillbit Taylor that create one-note nerds who never grow into compelling heroes. In contrast, once Peter Parker’s dangerous and thrilling lifestyle as Spider-Man allows him revisit his conflict with Flash from a competitive position. Peter is able to return Flash’s insults, fluster him with his bravado, and get his girl to make eyes at him.

The Amazing Spider-Man #13 ( 1964 )

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The conflict between the two isn’t always the same in every iteration; several versions portray their relationship more violently. While Flash does threaten Peter, their relationship almost never incorporated violence in the original series. Both Spider-Man film series turn Flash into a psychopath who would beat Peter’s face in for sneezing on him. This of course sets up the inevitable fight where Peter beats his ass and we all cheer. Stan Lee, rather than going for immediate gratification, builds a relationship between the two that remains playfully combative through clever wordplay and one-upmanship. While not witty, Flash’s combination of machismo, deluded confidence, and goofy Steve Ditko-drawn mugging makes him pretty funny.

The Amazing Spider-Man #25 ( 1965 )

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Granted, they have a formal boxing match at one point that turns out exactly as you think it would.

The Amazing Spider-Man #8

ASM8 - Fighting Flash

Slowly, Flash begins to realize that Peter is more admirable than he originally thought.

The Amazing Spider-Man #39 ( 1966 )

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Flash himself became more admirable as well; his obsession with Spidey makes him want to be a hero himself. He later joins the military, loses his legs, becomes an alcoholic, and gains the Venom symbiote. Comics are weird. In a totally not gay way, Flash is sort of like Lois Lane, given his Peter-hate-that-turns-into-respect and admiration of Spidey. A combative yet not-overly-malicious teenager relationship is a hard thing for modern writers to do, which makes all the more impressive how well Stan Lee handles it. Flash challenged Peter, but as a shortsighted rival and not as a sadistic thug. Likewise, rather than backing down or becoming violent, Peter finds the inner strengths he’s always had to measure up. Their mutual growth embodies the constant progression of The Amazing Spider-Man series throughout the decades.

So what have we learned from these characters? Bullying is wrong…except when part of a well crafted story.

To read some more of my pop-culture lists:

10 Underrated Movie Characters That Fans Really Hate

10 Cover Gimmicks That Cheapened Great Characters

10 Stupid Attempts At Rebranding Comic Characters

8 Most Iconic Slasher Movie Death Scenes

10 Thankfully Obscure Spider-Man Villains

The Lois Lane Effect

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That’s why Lois Lane is so perfect for him. She’s the perfect blend of firebrand, intelligent opponent and total doormat. And she’s hot.– Lois Lane as defined by “Jimmy Olsen”

Writing is hard. One of the hardest aspects of writing is evoking drama in a made-up story. Who really gives a shit if Mark Hamill has to sit in a fake plane in order to make a toy ball explode? This is where emotion comes into play: if the audience can relate to a conflict, even if it is contrived, they will be invested in that toy ball exploding. And of course, the easiest way to go about doing this is to shove into plots the greatest of all contrived conflicts: the quest for sweet, sweet nookie.

Fred Durst approves

Fred Durst approves

As i mentioned in another post of mine, modern Romantic fiction (and not just guy meets girl stories) was codified during the Middle Ages of Europe, with much of the coda coming from the Chivalric code. A man fights through everything from other men to Hell itself in order to prove himself worthy of his lady. It was supposedly as true for real life knights as it was for Lancelot himself. As such, this basic tenet of manliness passed on till modern times, where pretty much any “real man” in fiction has to kick ass and get laid (in either order). This sequence is especially important in the superhero genre.

           Action Comics #1 (June 1938)

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The golden standard for superhero love interests is Superman’s longtime girlfriend Lois Lane. Debuting in the very first issue of Action Comics, (where Superman first appeared) Lois is as old as the hero himself. Given that these were stories meant for children, their relationship was no more complex than ” Clark wants Lois. Lois wants Superman. Conflict. Ironically, she was actually more progressive than the characters she inspired in her Golden Age 1930’s-40’s appearances, being assertive and only occasionally used for “save the girl” plots.

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The Fleischer Superman cartoons even had her fighting in World War 2 as a covert agent.

And the ” Baddest Bitch ” award goes to…

This characterization ceased during the “Get Back In The Kitchen!” 50’s and the rise of the Comics Code Authority, which literally had doctrines such as “The treatment of love-romance stories shall emphasize the value of the home and the sanctity of marriage“. This led to the Lois Lane who became a bane upon Superman and comics and general. She was reduced to an annoying hanger-on who’s only concern was marrying Superman.

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The biggest loss for the franchise was that she ceased to even have a reason to be around anymore. Golden Age Lois served as a challenge for Clark since he had to win her over without being Superman. She was a badass character in her own right which justified her astronomical standards. Reducing her to a satellite love interest nullified that romantic conflict and replaced it with a series of ” zany ” marriage schemes. You’d think she needed a green card or something. What was even worse is that as she became more arbitrary, her prevalence in media increased, to the point where she got a whole series dedicated to her desire to bone Superman.

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Lois was never good with linear reasoning

Batman #157 (August 1963)

Vicki Vale CompetitionGiven that Superman is the quintessential superhero, several other franchises had a Lois Lane equivalent just to keep up with the Joneses. Batman had Vicki Vale (played by Kim Basinger in the film) who was a reporter who wrote about Batman, intending to find out his identity and bone him (in either order). Oh, and she didn’t like Bruce Wayne that much. Sounds familiar? Barry Allen aka The Flash got his own model in Iris West, yet another “intrepid reporter” who couldn’t figure out his secret identity until they were already married. “Intrepid” must be old timey slang for “idiot”.

Marvel Comics dealt with this trope better in the 60’s, but still with a few Lois Lane influences. Before the arrival of plot tumor Mary Jane, Peter Parker started off with Betty Brant, who was sort of like a deconstruction of 50’s Lois Lane. She was also clingy and jealous, but instead of being played entirely for laughs, it was actually a serious relationship problem which caused him quite some grief.

The Amazing Spider-Man #15 (August 1964)

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He then went on to court Gwen Stacy, who began as actually quite vain, being interested in Peter literally because he had the nerve to not try boning her.

The Amazing Spider-Man #31 ( December 1965 )

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Once their relationship became settled, however, she started to become yet another satellite love interest. So much so that Marvel editors thought the most interesting thing they could do with the character is kill her off.

      Journey Into Mystery

Nurse Jane Foster Dreaming of Thor

Marvel’s other flagship hero, Thor, had a love interest in Jane Foster (who was carried over into the films but more on that later) back in his ” secret identity ” days. A doctor’s assistant in his mortal form’s (Donald Blake) practice, Foster and Blake were mutually attracted, but he thought she only pitied him due to his handicap (he couldn’t walk without a cane). This was exacerbated by the fact that she was (you guessed it) also attracted to Thor, but they couldn’t consummate due to Odin’s plot-drama doctrine of “don’t let mortals know about your secret identity”. To be fair, this dynamic was interesting at times because it injected a bit of classical myth: human/god coupling is an issue in almost every religion. Nevertheless, it was dropped once Thor stopped being a part-time human all-together and rationally decided to have sex with hot god babes instead.

Following suit with Thor, most superhero franchises drifted away from the generic love interest formula moving into the next few decades. Dimensions were added to pre-existing and new love interests. Many became (with varying levels of quality) “tougher” to compensate for previous portrayals. Lois Lane, the progenitor herself, was one of the first to get her metaphorical balls back.

                                                      Man of Steel

Maybe a little too much balls...

Or maybe her literal balls…

Some ladies went the Jane Foster route and were just phased out of focus; Hal Jordan/Green Lantern’s first love Carol Ferris became more important for becoming a hero/villain (it’s complicated) in her own right. Their love affair became just one of many flings for the bachelor hero. On the darker side of the spectrum, some were used as macabre drama fodder, such the aforementioned death of Gwen Stacy. Comic writer Gail Simone dubbed this trope “Women In Refrigerators“, referencing a controversial Green Lantern story where the hero’s girlfriend was brutally murdered and…well you could probably guess…

Green Lantern #54 (1994)

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“WHAT’S IN THE BOX?!?”

Obviously a fucked up trope it is in it’s own right, many writers consider this equally terrible (if not worse) as just having a living shallow love interest.

For the most part, the role of superhero girlfriend had a decent reinvention in mainstream comics. The days where love interests bogged down superhero tales were going away…until fucking Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002).

Keep in mind this is the official poster

Keep in mind this was the official poster

What Richard Donner’s Superman films were in the 70’s, Spider-Man was to the current generation. It reinvigorated the comic film and also set the stage for how these films will be adapted. This included how love interests would be integrated. And boy was it an awful model for it, since Mary Jane pretty much eclipses EVERYTHING in the film series. The film’s events unfold as such:

1. Peter takes a picture of MJ and gets bitten while he’s distracted

2. Peter becomes a wrestler with his new powers because he wants to buy a car to impress MJ (leading to his life-defining negligence)

3. Peter incorporates red into his costume because it’s her hair color (fuck patriotism, I guess)

4. Peter’s relationship with Harry is strained due to a love triangle with MJ

5. Norman Osborn goes on a homicidal rampage because Peter hooked up with MJ

And that’s not counting all of the damsel-in-distress nonsense. Fuck Norman Osborn; SHE’S clearly the antagonist of the film. The second film takes this even further by beginning with Peter’s voice over stating that ” She looks at me everyday. Mary Jane Watson. Oh boy! If she only knew how I felt about her “. The film basically establishes it’s premise as ” It’s all about MJ! “. Forget nuclear armageddon guys; how’s Petey going to go to MJ’s play? Is MJ going to marry that astronaut guy who we’ve never seen before? Pressing issues indeed.

While i wouldn’t say that these films necessarily caused an insistence on superhero love interests, it wouldn’t be too wild to assume that film producers, always eager to emulate the success of hit movies, saw this as an affirmation of the Lois Lane formula. This meant that every hero who had some canonical squeeze had a love story shoehorned into his film.

Keep in mind this was ALSO the official poster

Keep in mind this was ALSO the official poster

As mentioned before, Thor and Jane Foster’s coupling was an artifact of his secret identity days when his human persona already had a longstanding relationship with her. Yet, she’s placed in the film (albeit with a different job) as the woman he falls in love with in about three days.  Once again: Asgard. Hot god babes. C’mon.

Ditto

Seriously guys?

For the Iron Man films, they took Pepper Potts who he only occasionally fucks when he’s not fucking super-models or super-heroes or anything with a hole in it, and turned her a convenient satellite love interest. In contrast, in the comics she eventually married Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau’s character) until he died, so it wasn’t even like her and Tony had that serious of a relationship. And as for Nolan’s Batman films, I had no issues with the character of Rachel Dawes (who was a pretty good moral compass)…buuut then he forced in a last minute hookup with Selina Kyle that was as plausible as the end of John Hughes’ Career Opportunities (and no, I don’t expect you to get that reference).

Good thing he isn't world-famous or anything...

Good thing he isn’t world-famous or anything…

As much as i’ve grown to be wary of love interests in comics, i’d be bereft to call them necessarily a bad thing. As i mentioned in the beginning, this trope’s defining nature is its relatability. Love is the most ubiquitious real-life concern; it’s something most people want and desire. And not everyone is necessarily smart about it. People do get obsessed with relationships and often put aside other important things in order to focus on them. And in the hands of a good writer, a love story can elevate a hero. With that being said, it’s a trope that needs moderation. If there’s a narrative point in a relationship, so be it, but it shouldn’t be a necessity for every hero. Those unfortunate stories with Lois Lane were made during a time when the country was trying to avoid certain truths. No one wanted to admit women could be independent. No one wanted to admit marriage wasn’t as great as we all believed. To some extent, we’re still thinking that way. But things are changing. And as we change, our heroes (and heroines) should too.

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For more posts on Superman and DC Comics:

Superman As Defined By Lex Luthor

Flash: The Quintessential Superhero

Bat In The Belfry: Batman As A Heroic Psychopath

Superstitious And Cowardly Cops: Police Corruption In Gotham City

Ben Affleck As Batman: Why So Serious?

Three Forms Of Comedy As Seen Through Justice League

For more posts on Marvel Comics:

Spidey Tackles The Human Torch: Spider-Man As A Classic Anti-Hero

Journey of Peter Parker from Amazing Fantasy to Amazing Spider-Man

Iron Man: Real American Hero

Iron Man 3 Review

Thor: The Dark World Review

For more posts on Romance in fiction:

The Unfortunate Undeath of Chivalry: The Implication Of Romance In Hollywood

Don Jon Review

Spidey Tackles The Human Torch: Spider-Man As An Anti-Hero

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As I said before, Spider-Man used to be my favorite comic characters. As such, I wanted to learn as much as possible about the character, which led me to start reading issues of his original run beginning in the 60’s. What always struck me about these issues was the irreverence; no other heroes from this era had the flippancy that made The Amazing Spider-Man such a great read. Despite being a generally good kid, Peter could be a real douche sometimes.

For this post, I wanted to focus on a comic story that I particularly enjoyed when I first read it. It takes place in The Amazing Spiderman #8 (1964). As you can see, the cover shows that this issue is chock full of stories; Peter boxes his rival Flash Thompson and battles a spiffy robot. Fuck those stories, I don’t care about them. What i’m talking about is the story that dwarfs those two, namely “Spider-Man Tackles The Human Torch” (and we ain’t talking about football). As I mentioned before, this was a common sales tactic, everyone loves a dust-up between two heroes, and Spidey and Torch make excellent candidates. At this point in time, Spider-Man and The Fantastic Four were the DEFINITIVE Marvel titles, meaning that combining the two franchises was a sure fire hit. As such, crossovers abounded, but eventually The Human Torch became Spidey’s particular rival given their teenage-ness and cocky attitudes. What made their rivalry even better was that whereas Spidey was so disliked that he was often considered a criminal, Torch was beloved by everyone. So beloved is he that he has a huge birthday party with loads of ladies and stuff, which leads us to our story.

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One of the first things I love about this comic is that there is NO LEAD UP WHATSOEVER. To be fair, the two had a rivalry for awhile, but it was only when they ran into each other. In this issue, Spidey actively harasses him by showing up and fucking up his birthday like it was his job. And maybe bone his girlfriend. Peter’s portrayal here is vastly different than most iterations, which often make him a paragon of morals. While Spidey’s no Punisher, here he shows what made him one of comics’ first anti-heroes. Anyone who’s read Amazing Fantasy #15  knows that Peter has a burning desire for respect.

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His peers mock him and women avert their eyes in his presence, which manages to carry over into his superhero career as well. As such, he’s sometimes portrayed as starved for recognition. Here we see that he’s so envious that he’d do something as petty as ruining a birthday party just because he can’t have one.

The Amazing Spider-Man #21 (1965)

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The Torch isn’t just more popular than Spidey, he’s also the establishment hero that he could never be. The Fantastic Four, as Marvel’s “first family”, defined being a superhero in the marvel universe, so Torch was by extension a major hero. He had all of the benefits Golden Age superheroes were supposed to have; money, women, and public admiration. Ironically, The Torch’s notable lack of a traditional secret identity also makes him more of a superhero to the people, since the public harbors no distrust against him in the same way as Spidey, who’s masked appearance is consistently said to be “creepy” in universe.

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I’m pretty sure Torch gave that girl cancer

Upon seeing  Torch’s fiery display, Spidey calls the kid a “phony” and views his “heroics” as more pompous than purposeful. Given that his powers involve wreathing himself in flame, that shouldn’t come as a surprise. This of course comes off as a bit hypocritical coming from SPIDERMAN of all people, who responds by making an entire bat out of web and throwing it at the partygoers. Having got the man’s attention, he decides to swag in assholishly and talk some good shit. Unsurprisingly, no one reacts with “HOLY SHIT IT’S SPIDERMAN!!!”, and instead act like he’s the paste eating kid in grade school. Mind you, this is still very recent into The Amazing Spider-Man‘s run, so everyone instinctively reacts with hatred towards the poor lad. This went back and forth throughout the series, since seemingly everyone on in Peter’s high school seemed to like Spidey just fine. Since the kids in this particular comic are Torch’s friends, one can assume they are as much “establishment” as he is, so they wouldn’t share other teens’ sentiments. This dynamic makes Pete more sympathetic in the story, since he does deserve some respect for his heroism, even if he did just pull a prank.

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Spidey takes their rejection in stride, causing Torch to create some lame-ass comebacks, including calling Spidey a “rusty crutch”. I often wonder if people in the 60’s really spoke this way or was Stan Lee just fucking around. Spidey isn’t amused by this either, and continues to mock the lad. Once again, we see a nice distinction between the two: Torch is a “square” who uses crappy jokes as opposed to the hip Spidey, who knows how to smack talk with the best. Granted, much of this is due to the fact that this is a Spider-Man story and not a Fantastic Four one, but generally Torch isn’t that funny anyway. Despite the fact that Torch has more social approval, he’s not nearly as entertaining as the irreverent Spidey, who we as the audience like more in this match up. Torch gets so angry at Spidey that they get into an actual fight outside of the building.

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Spidey almost gives up the fight, until Mr. Fantastic, rather innocently, offers a hand to help, which Spidey takes offense to and attacks him as well. Obviously the rest of the Four intervene as well. This isn’t the first time a fight has broken out among these characters; the first issue of his Spidey’s series has him fighting the Four for the first time.

For some reason, in both issues he takes offense to Reed and Sue’s offers of help, as if the very idea that he needs it is insulting. This streak of independence  is probably why Spider-Man was never integrated that much into the Avengers franchise; so much of his character is defined by him struggling alone, which joining a super-group would subvert.

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His rampage against the Four is stopped rather unexpectedly by the Invisible Woman, who flirts heavily with him because she is a woman and that’s what Stan Lee thinks women do. He reciprocates by giving her a web-heart and making fun of the team once again. Our hero! This issue is similar to a much more recent issue of Deadpool, where the titular character picked a fight with Wolverine for the hell of it.

Deadpool #94

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Obviously, while I wouldn’t compare Wolverine THAT MUCH to the Human Torch, one thing they do have in common in their respective issues is that they are Marvel mainstays being accosted by cocky upstarts. Wolverine is a hero known worldwide, respected by pretty much any hero worth a damn. Deadpool is an insane idiot who’s made fun of in this issue by fucking SHADOWCAT, a barely relevant X-Man. Both of these issues illustrate how these characters fit into the larger Marvel universe and what makes them anti-heroes.

Whereas the term “anti-hero” has become synonymous with excessive guns and gruffness (i.e. Cable), anti-heroes in the classical literary sense are those who are impotent and ineffectual. Spidey and Deadpool are the guys who are at the low end of the totem pole; the George Costanzas of superheroes. Just as George Costanza is the man nobody wants to admit they are, Spidey is the hero no one would like to think they would be. Sure, he still performs all the duties expected of him as a cape, but he still has the same problems you and I have. On top of that, he doesn’t always deal with them in the most mature manner. For example, whereas most heroes are dead-set on their lifestyle, Spidey contemplates quitting anytime a personal complication arises. As seen in his battle with the Torch, his seemingly carefree demeanor belies his tempestuous mind, which could be prone to rash decisions. In one of the series’ most famous issues, he quits being Spider-Man all together due to a verbal berating by J. Jonah Jameson on how he should get his life together.

The Amazing Spider-Man #50 (1967)

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Whereas for most people, “getting your life together” could mean starting a 401k, for Spidey this means…

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Unsurprisingly, quitting has been a recurring event in the franchise, even extending to the film Spider-Man 2 , where he quits due to losing Mary Jane to another man. Speaking of women (and this may come as a surprise for modern fans), Peter had SEVERAL girlfriends during his series, including a co-worker at the Daily Bugle (Betty Brant), a high school cheerleader (Liz Allan), an Ivy League former cheerleader(Gwen Stacy), a hot cat-burglar (Black Cat),another Ivy Leaguer (Debra Whitman) and his one-time roommate (Carlie Cooper). He fucked up all of these relationships, just because he’s Spider-Man. Compare this to Superman, the Flashes, and pretty much any other hero who manages to maintain a relationship no matter what. Peter, not so much.

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He’s got haters AND his bitches don’t love him

What’s so great about “Spider-Man Tackles The Human Torch” is that it manages to establish just what isn’t heroic about Peter quite succinctly. The people don’t support him, he doesn’t get the girl, other heroes think of him as at best inconsequential and at worst, a pest. And what’s also great is that he acknowledges it. Acknowledgement can sometimes mean a snappy comeback to his detractors, and sometimes it can mean unwarranted aggression (as we see when he attacks Mr. Fantastic). Attributes like this is what made Spider-Man so resonant in the 60’s.

In 1965 Esquire had a college student poll that revealed that student radicals ranked Spider-Man and the Hulk alongside the likes of Bob Dylan and Che Guevara as their favorite revolutionary icons. What made such Spidey such a counter-culture hero was because his readership had the same frustrations he had. He was akin to a James Dean character, trying to fight against the ever-present enemy of society. He neither is accepted by others or accepts others himself, leading him to conflict even with those who don’t wish him harm. Teens had been dealing with sexual frustration and resentment towards authority for years, but this was one of the first superhero franchises that acknowledged it. Spidey’s “tackling” of the Human Torch (and later on the Fantastic Four)represented a confrontation with the “establishment”. Superheroes were meant to be wish fulfillment figures, but that also meant they were often aloof and unrelatable. Despite being young himself, the Human Torch and his allies are very much the detached authority figures that look down upon someone like Spidey. While the Four aren’t “villains” per se, they are the type of heroes “new age” characters like Spider-Man had to differentiate themselves from in order to connect with the sentiments of the audience. As such, conflicts like this helped to illustrate just why Spider-Man has continued to have an impact on several generations of youth.

For a more in-depth look at Spidey’s origin story:

Throwback Recap: Peter Parker from Amazing Fantasy to Amazing Spider-Man

For more posts on Marvel heroes:

Iron Man: Real American Hero

Iron Man 3 Review

Thor: The Dark World Review

The Lois Lane Effect

Journey of Peter Parker from Amazing Fantasy to Amazing Spider-Man

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Like many young comic fans, my favorite superhero used to be Spider-Man. And why not? He’s basically what Bumblebee was for Transformers; a kid character who was ‘radical’, flippant, and treated like shit by anyone over 30 years old. Just like your childhood! Go ahead and cry a little. Stan Lee intended for Spider-Man to be the ‘every-man/kid’ who would have more mundane challenges, like girls and money. And he more than succeeded in his efforts:from the very beginning of the series you “get” who Peter is. He accomplishes this initially by making his journey to heroism a multi-step process rather than an immediate change.

Anyone who’s even mildly familiar with the character of Spider-Man is probably pretty well versed with the basic origin story, with a few minor details being subject to change ( webbing,the nature of the spider, etc ), so my recapping of Spidey’s first appearance in Amazing Fantasy #15 will only focus on a few important bits.

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Unlike many other superheroes, the origin story puts emphasis on what shapes the character before he got powers rather than after. The first panel (above) establishes his complete lack of support from his peers. At one point he asks out a fellow student, who rebuffs him in favor of Flash Thompson, who’s conveniently standing right next to him. Afterwards he walks away sobbing, vowing to “show them one day”. As internet reviewer Linkara pointed out, he had all the makings of a school shooter. Despite the lack of subtlety, this kind of justifies why Parker, once receiving “great power”, doesn’t rush to help out any of the god awful assholes who occupy his Queens neighborhood.

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To make up for his bullying, Stan assures us that his Aunt May and Uncle Ben treat him really well (which isn’t at all tempting fate…).

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After getting powers and engaging in wrestling, he becomes a masked performer

This is  where the comic’s portrayal of his reaction to getting powers differs from most adaptations. In both film series, Peter is portrayed as immediately neglecting his Aunt and Uncle once he gets empowered, which serve as precursors to his inadvertent role in Uncle Ben’s death. It also makes Peter a little more guilt-ridden because his Uncle died while they were on somewhat bad terms. This makes perfect sense for a film, which doesn’t have the time for drawn out character development. A comic series does, however, so instead of Peter brushing off his Aunt and Uncle, he actually vows to help them out since they were the only ones that have been nice to him.

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Rather than turning into a selfish jerk, Peter stays the same. As established earlier, Peter Parker always wanted to show up his classmates, and getting his powers allowed him to act that out and get paid for it. In addition, he actually vows to help his family, with his powers. And yet, he’s still not a ‘true’ hero. In the rationale of the superhero genre, it isn’t enough that Pete doesn’t decide to become a criminal or even that he wants to help his family. He has to be the WORLD’S hero. Superheroes use their abilities for the sake of mankind and not just their friends and family. When he neglects to help his fellow man, it bites him in the ass when his Uncle Ben is killed. The problems of the world, even trivial ones, will eventually affect him in a local sphere. This becomes a recurring theme in Peter’s hilariously sad life.

Now you would think that after all of that tragedy Peter would see the light of heroism and become the hero he was meant to be. You would be wrong. The follow up story has Peter lamenting his Uncle’s death…then promptly going back to being an entertainer. When you think about it, this is a perfectly reasonable reaction. Ok sure, Uncle Ben is dead, but that doesn’t really warrant being a superhero in itself. First off, his Uncle Ben dying from the same mugger that he let go is an event so contrived that no sane person would really take much of a “lesson” from it.

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THE MORE YOU KNOW==X

Secondly, he still has much more pressing matters to worry about, particularly losing a SUBSTANTIAL amount of income due to his surrogate father dying. He actually considers becoming a thief in order to pay for bills, but quickly dismisses it. He doesn’t dismiss it for moral reasons, he just couldn’t stand hurting his Aunt May by getting arrested. We see here that Peter is still relatively self-centered compared to most superheroes at this point. He’s still thinking only locally. The ‘Call To Adventure’ has yet to be received by Peter, but he is forced to move closer to heroism by circumstance. What keeps Peter from resuming his career in show business is the arrival of probably the greatest non-powered antagonist in comics: J. Jonah Jameson.

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In true Jameson fashion, he begins his crusade against Spider-Man based on the perceived threat of children imitating his crime-fighting and acrobatics. Yes Jameson, god forbid children get interested in FUCKING GYMNASTICS. Jameson is basically the minister from Footloose. He manages to build up enough vitriol to get Spider-Man banned from performing. People really don’t like Peter Parker. But opportunity arises for young Peter: Jameson’s astronaut son is having a test of a space ship thing in Queens for some reason.

While Peter is in attendance, the shuttle thing malfunctions, causing Peter to intervene. Strangely, no one wants a masked teenager on a million dollar spacecraft, to which Spidey responds…

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…and then proceeds to save the astronaut.

His first emotion when getting out was elation. Mind you, it wasn’t because he just saved a man’s life, it was because he’s sure Jameson won’t write negative editorials about him anymore. Though he did save Jameson, it was more of a knee-jerk reaction, rather than proactive heroism. Hell, his statement afterwards makes it plausible that he was GLAD the thing malfunctioned since it meant he can look like a hero and continue his entertainment career. Once again, Peter is still thinking about his own problems. Of course, Jameson not only doesn’t take back his slander, he actually accuses him of SABOTAGING the module in the first place. That guy really is an asshole.

The success of Amazing Fantasy #15 led to Marvel deciding to give Spider-Man his own series, The Amazing Spider-ManGiven that the character is now supporting his own series, one would assume that in the next story, he will truly become a proper superhero and fight evil. And you would be wrong again! He fights Marvel’s greatest heroes at the time, The Fantastic Four!

Apparently spiders lived in his armpits

Apparently spiders lived in his armpits

Now granted, covers like this were pretty common back in the day, because nothing made a kid plunk down a dime faster than heroes fighting each other. Most of the time, some one was brainwashed or whatever, but this time, Spidey ACTUALLY picked a fight with the Fantastic Four. Thinking it was a great idea to just break into their house (as many of us do) he pries open a window and steps right in like Brotherman from Martin (sorry for that reference, white people).

They of course attempt to beat his ass, but he manages to evade and out fight them for just long enough before Mr. Fantastic actually questions why the hell he broke in. His answer? He wants to join the team, which they accept. Except Spidey didn’t realize that no one gets paid to be in their club. He promptly leaves. Our hero!

For a few issues this is the usual manner of conflict Spidey has, he tries to do something in his personal life and shit just kind of happens around him. He’s no hero, he’s just a victim of circumstance. As you see in the green section of the cover, Spidey has his first encounter with a super-villain, the Chameleon, who impersonates him and frames him for various crimes.

The Chameleon then calls the gullible Spidey for a job so that he can take the fall. Thus conflict. In the next issue, Peter begins a photography career, focusing on the crime beat, which isn’t weird at all for a high school student. Seeing the Daily Bugle reward for pictures of a jewelry thief known as the Vulture ( i’m sensing an animal theme here ), he dons his outfit and catches the bird in the act, only to be knocked out by him. He of course recovers, and desires more pictures. And revenge! Thus conflict. In the accompanying story, aliens appear. Thus conflict.

This guy knew it all along

This guy knew it all along

Now during this issue, Spidey makes a few steps in the right direction. After taking the first couple of pictures of Vulture, he realizes that he actually wants to be Spider-Man. And not just because he can get easy money doing it, he just finds it fun. Granted, he still doesn’t have much heroic motivation, he just likes the thrill of it.

This transition deconstructs the usual unambiguous altruism of super-heroics: as Captain Stacy points out in the The Amazing SpiderMan (2012), nothing about Spidey’s modus operandi is heroic. He goes around, beats up low end criminals, and is justifiably disliked by the people because of his carelessness. This is a guy who broke into someone’s home just to get a job and interfered in a robbery for some pictures. Stacy’s comments could serve as an indictment of ALL masked heroes, and the genre in general. Should the people, and us an audience, admire those who assert their power for their own glory? Shouldn’t a hero be more than that? Many authors as of late have posed that question. Over at DC, Superman: Grounded (2010-2011) featured the titular hero literally walking across America, committing acts of heroism such as fixing a man’s car and shutting down a drug lab. The goal of the series was to have Superman attempt to connect with the people he saves everyday in order to remind himself why he does what he does. While Spidey isn’t nearly as ‘above’ normal people as Superman, he needed a humbling in order to become akin to heroes like Superman.

In many ways, superheroes are like mythical heroes. As such, one can only become a true hero by accomplishing godly feats of skill and bravery. Often these challenges take on the form of dread monsters. Hercules had the the three-headed hell-hound Cerberus, Theseus had the horned hybrid Minotaur, and Spider-Man had…Doctor Octopus.

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Alright,alright; I know he isn’t exactly Doomsday, but in context, Doctor Octopus was a pretty big deal. He the first enemy to be as strong and as smart as Spider-Man. Up until this point, Spidey had fought regular criminals, a guy who was really good with masks, 5-foot tall aliens,and an octogenerian with wings. I guess we could count “fighting” the Fantastic Four but it’s pretty clear during the brawl that no one is really endeavoring to kill the kid, just stop him. The fact is Spidey still has not been vetted in true combat. He even reflects on this himself in the beginning of the issue, stating that he “wished he could have a true test of his skills”. And boy does he eat those words. The good Doctor, while working on a nuclear experiment, nukes himself, giving him control over the tentacles which give him his moniker. Now having a severe case of nuclear brain crazy, he decides to take over the hospital for some reason and shake it’s staff incessantly. The cad! Because no one else can take care of him ( since there sure aren’t any other heroes in New York ), Spidey decides to intervene, thinking it will be cakewalk. It isn’t.

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Despite his silly appearance, Ock overwhelms him with surprising speed and strength and he’s beaten into unconsciousness. Ock mocks Spidey’s feeble power and tosses him casually out the window. Having suffered his first loss has an extreme effect on him. What he thought would be a merry life of beating up muggers has turned into something that could result in death. In Campbellian narrative, Ock would probably be referred to as his “Threshold Guardian”: he is the first real obstacle to Spider-Man’s status as a superhero. TV Tropes defines the Threshold Guardian as one who “puts the hero in a position where he must make a decision that reflects a sincere commitment to the task at hand, by providing a threat or bar to progress that the hero must specifically choose to overcome”. Everything else leading up to this point has been circumstantial; Peter hasn’t made a true commitment to heroism. His initial choice is to fold rather than challenge Ock again. He decides to quit being Spider-Man ( a recurring event in the character’s history ), even going as far to tell Jameson that he can’t provide any more photos. He continues on his sob stroll until he hears a rousing speech from a very unlikely source: The Human Torch ( that guy he tried to beat up a few issues ago ). Having been contacted by the authorities to take down Doc Ock, who has now taken over the entire U.S. Atomic Research Center, he decides to visit Peter’s high school since he’s too sick to fight immediately anyway ( once again, why no one didn’t contact the SEVERAL other active heroes in New York is beyond me ).

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Despite the triteness of the Torch’s “rousing speech’, it still works well in the context of Peter’s journey so far. At this point in Marvel, Fantastic Four was by far the highest selling property and in-universe, they were Earth’s greatest heroes. Having a visit from Johnny Storm was like having a visit from JFK. As such, Peter takes whatever the Torch said as invaluable nuggets of wisdom. In addition, this brings Peter’s journey full circle back to the first issue; at first he rejected the call to heroism the Fantastic Four offered him, which meant he wasn’t ready for it. Having delved further into being a superhero, he now sees the path the Four represent and is ready to jump at the call despite knowing the dangers. Facing an even greater threat than before, Spidey heads to the Atomic Research Center to defeat Dr. Octopus. While the Doctor manages to put up an immense fight using atomic weapons and his arms, Spidey finally manages to put him down with one knockout blow (the first in a loooong series).

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Afterwards, Spidey thanks Johnny for his unintended help and swings away. From then on, Spider-Man’s heroism was no longer ambiguious. He still had the financial and social problems that plagued him before he got his powers, but he didn’t let them take priority over his self-appointed duty as a hero. Peter Parker became an idealized everyman, someone who had the same struggles you and I did, but always did what was right.

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Well, at least most of the time…

For more posts on Spidey and Marvel Comics:

Spidey Tackles The Torch: Spider-Man as an Anti-Hero

Iron Man: Real American Hero

Iron Man 3 Review

Thor: The Dark World Review

The Lois Lane Effect