Leicester City 5 Manchester United 3

Deep breath.

The temptation is to scream, to fling things at other, more robust, things, to swear, to weep, to indulge in an undignified hyperbolic expression of excess emotion.  Well, you know, I did some of that on Sunday afternoon.  If Sir Alex Ferguson’s legendary comment about football holds true, the King Power Stadium is a portal to a hell not just bloody but drenched in gore, scorching hot and staffed by demons whose principal delight lies in tormenting its denizens with a tantalising mirage of footballing competence, which swiftly evaporates to reveal the blasted wasteland of inadequacy, disorganization and miscommunication underneath.  During the second half on Sunday, United didn’t so much lose the plot as stick it on a rocket and shoot it into the nearest black hole.  Doing an analysis of this mess may well involve passing through an event horizon of madness, but I’ll give it a shot…

You won't catch this...

You won’t catch this…

“That Di Maria chap’s a bit special, isn’t he?”

Oh, Lord, yes.  He looks good value for his ludicrous price tag.  The skill required to conceive and then execute United’s second goal is something we’ve not seen in United colours for a long while.  He’s amazing and by far the most exciting of United’s summer acquisitions.  His work rate is excellent and his ability to see and play balls whose angles suggest he has more than a passing familiarity with Lovecraftian (non-Euclidean) geometry makes him a stupidly exciting player to watch.  United generally looked good going forward and it was nice to see van Persie’s name on the scoresheet, but Di Maria is something special.  I actually felt a bit embarrassed for him given the way the match panned out.  No one that skilful deserves to have even a tangential role in Sunday’s debacle.

“That Vardy chap’s a bit special, isn’t he?”

His role in that softest of penalties notwithstanding, Leicester’s £1 million buy from Fleetwood Town has pace to burn and a considerable amount of tenacity and skill.  While our defence helped him out quite a bit (more of which in a moment), the relentless pressure he put our back line under during the second half was frightening.  He had a hand in four of Leicester’s goals and scored the other one – a truly remarkable performance.  His cross for Leicester’s first was, as much as I hate to admit it, a thing of beauty, as, for that matter, was Ulloa’s header.

Too good for United on the day.

Too good for United on the day.

“Clattenburg’s a… [INSERT EXPLETIVE HERE].”

Yeah, well, he is.  Vardy fouled Rafael in the lead up to the penalty decision and the penalty itself was very soft.  It’s also fair to say that that pair of poor decisions constituted the turning point of the game.  That said, they didn’t have to.  If Rafael hadn’t decided to take the law into his own hands, if the United defence hadn’t (presumably fuelled by a sense of aggrieved entitlement) fallen apart under the renewed Leicester pressure engendered by the penalty, if our players hadn’t suddenly forgotten how to pass to one another – then we might have had a chance to come out of the game with at least a point and some sense of dignity intact.  Instead, we lost all sense of team cohesion and tactical awareness, culminating in Rojo selling Blackett short and the hapless youngster being rightly sent off for bringing down Vardy in the penalty area.  When decisions went against them, the United teams of the past generally found a way to channel that sense of injustice into something positive.  On Sunday, the team showed a startling mental fragility, something I hope is merely a by-product of so many new signings being embedded into the team.  A key factor for me is the lack of leadership in the heart of the defence.  Arguably, Evans’ injury really didn’t help in this regard and Jones’ longer term absence is really hurting us.  Prior to the international break, he was probably our best player.  It’s hard to believe he would make some of the mistakes made on Sunday.

That... doesn't look good, does it?

That… doesn’t look good, does it?

All of the above should not take away from the incredible commitment of the Leicester players and, for that matter, the King Power crowd.  They made it hard for United to play once the penalty went in and Leicester played with considerable pace and skill.  United’s response to that second half setback was simply not up to scratch, though.  According to recent reports, United players conducted an hour long inquest into the game with RVP admitting that the mistakes that led to the goals were not merely ones of defence.  Well, good, but we’ve got West Ham tomorrow and no right-sided central defenders.  To say I’m apprehensive would be something of an understatement…

Aquaman (New 52) issue 1 – Review

Aquaman has never been a hero whose solo adventures have particularly appealed to me.  His appearances in various incarnations of the Justice League have been variable.  At times, his character’s been bland; at others, he’s been spiky, almost adversarial, although, even when he was sporting a hook, long hair and a beard, he still wasn’t as effortlessly arrogant as Marvel’s Namor.  Despite having some cool moments in, for example, Grant Morrison’s JLA run, he was never someone whose personal story I was invested in.  The New 52, with its controversial re-boot, provides a useful opportunity to delve deeper into the character, though, and the name of Geoff Johns as writer of this first issue is enough to… ahem… whet my appetite.  But, enough of the rubbish water puns.  Let’s see if the issue’s worth the effort.

Well, yes, it is.  For one thing, the art’s pencilled by Ivan Reis whose work I’ve enjoyed in various iterations of the Green Lantern series.  What’s even better, though, is Johns’ script, which systematically takes all the misconceptions a casual reader like me might have about the character and addresses them head on, even, in the process, making me feel a little guilty for having them in the first place.

The story is bookended by the introduction of a race of deep sea monsters who I assume are going to be the main bad guys of this first story arc.  The monsters look suitably scary (think fluke man from that X-Files episode) and their introduction is suitably dramatic – and brief.  The majority of the issue is a metatextual manifesto, an elegantly and economically told examination of the character and a mild rebuke to readers who haven’t given him a chance before.  Such is Johns’ power as a writer that he managed to make me feel more for Aquaman in this single issue than I have in over thirty years (on and off) of encountering him in other titles.

He really is quite impressive, you know...

He really is quite impressive, you know…

We start with Aquaman foiling a bank heist (and in some style too!) which leads to assumption number 1.

Aquaman’s only interested in marine issues.

Erm… no.  Evidently not.  The message here is clear.  Aquaman’s a bona fide superhero and he does what all the other superheroes do: stop crime, punish wrongdoers, help people – whether they’re in the water or not.  Ivan Reis’ artwork not only does a great job of getting across just how strong Aquaman is here, but also how very uncomfortable he is dealing with ordinary people (in this case the cops who’ve been chasing the aforementioned robbers).  But, then, can we blame him when they do stupid things like ask him whether he now needs a glass of water?  (Because Aquaman just loves water, right?)

Shooting him will only annoy him.  You have been warned...

Shooting him will only annoy him. You have been warned…

We then get a rather uncomfortable protracted scene in a sea shore diner.  The waitress is shocked when Aquaman orders fish and chips.  (Assumption number 2: Aquaman loves all fish to the extent that he won’t eat them.  Apparently not true.  Assumption number 3: Aquaman ‘talks’ to fish.  Also not true – fish brains are “too primitive to hold a conversation”.  Dolphins, however, are a different matter.)  There’s a nicely written brittle awkwardness to the conversations between Aquaman and the waitress and Aquaman and the blogger who starts an impromptu interview with him while he’s waiting for his order to arrive.  Johns writes Aquaman as polite but guarded.  He’s well aware of his status as “nobody’s favourite superhero”.  Johns’ interspersing of the memories that act as a counterpoint to his often curt answers builds up a considerable amount of sympathy for a character traditionally seen as cold and distant.

It’s after the restaurant conversation that we see Arthur Curry with his guard down in a quite beautifully written and drawn meeting with his wife Mera.  Starting with him remembering his childhood with his father, the melancholy mood (powerfully evoked by the artwork including a muted colour palette from Rod Reis) is lifted by Mera’s dramatic appearance and an elegantly scripted (and drawn) conversation ensues, in which, perhaps surprisingly given his earlier encounters with the surface world, he announces his decision to leave Atlantis and settle down on the surface.

Aquaman's also a romantic chap.  Awww...

Aquaman’s also a romantic chap. Awww…

The issue ends with a three-page sequence that draws on a number of established horror tropes to good effect.  Aquaman may have decided to shun the underwater world of Atlantis but the sea isn’t finished with him just yet.

All in all, this is close to the perfect debut issue.  Johns’ pacing (which I’ve complained about elsewhere in relation to Justice League) is here faultless: the prologue is intriguing and ominous; the introduction of Aquaman is dynamic and exciting; the restaurant scene is subtly and cleverly done (the treasure coins seen in one of Aquaman’s memories provide payment – and tip – for the waitress), giving us a clear sense of Aquaman’s character; the meeting with Mera is touching and gives us some important overall plot information; and then we’re back to ominous (and downright disturbing) horror action at the end.  It’s a satisfying and unexpectedly touching read and a powerful riposte to anyone who has dismissed or belittled the character before.  (Like me, then!)  Highly recommended.

Manchester United 4 QPR 0

One of the unexpectedly pleasant things about not having European football to watch/listen to this season is that there really isn’t all that much urgency to get some kind of blog up after each match.  Of course, I can’t pretend that I don’t want us to play European football ever again, but not seeing your team struggle to beat a team from Bulgaria who are playing in the CL for the first time or concede to Bayern in the last minute or draw against an unexpectedly organized Schalke side or lose to Dortmund is actually rather pleasant.  Jeering from the sidelines is not the most dignified of activities, but it is something.

And it’s always nice when your team plays well.  Even if it is only against QPR, more of which in a moment.

United on Sunday were a substantially different side to the last time I saw them against Burnley, not just in terms of personnel but also in terms of attitude, vision and sheer desire.  It was all rather thrilling – all the more so when you consider that van Gaal handed debuts to Rojo, Blind and (later) Falcao, as well as a home debut to Di Maria.  The potential for these big signings to look unfamiliar with one another was significant, but turned out to be unrealized as the two debutants and Di Maria looked comfortable on the ball and showed signs of a strong understanding with their team mates.  All of them, it turned out, proved themselves to be intelligent, skilful players.  Of course, in calling Di Maria ‘intelligent’ and ‘skilful’, I’m damning the Argentinian with faint praise.  At times, his pace was electric and his vision verged on divine.  While a few misplaced passes and the occasional poor first touch mean I can’t hail his home debut as perfect, his pace and presence in midfield, his hunger for the ball (one of his most impressive moments was winning and then shepherding the ball out of defence, harassed by two QPR players, the ball seemingly stuck to his boot by a piece of invisible elastic) and his ability to play an inventive ‘killer’ pass at just the right time (he delayed playing the Mata ball until he was sure the Spaniard was onside) suggest we’ve got something very special here.

"This scoring thing's lots of fun, isn't it?"

“This scoring thing’s lots of fun, isn’t it?”

Even if it was only against QPR.

Then there’s Blind.  The unfeasibly handsome Dutchman set up shop just in front of the back four with a range of satisfyingly quick, uncomplicated passes and moments of quick-witted anticipation on display.  His passing accuracy of 95.5% is impressive, but doesn’t really tell the full story. Most of those passes were short and straightforward, true, but they tended to release more dynamic and creative players very quickly.  Throughout the match there was a growing sense that here was a player whose reading of the game was excellent and whose ability to influence its outcome was potentially huge.  It was a very disciplined performance too.  He resisted the urge to maraud forward with Herrera and Di Maria, his first shot (a blistering swerving 25 yarder) coming in the 85th minute.  There are caveats, though.  His mind may be quick but his legs aren’t – or at least not as quick as those of some of the players he’s going to be up against elsewhere in the league.  There is, nevertheless, a greater sense of stability and purpose when he’s on the ball.  A great debut.

Not only is he pretty but he can pass a ball very well, too.  Fantastic!

Not only is he pretty but he can pass a ball very well, too. Fantastic!

Even if it was only against QPR.

Those goals were good, though, weren’t they?  Di Maria’s flukey free kick was the footballing equivalent of an expertly pitched knuckleball, its flight deceiving everyone and leaving Rob Green uncertain as to which way to dive until it was far too late.  Di Maria’s incisive foray into the QPR penalty area and his pass to Rooney should have been rewarded with a goal and Rooney’s quick recovery after his initial shot was blocked ensured Di Maria’s hard work wasn’t wasted.  Herrera’s strike was deliciously vicious.  And the Spaniard returned the favour just before half-term combining nicely with Mata before putting Rooney through on the edge of the penalty area.  The QPR defence’s startlingly accurate impression of a bunch of random people who had got together to indulge their newfound passion for treacle-wading certainly helped matters, but it was a nice goal all the same.  Mata’s goal in the second half was the result of a cross/pass/shot from Di Maria that I’ve seen described as a ‘shank’ but I’d much rather prefer to describe as a deliberate (and ultimately successful) attempt to penetrate the QPR defence by slicing the ball behind most of the defenders and steering it more or less perfectly to Mata’s feet.  I’m willing to concede that it was a fluke, but I strongly suspect it wasn’t.  If he does something similar in the next few matches, I guess we’ll know for sure.

Other items of interest include Rojo looking lively down a left hand side that was meant to be Luke Shaw’s patch, Robin van Persie selflessly trying to play in Falcao for a goal even after the Colombian spurned the chance to do something similar for RVP and Tyler Blackett looking increasingly comfortable on the ball as the match progressed.

This doesn’t mean that I’m going to get carried away.  The miscommunication between Rojo and DeGea that almost let in Phillips would have been hilarious if it hadn’t been so alarming – and should have been punished by the QPR striker who hit the ball tamely enough for Evans to get back and clear.  QPR’s best player by a country mile (Armand Traore) only came onto the pitch when the game was arguably already lost, but he caused problems for the United defence and, for all our attacking verve and guile, the whiff of vulnerability still clings to the back line.

And it was only QPR…

True.  Very true.  Tomorrow’s match at Leicester will be a sterner test, as will the home game against Everton on 5th October.  But this was a start – and a very good one.  United played with passion, hunger, invention and pace.  It was exhilarating to watch and an early indication of a hopefully more sustained period of recovery.  Time will, as always, tell, but I for one am encouraged by last week’s result.

Even if it was only QPR.

Transfer musings

radamel-falcao_1id69cpckhg6l1bmg47wph1dx9

Well, that was interesting.  And, if truth be told, more than a little traumatic.  For a club that, under Ferguson, traditionally did its business early on in the transfer window, Monday was an exceptionally frenetic day: Blind confirmed, Falcao (!) brought in on loan, Hernandez loaned to Real and Welbeck shuffled off to Arsenal.  Factor in the offloading of Kagawa at the weekend and the (very) late loaning of Cleverley the morning after the transfer window officially closed (no, I don’t understand it either, but apparently you can bend the rules a bit if you ask the FA very very nicely) and you’ve got a ridiculous amount of transfer activity.  Oh, and I forgot to mention Powell and Lawrence to Leicester, too!  Craaaazy!

There has, predictably, been a lot of speculation and comment about United’s business in the transfer season, some of it considered and thoughtful and some of it downright silly.  Below, I look at some of the more prominent comments and offer some thoughts of my own…

“United don’t need Falcao.”

This is a slightly more complicated statement than first appears.  It implies a couple of things – firstly, that what United need more urgently is something else (a decent centre back and a box-to-box or holding midfielder, depending on who you listen to) and secondly, that United have a wealth of attacking talent at their disposal.  While the first is arguably true, the second is most definitely not.  Anyone who’s seen United in the league this season will readily admit that the team is lacking something up front.  This seems absurd given that we’ve been playing with RVP, Rooney and Mata as our attacking spearhead but none of them, the two goals shared between them notwithstanding, have looked particularly threatening, nor have any of them displayed the ability to carve defences open and truly terrorize the opposition in the same way that, say, Diego Costa has done for Chelsea.  In that sense, the loan signing of Falcao makes a great deal of sense.  He likes to score does our Radamel. (And he is ours – at least for the next nine months or so.)

This doesn’t mean that all’s fine in other areas of the pitch.  But the acquisitions of Blind, Rojo, Herrera and Shaw mean that we’ve got more quality and depth in defence and midfield and there are strong indications that the club will strengthen again in the January window, particularly if Strootman recovers well from his knee injury.

“United’s identity is broken”

This rather odd statement from Mike Phelan about Welbeck’s transfer to Arsenal made me smile, to be honest.  The argument is that, in ditching Welbeck and embracing Falcao, United are somehow betraying a core value of the club and are dispensing with a commitment to youth which distinguishes United from other, more mercenary, clubs.  To which I have only two words to say, really: Garry. Birtles.

Birtles cost United £1.2 million in 1980.  It took him 30 games to score his first goal.

Birtles cost United £1.2 million in 1980. It took him 30 games to score his first goal.

Oh, alright, then.  Here’s a more considered response…

United have never been averse to splashing considerable amounts of cash around (sometimes to dramatic and at other times to comedic effect) and it’s stupid to pretend otherwise.  The notion that United have this unending conveyor belt of talent is one of those nice myths United fans used to tell themselves in the 90s when the class of ’92 was strutting its stuff on football pitches up and down the country.  But, even then, United were spending – £6 million plus Keith Gillespie for Andy Cole, £12.6 million for Dwight Yorke, £3.5 million for (gulp!) Karel Poborsky to name just three.  Yes, Welbeck is a Mancunian and a United fan, but the club doesn’t owe him anything and his departure to Arsenal is no more than business as usual for a club who offloads its academy graduates far more regularly than it keeps them.  (Two of them were playing for Burnley on Saturday afternoon.)  Some net reports speculate that Welbeck had been told that, with the addition of Falcao, he would effectively be United’s fifth choice striker behind RVP, Rooney, Falcao and promising youngster James Wilson.  If that’s true, Phelan moaning that 23 year old Welbeck being replaced by 19 year old Wilson becomes, well, just a bit ironic, really.

“Where does Falcao fit?”

There’s no getting away from the fact that LVG has just bought (sorry, ‘loaned’) himself a selection headache.  Rooney being captain complicates things a little.  He could drop into midfield but his less than wonderful passing suggests that wouldn’t help the team, particularly when Herrera, Blind and possibly Di Maria are better options.  More likely he’ll either stay up front with the new boy (and RVP will end up on the bench) or he’ll play behind the front two and Mata will make way for him.  Whatever happens, there’ll be some expensive talent left simmering on the bench.  (I’m assuming here that LVG will stick with his 5-3-2 formation.)  That said, there are a handful of managers in the world who are quite prepared to drop a star player for the good of the team and I’d imagine LVG is one of them.  Whatever happens, this season is going to be very interesting.  (Chelsea, though, will still win the title.)

As I write, Argentina has just beaten world champions Germany 4-2 on their home soil.  Angel Di Maria took a hand in creating three of the goals and scored the fourth.  Lovely.  :)  (Oh, and Rooney scored a penalty for England against Norway.  It was a very nice penalty, too.  Apparently.)

M K Dons 4 – 0 Manchester United

I’m not entirely sure what Angel Di Maria is thinking at the moment, but, if his open letter to Real Madrid fans is any indication, he’s currently got at least half an eye on a return to the Bernabeu if his Manchester adventure doesn’t work out.  And who can blame him?  In the context of yesterday’s English record (£59.7 million) signing of Di Maria, last night’s 4-0 thrashing from the M K Dons takes on a distinctly surreal, almost perverse, air.

There’s plenty of reaction on the internet today about the result so I thought I’d offer my perspective as a lifelong United fan who’s generally been feeling very positive about the appointment of Louis van Gaal as United manager and yet been feeling equally frustrated with our failure so far to address the glaring problems in defence and central midfield, more of which in a moment.

“It’s only the League Cup.”

I’ve seen a fair bit of comment this morning pointing out that last night’s result doesn’t matter all that much in the grand scheme of things as the League Cup is the least of the domestic trophies United are capable of winning.  In that sense, van Gaal’s fielding of an under-strength team is carrying on a tradition established by SAF in the 90s and we shouldn’t be too bothered about last night’s result.  Well, the disdain shown to the League Cup over the years has never struck me as particularly clever and it makes even less sense now that United don’t have European competition to preoccupy them.  This is a competition that last year David Moyes took seriously enough to earn a semi-final place against Sunderland.  Would he still have been sacked if he’d successfully negotiated that tie and the final that followed it?  I don’t know but it would surely have bought him more time and, perhaps more importantly, it would have provided some impetus to an under-performing team.  There is a strong case to be made that LVG should have put out the strongest team possible.  A win is a win at the end of the day (whereas a loss – particularly like this one – is a humiliation).  That said, LVG’s post-match comments suggest he had concerns about fielding a substantially similar side to the one that drew against Sunderland just 48 hours after that game.  Fair enough, I guess – and it’s also important to remember that…

“They were only kids.”

Well, no, they weren’t, were they?  That was our first choice goalkeeper the Dons put four goals past.  There was a first team regular ‘marshalling’ our defence.  There were three World Cup players up front.  Admittedly, Anderson is never going to set the world on fire, but he was a part of the team that thrashed Arsenal 8-2 three years ago.  Van Gaal’s selection was not a team of callow youth.  The injury to Kagawa was unfortunate (and Januzaj as a replacement was not ideal), but the team should have had enough quality to see off a League One side, albeit one who were very much up for the fight.

“LVG knew what he was doing.”

Yeah, I think he did.  Although what you think he knew he was doing and what I think he knew he was doing may be two different things.  Some comments I’ve seen have suggested that last night’s match was a deliberate attempt to send a ‘message’ to the board and chief executive Ed Woodward that, even after the capture of Di Maria, the team needs strengthening in key areas.  This strikes me as unpersuasive for a couple of reasons.  Firstly, the United hierarchy already know where they need to strengthen and, as the signing of Di Maria demonstrates, they’re not afraid of splashing some cash around.  Secondly, LVG just doesn’t strike me as the kind of manager to effectively throw a game just to prove a point.  Rather, when he says that he wants to be fair to the existing players, I believe he’s being scrupulously (painfully) honest – even if that means giving a start to (gulp!) Anderson.  Well, if he wants to see who will fit into his ‘philosophy’, last night hasn’t been a total loss.  It’s difficult to believe that Anderson will start a game for United again and Hernandez is looking increasingly surplus to requirements, for a start.  (If last night also puts paid to the notion that Januzaj can act as a central midfielder, then that will also be an admittedly very thin silver lining.)  But these are the most meagre of consolations.

“The confidence has eroded…”

Well, quite.  One of the notable things about both last night and the Sunderland game was that, in both games, there were some very pleasing passages of fluid and quick passing, but, once the opposition scored, that fluidity vanished like mist before the morning sun.  Last night was particularly poor.  There was no leadership on the pitch, but then, when your captain’s responsible for your opponents’ first goal, that’s perhaps not surprising.  One thing that was revealed last night is that, not only do we need players of skill, creativity and pace, but we also need players with commitment, passion and leadership.  Great.

All of this shouldn’t take away from M K Dons’ performance which was committed, skilful and fast-paced – all of the things that United weren’t.  They were good value for their win and, Dave Martin’s late saves notwithstanding, we simply weren’t good enough to merit even a consolation goal.

So where does this leave Louis van Gaal and his philosophical project?  Well, right back where we were on Sunday afternoon, really.  He’s devised a system to get the best out of a ‘superstar’ forward three of Rooney, RVP and Mata but, with injuries to Carrick and Herrera (and the understandable, but nevertheless worrying, decline of Fletcher), there’s no creativity or incisiveness to supply the front lines.  Add to that a threadbare back five and you end up with a result like an unsatisfactory draw against Sunderland or here, without the class of Rooney et al, a hideously embarrassing performance against lower league opposition.  Am I happy?  Crikey, no!  Am I ready to panic?  Not just yet.  And not for a while, to be honest.

And, unlike Steve Claridge, I’m also not too bothered by LVG signing autographs at the end of the match.   That’s not being arrogant; it’s just not being a dick to people who’ve asked you for your autograph.  Mind you, his claim that he wasn’t shocked by the result is somewhat belied by this image (thank you, Daily Telegraph) …

Not shocked.  Riiiiight.

Not shocked. Riiiiight.

Clearly, United still need to adjust to a new way of playing.  The acquisition of a genuinely quick and skilful midfielder in Di Maria is exciting, but we also need to buy some quality in defence and midfield.  Vidal and Blind would do nicely, but whoever comes in, they’ll need to show the kind of commitment and passion that was glaringly absent last night.

 

Gove in vast majority of teachers ‘bad’ claim

GovepicEver wondered how many bad teachers there are in the UK’s state schools?  Well, wonder no more, because no less a personage than the Secretary of State for Education himself has given a definitive answer – and it might be a few more than you think.

 

The moment of revelation came during a Newsnight interview last night (Wednesday 9th July – it’s still up on the BBC iPlayer at time of writing; the interview in question is about 25 minutes in) when, in the context of a piece on today’s strike action by NUT, Unite, GMB and other union members, the interviewer pointed out that, according to a recent poll, just 16% of teachers supported Gove’s reforms of the education system.  Gove’s riposte after spluttering that he wasn’t sure about the accuracy of the poll (ironic really considering what he was about to say) was to point out that actually ‘outstanding teachers and head teachers’ supported his reforms.  The reporter asked if that meant that only ‘bad teachers’ opposed them, to which Gove responded unequivocally (unusually for a politician) ‘yes’.

 

So there you have it.  If you support Gove’s wholesale dismantling of the state education system, you’re good.  If you oppose it, you’re bad.  Nice to see such a nuanced, thoughtful response from a man with such massive responsibility.  If Gove is right and those 84% of teachers who don’t support him are the bad ones, then the number of bad teachers in Britain’s schools is approximately 367,920 (based on the latest figures available from the DoE that say, as of November 2011 there are 438,000 full time teachers in the nation’s schools).  That’s a lot of capability proceedings right there.  Good job I’m in a union, eh?

Slings and Arrows – The Outrageous Fortunes of Peter Parker (Amazing Spider-Man #4)

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged comics and I’ve been reading a few over half-term.  Here are some thoughts on 1963’s Amazing Spider-Man #4

Spider-man is, undoubtedly, a cool character.  Web-slinging, enhanced agility, enhanced strength, a handy early warning system – that’s an impressive power set right there.  But, the genius of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s creation is not so much the superpowers, but the character of Peter Parker himself.   Handing all that power to an admittedly clever but still inexperienced teenager is Lee’s masterstroke and issue 4 is a rather wonderful example of that.  Having defeated the Chameleon, Doctor Octopus, the Vulture and the Tinkerer in previous issues, this issue sees the introduction of the Sandman and the pressure on poor Peter is ramped up several notches.

Amazing Spiderman 4 cover re-sized

The first thing to note is that cover.  Unusually, it’s divided up into four main images which sort of ‘spoil’ the first encounter between Sandman and Spidey.  Spidey tries to hit Sandman and can’t because, well, he’s made of sand and he can vary the way his sand particles stick together to make them looser or more densely packed.  Together with his shape-changing powers, this makes Sandman a pretty impressive opponent.

Readers who want to get straight to the Spidey v Sandman action will have to wait a couple of pages, though, because first we get an interesting little encounter between Spider-man and a group of low-life thugs who are about to rob a jewellery store.  The key phrase there being ‘about to’.  Because the crooks haven’t actually entered the store when Spidey catches them, they’ve not technically committed a crime and Spidey is… ahem… amazed when it is they who are first to call for the cops.  While the cop is largely sympathetic to Spidey, he can’t arrest them and Spidey has to make good his escape.  On the way home, he calls into J Jonah Jameson’s empty office and leaves a sticky ‘present’ for him in his office before spotting some police cars speeding to the scene of a crime and deciding to follow them.

There’s a couple of things to say here. The first is that Lee and Ditko are determined not to make this superhero lark plain sailing for Spidey.  These stories are light years away from, say, what Lee and Kirby do on Fantastic Four.  In Fantastic Four the super group enjoys a certain celebrity status with the public and the team’s adventures may well involve interstellar travel or journeys into the past.  Spider-man occupies a much more ambiguous middle ground in public opinion and his adventures are rooted much more firmly in the New York of the early 60s.  To show villains knowing the law better than the superhero whose name adorns the front of the comic is relatively bold stuff from Stan Lee and Steve Ditko.  Similarly Spidey’s fairly petty reaction to J Jonah Jameson is perfectly understandable and, while it does lead to one of the issue’s (intentionally) funnier moments, it also highlights Spidey’s fallibility and frustration.  It’s that very human reaction to the pressures he’s under that made the comic so successful in the 60s and contributes to the character’s ongoing appeal today.

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The encounter with the would-be jewellery thieves is small beer, however, compared to the threat posed by the Sandman himself.  The first encounter plays out pretty much as trailed by the cover.  Sandman can’t be hit or captured and his ‘waist punch’ is enough to send Spidey flying and, somehow, tear his mask rendering his secret identity not so secret.  (It is possible, I suppose, that, having been subject to one of the most bizarre special attacks in comics history, Spidey clawed his mask off his face all by himself in shame or horror.)  In any event, there then follows probably the most pathetic sequence of events I’ve ever seen in a Spidey book.  While the TV news anchorman handily fills the reader in with details about Sandman’s origin, Peter Parker has to sew his own mask while deflecting interest in his general well-being from Aunt May.  I’ve said ‘pathetic’, but, from another perspective, this section is comics gold.  You can’t, after all, get much more down to earth than a superhero having to stay in his bedroom pretending to be ill, while his nemesis du jour gets away with robbing a bank, can you?

The comic’s denouement is sheer demented genius.  Desperate to get away from the pursuing cops, Sandman takes refuge in Peter’s high school.  There’s a lot going on in these pages.  Peter has time to upset Liz by breaking off his date with her and then get saddled with the onerous job of taking old lab bottles down to the basement where he has a brief but significant conversation with the high school janitor.  (The rather large vacuum cleaner used by the janitor features prominently in that panel.  We shall be seeing this object again, methinks.)  Sandman even sees the back of Peter Parker before ducking into a nearby classroom, in which the high school principal is addressing a class.  Now, Lee’s portrayal of the principal here is quite interesting.  When Sandman decides he wants a high school diploma (why!?!?), the principal hotly declares, “Nothing could make me do that! A diploma must be earned! Your threats can’t make me violate my trust or my duties!”  He follows that by urging the students to run while he holds the Sandman off.  The heroic teacher figure isn’t exactly a recurring one in comics and it’s nice to see it here.  Spider-man, of course, comes in at just the right time to prevent the principal from being clobbered and there follows a fight whose intensity is signposted by the disruption of the usual 3×3 panel grid.

I suppose this is good a place as any to comment on Ditko’s art.  Put bluntly, the guy’s a storytelling master and I feel deeply ashamed that my teenage self didn’t recognize just how clever and economical his artwork is.  (It was my friend Steve who got the Marvel Tales reprints of these classic stories while I pooh-poohed his choice and plumped for the Byrne-drawn Fantastic Four and Alpha Flight instead.)  The confrontation between the Sandman and the principal, for example, takes place in a crowded classroom and Ditko is careful to draw expressions on each of the seven students’ faces in the background (there’s an eighth, incidentally, but he’s half hiding behind one of the others so we  won’t count him).  Again, in that confrontation, the principal’s upright stance suggests strength and a similar moral uprightness even as Sandman threatens him.  Subtle, but effective stuff.

The fight sequences are inventively done, though, with Ditko going to town on showing the range of Sandman’s powers.  (He even has him ‘snaking’ away from police at one point in the book.)  It’s his facial expressions, though, that are particularly impressive –with Peter’s look of horror as he realizes what might happen if he really lets loose against Flash Thompson a particular highlight.

The resolution of the fight with Sandman is perhaps disappointing (vacuuming him up into a canvas bag really shouldn’t work given what we’ve already seen Sandman do in the comic so far), but then that confrontation has not really been the main focus of the issue.

Amazing Spider-Man #4 is really about the strain Peter’s superhero lifestyle is placing on him.  That he can’t even enjoy his moment of triumph against the Sandman without J Jonah Jameson calling for his head, or that he can’t give Flash the kicking he so obviously deserves, serves to highlight that, for all its plotting quirks, the book is a satisfyingly complex piece of entertainment.  Its final panel sums up perfectly the dilemma Parker finds himself in and the artwork places him at the centre of a web of choices and consequences from which, the reader understands, he will never entirely be free.

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