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.
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.
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.