As regular readers of this blog may recall, I purchased my very first Marvel comic book, Avengers #45, in August, 1967. That book was the one with which I finally expanded my comics consumption beyond what had been, for the full first two years that I’d been buying and reading the things, a diet consisting almost exclusively of DC comics. Still, as I wrote in my post about that issue, five months ago, that first, single excursion into Marvel territory wouldn’t be followed by another one until the fateful day in January, 1968, that I picked up the subject of today’s post, Amazing Spider-Man #59.
I’m not exactly sure why it took me that long to buy my second Marvel book — I do remember liking that Avengers issue, so it wasn’t as though I’d tested the waters and found them wanting. Probably, it was just a reluctance to change my ingrained buying habits. But even if I’m not certain why I dragged my feet for another five months, I have little doubt that it would have taken me even longer, if not for this:
The original Spider-Man animated series — not the first Marvel cartoon to ever appear, but (along with Fantastic Four, which started at the same time) the first to be aired in my local television market — premiered on Saturday morning, September 9, 1967. And like many other kids all across America, my ten-year-old self was captivated upon my first viewing of those opening titles (yes, even as crudely animated as they were), and my first hearing of that great, indelible theme song.
“But,” I hear you ask, “if you started watching Spider-Man on TV in the fall of 1967, why didn’t you start buying his book right away, the same way you did with Aquaman?” Well, as I’ve already suggested above, I think it essentially comes down to the fact that I was by habit a DC reader, and old habits are (and were) hard to break. Assuming that’s the case, however, you may still wonder — what finally nudged me over the goal line, that day in January, 1968? I really don’t know, though it may have been issue #59’s cover. Perhaps John Romita’s rendition of the lovely (and short-skirted) Mary Jane Watson go-go dancing stirred something in my pre-pubescent psyche. It’s as likely a reason as any other I can think of.
Whatever the reason, I did buy it — so let’s have a look at my fateful first encounter with our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man (in print, anyway) — “The Brand of the Brainwasher”:
Along with serving as my introduction to Marvel’s flagship hero in the medium of comics, Amazing Spider-Man #59 was also my first encounter with the work of several of the publisher’s creative talents — including, first and foremost, writer (and editor) Stan Lee. Since the script for my first Marvel comic, Avengers #45, had been contributed by Roy Thomas, my only exposure to Lee’s writing to date had been in the form of the editorial notes, “Marvel Bullpen Bulletins”, “Stan’s Soapbox”, and suchlike that appeared in that issue. “The Brand of the Brainwasher” was thus my first encounter with the storytelling of one of the Marvel Universe’s three primary architects (the others, of course, being Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko).
It was my first encounter with the art of John Romita, as well. “Jazzy Johnny”, as Lee liked to refer to him, had been pencilling regularly for Marvel for about three years at this point* having followed a successful eight issue run on Daredevil by succeeding Spider-Man’s co-creator (with Lee), Steve Ditko, as the second regular penciller on the Amazing Arachnid’s title with issue #39. (As it happened, Romita was also continuing to draw stories for DC’s romance comics, such as Young Love, during this time — meaning that even as a more-or-less exclusive DC reader, I could have experienced his art prior to my first Spider-Man issue, had I but ever deigned to buy a romance comic — but as I never did, it’s a moot point)
Don Heck, on the other hand, was at least a somewhat familiar name to my ten-year-old self, as he’d pencilled the story in Avengers #45. But I’m not sure I saw a whole lot of resemblance between his work in that book, where he was inked by Vince Colletta, and this one, in which he contributed finished pencils over John Romita’s layouts which were then inked by “Mickey Demeo” (actually Mike Esposito — an artist whose work I already knew from DC under his real name — who found it expedient to use an alias for the moonlighting jobs he was doing for Marvel around this time).
Of course, the story’s credits, presumably crafted by Lee, were so vague as to make the understanding of who did what virtually impenetrable to a new reader in any case. Lee gave both himself and Romita a “produced by” credit — a development that probably came about in response to complaints from a number of Lee’s collaborators (notably Ditko and Kirby) that their contributions to the plotting, pacing, and other aspects of the stories in their books went beyond what was implied by the sole credit of “penciller” or even “artist”; that they were, in fact, co-authors with Lee (or with Thomas, or with one out of the tiny handful of other writers employed by Marvel at the time). But the vagueness extended beyond the credits for the story’s scripter and primary artist — Heck’s contribution was identified as “enchantment”, while “Demeo” provided “embellishment”. IToday, of course, I understand the basic division of responsibilities for the three credited artists as: layouts by Romita, finished pencil art by Heck, and inking by Esposito. But back in 1968, my ten-year-old self had to glean clues about the comic’s production process from references in the books’ text pages (Bullpen Bulletins, letters columns, etc.).
(As a side note: Prior to beginning my research for this post, I hadn’t looked at my early Spider-Man comics in quite a while. If you’d asked me then who was drawing the series when I first started reading it, I would have confidently told you that I came in at the height of John Romita’s tenure as its artist — but, in fact, I missed the relatively brief era during which Romita regularly provided full pencils for the book’s interiors. His last such issue, #56, had appeared just a few months previously — and so, while the artist would continue to provide breakdowns as well as covers for another thirty issues or so, and would contribute artistically in various capacities [including inks and occasional pencils] for several years beyond that— thus, arguably, continuing to set the series’ essential “look” into the early Seventies — his stint as Spidey’s primary, regular penciller was more or less already over by the time I came on board. Funny how you can turn out to be wrong about stuff you’re 100% sure you “know”, sometimes.)
About the only credit on the splash page that wasn’t mysterious was the one for the letterer, Artie Simek. Of course, this was only the second lettering credit I’d ever seen (DC and other publishers wouldn’t give them for quite a few years to come) — but I wouldn’t read many more Marvel books before I decided that I preferred the work of the company’s other regular letterer at the time, Sam Rosen, to that of Mr. Simek. (As I recall, I thought that Rosen’s letters appeared smaller, and were therefore “neater”, and took less space away from the art.)
Moving on (at last!) from the credit box… In addition to introducing me to several of Marvel’s talents, “The Brand of the Brainwasher” also provided my baptism into the style of serial storytelling typical of the publisher in this era. By “serial storytelling”, I don’t mean simply the use of continued stories; after all, I was already familiar with those from reading DC’s comics, even if that company featured them much, much more sparingly than Marvel did in the Sixties. Neither do I refer to a story merely referencing events in the story immediately preceding it (e.g., Avengers #45 showing the titular heroes being publicly honored for a victory in Avengers Annual #1), though that’s nearer the mark. Rather, I’m talking about the sort of continuous open narrative in which stories never really “end” at all; instead, events in the characters’ lives follow one after another, without tidy breaks into discrete, separate narratives. It’s the kind of storytelling most often associated (in the U.S., at least) with soap operas — but, when you get right down to it, has quite a bit in common with real life.**
The story’s splash page, shown above, opens on Spider-Man facing down the police — whom, we learn via our hero’s interior monologue, “still” believe him to be a menace. We also learn that Spidey’s Aunt May is in the hospital and that he’s anxious to reach her.
Regular readers of Amazing Spider-Man would have been aware that Spidey had run afoul of New York’s Finest in the course of a storyline that had begun around issue #53 and (mostly) wrapped up in the issue just before this one, #58. His arch foe, Doctor Octopus, had zapped him with a new super-weapon called the Nullifier, inadvertently giving our hero amnesia. Doc Ock briefly convinced Spidey that the two of them were criminal allies; and though the villain was defeated by the conclusion of #56, the amnesia plotline continued for another couple of issues — bringing the wall-crawler into conflict both with the jungle hero Ka-Zar and with Professor Spencer Smythe’s Spider-Slayer robot. Other repercussions of Spidey’s temporary memory loss included his secret identity of Peter Parker being declared a missing person, with Spidey himself suspected of being his own kidnaper, and his frail Aunt May collapsing and being hospitalized as a result. A big mess all around — still, if DC had published the same story in 1967, one can hardly imagine that each and every loose end wouldn’t have been tied up by the last page of issue #58 — or, if not resolved, then simply forgotten about by the time #59 came along.
That’s not the way that Marvel did things back then, though. And what’s more, Lee and Romita weren’t merely willing to let plot threads dangle messily from issue to issue; they also didn’t think it was necessary to recap the details of the events that would give those threads context for a new reader. As a newcomer, all my ten-year-old self had to go on was what Spider-Man’s thought balloons on the splash page told me directly, and what I could infer from them. The hero is wanted by the police, apparently due to a misapprehension of some kind on their part; his aunt is in the hospital, however, so he’s determined not to let them delay him.
The next page, which depicts Spidey subduing the police with his webbing without harming them, didn’t offer any additional information — though it did give Lee and Romita the opportunity to show the hero in action right away, as well as providing the new reader (I.e., me) with an opportunity to learn about the hero’s abilities.
Page 3 finds Spidey using his wall-crawling powers (and his webbing) to help him sneak a look at the hospital’s patient directory; then, after a quick change in a handy broom closet, Peter Parker is at last reunited with his loving aunt:
“The one who was missing?” That was the first indication my ten-year-old, Spidey-newbie self was given that such was the situation.
Peter realizes he needs to let the police know he’s OK, and heads right down to NYPD HQ to set things straight:
This sequence is notable for featuring the first appearance of Capt. George Stacy — the father of Pete’s girlfriend Gwen, and someone who’d soon prove very significant in the wall-crawler’s future.
Taking a cue from Capt. Stacy, Peter proceeds to explain that yes, Spider-Man did have amnesia, which is how Doc Ock convinced him that they were partners, and how he ended up “kidnaping” Peter. The cops buy the story, and Peter is off the hook, as is Spidey (for this matter, anyway). But Capt. Stacy asks Peter if he can spare a few minutes to talk, and, when Pete agrees, takes him to his nearby home — where he proceeds to show him documentary footage of Spider-Man via his home movie projector:
Yes, it’s the lovely, if doomed (though no one knew it at the time, of course) Gwendolyn Stacy.
Gwen promptly hauls her boo off to the Coffee Bean, the swingin’ spot where their group of friends regularly hangs out. At this point, seven pages into the story, Lee and Romita have pretty much wrapped up the main loose ends left over from the story arc of the last six issues, and are ready to move on to this issue’s fresh new menace. That means that my ten-year-old self, reading the book for the first time in January, 1968, wouldn’t learn any more details about.how Spidey got amnesia in the first place (let alone how he managed to regain his memory), or about Doc Ock’s perfidy, or anything at all about Ka-Zar or the Spider-Slayer — or wouldn’t, at least, until coming across the stories in reprint format years later.
Was that a problem? Did my ten-year-old self feel frustrated or left out because I didn’t understand everything that was going on? I don’t recall that I did. I suspect that, rather than frustrated or annoyed, I was intrigued by the mysteries; and struck as well, perhaps, by the greater verisimilitude that the Marvel-style serial storytelling lent to Spider-Man’s adventures. It was as though Peter Parker had been living his fictional life all these years — fighting bad guys, worrying about his aunt, dating pretty girls — and this just happened to be the moment I’d chosen to start checking in on him. Why should I expect to find a clear-cut starting point to the ongoing story of his life?
But, returning to this particular chapter of that story… as the scene changes to the aforementioned Coffee Bean, we encounter yet another important (and, like Gwen, sadly doomed***) member of Pete’s supporting cast — his friend and roommate, Harry Osborn:
The preceding sequence introduces (via her photo) yet another supporting cast member, one happily not doomed (unless, of course, you’re specifically referring to her later ill fated marriage to Peter) — one who, along with Aunt May, has proved the most enduring of them all: Mary Jane Watson, whom we’ve already seen go-going on the issue’s cover.
Ominously, MJ is about to become embroiled in the nefarious schemes of the mysterious Brainwasher — whom we learn in the next panels is inviting the top officials in the city to his club with the intent of suborning them to his will — a fate that he’s already inflicted on the Assistant D.A….
Spidey takes care of the would-be robbers in just a few panels, but is bemused when the almost-victim complains that these hoods will be back on the streets in no time — thanks, we readers may well infer, to the Brainwasher’s sinister influence on the Assistant D.A., as revealed in the previous scene.
Meanwhile, back at the Gloom Room A-Go-Go…
The following evening, Pete, Gwen, and Harry show up at the club for MJ’s dancing debut — and they aren’t the only ones:
After the dancing, Mary Jane moves on to the picture-taking part of her gig:
When Stacy doesn’t return for a long time, Gwen gets worried, and Peter offers to go look for him — and acting on a hunch that something strange is going on, he opts to do so as Spider-Man:
Invading the club’s back rooms, Spidey is soon battling a small army of thugs. Despite the odds, he quickly gains the upper hand; but then…
“Oh no!!” It’s that bald-headed, white-jacketed “mass of muscle” called the Kingpin! As a newbie, this revelation meant nothing to my ten-year-old self; but regular readers would remember this heavy (sorry) from his previous appearances in issues #50 through #52 — the last story arc prior to the whole Doc Ock/amnesia business, as a matter of fact.
But for more Kingpin, you’ll need to do what I had to do fifty years ago, and check back in around 30 days — when we’ll take a look back at the next chapter in this three-part tale, as published in Amazing Spider-Man #60.
Though I didn’t fully appreciate it at the time, January, 1968, turned out to be a rather auspicious month for someone to start buying and reading Marvel comics regularly. It was the month in which the publisher, after years of having its monthly output severely restricted by its distributor, began to dramatically expand its line, replacing its long-running “double feature” format titles Tales of Suspense, Tales to Astonish, and Strange Tales with six new solo titles for the heroes who’d been appearing in those books. That was a big enough deal that Stan Lee marked the occasion by announcing the dawn of the “Second Golden Age of Marvel” on the Bullpen Bulletins text page that ran in that month’s comics, including Amazing Spider-Man #59.
I’ll have more to say about Marvel’s ‘68 expansion in later posts, but for now, I’d like to focus in on another marker of the beginning of this so-called Second Golden Age — namely, Marvel’s decision to stop referring to their competition (including DC, obviously, though not limited to them) as “Brand Echh”. Stan Lee had begun the practice of needling his competitors with this sobriquet a couple of years earlier, when his company was on the rise, but still very much an underdog. Now, however, as Lee explained in the “Stan’s Soapbox” column reproduced at right, Marvel had become “the undisputed leaders of the comics industry”, and it would be unseemly to punch down at their lessers.
It appears to be a matter of some dispute as to whether Marvel had actually surpassed DC in sales by late 1967, when this column would have been written — I’ve consulted sources that say that that milestone was reached as early as 1966, while others say it didn’t occur until 1972 — but my ten-year-old self reading the column in early 1968 had no reason not to take “Stan (the Man}” at his word. And it probably made an impression on me. As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, I was a fairly conservative pop culture consumer as a kid, who looked for validation of my comics buying choices from other media. DC characters had been on TV even before I’d begun reading them in 1965, which had made them seem more “legit” in my eyes. Now, Marvel too had a weekly network TV presence — and they were the top comics company around, to boot. (Hey, they couldn’t say it if it wasn’t true, right?)
I’d love to say I got into Marvel Comics when they were still a scrappy upstart, because they were a scrappy upstart; but, alas, that is not my story. Still, I’m glad I finally did take the plunge in January, 1968, for whatever reasons. After all, that meant I still got in early enough to read a whole lot of classic Marvels when they first came out. Was 1968 (and beyond) really a Second Golden Age of Marvel? At this moment, I’m honestly not sure — but as I take a fresh look at a number of these venerable comics in the weeks and months ahead, maybe I’ll figure it out. I hope you’ll join me.
*This was actually Romita’s second stint working for Marvel, as he’d been a regular contributor to the company’s Western, war, and horror-suspense titles (and even penciled a few covers and stories for Captain America) from 1951 to 1957, when he was let go as part of the company’s notorious purge of that year — at which point he later claimed to have told his wife, “If Stan Lee ever calls, tell him to go to hell.” Romita spent the next eight years working almost exclusively for DC, becoming an artistic mainstay of their romance comics line.
**It’s also the standard narrative convention of newspaper comic strips, such as Dick Tracy or Prince Valiant, in which a story is told in brief daily or weekly installments over a matter of months, and one story’s conclusion leads directly into the next one’s beginning, sometimes overlapping, to form one continuous chronicle. This storytelling structure is quite obviously likely to have influenced Stan Lee and his collaborators at least as much as the TV or radio “soaps” of the era.
***Yeah, I’m aware that Harry, after perishing in 1983, was restored to life in 2007. But I’m still pissed off about “Brand New Day”, so nuts to that.