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John Seavey’s Storytelling Engines: Spider-Man, Part One

Here’s the latest Storytelling Engine from John Seavey. Check out more of them at his blog, Fraggmented. Including this one, Storytelling Engines: House of Mystery, that we missed a week or so ago.

Storytelling Engines: Spider-Man, Part One

(or “The Big Bang Theory”)

When looking at Stan Lee’s original run on ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ (approximately issues 1-110, or the first five volumes of ‘The Essential Spider-Man’), it’s downright amazing (no pun intended) just how much imagination Lee and his co-writer and artist, Steve Ditko, packed into a relatively short number of issues. The first volume of ‘The Essential Spider-Man’ contains the first appearances not just of Spidey himself, but of the Chameleon, the Vulture, Doctor Octopus, the Sandman, the Lizard, Electro, the Enforcers, Mysterio, the Green Goblin, Kraven the Hunter, and the Scorpion. That’s pretty much every A-list Spider-Man villain ever created (notable exceptions being the Kingpin and Venom) and the vast majority of his B-list opponents. Lee and Ditko wrote and drew those first thirty-eight issues in a mad rush of inspiration and innovation that almost single-handedly put Marvel Comics on the map.

The innovation didn’t just extend to Spider-Man’s growing Rogues Gallery, though. Lee and Ditko were also very willing to make changes to every aspect of Spider-Man’s status quo in those early days, when they were first figuring out what worked and what didn’t. Peter Parker went from a high school student to a college student, with a constantly changing supporting cast (including a romantic life that was constantly in flux, a real surprise when one considers that the average super-hero at the time only had to deal with the question of whether their One True Love would be able to deal with life as Mrs. Superhero.) The status quo didn’t arrive from divine inspiration, but from experimentation–Peter’s job at the Daily Bugle is perfect from a storytelling engine perspective, allowing him to go out “looking for trouble” as a photographer as well as a superhero, but in the first issue, Peter actually contemplates a life of crime and a job with the Fantastic Four.

But when Ditko left, all that changed. We may never know how much of the creative element of those early Spider-Man stories came from Steve Ditko, but whether Lee wasn’t sure where to go without his collaborator, or whether he was satisfied with where he was, Spider-Man’s storytelling engine seems to solidify into a status quo right around the time of Ditko’s departure. Peter locks into a relationship with Gwen Stacy, a friendship with room-mate Harry Osborn, and a relatively constant rotation of classic villains (the few new villains that appear after John Romita takes over for Steve Ditko are relatively undistinguished, like the Kangaroo and the Gibbon. Only the Kingpin really hangs around to become a memorable foe.) What changes we do see are all relatively illusory–Norman Osborn gives up his Green Goblin identity “for good”, but with a handy escape hatch that allows him to resume his evil ways whenever needed. Gwen and Peter are a couple, but never so solidly that there isn’t room for a break-up or make-up (as needed.) Peter’s supporting cast at the Bugle and at ESU remain reliably consistent–really, it’s a set-up that you could see Stan Lee extending for another 200 issues with remarkably little need to shake things up in any significant way. And it’s hard to escape the feeling that if he’d kept writing another 200 issues, he probably wouldn’t have. After the initial rush of ideas and innovations, Stan Lee had (depending on your perspective) either found an engine that worked, or allowed himself to stagnate.

But Stan Lee didn’t keep writing Spider-Man. And next week, in part two, we’ll look at his successor Gerry Conway, and the way that it’s all going to change…


Rohan Williams

May 1, 2007 at 5:50 am

God, those early Spider-Man issues are brilliant. Thanks for throwing the spotlight on them! I love how those early issues seemed to feed off the energy from the tension of two genres- superhero action and soap opera romance- being forcibly thrown together, before that became the norm.

I also loved how, regardless of how crazy everything got throughout the issue, Lee and Ditko’d nearly always find time to throw the hopeless romantics a bittersweet last page about Peter and Betty or whoever. The page where Pete and Betty are sitting underneath the desk after the Vulture fight inside the Bugle offices is a favourite of mine.

I agree with most everything you wrote there, except I’d possibly say that the fact that Peter and Gwen could believably break up at any time, and Harry’s gradual mental instability, stand out to me as examples of the status quo not being overly rigid, post-Ditko. Lee and Romita definitely found a particular groove they liked staying in, though.

Although I would agree there was much less creativity with respect to the super-villains post-Ditko, I think the Spider-man’s supporting cast became more interesting post-Ditko. Compare Lee-Ditko’s Betty Brant to Lee-Romita’s Mary Jane for example. And characters that were fairly 2-dimensional for Lee-Ditko, become increasingly 3-dimension for Lee-Romita: Harry, Gwen, Jonah, etc.

Don’t get me wrong, compared to any other comic being published in the early 60’s, Lee-Ditko’s Spider-man was a truly unique book that stood head and shoulder’s above most of DC’s and Marvel’s output. I just don’t think that we would have seen some of the interesting character development had Ditko not left. I

I also think Peter’s character would have become increasingly problematic had Ditko not left; Peter’s character was becoming almost unlikeable around the time Ditko left.

Nice article and I have to agree and say that those early issues were genius. The beauty of them is that they were all done-in-one stories, yet they got so much crammed into them.

I’ve often heard that the significant early changes in part were a result of a ‘how long is this gonna last?’ mentality. Perhaps it was recognized around the time Ditko left that Spider-Man had a role to play as a flagship publication and money-maker for the company for years to come, and it was decided not to risk the comic’s readership by upsetting the status quo. This may have been more an economic decision than a creative one; Ditko leaving might have had less to do with it than it appears.

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