Wednesday, 27 April 2011
Taboos, Laughter, And The Lee/Ditko Amazing Spider-Man: These Panels Can Make Me Laugh Outloud (No 1)
There are, to my memory, only three comicbook panels which have ever made me laugh outloud and uncontrollably. Though I do tend to spend a great deal of my reading time feeling amused to a greater or lesser degree, I really can count the number of tea-spat-across-the-room incidents on less than the fingers of a single hand.
On reflection, it seems to me that all of these panels share a single factor in common, namely that they were all taboo breakers at different points in my life. In these three individual frames, actions and attitudes which were utterly inconceivable to me in the context of their time was made to seem perfectly logical and indeed reasonable. In the moment between the shock of the event registering and the arrival of the super-ego's disapproval lay the explosion of a considerable guffaw, and then, in at least two of these examples, a mild degree of concern and a touch of reflection too.
It might be thought today that there aren't a great deal of taboos likely to be being broken in the pages of "The Return Of The Vulture" from 1963's "The Amazing Spider-Man" # 7. It could also be presumed that even if there were, they'd be so mild and inconspicuous that the force of any slight transgression would have been considerably diluted by the late January of 1973, when Mr Lee and Mr Ditko's tale was reprinted in the British weekly title, "The Mighty World Of Marvel". But that's not how my 10 year old self perceived the story, for what shocked him about it was the fact that the teenage Spider-Man was there-in obviously intent not just on defeating an adult super-villain, but upon beating up a disagreeable old man. (The Vulture was, after all, self-evidently past the point at which reduced fees on public transport could be claimed.) Given that I was just over a decade old, and that I imagined that Peter Parker was at this stage of his career no more than 15, meant that I was looking at the unimaginable business of a boy not yet having taken his O-Levels setting out to thoroughly assault a pensioner. After all, Spider-Man wasn't just threatening the Vulture with being caught, with jail or a public shaming or whatever polite fate school-boys tended to imagine deviant over-65's most deserved. Instead, Spider-Man was clearly intimidating and menacing the Vulture, no matter how flippantly, with the prospect of death!
Vulture: "Guns aren't my style anyway! What does the mighty Vulture need a weapon for! I've got my wings!"
Spider-Man: "You'll have a harp too, by the time I get through with you!"
Even now, there's still a pleasing sense of utter contempt and profound irritation in Spider-Man's statement, and arriving as it did placed between two kinetic and speedily-processable panels, I was laughing before I could grasp anything of what was I chortling about.
It wasn't the fact of Peter Parker's battling with the elderly, if still physically robust, Vulture which first threw me and then amused me so. Rather, it was Spider-Man's taken-for-granted assumption that he had every right to mock and assault the elderly criminal, and that the agencies typically trusted to deal with such confrontations were by their very nature not up to the task.He was taking charge at an age when he ought to have been doing was he was told, occasionally, I imagined, arguing with his aunt about a late Friday night or the radio playing too loud. Instead, this Spider-Man was quite content to be playfully threatening his aged opponent with a premature death, and for all that was so obviously a wisecrack rather than a declaration of purpose, it was still so deliciously and effortlessly disrespectful.
The second panel in this sequence merely confirmed to me of how far outside my normal expectations of correct behaviour this Spider-Man operated. In it, the Vulture has grabbed J. Jonah Jameson and is using him as a shield against Spider-Man, but Peter Parker doesn't express the slightest concern for the editor of "The Daily Bugle", in speech bubble, thought balloon or narrative caption. Instead, he simply regrets the fact that with Jameson held there, Parker "can't let go with a good punch". I was astonished! Wasn't Spider-Man's first concern to protect any vulnerable bystanders, regardless of who they were or the harm that it caused him? But Spider-Man was utterly unconcerned about Jameson's safety beyond not wanting to actively punch him in such a public forum, and instead was thinking only of landing a solid right hook onto the pointed chin of the thoroughly arrogant and unpleasant Toomes. It was as if his sometimes paymaster simply wasn't someone that Parker cared enough about to immediately worry for, as if Peter Parker, aged 15, was absolutely up for belting old super-villains while being in that moment quite unconcerned for the plight of a relatively helpless and yet still identifiably adult newspaper editor.
"Aw, go slide down a barbed-wire fence." spits Spider-Man at Jameson on the following page, and it takes a moment now to see through our communal adoration of Peter Parker the adorable victim of ill fate to note how rude, how incredibly and wonderfully offensive, he could be when in costume. He didn't just aim the occasionally sarcastic remark at those who were either obviously unpleasant or profoundly evil. Instead, Spider-Man habitually went for the throat from the off, he mocked when he was fighting, he insulted after he'd won, he was constantly cussing and knocking around characters who seemed to metaphorically stand for uncaring parents, irresponsible teachers, complacent officials, bullying fellow students and unpleasant neighbours. In truth, Peter Parker in his Spider-Man costume was in so many ways a one-boy assault upon the hypocrisy of adult society.
At 10, this was to me the world being turned upside down. It wasn't, of course, that I'd suddenly been corrupted so as to take pleasure at the beating of the aged, and it didn't feel like wish-fulfillment, because I couldn't recognise the degree of resentment and fear and befuddlement that my dealings with so many of my supposed betters and elders had generated.But something in me was capable of noting that Spider-Man was not only doing that which he shouldn't have been, but that he was also thinking and feeling with a freedom and intensity of purpose quite alien to me, that he'd claimed at least for certain moments while in costume the liberty to be himself. He wasn't even particularly angry as he leapt over desks and their protruding typewriters in order to subdue the Vulture, and he certainly wasn't fighting back as a frightened child would, driven into a tearful rage and a spasm of get-away-from-me flailing. Instead, he was acting as he was because that's what he choose to do, because that's what he'd decided was for the best.
And what of all those endless and overlapping stratas of adult power and authority? Well, in that moment, Peter Parker couldn't give a damn. Too often today we really do think of Spider-Man as a relatively innocuous loser-cum-joker, as an unlucky bent-shouldered and yet still quipping symbol of the grimmest of adolescent and post-adolescent unhappiness. But perhaps it should be remembered that, in the context of 1962, and even 1973, Mr Lee and Mr Ditko's Spider-Man was a considerably more radical and inspiring force in the eyes of at least a few amazed young boys, who saw a partial freedom from fear and a disregard for cant in his adventures that was rarely if ever portrayed in the relatively polite and generally deferent comic books of the time
The audacity of it still makes me laugh, still reveals an anger and a desire for some vague and absolute freedom that I should have entirely worked through, I know, a very long time ago. But then, to add Ibsen to Lee and Ditko, the world is run by a terrible majority of fools.
To be concluded ...