Sunday, September 7, 2014


I promise that this will be the last time I spotlight Silver Age Spider-Man.  If I had to choose just one Spidey from this period for my survey, though, I'd drop both of the Ditko choices and stick with this early collaboration between editor-writer Stan Lee and artist John Romita Sr.

Spider-Man had met and battled the Hulk in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #14 (July 1964), over a year after Ditko had contributed the last issue of the INCREDIBLE HULK magazine. However, it's likely that Lee had some plans for launching the second Hulk series in TALES TO ASTONISH, dated October 1964, and that the Hulk appearance's in ASM was meant to keep the character in play. As for the SPIDER-MAN feature, Lee and Ditko remained on the series-- as well as the first two annuals-- until mid-1966, when Ditko took his leave of Marvel.  This forced Stan Lee to find and train John Romita as Ditko's replacement for the monthly book, as well as the next three annuals of the 1960s.

Stan Lee has often been criticized for relegating to his artists a lot of the "heavy lifting" of comic-book storytelling. Even Romita asserted that at times Lee would give him minimal input on future stories, leaving the artist to muddle through as best he could. Many of these accusations may well be true. However, SPIDER-MAN ANNUAL #3 is one of the best illustrations of the greatest strength that Lee brought to the table-- the consistency of voice.

The story  is simple. Spider-Man is nominated for membership in the Avengers. The young hero, upon being apprised of this signal honor, debates the matter for a bit, and then decides to accept-- only to find that he has to pass an initiation test: to find and lure the Hulk into the custody of the super-team. Somehow the heroes fail to express their intention to help the confused green giant, and Spidey thinks they simply intend to imprison the Hulk. Thus, in the course of finding and battling the Hulk, Spidey sees the monster transform back into Bruce Banner. Feeling pity for the tormented scientist, the hero simply lets the Hulk go and brushes off the possibility of Avengers membership.

What isn't simple is that each of the characters-- Spidey, the Hulk, and each of the Avengers-- has his own distinctive voice. Hawkeye is a hot-tempered rebel, Iron Man a cautious businessman, Captain America a wise diplomat. Goliath is staid, Thor is portentous and the Wasp is a bit of a shrew. On a side-note, I think it likely that since Romita had only been on the title for a few months, it's almost certainly Lee who remembered a bit of minutiae from a previous encounter between Spider-Man and Wasp: that the heroine nursed an irrational dislike of Spidey because "wasps hate spiders" or some such silliness.

But the issue's high point is Lee's handling of the Hulk. The earliest versions of the character by Lee, Kirby and Ditko focused on the Hulk as perpetually aggressive. However, in the second Hulk series in TALES OF SUSPENSE, Lee and Ditko changed the focus to a more mentally challenged man-monster, and Lee carried that treatment over to other Marvel features. Romita's rendering of the brutish Hulk is one of the better artistic renderings of the character, while Lee's characterization is the linchpin of the story. If the reader doesn't buy that the Hulk is pitiable, then Spider-Man's sacrifice carries no weight.

I might not deem this one of the best Spider-Man stories of the period. But as far as conveying the unique excitement of seeing superheroic characters crossing paths, it's one of the best.

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