In-depth Reviews

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11 Mar
2000
Click here for a larger image! Amazing Spider-Man # 49
June 1967

"From the Depths of Defeat!"

Story, Script: Stan Lee
Pencils: John Romita
Inks: Mike Esposito

Cover: John Romita
 

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The cover says it all: "You name it, this one's got it!" and doggone it if Stan Lee wasn't telling us the truth!  This issue had all the things that would help catapult the Spider-Man title into the front rank of Marvel's 60s lineup and eventually make its star one of the most recognizable costumed icons ever created: the fallible hero, the strip's large cast of supporting characters, colorful villains, and action, action, action!

Ever since making the decision, rightly or wrongly, to leave behind the rather restricted vision of the character held by co-creator Steve Ditko, writer Lee had wasted little time in bringing Spider-Man's alter ego into the hip, with-it world inhabited in real life by most of the strip's readers.  And even though Lee himself may have been a tad too old to completely understand his audience (or to capture their colloquialisms!) his scripting skills were such that he managed to create the illusion that he did.  And besides, his heart was in the right place: through his monthly column, entitled "Stan's Soapbox" which appeared in every Marvel comic, Lee addressed many of the issues which youth in the 1960s were passionately concerned about.  And time after time, he proved his credentials by including those concerns as elements in his stories.  From race, to feminism to religion to just plain, old fashioned injustice, Lee used his line of comics to comment on every one.  And although The Amazing Spider-Man was perhaps his most personal strip, the one Marvel comic which seemed to reach out most closely to the company's youthful readers, strangely, it was the one that spoke out the least on topical issues.  It'd be almost a hundred issues before the subject of drug abuse appeared in its pages for instance and even longer for that of Vietnam.  Instead, the strip focused on the small triumphs and tragedies of daily life, the intimate circle of family and friends, the pressure cooker atmosphere of life in New York City.  And so, as he did with Ditko in the beginning, Lee made the dogged perseverance of the title's luckless hero, Peter Parker, the central drama of the stories.  Peter's triumphs not only over his super powered enemies, but also over the vicissitudes of life was what readers, both "square" and hip, could identify with and that made The Amazing Spider-Man one of the most popular comics of all time.

This issue is no exception.  Nearly a year since Ditko's departure, Lee and the artist he found to replace Ditko, had taken the time to find their "sea legs" so to speak, but once having found them, they began picking up steam fast.  Momentum seems to have picked up with issue #47 after Spider-Man fights an inconclusive battle with Kraven the Hunter then, in #48 he meets the new, younger, deadlier Vulture.  Now, in issue #49, the two villains join forces against their common foe and in some of the most fast-paced action sequences ever drawn, come to inevitable defeat at the hands of a virus ridden Spider-Man.

But those pages weren't penciled by themselves!  What brought it all together into a satisfying whole of action, pathos and style, was the art of John Romita.

Born in 1930, Romita was part of the same generation as Don Heck and John Buscema.  Like Heck, he found comic strips an early artistic influence.
"Before I was ten years old, I was doing drawings of all the Tracy, Terry and Disney characters...  At that age, I didn't know if I wanted to be a cartoonist or not.  I remember sending a batch of my samples to the New York News when I was about eleven.  They sent me a warm letter of encouragement.  They told me that Chester Gould had a contract with them to do Tracy and therefore they couldn't really take him off the strip to put me on."
Eventually however, Romita did break into the cartooning business.  In 1949, he took his first job with Famous Funnies, soon earning a reputation for versatility and contributing to all the popular genres.  In the early 50's he found work with Stan Lee at Atlas, handling the Western Kid and Captain America.  But it didn't last long.  With the company's implosion in the middle of the decade, Lee was forced to cut loose many of his regular artists, including Romita.  At loose ends, Romita went to DC where he was promptly turned down by both the super-hero and western editors but found steady work in the romance department.  And so, for the next eight years of his professional life, from 1958 to 1966, Romita would toil anonymously on such titles as Heart Throbs, Girl's Love Stories, Secret Hearts, Falling in Love and Girl's Romances.  Little did the artist suspect that the long years spent in the unexciting vineyard of romance comics would later yield the very elements Lee was looking for to bring the Spider-Man book into the hip sixties and transform Romita himself into "Jazzy Johnny."

But the transition of the Spider-Man title from the neurotic, insular world created by artist Steve Ditko in its first 38 issues to the bright, breezy and fashion conscious book it became under Romita was as inevitable as it was stark.  Approaching their work from radically different points of view, the two artists represented the convergence of a trend nearly 2,500 years old.

It begins, as most ideas seem to have done, with the Greek philosopher Aristotle who decided to classify different types of literature.  He called the resulting classifications genres.  Like objects found in nature, Aristotle asserted that man-made objects are also a combination of form and matter.  Form endows these artifacts with shape and purpose, and like natural objects, they can be categorized according to their internal cause or determining principle.  Applying this idea to the written word, Aristotle recognized several literary genres, including epic and lyric poetry, and the drama, which could be further subdivided into tragedy and comedy.  Each genre had its own particular conventions, such as stock characters or traditional plot elements.  These components gave each genre its own specific character, and allowed it to be classified in relation to other genres.

One kind of genre is the romance which has had a long and complex history. In the 10th and 11th centuries, the term romans referred to the everyday language of the people as opposed to the more formal Latin employed by scholars and clergy.  Slowly, that term began to be associated with the popular songs and poems sung by the wandering troubadours.  By the end of the 13th century, when some of these folk songs and tales were written down, the term romance was firmly entrenched in the literary vocabulary of Western Europe.

The written romance developed in the courts of various princes and lords of medieval France.  These powerful, sophisticated patrons of the arts were also at the center of an emerging culture based upon idealized notions of chivalry.  In the highly ornate world of tournaments and pageants romances allegorized the rituals of courtly love.  It transferred these elaborate erotic jousts into an emblematic landscape of giants and quests, where errant knights undertook perilous tasks at the behest of beauteous damsels.

The Renaissance witnessed a resurgent appreciation for the Aristotelian theory of genre, and a concomitant waning of interest in the romance.  Aristotelian categories of literature, such as tragedy, comedy and epic, became increasingly popular.  By the end of the 17th century the romance seemed moribund.  But genres have a way of transmuting and returning.  For example, the Aristotelian tragedy that had lain dormant throughout the middle ages, was gloriously reborn in the dramas of Shakespeare.

So it was that in the waning decades of the 18th century a new artistic and literary spirit called Romanticism (whose hallmarks were emotion and imagination) swept through Europe.  Where the Classicism of the Graeco-Roman world and the Renaissance valued rationality, clarity and balance (cf. review # 1: Sgt. Fury #7), Romantic art typically strove for subjectivity, allusiveness and contrast. Romantic themes included nature (particularly in its wilder, more mysterious aspects, such as storms, mountains and untrammeled forests), and extreme emotional states (including despair, obsession, envy and hatred).  There was also a marked affinity in Romanticism for mysticism and the occult.

Turning its back on traditional classical values, Romanticism found inspiration in such concrete manifestations of medievalism as the gothic cathedral. But for the Classicists of the Renaissance, "gothic" was a derisive term, describing what they perceived as some of the more crude or bizarre aspects of medieval culture.  Embracing what these new Romanticists saw as the more exciting, perhaps purer, less rational aesthetics of the middle ages, the term gothic became synonymous with the Romantic movement.  But the new Romanticism bore little resemblance to the medieval romance.  In abandoning the religious context of the older literary form, the Romantics loosened the adhesive force which bound the rituals of courtly love to the fantastic elements of allegory.  Where once romance was the only popular genre, there soon were two: gothic, the precursor of today's horror genre, and the romantic love story, what's since become known as the modern romance story.

Can you see where this is all heading? Well, hold on, there's more!

By the 19th century, the split between genres was solidified by popular attitudes and publishing trends. Artistic, societal and technical forces merged in an atmosphere of mutual creativity to develop the two genres further while at the same time sub-dividing them into new categories.  The astonishing rise in literacy rates, mass production and urbanization throughout the century was what played the crucial part in the widening division between them.  In industrialized societies, a greater efficiency in printing techniques, along with increased access to education, created and maintained a demand for a popular literature.  Novels, serialized in monthly installments and subsequently reprinted in cheaply bound editions, laid the foundations for a newly emergent mass media.  Meanwhile, gothic horror and romantic love stories began to attract separate audiences: men preferred the melodramatic villains, grotesque monsters, exotic locales and fantastic adventures of the former while women enjoyed the sentimental tales of the latter (which had become secularized allegories of love but still enacting traditional courtship rituals).

With mass production the two genres were soon reduced to formula which were judged by critics as derivative and completely lacking in originality.  By the time the 20th century was well begun, they'd already found a place at the bottom of the cultural hierarchy.  The dismissive attitude that put them there can be partly attributed to the modernist prejudice that favors innovation and rejects convention.  Such bias is a violation of the spirit of classicism which emphasizes the observance of rules rather than their subversion.  In this sense, the despised generic arts can be considered the legitimate heirs of the Classical tradition.

Newly emergent 20th century popular art forms such as cinema and comics, followed the genre categories derived from gothicism and romanticism. Gradually, in the decade following the second world war, they triumphed in the marketplace. Comic books in particular proved to be fertile ground for their proliferation, quickly branching out to tell stories of horror, science fiction, jungle action and especially romance.

The rise of the romance comic came with the temporary downturn in popularity of another genre: super-heroes, which had briefly dominated the comics industry.  To fill the void, partners Jack Kirby and Joe Simon created the first romance comic in 1947.  Their first title was called Young Romance and the new genre proved so popular that by the middle of the next decade, there were almost 150 different romance titles on the market.  The genre continued to flourish for another ten years until the wheel turned again, tastes changed, and the super-heroes returned.  By the mid-1970s, the romance comic (along with science fiction and the western) was dead.

The clash between Ditko's gothic and Romita's romantic approach to Spider-Man can be seen then, as one result of a centuries old struggle (transmogrified and speeded up in the intensified atmosphere of a modern media culture) for generic dominance.

Steve Ditko served his apprenticeship by contributing to numerous mystery, horror and fantasy titles where his dark illustrations, full of melancholy foreboding, were superbly adapted to the macabre gothic style (cf. review # 2: The Amazing Spider-Man #27).  At the same time, Romita was devoting a large part of his career to the depiction of the domestic dramas of young love won and lost.

Each artist in turn brought these experiences and influences to their respective work on Spider-Man.  Ditko infused the strip with an almost nightmarish intensity: even as the shadowed, cob-webbed cityscape through which Spider-man swings and crawls is a modernized version of the gothic wasteland, his grotesque villains have deep precursors in the allegorical demons, dwarves and devils of the medieval imagination.  In addition, there was always an element of romantic angst in Ditko's Peter Parker which, after all, was also a gothic inheritance.  But when Romita took over the strip, this anxiety was elevated to a sustained adolescent bathos.  There is almost as much attention paid to Peter's frustrated amours as to Spider-Man's super-heroic battles.  Romita's delicately idealized artwork is the perfect medium for these romantic themes. With his sensitive penciling, tasteful panel construction, assured narrative technique and stylish inking, he depicts the travails of a broken heart with effortless grace.

When Romita returned to Marvel from DC, the first thing he had to learn was how to work within the "Marvel method" (in which an artist, working from a simple plot synopsis, would pencil out a complete story).  He began by penciling over layouts provided by artist Jack Kirby for Daredevil before being promoted in 1966 to the Spider-Man strip.

By the time of "From the Depths of Defeat!" he'd come into his own and from the simple but eye-catching cover to the final battle scenes, Romita handles it all with breezy panache.  Of particular elegance is the four panel sequence on page 11 where Kraven and the Vulture meet in a wonderfully choreographed scene high over the snow-covered city.  But Romita's true forte was in his depiction of ordinary people.  Here, he gives the reader quick visits to the offices of the Daily Bugle (pg. 9) and Peter Parker's apartment (pg. 10).

In partnership with Stan Lee (a true romantic if there ever was one!) Romita would set the standard for handsome, attractive leading characters plagued by problems of the heart.  As the years passed, the style of the two men's partnership on the Spider-Man strip (a serendipitous blend of youthfulness and modernism) would thoroughly subsume the more fevered emotions and atmosphere that had been the hallmark of Ditko and Kirby.


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