Comic Book Review – Amazing Spider-Man Epic Collection Volume 2: Great Responsibility

Amazing Spider-Man Epic Collection Volume 2 (2017)
Reprints Amazing Spider-Man #18-38, Annual #2
Written by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko
Art by Steve Ditko

This collection encompasses the final half of artist Steve Ditko’s work on the Spider-Man title, a run that holds a legendary status among comic book fans. And rightfully so, Ditko’s artwork reaches some grand new heights here. I found some of his work in the first seventeen issues to not be all that impressive, but here Ditko has some sequences that are among the best art I have ever seen in the medium. As for stories, this is a more mixed bag. By this point, almost every iconic Spider-Man villain had been introduced, a truly remarkable feat for just a couple years. That means these issues either feature the return of already beloved rogues or the introduction of those villains who would be forgotten almost as soon as they debuted. I doubt we will find many passionate fans of Molten Man or The Looter out there among the fandom. What we do get is the introduction of some vitally important supporting players in Peter Parker’s life.

By this point in Spider-Man, the template had been set. The series was a constant balance of Peter’s personal life (dating, work, family, school) and the responsibility he had to use his powers to benefit society. I really appreciate how Stan Lee and Ditko communicated the young hero’s growing frustration with that tension. Spider-Man is truly a character who doesn’t enjoy being a superhero all of the time; he sees his powers as much as a curse as a gift. There’s some amusing discourse about the Silver Age Superman being presented as a dickish father figure around this time. I would argue that Spider-Man is also a somewhat prickly character, becoming smarmy and arrogant towards J. Jonah Jameson (not that the guy didn’t deserve it). Parker is also incredibly immature when it comes to his love life, allowing Betty Brant to slip away into the arms of Ned Leeds and being quite the whiny little bitch about.

Lee & Ditko further complicate Parker’s life with his high school graduation. Once he begins attending Empire State University, we’re introduced to Harry Osborn and Gwen Stacy, who immediately dislike their new classmate. From their perspective, Peter’s constant exhaustion from working day and night is interpreted as snobbery. In some moments that reek of the era’s sexism, Gwen becomes even more intrigued by the “negging” she gets from Peter. For all their innovation in the comic book medium, Marvel was still behind the times for a few decades when portraying women more realistically. 

We get a few marquee names introduced when it comes to villains but not many. The Scorpion is probably the most notable new baddie in these issues, his origin tied directly to Jameson’s constant machinations to ruin Spider-Man in the public eye. The Beetle, a foe of the Human Torch, is brought into Spidey’s purview here, and we meet Spencer Smythe and his Spider-Slayer. There’s Sandman, Kraven, The Enforcers when it comes to returning contestants. Doctor Octopus cements his place as the chief nemesis of our hero, but momentum is building surrounding Green Goblin at the time. 

Per Doc Ock, he is the villain of a multiple-issue storyline that brought us one of the most iconic moments in Spider-Man’s history. In issue 33, we have Spidey pinned beneath part of the villain’s aquatic lair, the water rushing in, and our hero pinned beneath part of the structure. The technical framing of this sequence is done so masterfully, with the panels shrinking in number but growing in size as Peter overcomes both his physical and mental limitations to escape and fight back. We have a page with a 2×3 grid and one large wide panel at the bottom; the next page is a grid of just 2×3; however, each pair of panels has a greater height as we go down the page, then a row of 3 with one large panel taking up half the page, and finally a full splash page as Spidey thrusts the tons of metal and debris off. In terms of comics being analogous to cinema, this is pretty close. I think this is a chief example of why I am still drawn to the comics form over the popular films. There’s just something you cannot recreate in movies about the superhero genre that works so perfectly on the page.

That brings us to Steve Ditko’s departure from the book and some misunderstanding around why. There’s a common myth I’d heard for years that Ditko left over disagreements with Stan Lee on the identity of Green Goblin. The story was that he didn’t want it to be Norman Osborn, rather a nobody that Spider-Man had never met in his personal life. This is the line Stan Lee would often trot out, but as I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older and studied the history of these creators, Lee is not the patron saint of Marvel Comics. This version of the events gained traction as Ditko was never keen on greeting his public and stayed out of the spotlight while Lee went about soaking up the attention every chance he got. If you go back to these comics and Norman’s first appearance in them, it’s clear he’s meant to be a bad guy, an unscrupulous businessman unafraid to get his hands dirty. It’s the first sign that the Green Goblin excuse doesn’t hold water.

What has come out since is a pattern of behavior from Lee in giving his collaborators short shrift in the credits of these books. It’s well-known now that Lee would often script off the plots given to him by the artists. Ditko is now credited as the plotter in these collections leading us to understand that the supporting characters and various enemies were his creation first and merely fleshed out by Lee. Lee was milking his position as editor of Marvel Comics and made sure his name was in lights while almost all of his artists/plotters were supporting players. This was going on with Jack Kirby, which would be one factor in his leaving for DC Comics in the early 1970s. 

I am very curious as to where Ditko would have taken Spider-Man had he remained. As I said, the art was improving by leaps and bounds, a strong sense that the artist was experimenting with the form to tell more dynamic and thrilling stories. No slight to John Romita who would follow, but Ditko captured a weirdness about the world of Spider-Man that’s been missing ever since. Romita would turn Peter Parker into a cooler, ladies’ man figure while Ditko emphasized the awkward, angry young nerd. Ditko’s Spider-Man was very human and, other than toward his Aunt May was sometimes a pretty spiteful nasty shit. 

This run ends in a manner that captures the feel of our first chapter in Spider-Man’s life. A villain introduced in the issue ends up having a redemption arc of sorts, hailed as a media darling, and Peter watches as it’s announced he’s getting his own television series. Peter is again reminded of how marginalized he is in a world full of beloved super-powered people. Aunt May remarks that Peter should stop watching the news, as many stories are so terrible they can induce nightmares. Peter responds as he walks upstairs to bed, head hung low, “Not much chance of that in my case! I only have them when I’m awake!” A fairly dark ending to Ditko’s run but one that highlights how different this character was meant to be before his ascension into a media icon.

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