Monday, October 5, 2009

The Comics Code Authority: Revised to Relax, Part 10

Amazing Spider-Man #98 (July 1971)
“The Goblin’s Last Gasp!”
Stan Lee/Gil Kane-Frank Giacoia

Doug: Welcome back to another issue focusing on the Comics Code Authority – in fact, this is the last episode in our marathon examination of some of the do’s/don’ts that surrounded the Code in the early 1970’s. At the conclusion of this post, we’ll throw in our two cents toward an evaluation of this whole situation.

Doug: ASM #98 concludes the three-part Green Goblin storyline, subsequently known as the “drug issues”. Allegedly Stan Lee was contacted by the federal government and asked to write a story that would help to influence young Americans to stay away from drugs. Stan chose to publish ASM #’s 96-98 without the Comics Code seal on the covers of the comics. While I don’t have sales figures handy, nor do I know if these books were widely popular at the time, history has shown that they are among the Silver and Bronze Age issues of The Amazing Spider-Man that collectors seek out.

Karen: As I’ve said a million times now, ASM 98 was the first ASM I ever owned. Although I could read, the story went right over my head. I wasn’t interested in drugs – just Spidey! As a matter of fact, I never noticed that the Comics Code stamp was missing from the cover. I did however notice that Spidey’s red spider was missing from his back! Tsk tsk.

Doug: I complained at the beginning of our ASM #97 post that I felt Stan wrote Peter as somewhat of a doofus – “forgetting” how dangerous the Goblin was, etc. Well, he’s at it again. In this story’s third panel, AFTER the Goblin has called him “Parker”, the Goblin threatens to reveal Spider-Man’s secret identity – to which Peter thinks “I… I’d almost forgotten about that!” What the?!? Did Stan just think he needed a dialogue balloon there? How stupid.

Karen: I agree, I don’t really care for this exposition which makes the characters look stupid. But on the other hand, I suppose Stan felt he needed to provide some background for readers who might be new to the book. After all, in those days, the splash page wasn't a full recap of the last 6 issues!

Karen: What really drove me crazy with this issue was the weird punctuation! There were the typical exclamation points, but no punctuation at all at the end of sentences. Old pro Artie Simek is credited as letterer, so I’m a bit surprised about the sloppiness.

Doug: Peter is able to drive the Goblin away by showing him the passed out Harry – apparently Norman Osborn forgets his “civilian” life while do-badding. The shock of seeing Harry in Peter’s arms becomes too uncomfortable for Osborn, so he flees. Pete then calls an ambulance to take Harry to the hospital.

Karen: After Pete takes Harry to the hospital he reflects on Harry’s condition, noting that “he was just too weak”. I think it was acceptable back then to assume someone on drugs was ‘weak’ – that they had a character flaw. You’d never hear comments like that now. It seems as though society as a whole tries to excuse such behavior by blaming it on outside forces. I found that remark somewhat refreshing, to be honest.

Doug: There’s a bit of time spent on the feelings of Gwen and Peter since their break-up. It’s pretty typical soap opera drama, but good nonetheless. Stan had crafted a Spider-verse, and taking a page to deal with Gwen’s feelings was fine with me.

Karen: You know it’s scenes like these, which show how much these two kids cared for each other, that make me even more upset by the later revision with Gwen’s affair with Osborne! I realize that the writer’s original intent was that Gwen was pregnant with Peter’s kids, but how editorial could have thought it would ‘fix’ that by making it Osborne’s kids, I’ll never know! I think it’s just another sign that many of our current comics pros are clueless when it comes to the history of the characters they work on.

Doug: This issue’s drug focus was on the pusher who sold Harry the pills in the previous issue. The guy strikes up a conversation with Pete and makes light of the fact that he sold the drugs to Harry. Peter steps toward the pusher, and a couple of heavies emerge. Of course, Pete handles the three of them with ease. My exception to this scene, particularly in light of the fact that the pusher is packing heat, is that this sends the wrong message to children reading this story. My suggestion to my two sons would be to totally ignore thugs like this, and to get themselves into a crowd of people as soon as possible. I guess the parent in me would worry that kids might feel that because Pete stood up for himself and Harry that they should do likewise. That’s a potentially life-threatening course of action to anyone not imbued with spider-strength and spider-agility, and I don’t mean to be flip by saying that.

Karen: I can understand your concern. But since it’s a comic book, I’m sure Stan felt having Pete walk away wouldn’t be nearly dramatic enough! And Stan does have Peter think how he has to hold back, because his great strength might really hurt someone.

Doug: What did you make of the scene between Jonah and Robbie, concerning running a story about Harry’s hospitalization?

Karen: I thought that was more of Stan’s social conscience coming through. It was similar to the scene the issue before, where Joe’s son Robby made statements that drugs were not just a black problem. Stan was just hammering the point home. He also got to show that Jameson, despite his clownish exterior, was at heart a journalist.

Doug: Spidey takes to the rooftops in search of the Goblin. Amazingly, in a city the size of Manhattan, it doesn’t take long before they are fully engaged in battle. Osborn has concocted some new chemicals that erase Spider-Man’s ability to cling to walls. While Spidey retains his other powers, his fighting prowess is certainly modified. Couple that with empty web-shooters (whatever happened to the spare cartridges in his belt??), and the Goblin has the upper hand.

Karen: A bit contrived, to be sure, but I still thought the sequence, with Spidey running and jumping across the Manhattan rooftops, was pretty exciting. Kane sure knew how to tell a story! And of course, we get the happy ending, with Gwen and Peter reunited!

Doug: I’m curious about an ongoing plot device in Spidey comics of this era, and that is the constant holding back against his foes. First of all, it leads one to believe that Spidey’s as strong as Superman. Secondly, it negates the fact that Peter Parker is an incredibly bright person and makes him seemingly incapable of creativity in problem solving. Just in our examination of these Spider-Man books, he’s had to hold himself back against the Man-Wolf (Jameson’s son), the Lizard (aka Dr. Curt Connors, Spidey’s friend), and the Goblin (Harry’s father). Who in the world does he cut loose against then? I mean, you can’t fight the Scorpion every day!

Karen: As you point out, a number of his foes are also people he knows and/or cares about. So he has the dilemma of dealing with them without really harming them. The way I read it, it’s not necessarily because he’s so much more powerful than them (certainly not the case with the Lizard!) but his conscience won’t let him hurt them. I think that was a plot Stan felt was unique (at the time) and boy did he milk it!

Doug: So how would I assess this period in Marvel’s history, as it pushed the limits of the Comics Code, and then operated in its revisionist era? First off, I’d laud Stan for taking the chances he did with these drug issues, which had a lot more teeth to them than anything Marvel attempted to do with zombies, werewolves, or vampires after 1972. Secondly, I wonder if he wasn’t pushing the envelope a bit with The Spectacular Spider-Man #2, testing the waters with a “relevant” story about the effects of LSD-trips (albeit in the form of a pumpkin bomb). And third, I think most of the entire discussion of the Code was much ado about nothing. Other than the presence of Morbius or the Man-Wolf as formerly-banned types of characters, the stories they were in were not bloody or with any adult themes beyond what would have been printed if it was a story with the Porcupine as the baddie-of-the-day.

Karen: At the time, Marvel took a stand and it was commendable. However, today it seems fairly ridiculous that these books couldn’t go out with code approval. There’s certainly nothing here that glorifies drug use.

Karen: As we’ve discussed before the Marvel monsters were also non-issues. Other than being called vampires or zombies or werewolves, they had very little in common with the supernatural legends of the past. As a regular reader of Marvel comics in the 70s, I can say that there was very little to disturb or upset a youngster in those books.

Doug: However, I will say that the true fall-out of the Code wouldn’t be felt for another 5-6 years, as Wolverine and the Punisher began to be explored and pushed. Then a few years after that Frank Miller set the comics world on its ear with the publication of The Dark Knight Returns. Comic books, for better or worse, have never recovered the innocence that they had before 1985.


Fred W. Hill said...

This three part story was, IMO, a contender for the last great story that Stan wrote and this particular issue was one of the earliest of my collection -- or at least the earliest that I bought off the rack, at age 8, and which didn't wind up getting lost or thrown away the next time my family moved. While it wasn't the first Spider-Man comic I'd ever read, it was one of the comics that made the biggest impact on me, as much for the dynamics of the storytelling as for the plot. I hadn't read the previous two issues, didn't really know who Harry, or the Goblin or Gwen were, so by some points of logic I should have hated it because it wasn't a complete story for me. Yet I loved it! Even without any sort of mega-recap, Stan provided enough info for me to figure out what was going on and figure out the relationships of these characters to one another, and, more importantly, make me care about them, even old slimy, demented Norman Osborne. At the time I also still occasionally read some DCs, and it didn't matter that they provided a complete story in one issue, because the characters were so bland and the stories so formulized I didn't really care what happened to them the issue before or what might happen in later issues. But at his best, Stan made me interested in Peter Parker, with his all-too-human problems, as in Spider-Man the super-hero. And Gil Kane was a master not only of portraying action, but emotion as well.
It would still be nearly two years before I began collecting Spider-Man (or any other title) regularly, catching issue #111, then #119 and the next 100 or so with only a couple of gaps. Of course, that second continuous issue of my collection was #120, the most heartrending Spidey tale of all and a leading contender for the start of the Bronze Age of Comics. Definitely, from that point the tone of the Amazing Spider-Man became dramatically different from the Lee & Romita reprints I was reading in Marvel Tales.

Karen said...

Hey Fred, it sounds like we were both getting Spidey around the same time, and I've often thought back about how I was reading the contemporary Spider-Man as well as Marvel Tales at the same time. There was a huge difference in tone as you say; while Peter had problems galore in Marvel Tales, the mood was still lighter than the regular book. While I enjoyed Conway's work on the book it was kind of a downer a lot of times! I think Stan's attitude -which permeated the Marvel titles when he was writing them -was that life is hard but if you really try, you can make it better. The 70s were of course the decade of Viet Nam and Watergate, and that cynicism had an effect on the titles to be sure.


Fred W. Hill said...

Very true, Karen, although I think even some of Stan's writing was becoming bleaker by 1970, what with the death of George Stacy and growing hints of marital discord between Reed & Sue in the FF, which Roy and Gerry stoked to greater effect in their stories.
I recently reread the classic Mad version of Donald Duck by Kurtzman and Elder, which includes a shift from Disney style kid friendly cartooning to Elder's more shadowy, eerie style, which Darnold Duck remarks on just before Mickery Rodent traps him in a cage. That seems to reflect the difference between the Marvel Comics of the mid-60s and that of the '70s, when the monsters were unleashed and things got much darker.
But, hey, we still got Howard the Duck for a while back then, and that was certainly fun, even when poor Howie quacked up and was institutionalized!

Matthew Bradley said...

I don't think Artie Simek can be blamed for the alleged sloppiness. At one point there was a movement afoot to avoid having every single sentence end in an exclamation point, as it was felt (quite rightly) that this was not realistic. So Stan decreed that there would be few if any exclamation points used, but the problem was that the periods were so small, they often didn't print properly--which is apparently what happened here--leaving the sentences looking like they had no punctuation whatsoever. At that point, I believe they reluctantly returned to the exclamation-point-heavy style.

Doug said...

Point taken, Matthew -- I don't believe this was ever addressed in a Soapbox or on a Bulletins page anywhere. Certainly the exclamation point is as much a part of comic book and strips as are colorful longjohns and gag lines. So that they brought that style back seemed inevitable.

Thanks for the comment! (exclamation point, you see...)


Anonymous said...

I seem to remember an editorial in Stan's Soapbox or Bullpen Bulletins explaining that they were downplaying exclamation points and asking for feedback. A few months later, Stan said in his column that they got very few comments, and that the few letters about it that they did receive mostly said that it did not make any noticeable difference. So, after that, they did not have an across-the-board policy about punctuation.

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