Wednesday, July 9, 2014

50 Summers Ago: Amazing Spider-Man Annual 1

In June of 1964 the first Amazing Spider-Man Annual arrived on newsstands. For fans of the character it was a real treat, featuring an extra-long 41 page story by Lee and Ditko, followed by 31 pages of special features.

       The Circus comes to town!  Amazing Spider-Man Annual # 1, June, 1964. Steve Ditko cover art, Artie Simek letters, Stan Goldberg colors. The same team is featured inside, with Stan Lee as co-plotter and Sam Rosen lettering.

With it's multi-colored logo and simple but effective design the first Spider-Man Annual offered a world of excitement. At 25 cents the comic was a real bargain, featuring a total of 72 pages of interior story/art and only three pages of advertising (inside front cover, inside back cover and back cover). I noticed this while checking info for the upcoming Taschen book (check out the link below. The Yancy Street Gang: "Meticulous" Michael J. Vassallo, "Bashful" Barry Pearl and yours truly, have been involved in fact-checking, consulting, researching and writing captions for the Timely/Atlas/Marvel Age, up to the 1970's. End of promotion!)

The ad pages grew in the following year, but it's nice to read a story with no interruptions!  

Steve Ditko did not like the idea of using guest-stars in Spider-Man or Dr. Strange - or any other hero books - feeling that they undercut the story world and the individuality of the main hero, who should be able to deal with problems on his own. Stan Lee thought otherwise, and used his titles to promote the entire superhero line. Guest-stars and villains from other strips appeared during the time that Lee and Ditko were plotting Spider-Man together, but once Ditko began plotting on his own (circa Amazing Spider-Man # 25) no other super-heroes or "borrowed" villains appeared. Ditko explained in his essay "A Mini-History 1: The Green Goblin"* "Amazing Spider-Man Annual #2 (1965) featuring Dr. Strange, was,  as an Annual should be, a special event. It does not necessarily have to connect to the monthly adventures."  

While Ditko's discussion was about Spidey's second Annual, it's likely that he was more agreeable to add guest-stars to a special event, and went along with Stan Lee's idea to promote the line by including Marvel's line of heroes throughout the book. What's interesting is how he accomplished it.

The first guest-star Spidey "meets" is Thor in a humorous two-panel sequence as he zooms past Spidey. Lee provides the humorous dialogue "He's either on his way to a meeting with the Avengers..or he's late for his BARBER!" In every guest appearance Lee adds a caption to promote the characters own comic. 


Ditko's other signature character, Dr. Strange, has a cameo, strolling nonchalantly through the streets of Forest Hills while Peter is tussling with Flash Thompson! Dr. Strange is depicted in his "spirit form" (differentiated by a lack of color) but if so he likely wouldn't be seen by the teenagers; besides, they make no reference to his ghostly appearance. It's possible Ditko's thinking was at odds with Stan Lee's, who may have altered Ditko's intent when writing the dialogue. Perhaps Ditko had Dr. Strange casting a spell to protect himself from the teenagers hooliganism (see his gesture in the first panel) which allowed the boys to harmlessly pass through him. If you look at the scene and picture Doc colored normally it would make a little more sense. 


    As the FF fly around in their Fantasti-Car they think Spidey is goofing around. Instead, traumatized over seeing Aunt May crying over a picture of her deceased husband, his Uncle Ben, Peter's feelings of guilt well-up and he  suffers what appears to be the loss of his powers.

Lost in thought and worried about how his life will change as a normal teenager, Peter is oblivious to Giant-Man and the Wasp stopping a crime.

The Vulture delivers a message to Jameson that Betty Brant (and Aunt May, who was with her) are hostages of "The Sinister Six", a group of Spider-Man's old foes seeking revenge. The Vulture wants Jameson to contact Spider-Man, setting him up in a trap. Jameson, of course, has no clue how to contact Spider-Man and calls the Fantastic Four, who in turn contact the Avengers. Captain America, who answers the call, tells Reed Richards, "I never even MET Spider-Man!". Those were the days!   

The Human Torch sends out a flaming message in the skies to no avail. Professor X has no time to worry about Spider-Man, telling his students to ignore it and get back to work! If only more superheroes minded their own business today instead of getting involved in every story-line! 

Although Peter believes he has lost his powers he desperately attempts to save his loved ones. Arriving at the assigned destination as Spider-Man he encounters Electro and his extraordinary reflexes save his life. Spider-Man then realizes that his loss of powers was only psychosomatic, surely the first time a superhero had suffered such an illness! 

Spidey finally meets another hero in one panel. Since he was fighting Electro in Stark's power plant Iron-Man, shows up, but only AFTER Spidey's confrontation!  Since Lee was promoting the characters perhaps he deliberately left off the official titles in his captions; by this point Journey into Mystery and Tales of Suspense's cover logos were negligible. The superheroes were clearly the main selling point and "The Power of Iron-Man" and "The Mighty Thor" were emphasized. Soon Tales to Astonish would follow suit, although Strange Tales logo remained intact for some time. 

               JJJ contacts the FF again, worried about his own neck, of course!  

The Human Torch appeared in a number of Spider-Man's monthly adventures,but the two teenagers were often antagonistic towards each other. Spider-Man declines Johnny's offer of assistance, clearly Ditko's idea that a hero had to fight his own battles and doesn't need outside help. Ditko explained in "A Mini-History 12: Guest Stars: Heroes and Villains"**  "I also deliberately made S-M and the HT ineffective as a "team" in capturing the B (Beetle)...In yet another S-M/HT team up (#19) I had two policeman capture the Sandman." Ditko cleverly accepted Lee's guest-stars on occasion, but had them get in each others way instead of helping each other. Kind of like two many cooks in the kitchen.  

And here Spidey battles the X-Men. Or does he? They turn out to be robots created by Mysterio. Lee gets to promote the new team (whose seventh issue was on the stands when the Annual appeared) and Ditko avoids a meeting with the real heroes.

In one of the most amusing panels Jameson desperately tries to contact Spider-Man, by conversing with a spider outside his window. I bet he was a fan of Mr. Ed!  

And the final cameo goes to the Human Torch, who checks in with a aggravated JJJ. All told Ditko included 27 panels of guest stars in a 41 page story, and most characters were "walk on" appearances, so Ditko followed Lee's directive while limiting their usage. 

"The Secrets of Spider-Man" feature included cameos of Thor, the Hulk, the Thing and the FF, explaining how strong Spider-Man was in proportion to other heroes, as well as discussing the strength of Spidey's webbing.

A "Guest-Star Page" includes Ditko's versions of the Hulk and the FF, drawn in "the somewhat different Ditko style". While Ditko never quite got the hang of drawing the Thing, he did a fine job on the other members of the FF, particularly the Torch. The following month he would go on to revive the Hulk, plotting and drawing the new co-feature in Tales to Astonish for eight issues.

Finally, we close with this delightful image of Stan Lee being assaulted by Marvel's heroes, including Daredevil and Sgt. Fury, the only characters who didn't make it into the main story. Fury, of course, was set in World War II, and DD may have been omitted because Lee and Ditko worked on the opening story before DD was created (the special features section may have been produced after the lead story), although as Joseph William Marek pointed out, it may simply be that DD was guest-starring in that months Amazing Spider-Man #16.     

While I don't totally agree with Ditko's theory that guest-stars diminish a heroes importance, his point that using them interfered with developing the leading hero and his supporting characters is valid. There was a distinct thrill when heroes met each other, especially for kids, and it was especially entertaining in the early 1960's when it was a novelty and used sparingly. As the years went on an "anything goes" mentality produced many poorly plotted story-lines, lacking in characterization or new ideas. Guest-stars are all too often used as an excuse to mix a sea of characters together until they become indistinguishable. Where is the originality in that? 

*(The Comics, Vol 12, No. 7, July 2001)    

**(The Comics, Vol 14, No. 7, July 2003)