We’re back, with another December of Mark’s “Lost Gems” — stories he considers among the very best Spidey tales, that are also unlikely to appear on any “best of” lists. For this year’s entry, Mark is going to pick one Spider-Man story per decade (60s, 70s, 80s, etc.). Hope you all enjoy and happy holidays!
This entry looks at Amazing Spider-Man #10, by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko.
It’s probably difficult to sell any of the original 38 Stan Lee/Steve Ditko Amazing Spider-Man issues (plus those two annuals) as being a “Lost Gem,” but I selected ASM #10 because: 1) I’m super-stubborn and wanted to make the “one comic per decade” edict work; and 2) I would argue that of all the original villains introduced by Lee/Ditko in the early-60s, the Enforcers are probably among the “least” essential to the Spider-Man mythos, thereby making their first appearance a sorta/kinda “Lost Gem.”
Now that I got all of that justifying out of the way, let me try to persuade those of you out there who have read/are reading the original Lee/Ditko run why you should NOT skip over ASM #10 just because you saw the villains on the cover and thought to yourselves: “don’t the Enforcers have that one guy that Dan Slott killed a few years ago? PASS!” (I seriously doubt any of you are talking so callously about a classic issue of Spider-Man).
The Enforcers, in their own, simplistic way, really accentuate the best qualities of a Lee/Ditko Spider-Man villain. Certainly the likes of Electro, Sandman and Doctor Octopus are more colorful and exciting, and all three can unquestionably be defined as not just “classic” Spider-Man rogues, but class Marvel villains. However, when reading the Lee/Ditko run, and then supplementing some of that with some of Ditko’s personal writings after he left Marvel, the Enforcers are more of what the artist had in mind when he started plotting issue after issue of a superhero comic book series starring an awkward, social outcast teenager. Ditko frequently refers to wanting to place Amazing Spider-Man in a “teenager’s world,” and he absolutely hated it when Lee would push for the more fantastical characters and storyline elements to be included in the comics (such as Spidey’s encounter with astronaut John Jameson’s space shuttle in ASM #1). Certainly, a villain that can morph his sand-like body so that he’s practically invincible, or a baddie that can harness the power of electricity, are pretty cool adversaries, but there’s nothing remotely “grounded,” or “realistic” about either of them (as realistic as one can get in a storyline about a kid who received powers from a radioactive spider-bite).
There is nothing extraordinary about the Enforcers’ powers or abilities, and yet, based in part on that old “strength in numbers” belief, they’re still presented as a legitimate threat in this comic. Fancy Dan (still the greatest name in comics) is small, but fast, and knows “Judo,” which I have to imagine was something Lee once heard about in passing, making him think “that sounds so unique … so foreign. I MUST have a character that knows Judo!” Ox, is your standard big, strong dumb guy (shockingly not named “Tiny” in the grand fashion of Stan the Man-applied shcmaltzy irony). And then there’s Montana, who can play around with a rope and lasso like it’s nobody’s business. In retrospect, I often confuse the abilities of Montana and Fancy Dan, because a guy with “fancy” in his name strikes me as someone who can do crazy tricks with a rope. But I’m going to wager that “Montana” got stuck with the lasso-gimmick since Montana is one of those old, homespun, Country Western names, and old, homespun, Country Western folk are notorious for things like rearing cattle, eating baked beans, and using a lasso.
ASM #10 also features another one of Ditko’s favorite plot devices: the mystery villain. Complete with another one of Ditko’s favorite plot devices: the somewhat milquetoast reveal of said mystery villain. In all honesty, having a larger than life anonymous “Big Man” as the head of the fictional New York City underworld was certainly ahead of its time (hello, Kingpin). And giving him the physical support of the Enforcers only made the character more intimidating and threatening. But as we would later see with the Crime Master, and to a lesser-degree the Green Goblin (remember, Norman Osborn wasn’t quite THE Norman Osborn when he was first revealed as the Goblin in ASM #39), Ditko — a notorious acolyte of the objectivist Ayn Rand — loved to set up more exciting options for his mystery villains (in this case, J. Jonah Jameson), only to inevitably reveal the character as someone totally random. Because, that’s the way life can be, pal! It’s random!
It’s not always a crazy surprise. Sometimes, it’s just some guy you never met before, or in the case of the Big Man, it’s Frederick Foswell, a weasley little reporter at the Daily Bugle, who wears stilts and a mask and masquerades as one of the most powerful crime lords in his spare time. And he would have gotten away with it too, if it wasn’t for you meddlesome kids (no seriously, when Foswell is found out, he basically does the Scooby Doo “I would have gotten away with it too,” line. Look it up if you don’t believe me).
Now that I’m done assaulting Ditko’s objectivism and his sometimes anal-retentive desire to keep most of his Spider-Man stories as “street level” tales of heroes versus thugs and crooks, let me pontificate a bit about the part of this comic that I think truly, truly elevates it to an all-time great story: Jameson’s “why I hate Spider-Man” speech. It’s one of those moments that helped lay the foundation for making Jonah one of Marvel’s most complex, yet enduring supporting characters. Prior to ASM #10, the reader had witnessed JJJ use the power of the press to punish Spider-Man every which way — even when it often appeared to be irrational and horribly unfair. Regardless of what Spidey did to clear his name, Jameson accused him of being a crook, a menace, a narcissist, a show-off and a costumed supervillain (Electro), before finally settling on him being the leader of New York’s criminal underworld. Jameson’s relentless obsession obviously begged the question of “why.”
In another bit of Ditko’s objectivism seeping its way onto the pages of the comics, Jameson admits that he hates Spider-Man because he envies him. JJJ is essentially driven to madness over his jealousy of how Spider-Man can selflessly help others, while taking his constant abuse, and then go back out there and help others some more. As I inferred above, Jameson’s comic book career has become defined by these moments of reflection and candor. They’re honestly some of the very best moments in Spider-Man history because it’s absolutely thrilling to watch this otherwise plain-spoken, one-dimensional character swiftly evolve into something far more mercurial. ASM #10 is a pioneer in that regard.