Propp's Morphology and Comics: "Amazing Fantasy" #15
A Marvelous Analysis
Vladimir Propp crafted a storytelling analysis that he used to examine the structure and characters of Russian folktales. Over the centuries since Propp's Morphology was created, it has been used beyond its intended purpose, utilized in critiquing the structure of more modern stories and films, such as the Star Wars saga. But what about comic books?
The genre, since its inception, has become what many have argued to be modern American mythology, akin to the wondrous, fantastical tales of Greek gods and Norse pantheons of ages past. Couldn't it be argued, then, that a process used to analyze older "myths" could also be utilized in analyzing this more modern branch of mythology?
I say yes. And I'm going to try.
Spider-Man is my favorite hero to cross the comic book page. I've read and collected hundreds of issues and fallen in love with several stories over the past fifteen years or so. Having read a large portion of his bibliography, I'm going to try to apply Propp's Morphology to him. And where better to try than with his very own origin, chronicled in Amazing Fantasy #15? This should be a fun test, so see which of the eight (condensed) steps of Propp's analysis apply nicely to the structure of Spidey's origin.
Absentation: The Bite
In Propp's structure, the first step is "absentation"—normally, the loss of something or someone. Perhaps a precious item gets stolen, or maybe the protagonist leaves the safety of their home for the wilds of the uncharted world. No matter how it happens, the status quo is altered. What once was normal becomes abnormal and vice versa.
For our hero, Peter Parker, normalcy is what becomes absent. In the first pages of Amazing Fantasy #15, he's a typical high school student; heck, he might be less so, given his wallflower persona and lack of friends. Real smart kid, but nobody who stands out. But that all changes when he visits a science experiment demonstration and gets bitten by a radioactive spider, gaining incredible abilities. It's an incident, a single moment, that alters the course of his life forever. Gone are any chances of a normal adolescence and adulthood.
Interdiction: The Burglar
At some point either right before they begin their adventure or after starting on their journey, the hero is given an order or a warning. Perhaps it's a kindly old woman outlining the dangers and trials they will face on the road. Perhaps it's Uncle Owen warning Luke about that crazy old Ben Kenobi character, the kooky hermit. Whatever happens, the hero is told, usually by someone in authority, either to do or, more likely, not to do something.
By this time in Spidey's tale, he's become something of a household name. After showcasing his newfound strength and speed in a wrestling competition, Peter turns to national television to get his name out there. After one such show, Spidey dodges some hungry reporters and comes across a fleeing burglar. The interdiction comes here in two words from an old security guard in hot pursuit of the crook: "Stop him!" It's a cry for help, a plea for Spidey to assist with capturing this evading criminal. Even if the guard is unaware of Spidey's abilities, the reader knows Spidey should step in and help. He's a superhero after all, right?
Violation: Letting the Bad Guy Go
Naturally, our stalwart adventurer fails to heed the words of wisdom given them. Maybe they go on their journey in defiance of the wisdom given them, maybe they consider the words and go despite them or to prove themselves. For Luke, it's visiting Ben Kenobi and embracing his destiny as a Jedi Knight. The violation doesn't have to be all bad, naturally. Sure, because of Luke's decision, his aunt and uncle are murdered and he becomes embroiled in a Rebellion against an all-powerful Empire. But he also grows and learns as a Jedi and eventually defeats that same Empire.
Spidey's violation—choosing to let the crook pass and get away scot-free--leads to an immediate consequence: a harsh retort from the security officer, furious that Spidey let the criminal go. Drunk on his own newfound fame and power, Spidey flaunts it with a gruff response of his own: "Sorry, pal! That's your job!" He asserts he's looking out for himself and himself only; why step in and bruise his little spider knuckles on a thug's jaw when there's a perfectly good cop to do that job himself? In the moment, Spidey's selfishness gets in the way of his heroic potential.
Reconnaissance: The Warehouse
This is the part where the villain begins the first few steps of his attack against the hero. Normally, it's where the villain sends out agents to find information, or initially attacks the hero, or hires goons to make a mess of the hero's life. Continuing the Star Wars analogy, it's the Stormtroopers killing Luke's Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru. This step shows the hero the "mess" he's found himself in and that he's going up against a threat far more powerful than he considered.
There's not much of that at all in Amazing Fantasy #15. It isn't like the villain is meticulously plotting to go after Spider-Man's family—though a later issue would reveal the more specific reason why he targets the Parker house that evening. One might be able to argue his use of "old Acme warehouse" as a hideaway is forward-thinking on his part, but that's a bit of a stretch. The only thing here is the burgling plot; the fact that the burglar selects Spider-Man's house is completely inadvertent.
Villainy: The Death of Uncle Ben
With the stakes beginning to grow ever higher, the villain makes his first, real direct attack against the hero or his cause to strike discord, grief, or fear into our protagonist's heart. Darth Vader ordering the destruction of Alderaan via the Death Star's weapon systems is one such event; this is a blow towards the Rebellion certainly, but also showcases to the heroes the awesome capabilities of the Empire's latest weapon.
Having broken into the Parkers' house in Amazing Fantasy #15, the burglar performs his own bit of villainy by killing Uncle Ben when he's taken unawares. This is the singular event that causes Peter to switch from hedonism to heroism. The death of Ben—his uncle, friend, and mentor—changes his life forever. While he does not know the full consequences of this action yet, Peter is obviously distraught and enraged.
Mediation: The Hunt Begins
The hero has just experienced his lowest point. For Luke, the last few hours in A New Hope have been spent learning an entire planet got destroyed by the Death Star, scampering through that very same Death Star, and watching Obi-Wan Kenobi die before his very eyes, slain by Dark Vader. What's a young farm boy from Tatooine to do? This is where Luke really becomes part of something bigger, joining the Rebel Alliance at their secret base and fully integrating himself in this large resistance against the Empire.
Peter, too, knows that he needs to act. Driven by his anger and anguish, he dons his Spider-Man costume again, but for a different purpose. Instead of jumping through hoops and scaling walls for fun, he's determined to hunt down the man who killed his uncle. Knowing where the burglar is holed up, Peter acknowledges that "He could hold off an army in that gloomy old place!" But, in almost the same breath, as he starts off towards the hideout, Peter also knows one thing: "He won't hold off Spider-Man!" He already knows he's got the power to do the right thing—or, at least, get revenge--and he's finally found the gumption to act on that inclination.
Punishment: Spidey vs. The Burglar
This is the moment fans and viewers thrive for—the climactic showdown between hero and villain! Our hero has finally caught up to his arch-enemy and engages in battle to determine the fate of the universe, the world, or just the hero's loved ones. It's Luke Skywalker vs. Darth Vader, lightsabers drawn and flashing and crackling with light. It's the Rebellion gunning after the Death Stars, searching for weaknesses and letting torpedoes fly! It's dazzling action, spell-binding effects... the stakes have never been higher, so it's time to pull out all the stops.
In Amazing Fantasy #15, Spidey has finally caught up to the burglar in the dilapidated warehouse. Unlike future issues, this here showdown isn't much of a fight between the two opponents, as Spidey merely needs to web up the man's gun and then knock him out with a single punch. But for Spidey, the true climax happens when he sees the burglar's face and realizes "it's the fugitive who ran past me!" It makes for a fantastic, heartbreaking twist as the hero understands his own hand in Uncle Ben's death. The villain may get his comeuppance, but the hero here, too, gets a punishment of his own.
Wedding: With Great Power . . .
This final portion of Propp's analysis is basically the denouement of the story. Here, the falling action and conclusion slide into play. The hero returns home after the long journey, settles down, maybe even marries the princess or gets compensated financially for his efforts. While the "Wedding" portion often has been an actual wedding between the hero and his betrothed, it certainly doesn't have to be that way. The important part is that the hero is rewarded.
Spidey's "reward" is of a different sort at the end of this issue. His victory over the burglar is heavily Pyrrhic, and as he wanders into the night, he dwells on his mistakes. The troubled teenager, as the recently deceased Stan Lee poignantly writes, is "aware at last that in this world, with great power there must also come... great responsibility!" Maybe Spidey doesn't get the girl or return to a happily united family, but he gets a deeper reward of sorts—a lesson that becomes a mantra that becomes a mission. Through the lens of using his power responsibly, Spidey recalls this statement to continually guide his life and adventures. For the next 50 years, this one night, this one lesson will create the core he is as a hero and who Peter Parker is as a person.
© 2018 Nathan Kiehn