Propp's Morphology and Comics: "Amazing Spider-Man #1"
Issue #1 of The Amazing Spider-Man was a first for our web-spinning wonder. While other characters started with their first issues—Fantastic Four #1 or The Incredible Hulk #1, for example—Spidey's origin had been detailed elsewhere. Now, having laid the groundwork in Amazing Fantasy #15, writer Stan Lee and artist Steve Ditko had a brand-new series on their hands, crafting the adventures of this Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man. It all started here, with two quirky tales filling in the 22 pages. We'll be looking at the different parts of Propp's analysis in both tales simultaneously; as neither story has a huge impact on the other, this shouldn't be much of an issue (pun, unfortunately, intended).
Our first issue—simply titled "Spider-Man!"—opens immediately at the end of Amazing Fantasy #15. Peter bemoans the loss of his uncle and his new abilities: "I wish there was never such a thing [as these powers]!" he laments. But then he sees Aunt May speaking with the landlord, promising him money at a later date. Here is where the problem arises: without Uncle Ben's income—the source of which, it should be stated, is never elaborated upon—the Parkers are facing serious money woes. Thus, a problem and a lack are identified for Aunt May and her young nephew.
In Part 2 of this issue, "The Chameleon Strikes!", Peter actually considers a solution to his financial problems: joining the Fantastic Four! Here, Peter, as Spider-Man, has come up with a way to alter the status quo. As a solo adventurer, his needs are not completely met. Perhaps by joining a team of heroes can his problems be solved. While he initially comes to blows with the team, Spidey eventually manages to tell them what's he looking for.
Interdiction: Aunt May/The FF
In Part 1, Peter is offered advice by Aunt May, a response to his suggestion of leaving school and working full time: "You must continue your studies!" she pleads. May knows where his heart lies, in science and knowledge, and begs him to pursue it. Meanwhile, Peter's mind drifts to how his special abilities could rake in some dough, even fleetingly considering turning to crime for some quick cash.
In Part 2, Spidey's financial aims of joining the FF are batted down by the members of the team themselves. They're a non-profit, they fund their own research etc. So Spidey leaves with a "thanks for nothin'" essentially. But a cry follows him from one of the members: "Wait! Come back!" It'll become a plea he will hear often in his career. Some like-minded, genuinely helpful hero will always reach out a hand, always ask Spidey to reason and think and acknowledge solutions that could help in ways he may not even understand.
Violation: Superheroics/The Chameleon
After hearing Aunt May's plea, Peter does go back to his studies. However—and this is a rather hefty "however"—our young friend does not give up the entertaining scene completely. Setting aside the whole "life of crime" concept, Peter, understanding that "I've got to perform again!", turns back to showbiz; the ploy is, sadly, not reciprocated well, as he discovers that (1. "Spider-Man" is not a name you can cash checks with, and (2. some people, such as Daily Bugle publisher J. Jonah Jameson, really hate superheroes and will do all they can to discredit the hero's name. As a result, Spidey's burgeoning entertainment career is cut short. Perhaps this is not a direct violation of Aunt May's suggestion, but as further stories will tell, Peter's being Spidey largely interferes with Peter himself accomplishing much of note. Only in more recent issues of Dan Slott's run did he finally land a gig as a scientist. Decisions such as these, choosing to pursue the "Spider" rather than the "man," have made the decades a bit uneasier for Peter in several cases.
In our second story, after the hero leaves the Baxter Building in a huff, Spidey finds himself contacted by a mysterious individual who connects with him via his spider-sense's "frequency" (yeah, I don't get it either). This enterprising man is Soviet spy The Chameleon—knowing Spidey's fruitless attempt at joining the FF must be because "he's desperate for money!" ole' Chammy tricks Peter into unknowingly assisting him with a lucrative lure. Having abandoned the FF, having chosen the path of the loner he usually takes, Spidey is vulnerable to the trap and gets tricked.
Reconnaissance: J. Jonah Jameson/Spider-Man: Thief
There is no villain, per se, in our first story. Yet the first steps of an attack against Spider-Man do occur. J. Jonah Jameson, through papers and speeches, goes on a verbal assault against the so-called "masked menace." "He is a bad influence on our youngsters!" he shouts vehemently. "Think what would happen if they make a hero out of this lawless, inhuman monster! We must not permit it!" Maybe Jameson doesn't start a physical altercation for Spidey, maybe he isn't gearing up for a final confrontation, but he takes the first steps in crafting a long-lasting enmity between the two.
Part 2 sees devious Chammy tricking Peter, as I said. Viewing Spider-Man as the "perfect fall guy," our Soviet spy sneaks into a nondescript building disguised as a guard before switching to a facsimile Spider-Man costume. It's all part of a sinister plan to steal "missile defense plans" for "the iron curtain countries" who will pay him a "fortune" for the papers. Much like Jameson, the Chameleon's actions sow seeds of doubt in the public's mind.
Villainy: The Rocket/The Imposter
Again, while no supervillains attack in our first story, Spidey is still given a chance to embark upon some superhuman heroics. When the rocket Jameson's son John is copiloting malfunctions and begins plummeting to earth, Spidey is luckily in the area, ready to keep the young man from crashing. It's a disaster to be sure, and a moment for our hero to buck up and make his public debut as the web-slinging Spider-Man.
The second story offers us a better look at villainy. The mysterious Chameleon, plans in hand, flees the scene of the crime seconds before Spidey arrives. Of course, it also works out that the police also arrive right when Spidey lands on the roof, trying to capture him for "stealing" the plans. Realizing he's been duped, Spidey webs himself away. While it's not a huge blow to Spidey's pride or public persona at the time, the scene does craft the hero Lee and Ditko are making Spidey out to be: an unfortunate fellow who, rightly or not, often runs afoul of the law, despite his noble intentions.
Mediation: Face-to-Face with JJJ/ Chasing the Chameleon
Knowing John Jameson is in trouble, Spidey puts on his good ole supersuit and appears before a top brass individual as well as Jameson. While the military man bemoans the impossibility of the situation—that there's no way to reinstall a missing component before the shuttle crashes—Spidey corrects him: "Let me have the missing capsule! I'll get it to the capsule somehow!" Despite insistence by JJJ that this is all a trick, Spidey is given a chance. Considering the possibilities, our hero knows he's the only one in this instance to rescue John.
In our Chameleon-centered story, Peter quickly realizes he has to find this spidery imposter. "What a fool I was!" he laments. It's a nice touch by Stan Lee, acknowledging the hero's youthfulness and naivete when it comes to superheroics. Nevertheless, Spidey pulls himself together, concluding that a helicopter he had seen near the scene of a crime was too much of a coincidence. Catapulting himself across the city, Spidey webs himself a parachute and floats out to sea to follow the fleeing chopper. Spidey may have been fooled, but he's no dummy. Utilizing his intelligence, Spidey is quick to make up for his mistake.
Punishment: Catching the Capsule/Confronting the Chameleon
Spidey manages to reach the capsule, with the help of a friendly neighborhood pilot, crawling across a strand of webbing, straining with all his might, until he reaches the seemingly doomed airmen. Again, there's no villain here, but the tension Lee and Ditko craft is wonderful. If anything, Spidey's battling the forces of gravity and physics in their combined efforts to bring him and the capsule to the ground. Questioning his ability to insert the missing component, Spidey pulls off this trick, saving the capsule and the men within.
Our second tale sees Spidey finally come face-to-face with his imposter. Following the chopper to a submarine, Spidey keeps the whirlybird from landing, tears off the helicopter door, and snags the Chameleon. Our hero's mad—he's been manipulated and framed—but his nobility leads him to bring the Russian imposter to the police rather than take down the villain personally. There's no big fight here, but Spidey's persistence in halting his new foe, stopping both submarine and helicopter, shows him to be the kind of the guy who doesn't give up. Even when the Chameleon tries to flee, Spidey's right there to try and nab him again.
Marriage: Bad Press
In neither story, unfortunately, do things work out well for our hero. Though he saves the life of John Jameson and his copilot, Spidey's heroism is twisted by JJJ's manipulative newspaperman skills. In JJJ's words, Spidey was behind the entire plot, asserting his "heroism" was then an attempt to make the incident look like it wasn't his fault. Instead of a reward for his actions, Spidey receives further criticism from the man who's son he just saved. The fear spreads to other New Yorkers, and the hero is even declared a wanted fugitive. Not much of a reward, but the ending is still an assertion of Lee and Ditko's theme: Spidey's dedication to justice despite the circumstances and backlash. "Action is his reward," as the old theme song goes.
Similarly, in our second tale, Spidey actually fails to capture the Chameleon. Tricked into thinking Spidey is the villain in disguise, the police drive our hero out. Though the villain's ruse is unmasked by the officers, Spidey is unaware of this and runs away, actually sobbing. "I wish I had never gotten my superpowers!" he laments as he heads off into the night. Up until this point, Spidey has yet to receive any traditional reward. Heroes like Iron Man and Captain America, and even the FF, are applauded for their efforts. But not Spider-Man. For now, he's denied the happy ending.
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© 2019 Nathan Kiehn