Propp's Morphology and Comics: "Amazing Spider-Man #2"
Something in the Air
Played terrifically by Michael Keaton in 2017's Spider-Man: Homecoming, the Vulture has the distinction of being one of the first supervillains to ever face Spider-Man, becoming one of his most frequent foes. This winged wonder, this bald baddie has his debut here, in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man #2, in a story impressively titled "Duel to the Death with the Vulture!" How can this story—and a backup tale featuring the first appearance of another Spidey foe—hold up against Propp's story structure?
Absentation: The (Continued) Financial Woes of Peter Parker
Before Pete's story starts, Lee and Ditko give us a "prologue" of sorts, introducing their latest costumed criminal. Armed with the power of flight, the Vulture swoops from above, grasping at a briefcase and hefting it away with ease. Lee's dialogue indicates the Vulture has been menacing New York for a while now; elsewhere, J. Jonah Jameson (who, oddly enough, is the publisher of "Jameson Publications," not The Daily Bugle, in this issue!) rallies his employees together to snap pictures of both the Vulture and "that dangerous menace" Spider-Man. Lee and Ditko drop us right into the middle of the action, establishing that "lacks" abound: money is stolen, photos are needed.
And, funnily enough, we come to where those two intersect: an offhand comment by a nearby student—"A photo of The Vulture would be worth a fortune!"—gives Peter his very own "lightbulb" moment. "I'll bet Spider-Man could get close enough to The Vulture to take some pictures that would pay off!" Thus, in these few panels, Peter's absent funds are also given a solution. Lee introduces in just this second issue an idea that shapes Spider-Man stories for years to come: that Peter makes a living by taking pictures of himself, essentially. Therefore, Pete's "absentation" (the absence of funds) in this issue, while central to this particular story, serves as a recurring theme throughout the next five decades of tales. Unlike high fantasy adventures where the hero's "lack" is usually resolved by story's end, Peter Parker's money problems serve as a long-running absence that ebbs and flows.
Interdiction: Pics, Pests, and Predators
Unlike previous issues—where, say, Peter is explicitly told by a security guard to stop a criminal—Spidey isn't given any direct warnings here. And yet, we come to a moment where things could begin to go unexpectedly wrong: Peter borrows his Uncle Ben's camera from Aunt May and attaches it to his Spider-Man costume. For him, this is just a gimmick: while he's captured a few bad guys already, the Spider-Man persona is mainly a way of making money. With his web-slinging, wall-crawling abilities, only he can get close enough to the Vulture for a decent photo. He's not a superhero yet, but Lee and Ditko lay the groundwork for Spidey getting involved in crimefighting. If anything, there's a subtle warning here: Spidey doesn't intend to be a hero, but he's putting himself in the position where he might have to become one.
Readers are also shown a "warning" of sorts on behalf of the villain. In his lair, as the Vulture plots his next move, he's already aware of Spider-Man's presence and the hero's potential interference in his criminal activities. By having the Vulture reference Spidey specifically, Lee and Ditko are foreshadowing their inevitable clash, and the Vulture's determination to not let the masked hero stand in his way.
Violation: When Feathers Fly
Heading out in the hopes of securing a photo of the Vulture, Spidey gets what he wishes: "What luck!" he exclaims as he spots the flying villain shortly after the Vulture leaves his hideout ("luck" standing in for "coincidence" here). Armed with his camera, Spidey sets himself to take photos of the Vulture, essentially chasing the guy. Later photo ops will utilize a more methodical approach, but Spidey's photography beginnings here lack the grace of experience.
The photoshoot, unfortunately, doesn't turn out the way the young hero expects it to, however. By pursuing the Vulture, Spidey unintentionally ends up on the receiving end of the villain's foot, caught off guard and stunned; this allows the Vulture to drop him into a water tower, crowing that the hero will "never bother [me] again!" Again, while no express warning is given to Peter, he's basically "violated" both his original purpose (photography) and the Vulture's schemes, turning a money-making opportunity into a first, failed confrontation with a devious foe.
Reconnaissance: A Plan Is Threaded
The only "planning" done here by the Vulture is him generally stating that it's time to "carry out step two of my master plan!" Believing that he's disposed of Spider-Man, Vulture thinks he's free as a bird (sorry) to plot the rest of his schemes.
Spidey—once he's freed himself from the depths of the deadly water tower—does some significant planning of his own. First, he states his intentions to sell his good photos to Jameson's "NOW Magazine!" (precursor to The Daily Bugle), before embarking on a method of clipping the Vulture's wings. Second, he "add[s] an extra web-fluid capsule" to his web-shooters and "additional web-fluid cartridges" to his belt. Finally, he invents a device that will prove beneficial in his next round against the Vulture. Having faced defeat, Spidey is humble enough to admit that he needs to improve his crime-fighting techniques, relying on his intelligence while the Vulture soars on his bloated ego.
Villainy: The Heist
Having sent messages warning of his intended diamond heist, the Vulture makes good on his threat. Though police officers, cop cars, and helicopters surround the arrival of a diamond shipment, the Vulture still steals the gems from right under their noses—literally! While everyone scans the skies, the villain pops up from beneath the sewer and snatches the diamonds away. A nearby officer even comments that they "expected an attack from above!"
Thus, the Vulture makes his way through the labyrinthine sewers below. Lee and Ditko cleverly subvert the villain's established tropes by having the Vulture attack from a vantage point nobody expects. They utilize the villain's cleverness and his cocky attitude nicely, showcasing a real vulture's tenacity and bloodthirsty attitude in the way their villain goes after his "prey."
Mediation: Chasing the Vulture
Momentarily caught off guard just like everyone else, Peter recovers quickly and "with blinding speed" changes into his costume like Superman without the phone booth. Admitting to being tricked, Spidey nevertheless resolves to find his foe. While he's still concerned about taking pictures, Spidey also realizes he's not just preparing for a photoshoot; he's preparing for a scrap.
He even comments on the edge he has over the villain—not one to be taken unawares twice, Spidey knows that his "spider senses" will detect where the villain is and decides to follow him by "swing[ing] from building to building!" While the Vulture eventually notices the hero is following him, he won't be able to use the same trick twice. Learning from his mistakes, Spidey's prepared himself and is ready to take the Vulture down.
Punishment: The Vulture's Downfall
Armed with extra webbing and his new gadget, Spidey attacks the Vulture, not waiting for the old coot to get the upper hand, er, wing. Though the Vulture screams his mastery over the skies—"You fool! Here in the sky we're in my element!"—Spidey proves too persistent for the crotchety crook and harnesses his new device. Cutting off the Vulture's power supply, Spidey grounds him.
Adding insult to injury, the Vulture is picked up by a couple of police officers who can't help but poke fun at the bird man's situation. Though the Vulture is destined to return, this is the first in a series of humiliating defeats for the villain; this is only the first time where Spidey's wit and ingenuity beat back the cranky old man's flying capabilities. His arrogance gets him nowhere but a prison cell in the end.
Wedding: Magnets and Money
It's a two-in-one victory for Spidey: not only does his new invention, the anti-magnetic inverter, aid in beating the Vulture, but he gets several snaps he thinks Jameson will "ask top dollar for." For someone who's just a teenager with superpowers, Peter Parker accomplishes quite a bit in only his second issue.
Peter's photos impress Jameson so much, the publisher gives the kid a bonus. Peter manages "to get pictures that our best staff photogs would give their eye teeth for!" This cements the beginning of a long-running, sometimes tumultuous relationship between the two men. This "wedding" comes with not only a payoff in the present moment, but it's an initial reward that will have several repercussions throughout the years. It's the beauty of serialized storytelling. In one story, Peter can buy Aunt May "the newest kitchen appliances"; in another, he can be haggling with Jameson over a fair price. Comics: the gift that keeps on giving.
Overall, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko craft an amusing story that establishes several Spider-Man tropes that grow and morph as the series continues—Peter's money problems, his relationships with individuals like his Aunt May and J. Jonah Jameson, and his intelligence when it comes to facing furious felons. We're still being introduced to our hero, and watching him grow over the period of only a few issues only makes the next chapters more exciting.
"The Uncanny Threat of the Terrible Tinkerer!"
As I mentioned, The Amazing Spider-Man #2 is split into two tales—the Vulture-centric story and a second, shorter tale. Following another Spidey adventure, this tale tells of the hero's first encounter with his enemy, "The Tinkerer." Since it's a shorter story, Propp's functions are examined in the table below.
How Propp's Functions Work in "The Terrible Tinkerer"
Function in "The Terrible Tinkerer!"
Peter goes to pick up a radio at the Tinkerer's shop
Peter's spider-sense warns him the Tinkerer isn't just a nice old man
Peter/Spidey explores a basement he should otherwise leave alone
Spidey stumbles across a plot by the Tinkerer and his alien allies
Spidey is captured and held hostage by the Tinkerer
Spidey deduces a way to use his webbing to escape the trap
Spidey battles the aliens and sets the shop ablaze
The aliens flee and Spidey discovers that the Tinkerer may be one of them...
Questions & Answers
© 2019 Nathan Kiehn