In the midst of doing some Steve Ditko research recently, I stumbled across this article on what might be my new favorite comics blog, Jack Elving’s Elving’s Musings. The fresh info I found here regarding the Ditko essays published in the first decade of the 21st century led me to update my Ditko/Norman Osborn/Green Goblin article from April Fool’s Day last year.
As I said in that update: in the first decade of the 2000s, the reclusive and tight-lipped Steve Ditko finally spoke out for the first (and last) time regarding his run on Amazing Spider-Man. This took the form of several essays, all of which saw print in Robin Snyder’s newsletter zine, The Comics. The most revealing of these essays was a series called the “Mini-History of Spider-Man” that ran from 2001 to 2003. I only learned about these essays years after the fact and, as back issues of The Comics are scarce and hard to procure, I have never read any of them directly. Thanks to Jack Elving and that article he penned for his blog, I discovered that Ditko would add another essay discussing Spidey and the Goblin, post 2003, in The Comics, vol. 20, #3, March 2009, titled “The Ever Unwilling.” Yet again, never read this one directly either.
Obviously, these Ditko essays are absolutely essential reading for any serious Spider-Man scholar (there’s an oxymoron for you), so I restarted my efforts to track them down. I even emailed Robin Snyder and he was kind enough to respond, telling me that these essays will eventually be packaged together in a trade paperback akin to The Complete Four-Page Series And Other Essays, but there are three other trades scheduled before we get to Ditko’s Spider-Man essays. So the good news is that the republication of these essays is in the works, but the bad news is that it might take many years for it to actually be released. We can only hope that Mr. Snyder changes his mind and pushes these Spider-Man essays to the front of the line and they’re made the next project in the queue—because frankly, these essays are the ones that the majority of us are dying to read. They’re also of the greatest historical importance.
I truly hope this happens, but all we can do is wait and see.
Steve Ditko in the 1960s
Another byproduct of my Ditko research was reading Steve Ditko in the 1960s, a book I actually purchased a while back but just got around to reading. The book reprints a ton of fanzine material from the 1960s, a time when Ditko conversed with fans (almost exclusively via written correspondence) with great frequency. Which, of course, stands in great contrast with his position on granting interviews or speaking publicly in later decades.
One of the more surprising things I learned from this book was what a phenomenon Spider-Man truly was. Widely accepted comics history tells us that Fantastic Four was Marvel’s top seller until Amazing Spider-Man got into the Romita Era in the mid-to-later sixties. But this book demonstrates that among hardcore fans (the type that read or published zines, anyway), Spidey was Marvel’s top attraction from pretty much the moment he debuted.
That debut in Amazing Fantasy #15 won for best short story in the Alley Awards of 1962, as revealed in Alter Ego #6. As Jerry Bails wrote: “We can expect this colorful and mysterious hero to challenge all the old favorites in future popularity polls.” [Steve Ditko in the 1960s, ed. J. Ballmann, Totalmojo productions, Inc., 2020, p. 8.]
And indeed, Spider-Man was already topping popularity polls in fanzines by 1963. He would also win Alley Awards for best comic and best character for 1963, 1964, and 1965. In the latter year, ASM won with 39% of the vote, almost doubling Fantastic Four in second place (20%). [Ibid., p. 91.] This run would continue through ’65, ’66, and ’67 before the FF finally bumped ASM from the number-one spot in ’68.
This book also shed some fresh light on an old debate. In response to the question of who originated Spider-Man, Ditko said, “Stan Lee thought the name up. I did costume, web gimmick on wrist, & spider signal.” [Ibid., p. 88.] This aligns perfectly with my own understanding of the division of labor between Lee and Ditko, as I wrote in my post on Lee, Kirby, and Ditko from two years ago.
Spidey’s Enduring Popularity
All this reminded me of a neat video I found on YouTube from a few years back, an animated video that used Google searches as the indicator of a superhero’s worldwide popularity across the span of 2004 to 2021.
I love being able to truly see the ebb and flow of the popularity of all those characters over a significant length of time and how trends can come and go so quickly (almost instantly), with the top guys always reverting to their top positions over the long term.
Less scientifically, I remember having this conversation with the owner of my regular comic shop (back when I had a regular comic shop) and being somewhat surprised when he told me Spider-Man merch was always his best seller. Even when Batman and the X-Men got hot, fans would always, inevitably, eventually, come back to Spidey.
Imperfect But Still Spectacular
. . . Aaaand as long as I’m posting YouTube videos related to Spidey here, I may as well bring up this reaction video I came across a few weeks back. It’s an edited binge watch of the wonderful animated series, The Spectacular Spider-Man, that originally ran from 2008 to 2009. The rather extreme reaction of these young men to the romantic subplots and relationship drama, specifically, is a rather interesting subject for debate. Or so I feel, anyway. Spoiler warnings, of course.
Like any solid Spider-Man story, this series gives Peter Parker many personal difficulties to wrestle with, particularly where his love life is concerned. Watching the episodes again through the eyes of others about fifteen years after the series ended, I can see how the show probably took this idea too far. For anyone who has never seen this series but would like to (and I would highly recommend it), don’t scroll past the spoiler space unless you don’t mind being spoiled.
So in the first-season finale, after being stuck in the friend zone up to this point, Gwen impulsively kisses Peter after their families spend Thanksgiving together, causing Pete to finally recognize how much he loves her. (Gwen’s feelings for him are made plain just by virtue of the kiss, of course.) This serves as a romantic cliffhanger for the second season. As said season begins, Pete and Gwen avoid each other a bit, as being the awkward teenagers that they are, neither one of them knows how to start the conversation that they need to have. As the two are doing this little dance, Liz Allan makes a play for Peter and they begin to date. Then Harry Osborn asks Gwen out and the two of them become sort of a thing. It’s only in the final episode that Pete and Gwen finally confess their love to each other and their mutual desire to be together.
This was some very effective soap opera drama, the kind that usually serves Spidey well, but like I said, the show took this too far, sacrificing character for the sake of drama that feels all-too contrived. Pete and Gwen’s overdue conversation means they have to break up with Liz and Harry, respectively, which makes them both look bad. Particularly Peter, because Liz was portrayed as the kindest, most understanding and forgiving girlfriend in human history while they were dating. But in both cases it feels like out-of-character betrayal, because Peter and Gwen are good people—the best people—and would simply never date other people while harboring such deep feelings for each other. They would never be so dishonest or disrespectful of the feelings of others. This didn’t bother me at the time, as I saw it as your typical Peter Parker drama, but looking back and seeing how this made those video reactors hate these characters, it was a clear error.
I completely understand wanting to put off the endgame of Pete and Gwen getting together, but there were better ways to get from point A to point B. For example: Have them start dating in the first episode of season two, and then maybe Captain Stacy steps in and forbids Gwen from dating Peter—because he knows Pete is Spidey and that this could make him a danger to his daughter. So you’d also bring that Captain-Stacy-knows-Pete-is-Spidey subplot more into the forefront while keeping Pete and Gwen apart a bit longer. There were also other options, nearly any of which would have been much better than making Pete and Gwen into deceptive and deceitful people who string along Harry and Liz while secretly wanting only each other.
Pete should always have troubles and headaches in his life, but writers need to be judicious with this. It can be a dangerous high-wire act, figuring out just how much misery you heap onto Pete/Spidey. I’ve got my next “Spidey Jumped the Shark” post scheduled for September, where I’ll be getting into this in much greater depth. Please be on the lookout for it, as I’m kinda proud of this post. But be warned: it’s another long one!