When Spidey Jumped the Shark, Pt. 1

Is there anyone out there who hasn’t heard (or used) the phrase, “Jump the Shark”? It’s been part of the popular lexicon for over twenty years now, but its meaning has never been perfectly clear.

The idiom was coined in 1985 by Jon Hein and his college roommate Sean Connolly. It refers to the culmination of a three-part series of episodes that kicked off the fifth season of Happy Days in September 1977. In that third, culminating episode, the Fonz… well, he jumped over a caged shark on water skis.

Hein and Connolly agreed that it was at this precise moment—when Fonzie jumped the shark—that Happy Days was never as good a show again as it had been before.

The phrase started to catch on in 2001. I remember Hein appeared on the Howard Stern radio show around October of that year, hawking his “Jump the Shark” website (among other “Jump the Shark” wares), and discussing when various TV shows, rock artists, and various other celebrities jumped the shark. Hein would go on to sell his website circa 2006 for about a million bucks. If you type “jumptheshark.com” into your web browser today it will redirect you to the TV Guide website, so I guess they’re the ones who bought it from Hein (or from someone else later on).

Most people tend to use the phrase—both today and even back then—to mark when a television show (or whatever else) was no longer any good and started to “suck.” But this was never really what it was supposed to mean. According to the interviews with Hein that I’ve read and heard, the phrase was supposed to mean that something had passed its peak of quality—artistically, commercially, or otherwise. This didn’t mean the show no longer produced any good episodes, it meant that it would never produce such episodes at the same rate of consistency again and/or its best days were behind it.

While working on my Spidey Miscellanea posts these last several months, the phrase “jump the shark” crossed my mind with some frequency. I also recalled when I quit buying Spider-Man and how by the time I did so, the character hadn’t felt like the character I first fell in love with for some time. This was many years ago, so it’s difficult to remember exactly, but I started wondering… when did Spider-Man stop being Spider-Man for me?

These “jump the shark” debates often feel rather pointless, as it’s such a subjective thing and thus no definitive answers can ever truly be found, much like with top ten lists and the like. And yet, much like those top ten lists, “jump the shark” debates can be so very hard to resist. So what the heck, why not apply the question to Spider-Man comics and see where it leads? As Spidey has been around for sixty years now, I’ll turn it into another series of posts, as opposed to one ridiculously long-winded one. So…

When did Spidey jump the shark? When did the character pass his peak and when did he cross that line into completely and irrevocably sucking? And when did Spidey/Pete cease to be Spidey/Pete?

Let’s start at the very beginning.

The Lee-Ditko Era

All of Spidey’s earliest stories came to us courtesy of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, covering Amazing Fantasy #15 (Sept. 1962), Amazing Spiderman 1-38 (Mar. 1963-Jul. 1966), and the first two ASM annuals (1964-1965). While I don’t think any true fan would suggest that this era was anything less than awesome, let’s consider the “jump the shark” question anyway. Just for fun.

Now hypothetically, if you want to be a smartass (or if you simply hate serial fiction), you could make the case that Spidey jumped the shark in Amazing Fantasy #15. Technically, we got a complete character arc in that one eleven-page story, so what was left to say or be done? But I like serial fiction (when it’s done well, at least) and I think there was plenty left to explore in the wake of this origin tale and that Stan & Steve did a pretty great job doing precisely this. However, as we’ve discussed before, the Lee-Ditko partnership grew rather strained as time went on.

In January of 1966, Lee told the Herald Tribune: “I don’t plot Spider-Man any more. Steve Ditko, the artist, has been doing the stories. I guess I’ll leave him alone until sales start to slip. Since Spidey got so popular, Ditko thinks he’s the genius of the world. We were arguing so much over plot lines I told him to start making up his own stories. He won’t let anybody else ink his drawings either. He just drops off the finished pages with notes at the margins and I fill in the dialogue. I never know what he’ll come up with next, but it’s interesting to work that way.”

This is a quote I’ve cited here a few times now, and could potentially be seen as a shark-jumping moment. When, exactly, did Ditko take over as the sole plotter? If we go by the interior credits, it was ASM #25 (Jun. 1965), “Captured by J. Jonah Jameson.” This is a fine story though, with much to recommend it. In fact, all the stories remain fairly great, pretty much through the end of Ditko’s run, so if you use “jump the shark” to mark when something started to suck, then this era never jumped. If you’re using the expression to mark when something has passed its peak, well, that’s when the debate might get interesting.

I think there is near-universal agreement among classic Spidey aficionados that Amazing Spider-Man #33 (Feb. 1966), “The Final Chapter!” is the peak of the Ditko era. Ergo, this was the shark jumper, as nothing that came after was ever as good. Alternatively, you could make a case for any of the final three issues of Ditko’s run. One could see #36 as the jumper, since Ditko seems to be getting neck deep into the Ayn Rand stuff by this point, going as far as referring to the villain as “the Looter,” a term lifted directly from Rand’s writing. And the last two issues, 37-38, were when Ditko appeared to change his mind about making Norman Osborn the Green Goblin (this past April Fool’s Day, I published a post that got into more detail on this), which could also be seen as a shark jumper.

But Is He Still Pete/Spidey?

Back around 2014, when Marvel was publishing Superior Spider-Man (wherein Doc Ock basically became Spider-Man for a while), John Byrne voiced his displeasure with the storyline and writer Dan Slott responded on the John Byrne Forum. Their discussion garnered a fair amount of attention, with the crux of the debate being that Byrne had felt Slott altered Peter Parker to the point where he was no longer Peter Parker. (Byrne actually thought that the character had become something closer to Tony Stark than Peter Parker.)

For the record, I agree with Byrne wholeheartedly on this one (in case anyone out there may have thought I was a mindless Byrne hater). There are just certain elements about the character of Peter Parker that are essential parts of who he is. For starters, he can never be a big business success, nor can he ever have much money—being a relatively poor dude is a big part of the character’s identity. Just as he always has money troubles, he should also always have romantic headaches. He should also always be connected to The Daily Bugle, since Jolly Jonah, Robbie, and the rest of the staff are a big part of the foundation of the very strip. Ditto Aunt May, who should always be around causing him some degree of concern or other, as well as reminding him of the loss of Uncle Ben. Guilt is always the primary motivator for Pete, otherwise the character simply ain’t Pete.

From my own perspective, Pete/Spidey stopped being Pete/Spidey loooong before 2014, but it certainly didn’t happen this early; not during the Ditko era, no way. Naturally, however, there were still times during this era when Pete/Spidey was portrayed better, and more consistently, than others. And I feel very confident in saying that Pete/Spidey was at his best when Stan was involved, as opposed to when Ditko was plotting and producing pages completely on his own.

In the very earliest Spidey stories, Pete was a lonely kid who craved acceptance and companionship, particularly with his classmates at school. Over time (and most particularly after Ditko took full control), Pete started turning into more of a selfish misanthrope and openly dismissive of his classmates—along with nearly every other human being he encountered. Of course, this kinda made sense in the context of Ditko’s stories, where almost every other person we saw was some degree of awful. In hindsight, Lee’s dialogue and thought balloons were the sole element that humanized any of them. Gwen Stacy might be the best example of this.

Again, Ditko was producing pages on his own at this point, so he was controlling all the action, but Stan was doing the dialogue and, as you can see above, the words/thoughts didn’t always match the expression on the character’s face. Gwen looks angry (or at least annoyed) in almost every instance, but the thoughts Stan gives her are almost universally sympathetic toward Peter.

Sidebar: Knowing what their working arrangement was at the time, this means the Gwen Stacy character was originated solely by Steve Ditko. All these years later, we can only guess as to what Lee saw in Gwen that inspired him to make her an analogue for his wife, Joan.

But once again, none of Ditko’s weak characterizations, nor the influence of Ayn Rand’s objectivist philosophy on his work, had detracted much from the stories at all. And we’re just talking about the plotting here—Ditko’s artwork was superb, somehow getting better and better with each issue. The way things were going, Ditko might have eventually jumped the shark (in the “suck” sense of the phrase) with all the Rand stuff, but he left before this could happen.

For anyone who wants to learn more about Rand’s influence on Ditko, our friends over at NerdSync produced a great video going into much greater detail on the subject, which you can see below.

Whenever I get back to this, I’ll take a look at the Romita years. Peace, people.

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