Thursday, September 9, 2010

75: Amazing Spider-Man #4

Amazing Spider-Man #4
June 11, 1963

  • With the fourth issue of Amazing Spider-Man, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko continue their streak of rolling out new creations who will prove to be among Spidey's most classic and iconic of villains. This time out: Flint Marko, the Sandman! So it's surprising to read this first appearance of a villain so famous that he was included in the (terrible) movie Spider-Man 3 ... and find that the character doesn't really come through in his debut. Mind you, there's nothing wrong about this new creation as first presented; his powers are certainly inventive enough, and Ditko ensures that his look is creepy, compelling and with menace. But aside from those surface elements, and his occupation of choice (bank robber), we learn virtually nothing about him, or what makes him tick. Yes, such broad strokes and simple motivations are absolutely the standard in this early era of comics - but it's the fact that Marvel's early success was earned largely by doing the opposite of that, and imbuing their comic book characters with complex and relatable conflicts and histories, that makes the omission here quite so puzzling.

    Jameson discovers a prank gift from Spider-Man, while Peter
    is completely oblivious to the flirting glances of Betty Brant.

  • On the other hand, what we do learn about the Sandman's origin is intriguing, if not necessarily for the reasons intended. A few months back, we're told, Flint Marko escaped from "Island Prison" and evaded the authorities for some time before unwisely deciding to hide in an atomic testing site - where, some days later, a nuclear explosion fused the cells of his body to those of the sand beneath his feet. Now, I don't know about you, but the first thing that leapt to my mind was to wonder whether this site might not be the same one as from The Incredible Hulk #1. Heck, maybe it was the very same bomb! So I made it a game and laid out the facts: He's not local to the New York area like so many other villains, as Peter claims that he's "wanted by the police from Maine to Mexico!" And if we were to interpret "Island Prison" as an obvious stand-in for Alcatraz, we're just a couple of hundred miles away from the Hulk's birthplace and stomping grounds of Nevada. While it's a conclusion not explicitly intended by Stan Lee, it is interesting to note that Stan & co. have already been doing such a great job at world-building - on-the-fly, even - that the reader seems almost invited to play such mind games, predicting when and where else the various strands might connect.

    A large part of the Sandman's intriguing visual comes from the way Ditko
    composes the face not in straight lines, but with a granulated look.

  • Additional evidence of this tighter-knit continuity comes with not one but two casual, passing references to the Fantastic Four, who already guest-starred in issue #1. When Spidey first encounters the Sandman, he notes that "he can change his body as easily as Mister Fantastic", with a footnote explaining the reference as "Famous leader of the fabulous Fantastic Four!" Later on, one kid on the street asks another, "Don't you wish you were Spider-Man?", with the second responding: "Nah! Give me the Human Torch any day!" The implication is clear: That readers were now being expected to, if not read all the other Marvel heroes, at least be aware of them. (Although the importance of Stan nevertheless including the footnote - for any readers not yet in the know - cannot be emphasized enough.)

    Defeated with a vacuum cleaner.  One of the more well-remembered finishes in comics!

  • The lack of depth given to the Sandman in this first offing might be the slightest of misfires, but fortunately the rest of the issue includes much of the human elements that made Spider-Man resonate so with his readers. Despite his "science nerd" social class role, we're impressed to find that Peter Parker has been asking schoolmate Liz out on a date, and she's decided to give him a chance. It falls through, of course - for the typical reason of failing to balance his personal life with his responsibilities as Spider-Man - but readers take note: Puny Parker is, in fact, interested in girls. A similar case of subverted expectations occurs in the wake of his capture of Marko, when his success is welcomed by not just the assembled crowds on the street, but the police as well! Unsurprisingly, it doesn't last, and the Daily Bugle's latest anti-Spidey editorial soon has even his public supporters suspicious of the wall-crawler once again. Even when Spider-Man wins, he just can't cut a break....

    Perfect!  From left to right, we have
    triumph, accolade and detractor - all in one.