November 12, 1963
- Oh no - Aunt May's sick! Yes, this issue features the first appearance of not only a classic Spidey villain, but also the classic trope that will become so well-known (and, in time, so overused) that it will eventually become one of the go-to items in any comprehensive parody. And understandably so, for it's an element of danger that can never really go anywhere or develop into anything more interesting than its own precipice: either Aunt May can stay bedridden for good (which is both depressing and boring), or she can get better (in which case the element goes away), or she can worsen and die (in which case the character goes away). Shockingly, all three methods have been tried at one point or another. But for now at least, it's a great reinforcement of the idea that there's only so much Peter can do, and much as it weighs on him, there are still some problems he can never fix for good.
The pained expression, the slumped posture, the darkened room:
Ditko's skilled art conveys the discouraging fear of the one enemy Peter can never defeat.
- Meanwhile, the baddie for this story is Electro, the superpowered nom de guerre of Max Dillon. (And take a moment to roll those syllables - Max Dillon - over your tongue. He sounds bad already, doesn't he? Though much of Stan's dialogue may now seem overblown or antiquated, he still had the ear to come up with a great sounding name!) A guy with powers based in electricity seems such an obvious idea that it's frankly surprising it took Stan two years to come up with it - and, honestly, it's so straightforward that you'd expect the guy to pop up once or twice more, if at all, instead of becoming one of Spider-Man's most well-known foes. But part of the magic to be found in Lee & Ditko's Spider-Man can be seen in the fact that they were able to create characters that should have faded into obscurity like so many Tales to Astonish baddies, but instead became part of the enriching milieu of the book.
Even after all the costumed heroes and villains cropping up over the last two years,
the first response of the police is consistently one of amusement. Gotta love it!
- So: Aunt May has become so ill that her continued health requires an expensive medical operation, costing a thousand dollars that Peter simply doesn't have. But an opportunity arises - as does a moral quandary - when J. Jonah Jameson offers exactly that amount for photographic evidence that the dastardly Electro is really Spider-Man in disguise. (Even the side characters point out how little sense this makes: Why would one masked figure hide as another?) So, even though Peter and the readers know that Electro is someone else entirely, he grits his teeth and fakes a series of pictures proving that very thing. No bones about it; he lies, deliberately and premeditated, swindling his employer to the benefit of himself and his family. Yes, it's for a good cause, but it's undeniable that he's compromised his ideals, and colors Spider-Man with darker shades than before: How fine the line between hero and villain? How slippery might become that slope? The comic books of the 1960s might simply have been too early to really follow that line of questioning towards its conclusion; forty years later, Bendis & Maleev's excellent run on Daredevil might be one of the best explorations of this meaty idea. Still, the theme has been planted - perhaps shocking, for its time - that the world is a gray and messy one, and sometimes, when caught in the jaws of dilemma, there might be no answer that's yet clear and pure.
Electro's big plan hits a small snag.
- Nine issues in, we see that the relationships in the book are not static, but evolving: For instance, observe Flash Thompson, jock bully and thorn in Peter's side since day one, musing on the fact that Parker beat him in a boxing match last issue - something he never would have expected. Considering that there might be more to Peter than meets the eye, he decides to try talking to him as a regular guy for the first time, showing a capacity for self-reflection equally unexpected. (It doesn't take, of course, as Peter - overly stressed and in a particularly foul mood - shoves him off. Still, the attempt is notable.) Similarly, Betty Brant, who Peter successfully flirted with in issue #7, shows an admirable wellspring of strength - for when she hears about May's illness she heads to the hospital to visit, and in an effectively somber moment sits with Peter in silence in the hall outside May's room, offering her support against his helplessness and despair. But she also harbors a secret from her past....
Take heart, Pete: That day's just a couple months off!