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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Tag Archives: Steve Ditko

Stan Lee predicted in his original 1961 Fantastic Four synopsis that the unpredictable and monstrous Thing would prove to be the most interesting character to readers. He was right—so much so that after four issues, Marvel premiered a new title that featured a main character based on the Thing:

Image result for incredible hulk 1 cover 1962

The first cover of The Incredible Hulk makes the monster motif explicit, asking “Is he man or monster or … is he both?” Lee combined the standard superhero alter ego trope with the uncontrolled transformations of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Kirby models the Hulk on Boris Karloff in the 1931 Frankenstein. Like those mad scientists, Dr. Bruce Banner is “tampering with powerful forces,” only now his hubris transforms himself into his own monstrous creation. The opening panel features “the most awesome weapon ever created by man—the incredible G-Bomb!” moments before its “first awesome test firing!” Kirby draws its creator with a “genius” signifying pipe as he takes “every precaution,” even as General Ross insults him for cowardly delays. Though Banner risks his life to save Rick, a teenager who has driven onto the bomb site, that kindness is erased by the Hulk who, after his first Geiger-counter-triggering transformation, swats Rick aside, uttering his first words: “Get out of my way, insect!” Lee likens him to a “dreadnought,” the twentieth-century’s most massive battleships, and soon he is speaking like a supervillain, “With my strength—my power—the world is mine!,” and threatening to kill Rick to keep his identity a secret.

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The first issue would be a complete repudiation of the superhero formula if not for the late entrance of another “brilliant” scientist-turned-radioactive-monster; the Soviet Union’s Gargoyle captures the Hulk, threatening the balance of power: “If we could create an army of such powerful creatures, we could rule the Earth!” Like the Hulk, the Gargoyle is controlled by no nation, savoring that his “cowardly” comrades and “some day all the world will tremble before” him.

The Gargoyle is stopped not by the Hulk’s might, but Banner’s “milksop” kindness, reversing the Clark Kent trope that had defined the superhero genre for two decades. The crying Gargoyle would “give anything to be normal!” as Kirby draws him shaking his fist at a portrait of Khrushchev because he became “the most horrible thing in the world” while working “on your secret bomb tests!” As a result, he accepts Banner’s offer to cure him “by radiation,” and in turn destroys the Soviet base and rockets Banner and his sidekick back to the U.S.: “So we’re saved! By America’s arch enemy!” Although Banner hopes for the end of “Red tyranny,” he remains “as helpless as” the Gargoyle against his own “monster”.

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In addition to changing from gray to green, in the second issue, the Hulk seizes control of an alien spaceship to use it for his own purposes: “With this flying dreadnaught under me, I can wipe all of mankind!” and it is again Banner, using his “Gamma Ray Gun” invention, who stops the alien invasion.

These are not the tales of a standard dual-identity superhero, but a Clark Kent battling both external threats and his own supervillainous alter ego. Steve Ditko inked Kirby’s pencils for the second issue, cover-dated July 1962, a month before the premiere of Lee and Ditko’s Spider-Man in Amazing Fantasy #15. Ditko’s Hulk bore an even greater semblance to Karloff, and now Peter Parker looked like a younger version of Bruce Banner. The Hulk does not begin to resemble a superhero until the following month.

Image result for incredible hulk 3 cover 1962

In the third issue, the military attempts to destroy the Hulk by launching him into the same radiation belt that created the Fantastic Four, but instead his transformations, which were previously trigged by nightfall, become unpredictable. Rick briefly gains hypnotic power over the “live bomb” of the now golem-like Hulk, evoking another admonitory fable: “It’s too much for me! I’ve got the most powerful thing in the world under my control, and I don’t know what to do with it!”

Image result for incredible hulk 4 cover 1962

Kirby and Lee could not settle on a clear premise, with the Hulk changing personalities and transformation plot devices every other issue. In the fourth issue, Banner invents a self-radiating machine in order to “regain the Hulk’s body—but with my own intelligence,” which, though seemingly successful, creates a “fiercer, crueler” version of Banner inside a Hulk who is still “dangerous” and “hard to control.”

The new Hulk no longer tries to kill Rick, but now speaking like the Thing, he tells him to “Shut your yap” and to “get outa my way!” before foiling the Soviets’ next attempt to capture him and again build “a whole army of warriors such as you!” Though he prevents another invasion, this time by an underground race led by an ancient immortal tyrant, the Hulk ends his first adventures in the following issue articulating his defining nuclear allegory: “Let ‘em all fear me! Maybe they got reason to!” In the issue’s second story, he thwarts a Chinese Communist general, and yet the Hulk insists that “the weakling human race will be safe when there ain’t no more Hulk—and I’m planning on being around for a long time!!!”

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By the sixth issue, the last of the original, one-year title run, the Hulk has reverted to a supervillain and considers teaming-up with an invading alien against the human race “to pay ‘em all back!” Though the Hulk ultimately defeats the alien, winning a pardon for his past crimes, Banner has less and less control of his transformations, suffering delayed and partial effects with Banner briefly retaining some of the Hulk’s strength and, more bizarrely, with the Hulk briefly retaining Banner’s face. Rick concludes: “The Gamma Ray machine—it grows more and more unpredictable each time it’s used! If Doc has to face it again—what will happen next time?”

“Next time” was delayed by over a year, after the Cuban missile crisis led to a paradoxical drop in Cold War anxieties. After a few appearances in other titles including The Avengers, the Hulk and his cancelled series were renewed in 1964 as one of two ongoing features beginning in Tales to Astonish #59. Both the Gamma Ray machine and Banner’s unpredictable transformation were forgotten, and the Hulk soon evolved into the canonical version of the character: a well-intentioned but toddler-minded creature misunderstood and mistreated by the authorities.

 

Image result for Tales to Astonish #59

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Along with Spider-Man’s debut story, three other Ditko-Lee collaborations appeared in Amazing Fantasy No. 15, including the five-pager “The One and Only!” According to comics collector James Horvath, however, the story was really drawn by his grandmother, Lydia Horvath, a Golden Age artist who spent her career ghosting for bigger names.

Or at least that’s the premise of my novel The Patron Saint of Superheroes. My agent suggested the manuscript include a sample comic book page, so I went in search of an artist who could pretend to be Lydia Horvath pretending to be Steve Ditko. Sean Michael Robinson swooped to my rescue.

And at the risk of revealing myself to be an Alan Moore-level control freak, I think our email correspondence reveals a few things about the collaborative process of writing and drawing comics.

original script (2)

SEAN: Your page from the script you shared looks great– just enough stage direction. My only practical concern with it– Ditko very rarely broke more than 9 panels a page. In fact, in my cursory Ditko flip-through this morning (“Essential Spider-man V 1”, “Steve Ditko Archives” V 1 + 2) I’m seeing the majority of the page breakdowns hovering around 6-7 panels, with a few outliers in the 8-9 range.

Was this actually drawn by Ditko? If not, are there any “tells,” or should it look as much like his work as possible?

CHRIS: It sounds like we were looking at Essential Spider-Man simultaneously this morning. And you’re absolutely right, the panel layout is nothing like Ditko’s—and that’s actually the one “tell” I want the page to have. I’m attaching the PAGE THREE script, which includes the layout. (The gutters form a St. James cross, which is the artist’s secret signature, and a big part of the novel.)

first layout

SEAN: Okay, here are two rough (very rough!) layouts. You’ll notice I make a few script suggestions in the margin for the sake of space. Also, I’m not sure how to approach visually the third panel on the 1st tier– substituted a far-off climbing Jim. Feel free to send a sketch my way. Are we seeing just the hand? The top of his head or pack? The view down the cliff face?

Also substituted a close-up for the 1st p 3rd tier– let me know how it strikes you.

Singulus_layoutAlt

CHRIS: Yes to trimming the first caption. So it would now read:

Before vanishing, Singulus told Little Jim that he had gained his powers from a guru in Tibet. Nothing left to lose, Little Jim splurges on a one-way ticket!

For panel 1.2, try a downward view from the very top of the cliff with mostly just Jim’s giant hand reaching up.

1.1, 1.3, 2.1, 2.2 all look good–I especially like how the cave opening worked out. 2.3 and 2.4 look good too, but I’d like to move the talk balloons, so that 2.3’s “Singulus?” is at the bottom of the panel with the balloon arrow pointing to the left gutter (and so Jim in 2.2), and Onlyone’s bubble moves to the top of 2.4. I think that way it will be clearer to see that the flashlight is moving up from the discarded costume to Onlyone, because currently the balloons partly block the partial views of Onlyone’s legs and the costume.

For 3.1, I really like the first version, with Onlyone extending his arm with the ring–but try rotating the panel 180 degrees so Onlyone is at the top and Jim at the bottom. Their dialogue can be reversed so Onlyone speaks first and Jim responds with “Me?”

Yes about lowering the hand on 3.2, so we can see more of Onlyone’s face. Also Jim should slide the ring onto his left ring finger, as he would a wedding ring.

The close-up of Onlyone is good though, so could you place it in the final panel instead? There’s no need for Singulus to appear at all in 3.4. And Onlyone’s emphatic talk bubble can go at the the bottom of the panel, ending the page.

For the big Singulus! 3.3 panel, let his talk bubble punch through the top of the panel into the bottom of 2.3 (which could make a nice effect with the previous “Singulus?”) and let his elbows jut into 3.2 and 3.4. Also, if it’s not already, leave 3.3 unframed.

SEAN: Does this work?

Two versions of the 1.3 panel– pls let me know which one is closer.

Singulus_layoutA  Singulus_layoutF (1)

CHRIS: Go with the alt for 1.2. The bigger the hand the better. It should overwhelm all of the other visual information, so 1.3 then is an answer to the implied questions: what’s going on? where are we?

Good talk bubble flip on 2.3.  Flip 2.4 too.

3.1 looks good. Same for 3.2, though maybe make Onlyone a little smaller so 3.4 is more of a revelation.

Nice elbows on 3.3, but I think the “Singulus!” will work better at the top of the panel, especially since the 3.2 and 3.4 talk bubbles are at the bottoms.

I also attached images for combining into the Singulus costume: Superman’s original boots, Amazing Man’s waist and chest belts, Wonderman’s collar and v-neck, plus standard briefs, long sleeves, no gloves, no cape. (I’m not sure about the Ultraman helmet.)

amazing man wonderman ultra man 1940

SEAN: Here’s the promised costume rough (emphasis on rough). Feedback? I have the v-neck and the collar turning into the shoulder of the cape, if it’s not clear. Also added some horizontal stripes in the speedo area. Not sure about that helmet, and the only pics I can find of the character don’t really help in terms of how it’s put together 🙂

Anyway, all thoughts welcome.

Singulus_costume_RUFF (2)

CHRIS: This looks great, Sean. Some possible fine-tunings:

Gloves or wrist bands that match the boots.

And maybe simplify the lines in the chest by having the v of the shirt merge into the v of the criss-crossing belts?

I’m also debating whether the helmet is too much. Maybe instead add a lone ranger mask?

Singulus_costume_RUFF_C

CHRIS: I really love your face, which is lost with the mask, so let’s not have a mask, and you tell me whether you think the helmet works or not.

The wrist bands, briefs and collar all look good.

Should the wrist bands cover the forearms the way the boots cover the calves?

Ditko_practiceInks (1)

CHRIS: Yes, I can see Ditko coming through in that.

If Singulus’ face is unmasked, young, good-looking, with a full set of hair, Jim should be a bit chubby with a receding hairline.

And keep Onlyone’s body as bony as possible, with almost skeletal arms, definitely a bald head, and a face of ancient raisin-like wrinkles–underneath which is Stan Lee’s face.

Singulus_pencils_full_B     Singulus_pencils_full_C     Singulus_pencils_full_A

SEAN: Three versions here. Thoughts? I’m hoping the rendering will take it into firmer Ditko territory…

CHRIS: Go with Singulus facing left away from the last panel, and with Onlyone’s head larger. Final fine-tunings:

Make Onlyone completely bald and super wrinkly.

Give Jim even more of a gut.

Let the words “Singulus!” burst out of the panel frames in 3.3. His right elbow protrudes into 3.2 well, and so let his left elbow protrude into 3.4 too, maybe slipping slightly behind Onlyone’s head?

To clarify the spatial relationship between 1.3 and 2.1, can you lower the bottom of the cave opening so this becomes the moment that Jim enters the cave? Also, can the same mountain that’s in the background of 1.3 be in the slightly more distant background of 2.1?

SEAN: Okay, here are two versions. I have a strong preference for B, but either one is fine with me!

Things that can be done to make it a bit more “Marvel”:

1. Re-letter this using a font close in style to that decade’s Marvel letters. I can’t get close to that look myself (being left-handed is a big impediment to that, believe it or not 🙂   ) I can look around on some sites if you want me to find a 60’s Marvel copycat font.

2. appropriate artwork stamps on top

3. color “old page” tint to the page (depending on your needs).

CHRIS: I agree that B, with the elbow cut off by the panel frame, looks better, so let’s go with that. And yes also to “old” tint and the artwork stamps. Oh, and can Onlyone be more wrinkled in that final panel close-up? And if you think refonting would look good, go with that too.

SEAN: Here is the finished color file. Thanks again for working with me on this! It was a lot of fun and quite the challenge 🙂

singulus_fullcolor_flat

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henry james

After reading The Time Machine in 1900, Henry James wrote to H. G. Wells: “You are very magnificent. . . . I rewrite you much, as I read—which is the highest praise my damned impertinence can pay to an author.” It’s a strange compliment, and he expanded it two years later: “my sole and single way of perusing the fiction of Another is to write it over—even when most immortal—as I go. Write it over, I mean, re-compose it, in the light of my own high sense of propriety and with immense refinements and embellishments. .  . to take it over and make the best of it.”

James’s damned impertinence turned his highest praise into an actual invitation to collaborate with Wells on a science fiction novel: “Our mixture would, I think, be effective. I hope you are thinking of doing Mars—in some detail. Let me in there, at the right moment—or in other words at an early stage . . . .” The two authors shared a literary agent, James B. Pinker, and James wanted to take over and make the best of a Wells manuscript before Pinker saw it: “to secure an ideal collaboration . . . I should be put in possession of your work in its . . . pre-Pinkerite state. Then I should take it up and give it the benefit of my vision. After which, as post-Pinkerite—it would have nothing in common with the suggestive sheets received by me, and yet we should have labored in sweet unison.” He ends his letter “your faithful finisher.”

This is a bizarre request. Give me your rough draft to rework however I wish. Wells declined. Of course Wells declined. But first he tested whether the offer was one-sided, asking to peruse the notes to James’ next novel, The Ambassadors. Although James had a “carefully typed” 20,000-word prospectus, he did not share it with Wells. “A plan for myself, as copious and developed as possible, I always draw up,” he explained, but “such a preliminary private outpouring . . . isn’t a thing I would willingly expose to an eye but my own.” And he wouldn’t expose it to another’s over-writing hand either. He was his own finisher.

James’s notion of an “ideal collaboration” is laughably outside the norms of literary authorship, but it also reveals the damned impertinence of comic book production norms. Pencillers hand over “suggestive sheets” to inkers, or “finishers,” who literally draw over them, refining and embellishing according to their own sense of propriety. That includes erasing. It may be some lowly office helper—Stan Lee in his earliest days—holding the eraser, but it’s the inker who decides what stays and what goes. James’s final pages “would have nothing in common” with Wells’ erased and overwritten rough draft. And yet the plot, the chapter structure, the scene-by-scene movement—what comic book creator would call the layouts and breakdowns—they would still be Wells’. Reworking a sentence—adding flourishes, curving the grammar for new stylistic effects, while preserving and augmenting some paraphrasable meaning—that’s an inker’s job.

Four years later, after reading Wells’ The Future of America, James wrote again, revealing his inking style: “you tend always to simplify overmuch . . . But what am I talking about, when just this ability and impulse to simply—so vividly—is just what I all yearningly envy you?—I who was accursedly born to touch nothing save to complicate it.”

James would have added complexity to Wells’ overly simplified language—how Eric Shanower inked Curt Swan’s pencils for The Legend of Aquaman.

300px-Aquaman_Special_1989

Swan was nearing the end of his career in 1989, but according to Mark Waid (via Eddy Zeno’s Curt Swan: A Life in Comics) Swan considered the special issues a personal high point. The face, the anatomy, the foreshortened movement, those are recognizably Swan, but look at the background, the clouds, the meticulously scalloped waves, that’s Shanower, an artist renown for his details. His Age of Bronze is almost calligraphic in its precision, each scallop of chain mail a painstaking wonder.

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Would Wells have benefited from such a finish by James? Probably. But Swan wasn’t always grateful for Shanower’s efforts. During a visit to my campus, Shanower told a table of professors how he would erase Swan’s background buildings in order to correct all the perspectives errors. Swan didn’t thank him. He thought Shanower was wasting his time, but, like Wells in James’ “ideal collaboration,” his opinions were irrelevant once the sheets were in Shanower’s hands.

Compare Shanower’s chain mail and seas scallops to the inked versions of Swan by other artists, and you’ll see what Swan considered an appropriate attention to detail. Bob Hughes at Who Drew Superman? credits Swan for dominating Superman during that other Bronze Age while collaborating with a dozen different artists. Bob Oksner inked Superman No. 287 in 1975:

Superman287-08

Vince Colletta inked Superman Spectacular in 1977:

SupermanSpec77-50

And Al Williamson inked Superman No. 410 in 1985:

superman410-05

Look at the full-page layouts, and you’ll also see Swan’s signature breakdown: the top 2/3rds divided into 4-5 panels, anchored by a bottom rectangle featuring Superman flying toward the right margin:

Superman287-08 (2)     SupermanSpec77-50 (2)    superman410-05 (2)

The Swan-Oksner background buildings look pretty detailed to my eye–though some of those perspective lines might be a tad wonky beyond Superman’s right shoulder.  The Swan-Colletta and Swan-Williamson backgrounds are comparatively sparse. In fact, sparseness was Vince Colletta’s signature “style.” Though his best work is revered for its own Shanower-esque precision, other artists dislike his high sense of propriety.

Editor kept Colletta employed because he got his work in on time, but pencillers, like Wells, avoided the sweet unison of collaboration. Joe Sinnott (who also inked plenty of Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four pages) said Colletta “wrecked” his romance stories because Colletta “would eliminate people from the strip and use silhouettes, everything to cut corners and make the work easier for himself.” Marvel writer Len Wein agreed that Colletta “ruined” art, and Steve Ditko and later Kirby refused to work with him.

Ditko, like Wells, preferred to ink himself. PencilInk documents a range of examples (Amazing Spider-man No. 3, 1963; Monster Hunters No. 8, 1976; Iron Man Annual No. 11, 1990):

AMAZING-SPIDER-MAN-003_011Monster-Hunters-08-20Iron-Man-An11-(43)

But sometimes even Ditko would have to willingly expose his preliminary outpourings for the benefit of another artist’s vision. Wayne Howard, for example, inked House of Mystery No. 247 in 1976:

Superboy-v1-257-13

And Dan Adkins inked Superboy No. 257 in 1979:

House-of-Mystery-247p

But the most discordant of Ditko’s finishers was John Byrne. As an artist used to getting top-billing as both writer and penciller, he, like James, took possession of Ditko’s pages, applying his own immense refinements and embellishments. Look at Avengers Annual No. 13 from 1984:

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The thug’s left foot–only Ditko would draw the impossibly upturned sole. But that’s a Byrne mouth on Captain America, the musculature too. When Mr. Fantastic appears, he seems to have beamed in from Byrne’s Fantastic Four run, but that’s a glaringly Ditko-esque face grinning open-mouthed beside him:

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The mixture of the two is even stranger:

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Is this what a Wells-James collaboration looks like? James would have placed his name first–though only because cutting Wells from the credit box entirely wouldn’t be an option too. That’s what Alexander Dumas did with his collaborators. Auguste Maquet co-authored both The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers, but it’s only Dumas on the covers because Maquet was his employee, what Marvel calls “work for hire.” Maquet produced rough drafts for his boss to write-over. He later sued for co-credit, but the French courts ruled in favor of Dumas.

In comics, the prestige position is reversed. Swan and Kirby had so many inkers because their editors wanted them pencilling as many titles as possible. At Marvel, the penciller was the primary creator, laying out stories with empty captions and balloons for the so-called writers to fill-in. In Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy, Jason Lee plays Ben Afflleck’s inker and takes insult when called a “tracer.” Lee’s name also appears below Affleck’s in the actual credits. By the end of the film, Lee has ended their collaboration. H. G. Wells was wise never to begin one with Henry James.

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[And if you’d like to read more about their correspondence, check out Nicholas Delbanco’s Group Portrait: Joseph Conrad, Stephen Crane, Ford Madox Ford, Henry James and H. G. Wells. ]

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Two pages from the original artwork for the Spiderman comic.

The final issue of Amazing Fantasy No. 15 featured not only Spider-Man’s debut but three shorter Steve Ditko and Stan Lee collaborations, including “The One and Only,” a five-page tale made in the late 1950s and dropped into Amazing Fantasy as back filler. Ditko is credited for the art, but comics collector James Horvath, grandson of Golden Age artist Lydia Horvath, believes his grandmother actually drew it. Ms. Horvath was renown for her ability to imitate other artists, including Joe Shuster for whom she ghosted as a member of his studio before leaving Cleveland in 1940 to begin her freelancing career with Timely and Paragon Comics.

The script for “The One and Only” was assumed lost, until Horvath recently discovered it in his late grandmother’s private papers. It is a parody of Golden Age knock-offs of Superman and features a Jimmy Olson-like character losing his newspaper job and searching for his beloved hero “Singulus” who went inexplicably missing during the 1950s. It has a dark twist ending which I won’t spoil, but here is an excerpt:

 

PAGE THREE, “The One and Only”

Script: Stan Lee

Row 1, Panel 1: Plane flying over the Himalayas. Caption: “Before vanishing, Singulus told Little Jim that he had gained his powers from a guru in the Himalaya Mountains. With nothing left to lose, Little Jim splurges on a one-way ticket to Tibet!”

Row 1, Panel 2: Close-up of Jim’s extremely foreshortened, rock-gouged hand reaching through a mist of mountain cloud for a ledge hold. Zoom in for the crosshatch of cuts and ragged nail edges.

Row 1, Panel 3: When Jimmy’s gritting face struggles over the ledge, he’s now has a scraggly beard and a few gray wires of hair over his still adolescently-round head.

Row 2, Panel 1: Jim now fully on the ledge pulls out a flashlight from his removed backpack before entering the cave mouth.

Row 2, Panel 2: Jim’s round white eyes above the flashlight eye as he stumbles into the black of the secret cavern, with the cave opening now behind him.

Row 2, Panel 3: Jim’s POV, flashlight finds Singulus’ abandoned costume on the cave floor. Jim: “Singulus?”

Row 2, Panel 4: Jim’s POV, flashlight reveals the ancient guru Onlyone sitting cross-legged next to the costume. Onlyone: “At last the next heir to the Power Singulus has answered the calling!”

Row 3, Panel 1: Onlyone stretches out his arm, hand open with a ring in his palm. Jim reaches for the ring. Jim: “Me?” Onlyone: “I, Onlyone the Lonely One, Holy Keeper of the Power Singular, have been waiting to bestow this gift upon you.”

Row 3, Panel 2: Jim’s POV, as Onlyone watches him slide the ring onto his finger. Close up of finger and the ring with the letter “S” on it. Jim: “But I’m just Little Jim. How can I ever be—”

Row 3, Panel 3: Jim transforms into the new Singulus. His body mushrooms, newly superheroic shoulders shoving through the frame edges. The new Singulus leotard has bolder lines and darker colors than the discarded one shown earlier on the ground. Jim: “SINGULUS!!”

Row 3, Panel 4: Onlyone stands behind the new Singulus. Onlyone in spike-edged talk balloon, words in bold: “But remember!! The Power Singular is singular!! The cosmic charm was forged in secrecy and so in secrecy must remain!! The chosen one must stand alone or free his Secret Rival!!”

Sadly none of this is true. Lydia Horvath does not exist. Her grandson, James Horvath, is the fictional narrator of the novel The Patron Saint of Superheroes, which my agent is pitching to acquisition editors in New York publishing houses. The story is about Horvath’s attempts to preserve his dying grandmother by collecting her lost artwork—a mission that leads him to stealing the original printer pages for Amazing Fantasy No. 15 from a millionaire’s wall and later donating them anonymously to the Library of Congress. That actually did happen in 2008, and my novel is, among other things, the story behind that story.

My agent thinks the novel should also include the art for “The One and Only.” But that’s a little hard to do since the Ditko knock-off story doesn’t actually exist. At least not yet.

I’m looking for an artist interested in being Steve Ditko. Or rather an artist interested in pretending to be Lydia Horvath pretending to be Steve Ditko. If/when some wonderful editor buys the manuscript, the project will expand, but for the current pitching stage, we’re looking for one drawing. The page scripted above.

There’s plenty more to tell (the complete letter-like script was published as a short story in The Pinch in 2011, and the description of another Horvath comic as a prose poem last year in Drawn to Marvel), but these are the essentials. If you’re an artist interested in collaborating, contact me at chris@gavaler.com.

Image result for steve ditko art library of congress 2008

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“I grew up in Indiana,” writes Chris Huntington, “and saved a few thousand comic books in white boxes for the son I would have someday. . . . Despite my good intentions, we had to leave the boxes of yellowing comics behind when we moved to China.”

I grew up in Pennsylvania and only moved down to Virginia, so I still have one dented box of my childhood comics to share with my son. He pulled it down from the attic last weekend.

“I forgot how much fun these are,” he said.

Cameron is twelve and has lived them all in our southern smallville of a town. Chris Huntington’s son, Dagim, is younger and born in Ethiopia. Huntington laments in “A Superhero Who Looks Like My Son”(a recent post at the New York Times parenting blog, Motherlode) how Dagin stopped wearing his Superman cape after he noticed how much darker his skin looked next to his adoptive parents’.

Cameron can flip to any page in my bin of comics and admire one of those “big-jawed white guys” Huntington and I grew up on. Dagim can’t. That, argues Junot Diaz, is the formula for a supervillain: “If you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.” Fortunately, reports Huntington, Marvel swooped to the rescue with a black-Hispanic Spider-Man in 2011, giving Dagim a superhero to dress as two Halloweens running.

Glenn Beck called Ultimate Spider-Man just “a stupid comic book,” blaming the facelift on Michelle Obama and her assault on American traditions. But Financial Times saw the new interracial character as the continuing embodiment of America: “Spider-Man is the pure dream: the American heart, in the act of growing up and learning its path.” I happily side with Financial Times, though the odd thing about their opinion (aside from the fact that something called Financial Times HAS an opinion about a black-Hispanic Spider-Man) is the “growing up” bit.

Peter Parker was a fifteen-year-old high schooler when that radioactive spider sunk its fangs into his adolescent body. Instant puberty metaphor: “What’s happening  to me? I feel—different! As though my entire body is charged with some sort of fantastic energy!” I remember the feeling.

It was 1962. Stan Lee’s publisher didn’t want a teenage superhero. The recently reborn genre was still learning its path.  Teenagers could only be sidekicks. The 1940s swarmed with Robin knock-offs, but none of them ever got to grow-up, to become adult heroes, to become adult anythings.

Captain Marvel’s little alter ego Billy Baston never aged. None of the Golden Agers did. Their origin stories moved with them through time. Bruce Wayne always witnessed his parents’ murder “Some fifteen years ago.” He never grew past it. For Billy and Robin, that meant never growing at all. They were marooned in puberty.

Lee and co-creator Steve Ditko tried to change that. Peter Parker graduated high school in 1965, right on time. He starts college the same year. The bookworm scholarship boy was on track for a 1969 B.A.

But things don’t always go as planned. Ditko left the series a few issues later (#38, on stands the month I was born). Lee scripted plots with artist John Romita until 1972, when Lee took over his uncle’s job as publisher. He was all grown-up.

Peter doesn’t make it to his next graduation day till 1978. If I remember correctly (I haven’t read  Amazing Spider-Man #185 since I bought it from a 7-EIeven comic book rack for “Still Only Thirty-five” cents when I was twelve), he missed a P.E. credit and had to wait for his diploma. Thirteen years as an undergraduate is a purgatorial span of time. (I’m an English professor now, so trust me, I know.)

Except it isn’t thirteen years. That’s no thirty-two-year-old in the cap and gown on the cover. Bodies age differently inside comic books. Peter’s still a young twentysomething. His first twenty-eight issues spanned less than three years, same for us out here in the real world. But during the next 150, things grind out of sync.

It’s not just that Peter’s clock moves more slowly. His life is marked by the same external events as ours. While he was attending Empire State University, Presidents Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Carter appeared multiple times in the Marvel universe. Their four-year terms came and went, but not Peter’s four-year college program. How can “the American heart” learn its path when it’s in a state of arrested development?

Slowing time wasn’t enough either. Marvel wanted to reverse the aging process. They wanted the original teen superhero to be a teenager again. When their 1998 reboot didn’t take hold (John Byrne had better luck turning back the Man of Steel’s clock), Marvel invented an entire universe. When Ultimate Spider-Man premiered in 2000, the new Peter Parker is fifteen again. And he was going to stay that way for a good long while. Writer Brian Bendis took seven issues to cover the events Lee and Ditko told in eleven pages.

But even with slo-mo pacing, Peter turned sixteen again in 2011. So after a half century of webslinging, Marvel took a more extreme countermeasure to unwanted aging. They killed him. But only because they had the still younger Spider-Man waiting in the wings. Once an adolescent, always an adolescent.

The newest Spider-Man, Miles Morales, started at thirteen. What my son turns next month. He and Miles will start shaving in a couple of years. If Miles isn’t in the habit of rubbing deodorant in his armpits regularly, someone will have to suggest it. I’m sure he has cringed through a number of Sex Ed lessons inflicted by well-meaning but clueless P.E. teachers. My Health classes were always divided, mortified boys in one room, mortified girls across the hall. My kids’ schools follow the same regime. Some things don’t change.

Miles doesn’t live in Marvel’s main continuity, so who knows if he’ll make it out of adolescence alive. His predecessor died a virgin. Ultimate Peter and Mary Jane had talked about sex, but decided to wait. Sixteen, even five years of sixteen, is awfully young. (Did I mention my daughter turned sixteen last spring?)

Peter didn’t die alone though.  Mary Jane knew his secret. I grew up with and continue a policy of open bedrooms while opposite sex friends are in the house, but Peter told her while they sat alone on his bed, Aunt May off who knows where. The scene lasted six pages, which is serious superhero stamina. It’s mostly close-ups, then Peter springing into the air and sticking to the wall as Mary Jane’s eye get real real big. Way better than my first time. It’s also quite sweet, the trust and friendship between them. For a superhero, for a pubescent superhero especially, unmasking is better than sex. It’s almost enough to make me wish I could reboot my own teen purgatory. Almost.

Meanwhile the Marvel universes continue to lurch in and out of time, every character ageless and aging, part of and not part of their readers’ worlds. It’s a fate not even Stan Lee could save them from. Cameron and Dagim will continue reading comic books, and then they’ll outgrow them, and then, who knows, maybe that box will get handed to a prepubescent grandson or granddaughter.

The now fifty-one-year-old Spider-Man, however, will continue not to grow up. But he will continue to change. “Maybe sooner or later,” suggests artist Sara Pichelli, “a black or gay — or both — hero will be considered something absolutely normal.” Spider-Man actor Andrew Garfield would like his character to be bisexual, a notion Stan Lee rejects (“I figure one sex is enough for anybody”). But anything’s possible. That’s what Huntington learned from superheroes, the quintessentially American lesson he wants to pass on to his son growing up in Singapore.

May that stupid American heart never stop finding its path.

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And, once again, along comes a genetically engineered spider that sits down beside an adorable geek who sprouts superpowers and frightens a computer-generated villain away.  Not only do you know the story, Sony Pictures even recycled screenwriter Alvin Sargent, who co-penned those other semi-recent Spider-Man movies. They grabbed one of the Harry Potter guys too. Hollywood banks on familiarity. If bold risk-taking reaped revenues, Julie Taymor would still be swinging with the Broadway Spider-Man. If Sony could have kept Tobey Maguire, I’d be reviewing Spider-Man 4 right now.

Which is why I want to state with absolute clarity, while drawing on all of my expertise as a professor of English trained in close textual analysis, that The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) kicks the shit out of Spider-Man (2002).

I admit my expectations were low. I figured my night at the theater had peaked with The Dark Knight Rises preview. But within the first expositionally economic minutes, I realized that director Marc Webb landed the job for more than his unlikely last name. And once Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield started tripping through their adolescently awkward mating waltz, I was all grins.

Neither is a particularly plausible high schooler, but plausibility has never been job one in the spandex hero genre. Tobey spent months bulking up for his unitard, but the skinny Mr. Garfield has the advantage of actually looking like a Steve Ditko sketch.

Garfield’s feet, as my wife pointed out, are also bigger. Which, oddly, is the core of the whole movie.

I had planned on writing a Tobey vs. Andrew analysis, playing off the wrestling match motif from Lee and Ditko’s original comic book. But that’s the wrong metaphor. This isn’t hero vs. hero. Amazing is a son sliding into his father’s shoes. Literally. Scene one little Peter is playing hide and seek with Dad, who has left his shoes poking out from the curtains to fool him. Pull the curtains back and no dad. Just the empty shoes.

Lee and Ditko had nothing to say about Peter’s father. He was simply not there, not even mysteriously so. Everybody knows heroes are orphans. And it would have been too painful, too Batman, to have Dad gunned down by the guy his own jerk of a son let escape from the police. So shoot an uncle instead. But the Webb team fills in the missing threads, strings them back so everything is interwoven: the spider that bites Peter was designed by (SPOILER ALERT!) his own father. Superpowers are Peter’s paternal inheritance.

Sony timed the release so Amazing would be on screens for the 4th of July. Which explains the one clunky scene: all those fatherly construction workers angling their cranes to help their boy swing to victory with an anthem-like soundtrack and a literal American flag spotlit in the background.

But Sony should have aimed two weeks earlier. Father’s Day was June 17th.

Maguire is a little young to be Garfield’s father (Maguire’s son, Otis, is only three), but fortunately my eleven-year-old son was with us in the theater too. We watched Peter continue father seeking for the next two hours, as he grows into his superpowered footwear. Uncle Ben, Captain Stacy, even the scaly Doc Connors, they’re all stand-ins for the ur-dad. And the triple orphaned Peter has to make peace with them all.

That means popping out your contact lenses and wearing Dad’s Clark Kent glasses. That means prowling mugger-infested back alleys for your uncle’s killer (a plot thread to be further plucked in Amazing 2). That means stopping your dad’s mad scientist best friend from fathering a race of uberlizards. It even means convincing Dennis Leary, your grouchy would-be father-in-law, that you’re not an anarchist vigilante trying to tear down governmental patriarchy. All you want to do is live up to your dad’s parting words:

“Be good.”

This was also Sony’s directive to the production team. Be good or we’ll forget you faster than we did your father, Mr. Maquire. Meanwhile, the Garfield boy fits amazingly well in those spider re-boots.

I’m not going to comment on Ms. Stone’s presumably fashionable legwear. She’s one of my fifteen-year-old daughter’s favorite actresses. My daughter hasn’t seen Amazing yet (she was working at the pizza joint down the street where they got inundated when our 7:00 showing let out), but I’m curious if she’ll be as annoyed as I was when Gwen gets shucked off camera so her dad and boyfriend can go save the day. Sally Fields didn’t get much action either, not with Martin Sheen’s pompous voice-over hogging the avuncular glory. Someone must have been playing Gwen’s mother too, but it was hard to see through all the testosterone.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 release date is May 2, 2014.  A week before Mother’s Day. Maybe Embeth Davidtz, Peter’s still basically non-existent mother, will get a few lines next time.

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