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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Thursday, July 9, 2015

NULL-MYTHS: "THE TERRIBLE TINKERER" (SPIDER-MAN #2)

Although the Lee-Ditko SPIDER-MAN corpus remains one of the most respected superhero serials in the comics medium, the feature's creators were men who could lose their way like any other mortal beings. Spider-Man's first four appearances-- the intro tale in AMAZING FANTASY #15, the two stories in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #1, and "Duel to the Death with the Vulture" in ASM #2-- are all remarkable for their wit and intelligence in transforming the then-staid conception of the superhero-- all the more remarkable, given that the creators probably believed that their only audience were kids under 12, Not every story in the Lee-Ditko corpus was superb, but even in the merely adequate stories, it's easy to imagine the two comics-creators taking a fierce professional joy in working out the brave new world of their unique take on the superhero.

Except once; in the second Spider-Man story to appear in ASM #2. It's not just that "the Terrible Tinkerer" is a blah story, though it is. It's also not just that it feels like some idea Lee and Ditko might've planned for one of their penny-ante "weird tales," and which they turned into a Spider-Man story in order to meet a deadline. It's that the story seems to invert the mythic concept of Spider-Man. This series-concept includes not just the hero, but all of the "mythology" that accrued about him-- developed in a steady and logical manner during the first four appearances-- and although Peter Parker does appear in the "Tinkerer" story, he seems less like himself and more like another alter-ego with an alliterative name: Billy Batson. Given that issue #2 was the last time that the AMAZING SPIDER-MAN title featured two short stories-- and that the Spider-Man concept was steadily developed from then on in "full-length" stoies-- the "Tinkerer" tale seems a strange hiccup indeed; almost a failure of nerve.


The tale opens on Parker in his science class, getting dumped on by his classmates for his devotion to the sciences. (Regular character Flash Thompson is among the mockers, but has not yet taken on a developed character, while his girlfriend Liz hasn't even acquired a first name yet.) This sequence. with the noble hero being ridiculed by his ignoble peers, is the only part of the story that doesn't feel like it belongs in a simpler superhero story along the model of the Fawcett Captain Marvel.

Parker's teacher introduces him to the city's foremost "electronics expert," Doctor Cobbwell, who has apparently come to the high school to look for a free assistant. Parker immediately volunteers, and it's not clear if it's he's being paid with money or just the honor of working for the esteemed scientist. Cobbwell has Parker run an errand for him, that of picking up a radio from an electronics repair store. While in the store, Parker's "spider sense" is triggered by the shop and its strange old owner, who calls himself "the Tinkerer." Parker leaves without divining what caused him to feel sensations of danger, but the reader sees that in the Tinkerer's basement, he's conspiring to place special monitoring devices in the radios he works on-- all to serve the world-conquering plans of a gang of green space-aliens.

Just as I said in my critique of this JIMMY OLSEN story, I'm not criticizing "Terrible Tinkerer" for putting forth an outlandish idea; that of a small-time radio-repairman acting as a spy for an alien invasion. Rather, I'm criticizing the story because it doesn't enhance the mythic themes that had been articulated in the previous four adventures. The issue of Parker's conflicts with his peers, which would continue to resonate in future adventures, is barely touched upon here, much less the "conflicts of money and fame" that I elucidated in my earlier meditations on Spider-Man.

There's no great suspense to the story, either. When Parker's hyper-senses allow him to detect the monitoring-device in Cobbwell's radio, he goes back to the radio-ship, as Spider-Man. He falls afoul of the Tinkerer and his alien allies, is captured, and then escapes a death-trap. The aliens flee the planet in their space-ship, while the Tinkerer escapes the hero, leaving behind a human face-mask that suggests that he too was an alien.

I remarked that there's almost nothing in this story that couldn't have happened to the Fawcett Captain Marvel-- who was, prior to the conception of Spider-Man, one of the most famous "teen heroes" in comic books, even if only the Captain's alter-ego was a teen boy. As this blogpost shows in great detail, the archetype of Captain Marvel had an incidental influence upon Spider-Man's creation, for Captain Marvel was the model for a superhero named the "Silver Spider"-- a concept which did not sell to any publisher, but whose basic concept was recycled twice: first into Archie Comics' THE FLY, and later, into SPIDER-MAN.

The DIAL B FOR BLOG post mentions that when Steve Ditko saw some of the pages of Jack Kirby's first-- and presumably unfinished-- SPIDER-MAN story, the adventure showed the Kirby Spider-Man-- who transformed with the help of a magic ring, just like Archie's FLY-- in the process of getting involved with an old scientist performing some experiment. Did Ditko take what he remembered of the uncompleted story, and transform into the "Tinkerer" tale? This might explain why the story seems to be so little like any other Lee-Ditko spider-story before or after it.

Fortunately, though this story may represent a slight "failure of nerve" in that it revolves back to an earlier superhero-model-- a model which SPIDER-MAN parodies-- the back-step did not hinder the progress of the Spider-Man mythos. (Happily, though later raconteurs chose to bring the Tinkerer out of mothballs, he never became a major player in that mythos, and would in my opinion be better off being forgotten.)


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