Ep. #1: The First Age of Spider-Man

In this first episode, Al Sjoerdsma and Jonathan Couper-Smartt begin their investigation of the "Ages of Spider-Man". They look for the essential transitional moments in the history of Spidey – not just the comic-book character, but Spider-Man as a cultural, commercial, and creative phenomenon.

[Theme Song - "Blues in C minor"]

Jonathan: Hi Spider-Fans. This is the first ever Spider-Fan podcast. I've got with me in our virtual studio Al Sjoerdsma from United States, and I'm Jonathan Couper-Smartt, the site editor based in sunny New Zealand.

Al: Jonathan. How's it going?

Jonathan: Excellent! Today's topic is "The Ages of Spider-Man". What I wanted to talk about Al was the ages of Spider-Man in the big picture. So not just the things that are happening in the comic books, but the changes that go all the way back through the creative team, and all the way back to Marvel itself.

Al: Yep. But of course, the changes that you're talking about also initiate changes within the character.

Jonathan: Yeah, often those are tied together. The character changes are made because Marvel, for one reason or another, wants to make a change in their use of Spider-Man.

So, obviously things kick off in... let's call it the First Age. And we've got classic Spider-Man. He's been created by Stan Lee, Steve Ditko. Now the story goes of course that Spider-Man was originally intended to be a throwaway character. The... Amazing Fantasy #15 was the last episode – this is the story that Stan often tells – was the last episode, and his boss said to him "Do what ever you like... ahh... you know, this character isn't going to survive."

And Stan figures, well he's got this idea for this "Spider Man" character, that is... he doesn't necessarily think it's going to be successful but he wants to create something interesting and so he gives it a go.

Al: Yeah... that may or may not be true. [I'm] sure there's some truth in that. There's also an aspect of that where Martin Goodman says "Oh, people don't like spiders, spiders are icky," or something like that. But Stan says "oh well, let's try it."

But you know there's all these other possibilities. First of all you have that fact that what eventually becomes Amazing #1 and Amazing #2 have two stories in each issue. And they certain seem as if they were originally created for Amazing Fantasy. And then you have just the whole creation of the character. I mean it's not really a throwaway character. There's more to the creation of the character.

Whether it comes from the "Spider" character that Joe Simon claims it comes from, or whether umm... it has to with Kirby's first try at it, which then apparently Stan got rid of and brought in Ditko. You know, it wasn't just "Oh let's throw this out there", I mean they did put some thought into this. And you can certainly tell that by the origin story, which is... which is very different that most of what the origin stories were at the time, and is still really effective today.

Jonathan: Yeah, they certainly I guess do lay in the ground work for a sustaining story. The... the ending is very open-ended, it leads to... very naturally to the episodes that obviously Steve Ditko then takes a very strong part in. And I don't want to get into the discussion about who was responsible for either the creation of Spider-Man, you know maybe that's a separate discussion. Nor really to get too much into who was responsible for making Spider-Man "Spider-Man" in the issues that follow – although it's generally accepted I guess that, that Steve very much took over the character and made it his own.

Stan certainly was involved in the plotting in the early issues and has always been credited, not really disputed, his involvement in writing the dialog at the end. But as the relationship broke down, I guess everybody accepts I guess that Steve developed the plot for a lot of those stories in what, the 20's and the 30's... issue numbers?

Al: Right.

Jonathan: And then subsequently, obviously the relations broke down to the point where Steve was doing those things all by himself. And then John Romita, Sr. comes onto the scene – one of my favorite artists – and transforms Spider-Man from the moody loser, can't catch a break guy that Steve had him be, into a lot something more positive and proactive.

Al: Yeah, yeah. So we don't necessarily have to get into where the creation comes from, or who's doing what necessarily – except in how it affects what we're talking about. So that, I think I you know, was making the point about the origins of the character, just in terms of the staying power of the character maybe. That there's a lot more thought into it than Stan often acted like there was.

And there's certainly a distinct difference between Dikto and Romita, and they way Stan deals with Dikto and Romita, so that they end up creating two very different types of Peter Parkers, and different type of book. So when you're talking about the different ages, I think the first age has to be Steve Ditko. Even though Stan is part of both the Ditko age and the Romita age, up to issue 100 and then a little bit beyond.

Jonathan: Yeah, I've... I've always had a very strong opinion about Stan's engagement in the comic books. Starting before Spider-Man, you know, even before the Fantastic Four, and then for the next ten years of his tenure. The thing that's always struck me very strongly is that Stan was doing so much. The mathematical impossibility of Stan being intimately involved with every single one of the what... goodness knows, twenty comic books. By the end twenty, thirty comic books that he was involved in editing, plus all his other responsibilities.

It really feels to me that, when you read about the Marvel Method. The Marvel Method to me was – Stan comes up with an idea, sketches out two paragraphs, flicks it off, and then six weeks later something finished comes back that he wasn't really involved in, in any great detail. And then he writes the dialogue which is the icing on the cake. The Marvel Method allowed Stan to get a great deal done without having to invest too much time in any specific project.

And that's part of the reason that I've always hugely credited the Kirbys and the Ditkos and the Romitas with so much more engagement and involvement in these characters – that they would literally spend eighty hours on a comic book – or at least twenty or thirty, where Stan would spend twenty minutes on that same book.

Al: Yeah, Stan was blessed with the artistic collaborators that he had. What Ditko and Kirby were able to do is astounding. And without them you don't have Marvel Comics, clearly. But he also was able to get other people that I think were less comfortable with that to use that system. I think Romita has been quoted as saying that he initially was not comfortable with the Marvel Method. But it was definitely there just to help Stan get through all the work that he had to do.

Now the thing about Romita is that at a certain point in the series, he's like doing layouts or breakdowns, and other people are doing the finished art. You know, Don Heck at a certain point is doing the finished art. Uh... who else. Jim Mooney at a certain point is doing the finished art. So I don't know. Romita's always the co-plot, along with Stan. So I really don't know how much they collaborated – Stan and, and John, you know.

Whether Stan was just saying "Let's use the Kingpin again," and setting John off to do it. I don't know what... how much input any of the other artists have. Whether they're just following Romita's breakdowns and just going from there. But it feels like the time with post-Ditko is a much more collaborative time than the time with Stan and Steve where Steve just took over the book entirely.

And you know, there's the... those wonderful instances like Amazing Spider-Man #30 with you know The Cat – the Cat Burglar. And there are these henchmen that appear in there. And Stan assumes that they're the Cat's henchmen, because Steve hasn't told him anything. And so the book is written that way. And then the next issue, it turns out that they're the henchmen of the Master Planner... of Doc Ock. So Stan is guessing half the time what Steve is even doing, you know.

Jonathan: That's... that's very much how I understand it too. Is that Stan would "OK, it's going to be the Kingpin, and the Kingpin's son turns up, but he... he doesn't like what his dad's doing and he fights against him." You know, Stan's tossing ideas out there in a five-minute, ten-minute session, jumping on the furniture, whatever he did. And then yeah, six weeks later, a semi-completed comic book comes back to him.

So what are we saying here? Are we saying that the First Age of Spider-Man ends with Steve's departure? That it's... it's a forty, thirty-seven, thirty-eight [Actually thirty-nine issues, of course - Ed.] issue run that defines the First Age of Spider-Man.

Al: Yeah, I think that.

Jonathan: The Steve Ditko Age.

Al: Right, and I think that it changes, not only because you have a new artist and new plotters. And not only because you have Stan and John getting away from Steve's Ayn-Randian view of super-heroes, and making Peter more hip and more, uh... more liked by his class-mates and so-on.

But that all ties in with I think what we're talking about outside of the comic with the Second Age, which is that the readership is staring to expand, and college students are discovering these comics. And... you have, you know, I just did um... some From The Beginning reviews of Esquire Magazine dealing with Spider-Man and Marvel comics. And those are from 1965 and 1966, which is around the time that Ditko leaves.

So there's more of an awareness that the audience, there's a lot of college students out there, and it's not just kids. So the plotting has to change accordingly. That's where you get the situation where Peter is on the side of the protesting students. When, when Ditko was doing the book, Peter was opposed to the protesting students. There's an awareness that the protesting students are the audience.

Jonathan: I, I... one of my favorite moments in those early books. I love those issues Amazing Spider-Man #40, 41, 42, 43. Uh... Mary Jane turns up for the first time. You know Spider-... Peter Parker... Peter Parker becomes attractive. One of my favorite moments is when he rides off on his motorbike with Mary Jane on the back.

Al: Yes.

Jonathan: And he's no longer a kid sitting on the school bus, and moping around the school playground. He's an independent young man, kickin' around New York City – the most amazing city in the world.

Al: Yes.

Jonathan: And that absolutely is a transformation. So may... Okay, there we go. That's the First Age of Spider-Man, ah... starts Amazing Spider-Man #15 and finishes... do you want to pick an episode. Is it...?

Al: Well, you know. Just pick Ditko's last issue which is, you know Amazing #38.

Jonathan: There you go, Amazing #38.

Al: You know, Stan turns right around and says "Well, lets... we've lost Steve, let's kick it off with a bang and let's reveal the Green Goblin." So things change right away.

Jonathan: Right then, there we go. Well that's episode number one of the Spider-Fan podcast. The First Age of Spider-Man. I guess we'll be back in a couple of weeks with the Second Age of Spider-Man, where... wherever we figure that happens to land. Uh... thanks, Al!

Al: Thank you, Jonathan!