Ep. #2: The Second Age of Spider-Man

In episode two, Al Sjoerdsma and Jonathan Couper-Smartt continue their exploration through the "Ages of Spider-Man".

Al Sjoerdsma and Jonathan Couper-Smartt continue their journey through the "Ages of Spider-Man". Our progress so far:

The First Age
The Ditko Age
Amazing Fantasy #15Amazing Spider-Man #38

Having ended the first age with Steve Ditko's departure in Amazing Spider-Man (Vol. 1) #38 (Jul 1966), they look for the next essential transition 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, welcome to episode two of the Spider-Fan podcast. We're continuing our journey to discover the ages of Spider-Man. Just to quickly recap, last episode we identified the first age of Spider-Man as being issues Amazing Fantasy #15 through to Amazing Spider-Man #38 when Steve Ditko departed as his heavy influence was replaced by John Romita who brought a happier, chirpier Spider-Man. A change creatively, a change in the comics, and a change within Marvel itself.

Hi, Al. Welcome to the episode.

Al: Hey, Jonathan. A "chirpier" Spider-Man. I like it.

Jonathan: Well, he was... he was a changed man. He got a motorcycle, he got a happy permanent girlfriend.

Al: Until she was killed!

Jonathan: Well, let's get to that. So, John Romita took over, and he produced a fantastic series of issues. When did things change again?

Al: Well, that is a good question, and it's a very slippery slope. The obvious answer is to say that it changes when Stan (Lee) leaves. But the question of when Stan leaves is also sort of up in the air. You could say that well, Stan leaves at issue 100, except he comes back at issue 105. And then by the time he actually leaves, after 110. He leaves in the middle of a story.

Jonathan: In the middle of the Gibbon story...

Al: In the middle of the Gibbon story.

Jonathan: ...and nobody notices.

Al: Well, people who read the credits notice! But you know... but whether that felt like any difference in the story is another question. And Stan also leaves as editor at that same time. Roy Thomas takes over as editor at that point. And yet, because Stan's story segue's right into Gerry (Conway)'s story, it essentially feels like it's the same situation. So, Gerry takes us up to the death of Gwen Stacy, which seems like it might be a good place to stop.

Except that, in the blow-back after the death of Gwen Stacy, when you have the question of "Was Stan informed, was Stan not informed." Stan, again remember, is not the editor at this point, Roy is the editor. And yet Stan is still, the symbol of Marvel.

Jonathan: Well, he's a very popular guy.

Al: Yes!

Jonathan: At that time he became a rock star among the colleges, the pop culture, the... the swinging kids down in New York City.

Al: Yes!

Jonathan: He became a figurehead. Why did he leave? You know... what's, what's the story about him leaving? Do we know anything about that?

Al: Well, I don't know what he ever said about it. But I think a big reason why he leaves is that Jack Kirby has left Marvel.

Jonathan: That's obviously considered the end of the Silver Age of comics and the start of the Bronze Age.

Al: Yes. Well, that's one possible spot. Actually, as we've talked about in the past, the Death of Gwen Stacy is also considered one of those spots that might be the end of the Silver Age and the start of the Bronze Age. But certainly in terms of personnel, losing Kirby is big. And... I'm not sure Stan can go on without Kirby, actually. And I think he probably knows that.

So I think that's a big part of why he leaves. Plus, you know, he's being doing this for a long time. And he's finally in a situation where he can leave, and he can move on to be The Emeritus. And part of being The Emeritus is that at least for a short time, he still has one eye on the books. But he also has one eye off the books.

Jonathan: Well he's got, he's gone one eye on California is where he's got his other eye.

Al: Yes.

Jonathan: He... he does depart, as you say, as the editor officially. But he carries on with the Bullpen ["Bullpen Bulletins" - Ed.], replying [to] letters, and making it seem as though he's the guy pulling all the strings. Now, I've always not held that against Stan. He claimed a great deal more responsibility than I think he ever had. But I think that was because he was important to Marvel.

He was a very visible figurehead, and it was important to Marvel that they be able wrap this mystique about Stan, and part of the story was that he was the inventor of everything, the driving force, and "Don't worry kids, Marvel is [sic] still got all that old magic because Stan's still here."

Al: Yeah, that's true to some extent. If you go back and look at some of the things Stan said through the 60's, he gives lots of credit to Ditko and Kirby and the others. But... some of these things are just out of people's hands. And much as he may give the credit, it becomes sort of, just this legend that Stan is behind everything. Which of course is what gets Kirby to actually leave, is a big part of it. Because he feels like he's not getting the recognition and the credit that he actually deserved to get.

Jonathan: Absolutely. Look, it's important to realize as well that Stan is not a young man by this stage.

Al: No.

Jonathan: He's, what, he's in his 50's at that point.

Al: Mmmm... he's close to 50.

Jonathan: He's certainly at that age where a lot of people are kind of feeling that they've done quite a bit, and maybe a little bit of them being able to take back control of their life, as they... you know, he's obviously not ready for ready for retirement, but he gets this idea that he wants to go to California and negotiate the movies and the TV series' and hang out with the actresses.

Obviously at some stage he got a bit of a taste of that, and he decides that what he wants for himself. And Marvel manages to make that work from their side.

Al: Right.

Jonathan: Although... Stan does a complete botch-job of actually that business. He completely fails to get the movies created...

Al: Well that might be the third age... "The Botch Age."

Jonathan: The... the "Age of Botching." Well, he doesn't actually move out until 1981 when he actually buys a house in California and leaves for good. But he's definitely got one foot out of the door.

Al: Yes.

Jonathan: So when does he actually leave. When, when... when is Stan's fingerprints finally removed from the comic book itself. From Spider-Man in particular.

Al: Well, that's a good question. Even though his fingerprints are sort of gone from it prior to I think issue #150, which is where I'm marking the end of the Second Age, it's not perceived that way. The Death of Gwen Stacy, Stan is not involved in the creation of that at all. But in the blow-back, Stan is somebody who says "Well, wait a minute – I wasn't informed about this, because I'm still The Emeritus on some level here."

Jonathan: Well, others... others have said... Gerry Conway has said "No, we told Stan about that."

Al: Yes, and I think John Romita said the same thing. I'm not sure what Roy Thomas has said, but...

Jonathan: Stan has a famously terrible memory. He remembers things that never happens, and he completely forgets things that genuinely did happen, that's incontrovertible. If you read the two biographies of Stan that came out in pretty much the same year, one of them is his own autobiography and the other is an independent biography by a couple of very professional biographers, and they present totally different views of the same supposed person.

Stan's biography is lovely, and it's magical. But it appears to be factually challenged on some key elements.

[Specifically: Excelsior! The Amazing Life of Stan Lee from 2002 vs. Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book in 2003 - Ed.]

Al: Ha ha ha. Actually, so yes. So, it's not really clear whether Stan remembers correctly or not what went on in terms of the blow-back from the Gwen Stacy murder. But it certainly behooves him politically to claim that he was not informed. You were talking about how he becomes like this great hero to students and so on, in representing Marvel. I just did not too long ago, a review of an Esquire magazine covering some of the Marvel stuff from the mid 60's.

And one of the things they say in there is that Stan, in a speech to Bard College, drew a bigger audience than President Eisenhower.

[Specifically: Esquire #394 - Ed.]

Jonathan: Heh, heh.

Al: So, if you have that going for you, if you have that responsibility to fans... that fervor around you, then you can't just sit back I think, even if you remember it correctly, and say "Oh yeah, I was pretty busy that day, and they came through and said we want to kill Gwen Stacy, and I could barely even remember who she was and I said Sure." He can't do that.

Jonathan: And that's what I was talking about previously. It certainly behooved Marvel in general to maintain that mystique of him being the man pulling all the strings. Stan certainly was huge at that time. Let's not forget the time when they organized the Carnegie Hall... "A Marvel-ous Evening with Stan Lee", 1972 some time?

Al: Yes, yes.

Jonathan: And Stan I think at that point, his ego was somewhat out of control, and he basically said "Look, I'm just gonna go stand on the stage." I think they organized some guys in costume and a magician or something, and he basically figured that he could entertain people in Carnegie Hall off-the-cuff.

[Quick fact check. I don't see any mention of a magician. There was music (of varying degrees of professionalism), speeches, and "live on-stage drawing" by John Romita and Herb Trimpe. There was also the first public reading of Stan's epic poem "God Woke", which pretty much settled the question of "Will Stan Lee ever have a serious literary career." - Ed.]

In fact the thing by all accounts was rather disappointing to those who had attended, and maybe Stan Lee wasn't the dramatic orator who could inspire on a moment's notice that he ever thought he was. But it certainly is indicative of the way that Stan was perceived that anybody was prepared to even back that.

Al: Yes. I want to make it clear that I love Stan, and I think Stan is crucial to the whole process. But he's not the sole process, and a lot of perceived him that way, and a lot of people made him responsible for anything was going on in Marvel, whether he knew about it or not. So when you have Gwen Stacy killed, and Stan takes the heat on that. Then Stan turns around says "We have to bring her back." Which they do, but how do you do that?

I don't think it was Stan's suggestion to bring her back as a clone. I'm sure that was something worked by Gerry and possibly Roy, and may... well, Ross Andru was the artist at that point. But yet that's still sort of in reaction to Stan. So as I said, I think that the place to end the Second Age is issue #150.

Jonathan: Because?

Al: Because you go from Stan running the show and being the writer, segueing into Gerry being the writer and doing the Gwen Stacy story. Stan getting the blow-back from that and saying "No, we have to bring her back." And then we get the whole clone story, which ultimate ends – at least the first time around, with issue #150. In which we've brought back Gwen Stacy, but then we've allowed her to go off some place where she's never going to bother Peter again.

We have brought in a Spider-Man clone that is apparently killed in the process. And then we finish that off with a single issue by Archie Goodwin, because Gerry Conway finishes with issue #149, that demonstrates that the Spider-Man that we have is the real Spider-Man and not the clone. So you not only have the whole clone story tied off, you have Gerry Conway's run tied-off, even the issue before the whole thing is finished.

Jonathan: That is certainly a tidy point. As you say, yeah, we start again afresh with Len Wein on 151.

Al: Yeah, and at that point, whatever influence Stan has, even if he still has influence – because certainly Len Wein and Marv Wolfman are sort of disciples of Stan – it's no longer evident in any way once you get past 150.

We called the first age "The Age of Ditko" – even though obviously Romia and Kane and Thomas, and people that were dealing with Romita's break-downs like Mooney and Heck and so on are all crucial. But I think maybe we should tie this up and say that the Second Age is the Age of Stan.

Jonathan: OK, so episode 150 is the end of the Second Age of Spider-Man which we're calling the "Stan Lee Age of Spider-Man." Thanks guys, and we'll see you in a week's time.

Al: Thank you, Jonathan.