The Avocado Meets Spider-Man: Amazing Fantasy #15

Welcome to Marvel Librarian. Having missed out on comics in my formative years, I’m reading Silver Age Marvel comics for the first time, and writing about their highs, lows, and general weirdness.

Well, here it is. Indisputably one of the most famous comic books of all time, and probably the most well-known of all Marvel books.

It poses a bit of a problem for me, actually, because I can’t possibly do a feature on Silver Age Marvel without including Amazing Fantasy #15. On the other hand, what can I say about this book that hasn’t been analyzed to death already?

Instead, this seems a good a time as any to talk a bit about my personal history with Marvel comics. Growing up, I wasn’t allowed them. The bulk of my formative years were in the 90s, when comic prices were going up, and paying a dollar or more for a thirty-page book that was mainly pictures seemed like a waste of money to my parents. Child-me mostly agreed – after all, I could get a kids’ paperback for just a few dollars and that would last me much longer. As I entered my teen years, comics had to compete with $5 doorstoppers from the “fantasy and sci-fi bargains” table at Barnes & Noble. For a long time, the only comics I had were the surprisingly good ones in Disney Adventures magazine.

Which brings us back to Amazing Fantasy #15. I hadn’t read any Spider-Man growing up, so when the story of this book was adapted fairly faithfully for Raimi’s Spider-Man, it was new to me, and I loved it. Unsurprisingly, those first two Spider-Man films were in heavy DVD rotation in a college dorm full of nerds, and I think it was that movie, more than anything, that endeared me to Marvel superheroes.

I would dabble in comics here and there, but once I had enough disposable income to buy them, I still faced the problem of being extremely intimidated by our local comic shops. I didn’t even have the all-too-common experience of being mocked or creeped on for being a woman in a comic shop – I just simply had no idea where to start and would leave without buying anything. This is why a service like Marvel Unlimited is so helpful, especially paired with the many reading lists and guides that exist freely on the internet today. There’s no intimidation, no risk – you put down your money and you can read anything you like. The downside, of course, is that there’s no collecting and no ownership, but for someone like me who came to comics so late, it’s been awesome.

Right off the bat, we have the cheeky little caption about how Spider-Man is different. (In this first comic, it’s always written as “Spiderman,” even though they later settled on Spider-Man as the canonical way to write it.) To be fair to Lee and Ditko, he really was different in many ways. Up until now, teenaged superheroes were almost always sidekicks to other heroes – including their own Johnny Storm, who wasn’t exactly a sidekick but was part of a team – and the primary idea of this book was that teenagers would enjoy reading about a solo, protagonist hero who was their own age, and had many of the same troubles they did. It’s one of those ideas that seems obvious now that we have a massive glut of YA material starring teenage protagonists, but at the time really was new and fresh.

As everyone else before me has pointed out, Peter Parker is a schlubby nerd, designed specifically to appeal to what Lee and Ditko thought was their average comics reader. Unflattering, perhaps, but it seems that they weren’t exactly wrong.

(Note that I’m referring to the creators of Spider-Man as Lee and Ditko because that’s what the book says on it. If you want to get into the question of who actually created Spider-Man and how much input they each had, there’s a dozen resources written by comics experts who have you covered.)

One of my favorite parts of Spider-Man is how much he and his Aunt May care for each other. It’s clear that they recognized early on that this fantasy of the put-upon nerd who comes into great power could quickly veer into being unsympathetic if handled poorly, and so Peter’s love for his family became the critical anchor that grounds the character.

They also have to quickly establish Peter’s rapport with his Uncle Ben because, spoiler alert, Ben dies by the end of the book.

We further establish that Peter is popular with his teachers but unpopular with his fellow students. Again, while this is a power fantasy for nerds, I think they’re smart not to dwell on his aggrieved wish for revenge too much. We get this one panel of a brooding Peter, as he heads towards the public radioactivity experiments at his local science center.

That seems safe.

And then Peter is bitten by a radioactive spider, etc.

His spider bit burns and glows and he doesn’t see fit to get this checked out by a doctor. I’ve heard this called out as ridiculous, but it’s made abundantly clear in future books that the Parkers do not have health insurance. I think many people without health insurance would react the same way.

Lost in thought, he nearly gets hit by a car, which causes him to jump. Not only does he jump much higher than is possible for a human being, but he sticks to a nearby building and discovers he can climb it effortlessly. It’s a bit of a contrived way for Peter to realize his powers, but whatever, we only have so much book to work with here and we want to get to the good stuff.

Peter spots an ad for some kind of underground? wrestling ring, offering $100 to anyone who can stay in the ring three minutes with “The Crusher.” That’s about $887 in today’s money.

Thinking that this is a good way to test his newfound powers, Peter puts on a mask made of netting and enters the ring. He effortlessly dodges and lifts the Crusher.

So Peter has the proportionate strength of a spider. One often quoted statistic is that spiders can lift eight times their own weight. Depending on how much Peter weighs, he could lift up to half a ton. Many Spider-Man stories have him clearly lifting much more than a ton, and it was later clarified that other species of spider, such as the jumping spider, can lift much more, and Peter can lift more like twelve tons.

The real answer, of course, is that Peter can lift however much makes the story dramatic.

Peter designs his web-shooters, and honestly his web fluid is a remarkable achievement that could easily give him and May all the money they needed if he wanted to sell his invention. Imagine its applications in construction and in the military.

Raimi’s Spider-Man caught some flak for making Peter’s web-shooters organic instead of something he designs – a change that I honestly think is perfectly fine. It’s not like the organic web-shooters are any more ridiculous than the other changes he goes through as a result of being bitten by a radioactive spider. I don’t think it’s more ridiculous than Peter designing this incredible invention in one evening with the supplies in his room.

Peter also designs the very professional-looking Spider-Man costume right off the bat. This is another thing that some later adaptations would change, giving him a more homemade-looking costume made of altered street clothes at the start.

Those webs underneath Spider-Man’s arms are fairly consistently drawn in these early issues. I was curious about them, so I looked it up, and apparently it was just something Ditko liked to draw to make the character more dramatic.

Peter appears on TV as Spider-Man and becomes an overnight sensation. When exiting the TV studio, a thief runs by, chased by a cop. The cop calls to Peter to stop the thief from getting in the elevator. Peter explains to the cop that he’s become a libertarian and asks him if he’s read Atlas Shrugged that he only looks out for himself now and doesn’t care about anyone else.

We see again how Peter’s family grounds the character. Even at his least sympathetic, he is never cruel to May and Ben, instead vowing to keep them happy.

Everyone reading this – everyone with a passing interest in and knowledge of comics – knows that Uncle Ben gets murdered as a critical part of Spider-Man’s origin story. I’m sure a lot of the kids and teens reading this book for the very first time were shocked, though!

This cop is extremely blunt and not at all good at consoling a teenager whose adoptive father just died. He’s very focused on the fact that they’re likely to catch the murderer, which I suppose is comforting in a way, but doesn’t change the fact that Peter’s uncle is dead.

This panel marks the first occasion of Spider-Man web-slinging across the city, something that millions of children would daydream about doing themselves in the years to come.

Many superhero origins involved dead loved ones in their backstory. Spider-Man’s origin has some superficial resemblance to Batman’s – his parents were killed by criminals, and so he turns to crimefighting as a form of revenge. The unique twist of Spider-Man’s story, of course, is that he considers himself indirectly responsible for his uncle’s death, because he could have chosen to stop this murderer but did not.

It can’t be overstated how critical this is to Peter’s character. He isn’t just crimefighting out of a sense of duty to humanity, or because he wants fame and fortune (although that’s a common topic in Spider-Man stories). Because of this formative experience, Peter constantly has a nagging guilt that every moment he isn’t spending fighting crime is a moment where a murderer could get away. It infuses the character with a sense of urgency and anxiety that makes him very relatable and endearing.

This is also a rare instance of Spider-Man’s pupils being drawn onto his mask. I’m sure it was done here to convey the character’s shock, but it looks very strange.

And here we have the famous catchphrase associated with Spider-Man. It isn’t said by Ben as it is in later adaptations, and the phrasing is a little different than usual: “With great power there must also come — great responsibility!”

It’s not a new sentiment, although Spider-Man comics are certainly responsible for popularizing it. Even though this idea is associated strongly with Spider-Man, you can see how it permeates many of the Marvel comics. Heroes such as the Fantastic Four and the X-Men will come to grapple with what it means to have such amazing powers thrust upon them, and what they owe to humanity, particularly when humanity is not always kind to them in return.

One largely forgotten aspect of Amazing Fantasy #15 is that it is still an anthology book. It was renamed from Amazing Adult Fantasy in order to better appeal to younger readers, and Spider-Man’s famous origin only takes up about half the book.

It’s clear that most of the effort was put into the Spider-Man story, as the remainder are not really the finest Amazing Adult Fantasy had to offer. The first supporting story is about an old bell-ringer named Pedros. He lives on a small, humble island, and faithfully rings the church bells each day. When the volcano begins to abrupt, everyone else in the village evacuates, but Pedros remains behind, saying that he must continue to ring the church bells no matter what. In the end, he ascends to Christian non-denominational heaven.

The second story is called “Man in the Mummy Case.” No, I really don’t think a mummy case is a good place to hide.

This story features a familiar setup of Marvel’s anthology stories at the time: a criminal on the run from the cops. He enters a museum, where he is confronted by a living mummy. He isn’t nearly as startled by this as you might expect. The mummy offers to hide the criminal in his mummy case. This criminal is awfully trusting of the walking dead, I have to say.

The cops run into the room and check the mummy case to see if there’s anyone hiding inside it. It’s empty, and after the cops are gone, the mummy gloats about how he did keep his promise to help the man elude the cops. This is because the criminal has been transported in time to ancient Egypt and is now working as a slave on the pyramids.

So… did he somehow take the mummy’s place in ancient Egypt? But the mummy was already dead? And the slaves who worked on the pyramids really weren’t the kinds of people who were mummified and buried in elaborate mummy cases you might find in a museum? Probably best not to think about it.

Not all Marvel books had these fan pages, and the Marvel Unlimited versions seem to often leave them out even in cases where they do exist. This one is important historically, however, so here we have it.

The first thing in the announcement is that Spider-Man will appear every month in Amazing Fantasy, and will even feature in two stories if there is enough interest. This, apparently, was entirely a bluff. Amazing Adult Fantasy wasn’t selling well, and #15 was slated to be the last issue no matter what. This is why Lee and Ditko were allowed to take a chance on a then-unorthodox kind of superhero. Since it was the last issue, their publisher did not scrutinize what they were putting in it.

Early Marvel was on an unprecedented hot streak of new ideas, and their gamble paid off. Amazing Fantasy #15 had remarkably high sales and fans did write in requesting more Spider-Man. Instead of continuing Spider-Man’s adventures in the now defunct Amazing Fantasy, Lee and Ditko now had the green light to launch a new book, The Amazing Spider-Man. This went on to become one of the longest running comic books of all time, and although it’s been through a few reboots, it still exists today. In the 60s, when comic books and their characters were transient and disposable, I’m sure no one imagined that Amazing Spider-Man would still be published in the year 2021.

We also see here the publicly stated reasoning for dropping the name “adult” from the comic – a decision that ultimately would not matter for more than one issue – and the decision to drop the table of contents page in favor of another page of story. That wouldn’t matter for Amazing Fantasy, but that policy does seem to have taken effect for other anthology books of the time.

Another typical setup for an anthology story: an alien ship has crashed on the Earth and its occupants can’t be found.

This guy is making some pretty big assumptions here: that because the instrument panel could be operated by humans, the Martians must be human-like in appearance. Yes, you could certainly make some educated guesses about the Martian’s physiology based on their spaceship layout, but “human-like in appearance” is a huge stretch.

Weeks go by, and the Martians are not found. The people living near the crash site are confined to their homes, in a scenario that I’m sure doesn’t seem eerily familiar to us at all.

While the husband is out, the wife discovers that they’re out of coffee, and decides to risk leaving her home for that reason. Honestly, I would too. Being out of coffee is no way to live. On her way back from the store, the wife is cornered in the alley by something unseen and mysterious.

The husband arrives home and discovers his wife is missing. In a panic, he reveals that he and his wife were the Martians all along, and now she’s been caught by the search parties.

Honestly, I kind of feel bad for them. There’s no indication at all that they were doing something harmful. They’re just peacefully hiding from hostile forces.

Also, who’s he calling on that landline? The rest of his alien fleet or something?

I actually like this story. It’s an obvious twist but it’s well-paced, making you sympathize with the husband and wife before getting to the point.

The changeover from Amazing Fantasy to Amazing Spider-Man seems to have been the end of the line for these sorts of anthology books for Marvel. No, this definitely wasn’t the last of its kind, but from here on in they clearly diminish in importance, as superheroes increase in popularity. Gradually, each of their anthology lines will introduce recurring superhero characters, which will become the regular A-stories of the book, while these short anthology tales make up the back half. From there, the books tend to either increase the length of the superhero stories so that they fill the entire book, or introduce a recurring hero as the book’s regular B-story. We’ll see this evolution as we read further.

In fact, next week we have another example of a superhero character taking over an anthology book…

Next time! Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of THOR.