Author: Michael H. Price

MICHAEL H. PRICE: Cartooning Trumps Polite Portraiture

MICHAEL H. PRICE: Cartooning Trumps Polite Portraiture

My home-base city of Fort Worth, Texas, has since the 1950s, complicated its countrified essence with a set of class-and-culture bearings that range from the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition – America’s “So, there!” riposte to Khruschev and/or Tchaikowsky, dating from a peak-period of the Cold War – to four heavy-duty art museums of international appeal and influence. The local-boosterism flacks crow about “Cowboys ’n’ Culture!” at every opportunity, with or without provocation. But apart from the self-evident truths that Old Money (oil ’n’ cattle) fuels the high-cultural impulse and that the cow-honker sector finds chronic solace in the Amon Carter and Sid Richardson museums’ arrays of works by Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell, these communities seldom cross paths with one another.

The détente was tested beyond reasonable limits in 2001, when a yee-haw country-music promoter moved a mob-scene outdoor festival from the Fort Worth Stockyards to the fashionable downtown area – at precisely the moment the Cliburn Competition was settling into the nearby Bass Performance Hall, itself a grand assertion of an Old World civilizing stimulus for the New Linoleum. I mean, Millennium.

Yes, and the juxtaposition of clashing tribal imperatives scarcely could have been more emphatically pronounced. I should add, speaking of Horrors Beyond Forgetting, that it wasn’t the Cliburn audience that left that mound of shattered beer bottles in the City Center Parking Garage. Never the twang shall meet.

We can skip over a lot of the rest. (This all-purpose transition comes from Steve Gerber. Just so you know.)

Despite the persistence of “Cowboys ’n’ Culture!” as a rallying cry for the tourism racket, either element fares very well without the other’s interference. The North Side’s Stockyards area has Billy Bob’s Texas and the restless ghosts of the meat-packing industry. The West Side’s Cultural District has, well, its notions of Culture. And so who gets to call it “Art,” anyhow?


MICHAEL H. PRICE: Conan the Oilpatch Roughneck

Devotees of comics and the high-adventure pulp magazines know the story almost by heart: Before he had turned 30, Robert E. Howard, of Cross Plains, Texas, had staked out several prominent stations in American literature. He was a poet of Homeric promise, for example, and a contributor to the H.P. Lovecraft school of cosmic terrors – and a prolific South-by-Southwestern regionalist and steward of cowboy lore. And then some.

Had Howard lived past 30, he likely would have outgrown the shirtsleeves-fiction arena to find formal acceptance as a major literary figure. But the pulps – those cheaply produced mass-market publications that thrived during the first half of the 20th century – made an ideal proving ground, and a lasting monument to a talent too big to confine to a category.

A constant element is a sense of Howard’s nomadic upbringing in rural Texas, during a time when the first oil-and-gas booms were transforming much of the state into a barbaric land of violence and mercenary opportunism. In a recent book called Blood & Thunder: The Life & Art of Robert E. Howard, Austin-based scholar Mark Finn makes plain the influence that the boom-town phenomenon, with its brawling new breed of citizenry known as roughnecks, worked upon Bob Howard. 

Had he lived to become a more seasoned artist, Howard (1906-36) probably would not have outgrown his appetite for rambunctious adventure, whether or not he might have left behind the characters who had earned for him an eager and widespread readership. Such recurring characters include a trouble-prone Westerner named Jeopardy Grimes and the Puritan avenger Solomon Kane. To say nothing of Conan the Cimmerian, the barbaric warrior whose exploits have overshadowed the greater range of Howard’s work.

Conan remains an especially bankable attraction, 71 years after the author’s death. Dark Horse Comics offers a mounting series of new exploits, written nowadays by my old-time chum and blues-and-comics collaborator Timothy Truman. And many people still picture Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger with perhaps a smidgen of accuracy in terms of his Conan movies of a generation ago.

But Howard’s restless spirit is gaining ground on his fictional creation.

Finn’s Blood & Thunder (Monkey Brain Books; $19.95) represents more than a perceptive portrait. Taken together, separate biographical studies of Howard by Rusty Burke and Mark Finn form a persuasively definitive portrait. To a Southwestern region that has reawakened during the past several years to the possibilities of oil-and-gas exploration – a consequence of mounting natural-gas play within the Barnett Shale geological formation – Finn’s book is particularly valuable as an examination of an earlier Texas in the throes of boom-town mania.

“Howard remains to most an Oedipal figure who created [Conan] as a wish-fulfillment fantasy,” as Publisher’s Weekly has appraised Blood and Thunder. “Finn quietly and expertly demolishes these and other misconceptions [and] discusses Howard in the context of a populist writer whose dyspeptic view of civilization was forged in the corrupt Texas oil-boom towns in which he grew up.”

Every fictional character must have some basis in real-life observation or experience. Finn’s persuasive argument, interpreted from Howard’s published and private writings, holds that Conan, with his air of defiance, his appetites for mayhem and his “gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirths” (in Howard’s terminology) owes much to the oilfield social dynamics of the early 20th century – the upshot of abrupt industrialization.


MICHAEL H. PRICE: How Doooo You Do!!!

The rubber-reality phenomenon that one takes for granted in the animated cartoons and a good many comics seldom crosses over into live-action cinema, CGI and/or the influence of David Lynch notwithstanding. A low-rent music-and-slapstick comedy from 1945 called How Doooo You Do!!! makes for a striking exception and bears recalling here, in the context of a series devoted to stalking the pop-cultural borderlands in search of – well, of whatever oddities might turn up. No shortage of those, if one knows where to go prowling.

No entertainer seems to have more fun and less sustained success in appearing before the cameras than the radio gimmick-comic Bert Gordon (1895–1974). Gordon’s presence lay primarily in a persuasive and memorable voice (rather like the once-ubiquitous Paul Frees, of a somewhat later day). Gordon’s big-screen starring career consisted largely of false starts and commercial misfires. He had become so successful, however, as a supporting-act broadcast player – a regular with Eddie Cantor, from 1930 on through the ’40s – that the movies seemed a logical next step for a decade-and-change, progressing from supporting parts to attempted stardom.

Ralph Murphy’s How Doooo You Do!!! takes its title from Gordon’s signature-phrase. Nobody, but nobody, could intone that commonplace platitude, “How do you do?” with the style or the passion of Bert Gordon. In his radio-program guise of the Mad Russian (sometimes known as Boris Rascalnikoff), Gordon transformed the offhand question into the most emphatic of exclamations, a sustained marvel of escalating double-O’s that could move a studio audience to applause before he could complete the phrase. Sometimes, he would worry the first do into submission; on other occasions, the second, like a jazzman milking the improvisational possibilities from some nursery-rhyme melody.

This indelible signature-line was the most logical of titles, then, for a Gordon-starring picture – and in fact, the less imaginatively transcribed How Do You Do? had been the work-in-progress title of a 1942 Columbia comedy that got released as Laugh Your Blues Away, with Gordon and Jinx Falkenberg.

If any corporate-Hollywood studio was attuned to Gordon’s more eccentric tastes, it had to be Producers Releasing Corp. – better known by its initials, which the less charitable cineastes among us might hold to stand for “Pretty Rotten Crap.” Anyhow, PRC Pictures (better known for its horse-operas, rudimentary noirs, and mad-doctor chillers) seems precisely the right studio to have given Gordon and his radio-show accomplices free rein. And precisely the wrong studio to be taken earnestly in such an endeavor by the critics or the paying customers.

The film plants Gordon and fellow radio personality Harry von Zell amidst their own broadcasting culture. Exhausted by the radio-show grind, Gordon and von Zell (playing themselves, in broad strokes) retreat to a desert resort lodge. Two other associates, Cheryl Walker and Claire Windsor, arrive on their own in a similar quest for serenity. Neither party is aware of the other’s presence until von Zell spots the women and panics: Von Zell’s wife suspects an adulterous affair between von Zell and Walker. Meanwhile, Gordon’s over-amorous co-star, Ella Mae Morse, has trailed him to the retreat.


MICHAEL H. PRICE: Spy Smasher Smashes Spies

In a bygone age of self-defeating fair-play isolationism, comparatively few outposts of the U.S. entertainment industry saw fit to take issue with the congealing Axis powers. Timely Comics’ Captain America books tackled a larger agenda of wish-fulfillment Nazi-busting in 1941 at a time when popular sentiment and much of the mass communications media, stateside, were still holding out for an anti-inflammatory approach. Just two years earlier, the lower-berth Hollywood producers Ben Judell and Sigmund Neufeld had run afoul of their industry’s attempts to repress a film called Hitler – Beast of Berlin, starting with a Production Code Administration complaint that the very title might pose an affront. It is always an awkward choice, even in the realm of heroic fiction, between pre-emptive action and a wait-and-watch attitude.

And between this difficult patch for the Judell–Neufeld movie and the ferocious début of Captain America, the Third Reich began insinuating such self-glorifying motion pictures as Campaign in Poland and Victory in the West into American theaters with impunity if not necessarily articulate English intertitles. Said the show-biz tradepaper Variety, bucking the mollifying influence of the Production Code: “Instead of making Americans frightened of the terrible power of the Reich’s Army, [Victory in the West] inflames them.”

The Captain America stories may have been thusly inflamed, but likelier Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, the talents responsible, were springing from an intuitive sense of developments more appalling than any ostentatious display of aggression. (Superman had tackled fictional-allegory aggressors and, then, squared off against Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin as early as 1940 – though far outside his own formal continuity, in an isolated gimmick story for Look magazine.)

As emphatic a stand belonged to the comics series known as Spy Smasher, from Fawcett Publications. The property’s retooling as a movie serial began taking shape in 1941 at Republic Pictures – which recently had adapted Fawcett’s Captain Marvel, with a tone markedly grimmer than that of the funnybooks – and a shooting script was completed shortly before the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor. It was with a newfound sense of propagandistic ferocity that the Spy Smasher serial went into production on Dec. 22. The attraction began arriving in weekly big-screen installments on April 4, 1942.

The movie version takes some savvy liberties with the source, providing the lead character – Alan Armstrong, alias Spy Smasher – with an entirely civilian twin named Jack, and thus obliging star player Kane Richmond to handle essentially three roles. A recurring villain called the Mask was literally un-masked for the screen, allowing Hans Schumm a richer opportunity for characterization.


Rise of the Silver Surfer: Michael H. Price’s View

Rise of the Silver Surfer: Michael H. Price’s View

Long before an emerging Marvel Comics Group dared to hope its upstart super-hero funnybooks might attract the attention of corporate Hollywood, the comics fans had started speculating about how The Fantastic Four – the colorful exploits of a circle of powerful misfits, united by reciprocal affections and resentments – might weather a transplant to film.

Dream-casting fantasies abounded during the early 1960s: How about Neville Brand or Jack Elam – popular favorites at portraying plug-ugly tough guys – as the misshapen Thing, test pilot-turned-musclebound rockpile? Or Peter Lorre, as a recurring villain known as the Puppet Master? (Something of an easy call, there, inasmuch as lead artist Jack Kirby had modeled the bug-eyed Puppet Master after Lorre in the first place.)

It took a while for such wonders to develop – well past the mortal spans of Lorre and Brand and Elam and a good many other wish-list players. And in the long interim, the Marvel line of costumed world-beaters made lesser leaps from page to screen in a variety of teevee spin-offs, both animated and live-action, that never quite seized the cinema-like intensity of the comic books themselves. A live-action Fantastic Four feature of 1994 fared unexpectedly well on a pinch-penny budget, although this version has gone largely unseen outside the bootleg-video circuit.

The Marvel-gone-Hollywood phenomenon escalated around the turn of the century (beyond all early-day fannish expectations) with a big-studio X-Men feature, concerning another team of misfits in cosmic conflict. Success on this front brought an onrush of adaptations.

Prominent among these, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man series launched in 2002. X-Men has sequelized itself repeatedly. Ang Lee’s take on The Hulk proved as indebted to Nietzsche and Freud as to the Jekyll-and-Hyde bearings of the earlier comic books. A 2005 Fantastic Four feature won over the paying customers but irked a majority of the published critics: Bellwether reviewer Roger Ebert called that one no match for Spider-Man 2 or the DC Comics-licensed Batman Begins. No accounting for taste.

Now comes Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (due June 15), which raises the cosmic-menace stakes considerably while keeping the continuity anchored with director Tim Story and a familiar basic-ensemble cast. The story derives from the comics’ episodes about a planet-destroying being whose scout, the Silver Surfer, arrives to determine whether this particular planet is ripe for plunder.

If the notion of a surfboard-jockey space traveler sounds intolerably silly on first blush, consider that the character proved persuasively earnest from his first appearance – thanks to Jack Kirby’s vigorous drawings and Stan Lee’s gift for making arch dialogue seem right for the circumstances. As impersonated by Doug Jones (of Pan’s Labyrinth and the 1994 Hellboy) and voiced by Laurence Fishburne, the movie’s Silver Surver nails the spirit of the funnybooks. The Surfer’s attraction to the Fantastic Four’s Invisible Woman (Jessica Alba), who owes her greater loyalties to team boss Mr. Fantastic, lends a jolt of intimate conflict to the larger crisis.

The collaborative screenplay allows sharper exposure for Ben “Thing” Grimm (Michael Chiklis) and Ioan Gruffud’s Mr. Fantastic, along with a more richly conceived characterization for chronic villain Victor von Doom (Julian McMahon). Gruffud develops confidence and wisdom on a level with his character’s essential intelligence. Chris Evans remains fittingly temperamental as the Human Torch.

Improved visual effects stem from a refined job of make-up prosthetics for the Thing – Michael Chiklis’ tragicomic emoting comes across more effectively – and from the polished work of the Weta Digital CGI crew. The Silver Surfer tends to upstage the central characters in terms of spectacle, but the key performances are uniformly well matched.


MICHAEL H. PRICE: The Long Shadow of Boody Rogers

MICHAEL H. PRICE: The Long Shadow of Boody Rogers

People and events of consequence cast their shadows before them, never behind. Oklahoma-born and Texas-reared Gordon “Boody” Rogers (1904 – 1996) owns one of those forward-lurching shadows – an unlikely mass-market cartoonist whose oddball creations anticipated the rise of underground comics, or comix, and whose command of dream-state narrative logic and language-mangling dialogue remains unnerving and uproarious in about equal measure.

I had discovered the artist’s more unsettling work as a schoolboy during the 1960s, via the used-funnybook bin of a neighborhood shop called The Magazine Exchange. One such title, Babe, amounted to such an exaggerated lampoon of Al Capp’s most celebrated comic strip, Li’l Abner, as to transcend parody. (One lengthy sequence subjects a voluptuous rustic named Babe Boone to a gender-switch ordeal that finds her spending much of the adventure as Abe Boone – almost as though Capp’s Daisy Mae Scragg had become Abner Yokum.) Such finds drew me back gradually to Rogers’ comic-strip and funnybook serial Sparky Watts, a partly spoofing, partly straight-ahead, heroic feature about a high-voltage superman.

Rogers resurfaced in my consciousness quite a few years later. A college-administration colleague showed up one day around 1980 sporting a canvasback jacket adorned with cartoons bearing an array of famous signatures – Al Capp and Zack Mosely and Milton Caniff among them. The garment proved to be one-of-a-kind.

“Oh, it’s my Uncle Gordon’s,” my co-worker explained. “Kind of a family heirloom, I guess – something his cartoonist pals fixed up for him on the occasion of his retirement. He lends it out to me, now and then.”

Okay, then. And who is this “Uncle Gordon,” to have been keeping company amongst the comic-strip elite?

“Oh, you’ve probably never heard of him,” she said. “He was a cartoonist, his ownself. Went by the name of ‘Boody.’”

Not Boody Rogers?(Yes, and how many guys named Boody can there be, anyhow?)

“None other. So maybe you have heard of him?”

Well, sure. Used to collect his work, to the extent that it could be had for collecting in those days of catch-as-can trolling for out-of-print comic books and newspaper-archive strips.

So, uhm, then, he’s a local guy?

“Well, not exactly right here in town,” answered my colleague. “But he lives not far from here” – here being Amarillo, Texas, in the northwestern corner of the state – “over to the east. Do you ever get over to Childress? You ought to drop over and meet him.”


MICHAEL H. PRICE: Dick Tracy, from Strip to Screen

MICHAEL H. PRICE: Dick Tracy, from Strip to Screen

Much as the crime melodrama had helped to define the course of cinema – especially so, from the start of the talking-picture era during the late 1920s – so Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy proved a huge influence upon the comic-strip industry, beginning in 1931. It was something of a foregone conclusion that the paths of Tracy and the movies should intersect, and none too soon.

It took some time for both the talking screen and Dick Tracy to find their truer momentum. Bryan Foy’s Lights of New York (1928), as the first all-talking picture, marked a huge, awkward leap from the part-talking extravagances of 1927’s The Jazz Singer. And Lights of New York proved impressive enough (despite its clunky staging and the artists’ discomfort with the primitive soundtrack-recording technology) to snag a million-dollar box-office take and demonstrate a popular demand for underworld yarns with plenty of snarling dialogue and violent sound effects. Gould launched Tracy with a passionate contempt for the criminal element but made do with fairly commonplace miscreants until his weird-menace muse began asserting itself decisively during 1932-1933.

Chet Gould’s fascination with such subject matter, as seen from a crime-busting vantage as opposed to the viewpoint of outlawry, appears to have influenced Hollywood as early as 1935 – when William Keighley’s “G” Men and Sam Wood’s Let ’Em Have It arrived as trailblazing heroic procedurals. These watershed titles posed a stark contrast against such antiheroic sensations as Roland West’s Alibi and The Bat Whispers (1929-1930), William Wellman’s The Public Enemy (1931), and Mervin LeRoy’s Little Caesar (1931). It bears wondering whether Edward Small, producer of Let ’Em Have It, may have taken a cue from Tracy, for the film pits an FBI contingent against a disfigured human monster (played by King Kong’s Bruce Cabot) whose scarred face and vile disposition seem of a piece with the grotesques whom Gould would array against Dick Tracy.

I’ve been on a renewed Tracy kick since the arrival last year of IDW Publishing’s The Complete Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy, a debut volume covering 1931-1933 (the second volume, going up to 1935, was released earlier this month). The interest extends to a re-watching of the Tracy movies that began in 1937 with Republic Pictures’ Dick Tracy serial. Cable-teevee’s Turner Classic Movies has staged recent revivals of the (considerably later) Tracy feature-films from RKO-Radio Pictures, and various off-brand DVD labels have issued dollar-a-disc samplers of the (still later) live-action Tracy teleseries. An audio-streaming Website has come through with two Tracy-spinoff record albums from the post-WWII years; one, The Case of the Midnight Marauder, involves a ferocious encounter with Gould’s most memorable bad guy, Flattop. (The less said, the better, about UPA Studios’ animated Tracy series of 1961. And likewise for Warren Beatty’s 1990 Dick Tracy, which commits the sin of “cartooning the cartoon,” its live-action basis notwithstanding.)


MICHAEL H. PRICE: Alley Oop’s Stagebound Texas Homecoming

MICHAEL H. PRICE: Alley Oop’s Stagebound Texas Homecoming


He’s got a chauffeur that’s a genuine dinosaur…

And he can knuckle yo’ head before you count to four.

– Dallas Frazier

“Alley Oop” (1960)


The formidable dinosaur-replica standing guard at the entrance to the Museum of Science & History in Fort Worth, Texas is a native Southwesterner in more ways than one. The creature goes by the academic name of Acrocanthosaurus atokensis, and as such it was not discovered until around 1950.

But a Fort Worth cartoonist named Vincent T. Hamlin had in fact discovered that unknown monster in the fertile substrata of his imagination – almost a generation’s span before the first Real World unearthing of any fossil remains. Hamlin called the creature by less of a mouthful of a name, and he made Dinny the Dinosaur a prominent player in a rip-snorting comic strip called Alley Oop, about a prehistoric Everyman. Dinny’s resemblance to the Acrocanthosaurus, or high-spined lizard, is uncannily prophetic.

This tidbit of provincial history took on a manifold relevance a couple of years ago with a smart accident of timing. No sooner had the Museum of Science & History opened its epic-caliber Lone Star Dinosaurs gallery, than Fort Worth’s Hip Pocket Theatre launched a stage adaptation of Alley Oop, in August of 2005. The bold juxtaposition of provocative science-fact with adventurous science-fantasy is one of those nowhere-but-Texas coincidences that would leave Vince Hamlin beaming with pride. If he were still around to do any beaming, that is.

In the interest of B.F.D. (Belated Full Disclosure), I should mention that I hold a stake in all these developments. I composed the musical score for Hip Pocket’s Alley Oop. My own book of prehistorical lore, a restoration of the late George E. Turner’s 1950s dinosaur comic strip The Ancient Southwest (TCU Press), had its rollout at the Science & History Museum. And V.T. Hamlin (1900-1993) was my first major-league mentor in the cartooning profession. Sooner or later, everything comes full-circle.

After all, it was the West Texas landscape, with its outcroppings of prehistoric remains and its air of primeval antiquity, that had given the Iowa-born Hamlin an inspiration for Alley Oop, ’way back during the 1920s. He was working as a newsroom cartoonist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram at the time, producing a comics-panel series called The Panther Kitten, a chronicle of the ups and downs of a tenacious baseball team called the Fort Worth Cats. And Hamlin’s nearness to the natural history of West Texas became a springboard to Alley Oop.

“Y’know, I really created the blueprint for Alley Oop there at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram,” Hamlin told me in 1990. The occasion involved Frank Stack’s and my efforts to compile and annotate a set of Alley Oop reprints at Kitchen Sink Press. Hamlin added: “Well, I suppose I had been drawing the guy who would become Oop ever since I was a kid.


MICHAEL H. PRICE: Movies Is Comics and Comics Is Movies

MICHAEL H. PRICE: Movies Is Comics and Comics Is Movies

I’ve gone into some detail elsewhere about how my Forgotten Horrors series of movie encyclopedias (1979 and onward) dovetails with my collaborative comic-book efforts with Timothy Truman and John K. Snyder III. More about all that as things develop at ComicMix. This new batch of Forgotten Horrors commentaries will have more to do with the overall relationship between movies and the comics and, off-and-on, with the self-contained appeal of motion pictures. I have yet to meet the comics enthusiast who lacks an appreciation of film.

Although it is especially plain nowadays that comics exert a significant bearing upon the moviemaking business – with fresh evidence in marquee-value outcroppings for the Spider-Man and TMNT franchises and 300 – the greater historical perspective finds the relationship to be quite the other way around.

It helps to remember a couple of things: Both movies and comics, pretty much as we know them today, began developing late in the 19th century. And an outmoded term for comics is movies; its popular usage as such dates from comparatively recent times. The notion of movies-on-paper took a decisive shape during the 1910s, when a newspaper illustrator named Ed Wheelan began spoofing the moving pictures (also known among the shirtsleeves audience as “moom pitchers” and “fillums”), with cinema-like visual grammar, in a loose-knit series for William Randolph Hearst’s New York American.

Christened Midget Movies in 1918, Wheelan’s series evolved from quick-sketch parodies of cinematic topics to sustained narratives, running for days at a stretch and combining melodramatic plot-and-character developments with cartoonish exaggerations. Wheelan’s move to the Adams Syndicate in 1921 prompted a change of title, to Minute Movies. (Don Markstein’s Web-based Toonopedia points out that the term is “mine-yute,” as in tiny, rather than “minnit,” as in a measure of time. No doubt an intended sense of connection with the Hearst trademark Midget Movies.) Chester Gould showed up in 1924 with a Wheelan takeoff called Fillum Fables – seven years before Gould’s more distinctive breakthrough with Dick Tracy.


MICHAEL H. PRICE: Spider-Man 3’s spectacular overkill

MICHAEL H. PRICE: Spider-Man 3’s spectacular overkill

It helps to remember, now that a third Spider-Man epic has arrived to herald the school’s-out season at the box office, that the title character had started out as the comic-book industry’s least likely recruit to the ranks of super-heroism.

The idea of a human being with the proportionate strength of a spider had been kicking around since the 1950s. Comic-book pioneers Joe Simon and Jack Kirby seem to have arrived there first, with an undeveloped concept known as the Silver Spider. The inspiration ran afoul of a publishers’ bias against spiders and other such crawly creatures, the bankable success of Batman notwithstanding. But Simon and Kirby steered the basic notion into print in 1959 with a change-of-species Archie Comics series called The Fly – capitalizing upon an unrelated but like-titled hit movie of 1958.

By the early 1960s, Kirby was slumming at a low-rent publishing company that was soon to become the influential Marvel Comics. Kirby and writer Stan Lee had recently found competitive leverage with a band-of-heroes comic called The Fantastic Four – grimmer and edgier than the fare offered by big-time DC Comics. DC’s Superman and Batman franchises anchored a line of costumed heroes who got along well enough to have formed a super-heroes’ club.

Lee and Kirby’s retort to DC Comics’ Justice League magazine had been a Fantastic Four whose members quarreled and exchanged threats and insults. After Kirby had raised the Silver Spider as a prospect, Lee and Steve Ditko envisioned Spider-Man as a teen-age nebbish, afflicted with superhuman abilities by a bite from a radioactive spider. Artists Kirby and Ditko combined qualities of strength and neurosis in the character design: Superman’s alter-ego, Clark Kent, wore eyeglasses and feigned social withdrawal as a disguise; Spider-Man’s alter-ego, Peter Parker, wore eyeglasses because he was a nearsighted dweeb.

The embryonic Marvel Comics, having little to lose and plenty to prove, launched Spider-Man in a failing magazine and hoped that somebody might notice. Sales figures spiked against expectations. Lee’s unsophisticated attempts at philosophical depth struck comic-book readers of the day as comparatively profound. Spider-Man’s début in his own title involved a violent misunderstanding with the members of the Fantastic Four.

Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies date from times more recent (2002-and-counting), but they recapture well that early stage of 45 years ago in which Peter B. Parker, alias Spider-Man, marks time between altercations by wondering whether he deserves to be saddled with such responsibility. Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 (2004) is generally regarded as one of the more mature-minded comic-book films, reconciling sensationalism with provocative ideas.

Editor’s Note: SPOILERS after the jump…