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Spider-Man: Super-Anti-Hero In Forest Hills

Super-Anti-Hero In Forest Hills

Cult-spotting, a branch of the old science of trend-spotting, became a national sport in the days of the old American Mercury, when H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan first made fashionable the cultivation of trivia. Mencken and Nathan probably invented Pop as well, but since people had other things to think about in those days, no­body else bothered to record it. Today, the press having finally caught up with Mencken and Nathan, both trivia-cultivation and cult-spotting have risen again to public prominence. Their latest manifestation is pop cult spotting, which began in earnest in 1964 when Time mag­azine spotted the long-established Harvard Bogart Cult. Since then no trivia-cultist has been safe from the feature writer’s predatory eye.

Realizing that if Time was onto a trend the trend must be in its death-throes, other magazines rushed to spot newer pop-cults. The New Yorker came up with the Sunday-Afternoon-Reruns-of-the-Lone-Ranger-Cult. The Tribune noted that a small cordon of “stay-at-home intellectuals” was watching daytime television. The Times began doing textual analy­ses of homosexual publications. At this point the whole thing got out of hand and, in a desperate effort to stay a step ahead of the incognoscenti, the press turned to cult-creation. Defining pop as any object of which a normal aesthetic judgment would disap­prove, the press took to describ­ing the 18th-century painter Fragonard as the object of a pop-cult. And, “Everybody on the social scene is working on pop movies,” crowed Eugenia Shep­pard last October in the Tribune. By “everybody” she meant the girls in Andy Warhol’s “13 Most Beautiful Women” film.

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Master Stroke

But the Tribune made its master stroke of pop-cult crea­tion a few weeks later when it discovered the Golden Age of Comics and announced that “everybody” is buying old Bat­man and Superman magazines. Now the Paperbook Gallery has put a six-foot poster of the Phan­tom in its window, and the Old Comics Cult is, presumably, fact. Two college girls, passing the window last week, looked rever­ently at the poster. “That’s the ultimate in pop art,” one of them exclaimed, and with these words delivered fashion’s coup de grace upon the literature of her childhood.

Real pop or not, the Old Comic Books Cult has got to be a fake. Reading old comic books is hard work; it is possible to enjoy Bat­man only if you continually re­mind yourself that you liked him when you were 12. As for the new issues of Batman and Superman, they are thin even by comic book standards. Superman’s only concession to modernity has been his formation of a league of super-heroes, a dubious improvement at best, and he is still as addicted to time machines as he was in 1940. Batman has not even attempted to come up to date. He still travels by Batmobile and Batplane; where is his Batcopter? and why has no one thought to equip him with hali-toxic Batbreath? No, reading Batman, like listening to Lone Ranger re-runs, is merely a Proustian memory trick, a de­vice for creating a state of mind conducive to summoning up the childhood self. There is a real Comic Books Cult, but it has nothing to do with the old heroes, and it has claims on our attention other than those of nostalgia.

Three Rules

I realize that in making the above statement I risk casting my lot with Eugenia Sheppard and the Cult-Spotters Guild. Nonetheless it must be said, for the Marvel Comics Cult is, under the existing Rules of Pop-Cult Spotting, ripe for exposure. It conforms to the first rule of pop (see above) and also to rules two (“Your cult must replace a pre­vious, inferior cult”) and three (“No one else must have pub­licly spotted your cult”). Furthermore, it is a legitimate cult. College students interpret Marvel Comics. A Cornell physics pro­fessor has pointed them out to his classes. Beatniks read them. Schoolgirls and housewives dream about the Marvel heroes. I myself was deeply in love with a Marvel hero-villain for two whole weeks. The fact is that Marvel Comics are the first comic books in history in which a post-adolescent escapist can get personally involved. For Marvel Comics are the first comic books to evoke, even metaphorically, the Real World.

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Stories Signed

The Marvel Comics Group has been in existence less than five years, and during that time their circulation has risen to about six million a year. As befits pop literature in a pop-mad world, the Marvel books are highly self-­conscious. Their covers announce adventures dedicated to “The New Breed of Comic Reader,” and two pages on the inside of each magazine are given over to advertisements for the Marvel fan club, the Merry Marvel Marching Society. All the stories are signed (“Earth-shaking Script by Stan Lee, Breath-taking Illustrations by Jack Kirby, Epoch-making delineation by Chick Stone”), and the heroes who range in style from tradi­tional action types like Captain America to tragic, ambiguous figures like the Hulk, seem continually bemused by the way in which their apparently normal lives keep melting into fantasy. “This is so stupid it could only happen in a comic book,” says the wise-cracking monster The Thing as he and his friend the Human Torch flee across a col­lapsing dam with a deadly iron ball in hot pursuit.

Recognizing that life has begun to imitate fantasy to such a de­gree that the public is most comfortable with fantasy which imitates life, the creators of Marvel comics have invented superheroes with discernible personalities and relatively complex emotions. Further, they have given the heroes a recognizable geography.

Real Rules 

Thus, a Marvel Comics reader can get the impression that costumed superheroes form a sizable voting block in New York City. In fact, one suspects that they are the real rulers of Manhattan. And they have the citizens quite bewildered.

A New York cop, exercising his stop-and-frisk prerogative, never knows when he may accidently rip the dark scales from the powerful eyes of Cyclops, a benign super-mutant whose refractive lenses hide an X-ray vision which will burn through the sidewalk if exposed. And, last year, New Yorkers awoke to find that their city had been taken over by the under­sea legions of Namor, the ruler of the sub-continent Atlantis. Washington was afraid to bomb the invaders lest the bombs in­jure innocent citizens. “Wait ’til the Fantastic Four get here!” murmured a bystander as the submariners marched through Central Park. He was right: the Fantastic Four ultimately drove the undersea legions back into the Hudson.

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Local Landmarks 

There are approximately 15 superheroes in the Marvel  Group, and nearly all of them live in the New York area. Midtown Manhattan is full of their landmarks. On Madison Avenue the Baxter Building (“New York’s most famous skyscraper”) houses the Fantastic Four and their various self-protective devices. Further down Madison Avenue is the flagpole from which Spiderman swung the day he lost his spider powers. Somewhere in the east 60s the townhouse of playboy industrialist  Tony Stark (alias Iron Man) is secret  headquarters for the Avengers, a group of traditional fighters for justice which includes the thundergod Thor. Thor in his human identity is the lame doctor Don Blake (whose cane turns into a magic hammer when he puts on his Thor costume) who works surgical miracles in an uptown hospital.

The newspaper run by J. Jonah Jamison, sworn enemy of costumed superheroes, is also in midtown. And, “on the outskirts of Greenwich Village” Dr. Strange, the most bizarre superhero of all, has his secret retreat. Strange is a master of oc­cult knowledge and often walks around in ectoplasmic form; his creators imply that he lives in the Village because no one there is likely to become alarmed at being jostled by a wraith.

Intellectual Elite

In other respects besides geography, the Marvel world  mirrors the real world. Occupationally, of course, it has a heavy concentration of scientists, but then, these characters are supposed to be members of an intellectual elite and one cannot blame comic book writers for idolizing physicists. Within this larger elite, however, there are subtle gradations. The aristocrats of the Marvel world are the Fantastic Four, four healthy, at­tractive, and socially prominent people headed by physicist Reed Richards (who is dull but very dependable and has interesting body-stretching powers) and his blonde debutante fiancee Sue Storm (invisibility powers). Sue’s outside interests are clothes, novel reading, and doing her nails. Her brother, Johnny Storm the Human Torch, races cars and seems to have a bit of a death wish, but otherwise we can take him for the Marvel prototype 0f a normal adolescent superhero. The Thing, otherwise Ben Grimm, is Reed’s old col­lege roommate. The cosmic rays which gave the F. F. their powers turned Ben into a monster, and he is a trifle bitter about the whole thing. Still, group loyalty usually prevails over his resentment, and on the whole the Fantastic Four are quite aggres­sively well-adjusted. Everybody looks up to them.

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Neurotic Superhero 

The most popular Marvel hero, however, is much lower on the social scale. He is the maladjusted adolescent Spiderman, the only overtly neurotic superhero I have ever come across. Spiderman has a terrible identity problem, a marked inferiority complex, and a fear of women. He is anti-social, castration­-ridden, racked with Oedipal guilt, and accident-prone.

Spiderman began life as Peter Parker, a brilliant science student at a Queens high school who lived with his Aunt May and Uncle Ben in a Forest Hills split-level. He had no friends and was plagued by a dominating mother figure. Then he got bitten by a radioactive spider and took on the spider’s climbing, jump­ing, and web-shooting powers. Being a child of the television age, he immediately went on the “Ed Sullivan Show” (for which he received a check which, having no Spiderman identification, he was unable to cash). On his way out of the studio he saw a burglar escaping but, having decided to use his power only for his own benefit, refused to capture him. When he went home, Spidey found his uncle murdered by the same burglar. So, in a fumbling attempt to expiate his guilt, Spiderman decided to devote his talents to public service.

Cocky Manner

Ill luck has pursued him ever since. His shyness led him to adopt a cocky manner which so alienated the other superheroes that none of them will have any­thing to do with him. He is always having trouble maintain­ing his secret identity. And his powers are so closely allied to his highly problematic virility that they often seem to be on the verge of deserting him. His castration complex is constantly tripping him up. Once, while on the trail of a gang, he was trapped by the sinister villainess Princess Python. “What am I going to do?” he murmured desperately as she caressed his neck. “I can’t hit a girl.” Her presence had evaporated his web­shooting apparatus.

Another time, while standing on a roof surrounded on all sides by phallic-looking skyscraper towers, he began thinking about his Uncle Ben and became so consumed with guilt that he lost his spider-powers entirely. As he crawled home, thinking that now he could devote himself entirely to his Aunt May (toward whom guilt has made him more sub­missive than ever), he received word that Aunt May had been kidnapped by the evil Doctor Octopus. Eventually the need to act brought back his powers, for Spiderman is nothing if not a functioning neurotic.

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Needed Care

Spiderman’s most significant adventure took place when J. Jonah Jamison began writing articles about the hero’s mental instability. A psychiatrist had told Jamison that Spidey needed immediate psychiatric care, and Spiderman became so worried by this that he went to the doctor for help. The psychiatrist was finally unmasked as the villain Mysterio, who had been trying to flip Spidey out by pasting his office furniture onto the ceiling and convincing the tormented superhero that he was hallucinating. So Spiderman escaped with his interior defenses intact (a psychiatrist can be the functioning neurotic’s greatest enemy after all) only to fall, in the next issue, into the arms of a robot controlled by J. Jonah.

Spiderman, unlike other superheroes, has never yet saved the human race from annihilation. His battles are unfailingly personal, hand-to-hand combats between a young man of precarious courage and the powerful social forces which threaten to destroy his hard-won security. He has no reassuring sense of fighting for a noble purpose, nor has he any outside support. Even the public which cries up his victories invariably deserts him in the clinches. Spiderman is, God save us, an absurd hero, fighting with purely defensive weapons against foes he cannot understand. And, in last month’s issue, he was finally sabotaged at home: Aunt May burned his Spiderman costume so that he is now unable to venture out of doors.

How can a character as hope­lessly healthy as Superman com­pete with this living symbol of the modern dilemma, this neu­rotic’s neurotic, Spiderman, the super-anti-hero of our time.

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Road to Endgame: The Marvel Cinematic Universe Reviewed

On Friday, April 26, 2019 — 11 years after Robert Downey Jr., launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe with the help of Iron Man’s rocket boosters — the Avengers’ saga reaches its climax with Endgame. So how did Tony, Cap, Natasha, T’Challa, and the rest get to this point? It was a long road, one that would take fans almost two days of continuous watching to travel, complete with low points (Thor: The Dark World) and high ones (Thor: Ragnarok), laughs (“I am Groot”), and tears (the end of Infinity Wars). Overall, in slightly more than a decade, the MCU has minted new stars, redefined the Hollywood blockbuster, and sparked countless arguments among the online commentariat. If you haven’t been paying attention so far, it may be too late to catch up, but here’s what the Voice‘s film critics thought about everything you missed along the way.

Iron Man
Released May 2, 2008
“Even when the plot of Iron Man kowtows to convention, the movie’s personality — hip to the times without ever resorting to self-congratulatory snark — keeps it zipping along. Rarer than a grown man in a rocket suit, it’s a summer blockbuster that comes to entertain first and shill second.”

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The Incredible Hulk 
Released June 13, 2008
“Banner’s a weakling in the comic books — to the point where writers have begun depicting him as suicidal, or almost eradicated him entirely. Which would have been just a wee bit problematic for Universal, who clearly wants another franchise to hawk.”

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Iron Man 2
Released May 7, 2010
“Downey Jr. gives his glibness a vulnerable twitch; his out-of-control drunk bust-up at his birthday party, while wearing his heavy-ordnance suit, suggests a more dangerous, more interesting sequel.”

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Thor
Released May 6, 2011
“Unlike the muscled-out, metalhead, beach-blond (from head to candy-corn eyebrows) hero, Loki’s like a walking Spandau Ballet music video, with a trim, bottle-black New Wave shimmer, pale, angular features, mirror-trained smoldering affect, and custom-tailored, dance-ready formalwear.”

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Captain America: The First Avenger
Released July 22, 2011
“There’s not so much as a single mention of the ideological divides that plagued the times — and, subsequently, spawned the original anti-Fascist Captain America comics. So what is Captain America fighting for? Apparently nothing more or less than screen time in The Avengers.”

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The Avengers
Released May 4, 2012
Every time the movie hints at something rich and evocative, Whedon undercuts it with a punchline — his instincts as a big-picture storyteller crippled by his short-term need to please the crowd.”

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Iron Man 3
Released May 3, 2013
“Downey’s firecracker dialogue sometimes feels improvised — maybe it is — and it’s often bitterly funny. To respond to his vulnerability is to thrill to his sharpness as well; keeping up with him is much of the pleasure of watching him.”

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Thor: The Dark World
Released November 8, 2013
“As Thor matures, his ego shrinks, along with his identity. Lacking Iron Man’s wit, the Hulk’s brains, and the Captain’s ideals, he’s in peril of going poof himself if the franchise doesn’t figure out how to capitalize on its most glorious hero.”

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Released April 4, 2014
The Winter Soldier has the taut nervousness of a story anxious to get in, get the job done, and get out. It’s more grounded than other flicks in the Avengers franchise: There’s no road trip to space, no cackling galactic goon or cheap-looking space trinket with the power to destroy all life.”

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Guardians of the Galaxy
Released August 1, 2014
“B
y the end, you’ll have been winked at so much you may think you’ve been staring at a strobe light for nearly two hours. Guardians of the Galaxy is proof that a picture can have a sense of humor yet have no real wit. It hits every beat, but it hasn’t got the beat.”

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Avengers: Age of Ultron
Released May 1, 2015  
“Of all the fated moments in the most foretold hit of the summer, the most honest comes when two robots stand on a hill admitting that mankind is doomed. Perhaps in 2035, an android can direct the twentieth Avengers sequel.”

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Avengers: Age of Ultron
Released May 1, 2015
“In Age of Ultron, a character has a premonition showing all the Avengers lying lifeless in a ravaged landscape — this is a future the team must act to stop. But we know this imagined tragedy will never come to pass.”

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Ant-Man
Released July 17, 2015
“If not quite the loose surprise of last summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy, it’s blessedly free of gods-weep ponderousness. But it’s also uncentered in a way that Marvel’s origin films have never been.”

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Captain America: Civil War
Released May 6, 2016
“It’s odd to think that a generation of viewers may not remember a time when interlocking superhero epics didn’t command such swaths of the mainstream moviegoing firmament. These films no longer have to delight and surprise us; no, their job now is to manage the brand, not screw anything up too royally, and keep us hooked for the next installment.”

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Doctor Strange
Released November 4, 2016
“As in Ant-Man or the original Iron Man, the Marvel Studios releases it most resembles, Doctor Strange sells its wearily old-hat dude-becomes-hero tale through strong casting, an emphasis on emotion and humor, and the good sense never to let action overwhelm character.”

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Guardians of of the Galaxy Vol. 2 
Released May 5, 2017
“Why in these blockbuster adventures does the woman character always have to be the mother hen: the most talented, the smartest on the team, the one who sacrifices intimacy for her career; the killjoy sold as ‘strong’ but curiously lacking in dimensionality and humor, even as she runs in heels and is treated as ‘the girl.’ ”

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Spider-Man: Homecoming
Released July 7, 2017
“You know how some comics fans insist that they actually read sequential art or graphic novels? Spider-Man: Homecoming is comics, unapologetically, as close as blockbuster filmmaking gets to cartooning.”

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Thor: Ragnarok
Released November 3, 2017
“In its own weird little way, Thor: Ragnarok manages to poke fun at the constant churn of myth and entertainment of which the movie itself is a part. It’s a candy-colored cage of delights, but it is a cage nevertheless — and it doesn’t hide that fact.”

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Black Panther
Released February 16, 2018  
“Wakanda may be a realm of Afrofuturism, boasting culture, technology, and Black excellence untouched by colonial influence, but the world it inhabits is the real world — our world. One of military-industrial complexes, of refugee crises, of African-American struggle, and of questions of cultural belonging.”

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Black Panther
Released February 16, 2018
“Coogler and his team have conjured a universe and fleshed out its players, one existing (honestly, thriving) in the even bigger cinematic universe that is Marvel. It’s a case of the right story landing in the right hands.”

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Avenger: Infinity War
Released April 27, 2018
“The cliffhanger climax of Infinity War left the audience at my screening in a state that I can only describe with the most tired of critical clichés: They were stunned. No matter the film’s flaws, that decade of character work — of character love, even — powers an all-too-rare pop-culture wallop. For once, the superhero movie punches us.”

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Ant-Man and the Wasp
Released July 6, 2018
“Ant-Man and the Wasp
tries to have it both ways. It keeps the conflicts relatively inconsequential, but piles them indifferently atop one another as if to reach a prescribed level of momentousness.”

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Spiderman [sic] in Forest Hills

In April of 1965, writer Sally Kempton delved into the Spider-Man phenomenon through a local lens, pointing out, “There are approximately 15 superheroes in the Marvel Group, and nearly all of them live in the New York area. Midtown Manhattan is full of their landmarks.” She initially comes down hard on the burgeoning comic fandom movement: “Reading old comic books is hard work; it is possible to enjoy Batman only if you continually remind yourself that you liked him when you were 12.” But she is impressed with Marvel’s then-new brand of comics, because they are “the first comic books in history in which a post-adolescent escapist can get personally involved. For Marvel Comics are the first comic books to evoke, even metaphorically, the real world.”

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One reason, Kempton notes, is because Marvel superheroes are often New Yorkers themselves and have “discernible personalities and relatively complex emotions.” She goes on to add that a “New York cop, exercising his stop-and-frisk prerogative, never knows when he may accidentally rip the dark glasses from the powerful eyes of Cyclops, a benign super-mutant whose refractive lenses hide an X-ray vision which will burn through the sidewalk if exposed.”

If journalism is the first draft of history, Kempton’s reporting, along with ads for art world “Happenings” and an “Emergency Meeting on Vietnam,” opens a window on the early days of one of pop culture’s hugest success stories. (And finally, it should be noted that the Voice copy desk in 1965 was having no truck with hyphens in a comic-book character’s name.)

 

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Steve Ditko: Beyond Spider-Man

1962 was a good year for pop culture. The Beatles released “Love Me Do”; Andy Warhol discovered Campbell’s soup; John Glenn went into orbit; Bob Dylan played Carnegie Hall; and Steve Ditko, a 34-year-old journeyman comics artist, co-created Spider-Man. Ditko died in his West 51st Street apartment on June 29, at age 90, prompting a surge of wistful recollections from commentators and fans recalling their youthful identification with the teenage superhero who, co-creator Stan Lee once said, “gets sinus attacks, he gets acne and allergy attacks while he’s fighting.” The gangly Spider-Man launched one of the most successful movie franchises in history, but Ditko had already pushed well beyond the “cinematic” — an adjective often applied to his page layouts — to formal, narrative, and aesthetic frontiers unique to the comics medium. This would become most apparent in the mid 1960s, when Ditko and a stable of topflight freelancers were taking turns dazzling readers on the pages of Jim Warren’s concisely titled black-and-white horror magazines Creepy and Eerie.

Ditko began his career after serving in the Army in postwar Europe, moving to New York to study comic-book illustration at the Cartoonists and Illustrators School (later, the School of Visual Arts) under Jerry Robinson, an artist who worked on Batman comics and created the Joker character.

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In 1954, Ditko began illustrating (and sometimes writing) horror and suspense stories for Charlton Comics, a publisher that paid low rates but allowed artists wide creative latitude. The limbs of Ditko’s figures were often stretched to extremes, hands thrusting toward readers, fingers writhing; close-ups of eyes would fill panels, adding tension between characters seen at varying distances. Such visual strategies were enhanced by abstract webs — sometimes colorful, often pure white — which might represent fog or smoke or just mysterious ectoplasm, all the better to conjure run-ins with criminals, encounters with ghosts, and journeys into ultra-dimensional time and space warps. Ditko, like all great comic artists, understood that unlike in a movie, where even the most powerful images must follow one after the other, he was presenting readers (who are also viewers) with a full page, which would not only tell a story but also work as a collage of light and shadow, shape and perspective, volume and line.

Comics were cheaply produced — Charlton’s magazines in particular were notable for pages by turns flooded with ink or barely legible from worn-out printing blankets. So comics artists employed heavy outlines, because detailed draftsmanship was often muddied by slapdash color registration. Ditko’s bold compositions withstood these degradations better than most. In addition to Spider-Man, Ditko created the Doctor Strange character for Marvel, and his swirling compositions were a perfect fit for the master of mystic arts’ astral journeys into psychedelic realms. (In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe describes LSD advocate Ken Kesey sitting “for hours on end reading comic books, absorbed in the plunging purple Steve Ditko shadows of Dr. Strange.”)

The sheer artistry of Ditko’s dynamic mix of abstract composition and elastic figuration received showcase treatment in Warren’s black-and-white horror publications. A typical Warren mag from the mid to late 1960s was a highlight reel of some of the best draftsmen this country ever produced — in each issue’s half-dozen or so stories, readers might get Reed Crandall’s woodcut-like drawings adapting Edgar Allan Poe’s “Hop-Frog,” Angelo Torres’s mix of film stills and noir lighting in a twist on The Phantom of the Opera, moody graveyard scenes in misty grays by Gene Colan, or the hyper-real figures and passionate layouts of a Neal Adams vampire tale.

Between 1966 and ’68, Ditko drew sixteen stories for Warren, all but one of them scripted by the incredibly versatile Archie Goodwin. Two examples, done in polar-opposite styles, show Ditko at the top of his game. In “Collector’s Edition!,” from Creepy #10 (1966), Ditko used concise crosshatching to achieve expressive tonalities emphasizing the tension that arises when a slovenly dealer of occult books taunts a fanatical collector with the possibility of obtaining a rare masterpiece detailing the darkest of the diabolical arts. The close-ups of eyes Ditko deployed for compositional variety a decade earlier are here arrayed in a narrative sequence that punctuates the antagonism between buyer and seller, which shortly escalates to murder. Goodwin — as sharp a yarn-spinner as ever came down America’s pop-cult pike — was no doubt having fun with the collecting manias that were driving the burgeoning comic-fandom phenomenon. The blasphemous tome featured in the story, Dark Visions, written by “the Marquis Lemode,” contains both stygian realms of evil and predictions of the future, giving the collector a preview of his own onrushing demise. Ditko’s precise line work propels Goodwin’s entwined narrative to its sardonically surprising conclusion.

But it’s in Creepy #13’s “Second Chance!” (1967) that Ditko displays ink-wash chops that, in their verve and subtlety, were unlike anything he achieved in mainstream comics, the delicate gradations of gray overlaid with white filigrees impossible to reproduce in color comics. Ditko’s crepuscular ambience enhances Goodwin’s plot, which begins and ends amid graveyard dirt and in between takes a trippy plunge into a hell filled with undulating demons, flailing victims, and diaphanous mists. The broad range of shadows and patinas of light give Ditko’s figures a supple grace he rarely equaled in his superhero comics.

Notoriously reclusive, Ditko spent his last decades more and more consumed by a rigid — not to say black-and-white — view of the world, inspired in no small part by the stark divisions between good and evil as espoused by writer-philosopher Ayn Rand. Although he did create more characters in those passing years (most notably Mr. A., a humorless vigilante who wore metal gloves, all the better for pummeling moral trespassers), Ditko never surpassed the sheer graphic elation of his Warren work. All the gray areas were gone.

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Direct From Queens, Spider-Man Finally Gets a Movie Worth Cheering

Most hero stories dating back to Achilles are fantasies of power, of the world made right through violence. What sets Spider-Man apart, outside his joyous bouncing through New York City, is that his stories are also fantasies of responsibility. Rather than just kick bad-guy ass, Spider-Man must forever fight to save his family, his friends, and every stranger who chances near the fray, always in the process destroying his own life as Peter Parker. Seven years ago, in a storyline in Marvel’s Amazing Spider-Man comic book, Parker vowed that, on his watch, nobody in New York would ever die again, and he nearly died himself trying to make it so; in that series’ current issue, Spider-Man bails on a brawl with the latest iteration of Dr. Octopus so that he can rescue civilians caught in the dustup.

Nobody speaks his famously humane credo — that with great power must come great responsibility — in Jon Watts’s brash Spider-Man: Homecoming, the first Spidey flick as ebullient as the comics you read when you were a kid. But that truth pulses through the film: He’s protector rather than avenger or punisher, not just of the young woman he crushes on (Laura Harrier) but also of his Queens neighborhood’s ATMs and bodega cats, of his classmates and families, even of the criminals he busts (for whom he exhibits a compassion rare in American hero stories).

As in Sam Raimi’s soulful Spider-Man 2, the most rousing of the many and varied action set pieces here find him helping rather than hitting, trying to make sure regular people get home safely. This time, though, a moral question underpins the excitement. In many of these rescue scenes, on ferries and monuments, it’s thanks to Spider-Man’s recklessness that everyone’s in danger in the first place. The movie is buoyant even as it charts the young hero’s cock-ups, glancing against its lessons rather than hammering them home: Responsibility means actually being responsible, not just performing heroics, so the web slinger has to learn not to pick fights with hoods in the middle of New Yorkers’ commute. Meanwhile, a quick, priceless early scene teaches him — and, I hope, America — the dangers of jumping to conclusions about who’s a criminal.

This Spidey, played by Tom Holland, sometimes gets it wrong, but he’s always striving to be better. That’s at odds with decades of violent Hollywood heroes, whose zealous mind-set has become something of a national pathology: I am certain I’m right, therefore whatever havoc I wreak is just. Tom Holland’s Peter Parker is still in high school, but in this he’s more of an adult than almost anyone else on our multiplex screens this summer.

The film skips right through these ideas. You know how some comics fans insist that they actually read sequential art or graphic novels? Spider-Man: Homecoming is comics, unapologetically, as close as blockbuster filmmaking gets to cartooning. Early scenes of the teen hero patrolling Queens edge toward sketch comedy. He gives street directions to the elderly; he performs acrobatic feats for fans on the sidewalk; he must chase goons through suburban backyards with no buildings to swing from, a witty homage to the classic Amazing Spider-Man 267, by Peter David and Bob McLeod.

Out of costume, Holland’s Parker blends attributes of the previous actors to play the role: He’s a soul-sick worrier, like Tobey Maguire’s, and a klutz who doesn’t know how hunky he is, like Andrew Garfield’s. Despite his Hollywood abs, Holland is scrappy, a squeaky motormouth whose words scrape against the back of his throat as they gush out. His rasp and stammer at times suggest a raw young Michael J. Fox, without the ironic detachment. His characterization echoes the Aughts Ultimate Spider-Man comics, by Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley, though the filmmakers borrow elements from all of the half-century-old character’s eras.

The most welcome of these: a best-friend character, borrowed from Bendis, who catches on to Parker’s secret — and geeks out so winningly that the hero can’t mope in his bedroom, like Maguire’s Spidey used to. Jacob Batalon and Holland have chemistry like vinegar and baking soda, fizzing a little out of control whenever they’re put together. Two other friendships, with Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark and Jon Favreau as Stark’s driver and assistant, serve as counterpoint, each actor so nimble in his comic duets with Holland that their roles never feel like franchise-building drop-ins. These characters seem to share a world, and director Watts (Cop Car) finds laughs in the incongruity between Parker’s everyday worries — field trips and a homecoming dance — and Avengers business.

That world proves more bold, more diverse, more lively and lived-in than most of the Marvel movies. Don’t look for the Avengers films’ usual scenes set in stainless-steel labs — or the Noo Yawk construction Joes of the other Spider-Mans. Homecoming is precise in its milieu, vaulting along Queens Boulevard and the elevated 7 train, attentive to local color and addresses, populating its sunny magnet school with young people who look like they might actually live in the borough. The women around him don’t get enough to do, but for once they’re (mostly) not just problems and plot points for him to deal with. (His secret life means that he must disappoint them all, of course.) Too many male characters leer at Marisa Tomei’s Aunt May, but Zendaya, as a lefty bookworm who is essentially a conscientious objector to high school, commands many scenes with just a caustic line or eye roll.

Coming from the other wing of American politics is Michael Keaton’s Adrian Toomes, the villain. He’s a screwed-over forgotten-man type who gives speeches about systems being rigged and, once legit business proves unprofitable, will do whatever it takes to make a score. His schemes — snatching tech we’ve seen in the other Marvel movies and selling modified versions of it to local crooks — are as down-to-earth as they can be for a heavy in a flying-vulture powersuit. Keaton is all earthy menace, a tough guy who believes he’s doing the right thing by seizing back a bit of the America that richer men have yoinked from him. Superhero fans once balked at the idea of Mr. Mom playing Batman. Now, in this most comic of comic-book movies, Keaton’s mere appearance can turn a scene dead serious.

In his abbreviated screen time, Keaton jolts Homecoming with just a scowl and those wily and restless eyes. The climactic battle, as in most of these films, is a blurred bore puked up by a computer, but the spoken showdowns between hero and villain prove tense and thoughtful. Here are two different understandings of the responsibility that great power demands, perfectly opposed views of what we owe one another in this world. The compassionate one, of course, prevails only in the movies and in the funny pages.

Spider-Man: Homecoming
Directed by Jon Watts
Sony Pictures
Opens July 7

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Creative Quote-Blurbing From Spider-Man

You’ll remember my mixed to negative review of Broadway’s troubled Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.

Well, if not, here it is again.

Guess what? It got quoted in the ads!

Guess what? They made it sound like a rave!

The show’s promotional materials quote me as saying “Spectacular and thrilling” — but while I did use those words, they were hardly in the same sentence, and it would be impossible to accurately quote them without a lot of dot-dot-dots in between.

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My fuller, more accurate quotes were:

“Spectacular and dull at the same time.”

And …

“Simultaneously thrilling and yawn inducing.”

Just like someone swooped in and edited the show itself, the Spidey team has taken a creative hatchet to the reviews, too.

And it’s simultaneously nervy and appalling.

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Spider-Man Has Opened! And I Have Spoken!

The tangled web has sorted itself out and, after only eight years of waiting (or at least it felt that way), Spidey has finally swung his buggin’ ass around for the critics — this time officially.

Click here for my review, in which I tell you whether the can of repellent is still called for, or if this show has (many) legs to stand on.

I totally inform you whether the long-simmering spectacle is thrilling, boring, or both — and I even tell you why!

Trust me, it’s a funny review. I even managed to work in a mention of Anthony Weiner. In the first sentence!

I also discuss Sunday’s Tony Awards and how they were even gayer than last year’s Tony Awards!

I even ran into Bono at an after-party!

He’s now completely in my (worldwide) web.

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Will Spider-Man Fly This Time?

The biggest theater story in decades — for all the wrong reasons — Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark suffered a pulverizing parade of delays, damages, and disses that made it the biggest punchline since Punky Brewster.

But then they shut the whole thing down to perform emergency resuscitation on the show and officially open it on June 14.

As a result, there will finally be a version that the critics can go to without hoping they won’t be noticed.

They’re actually being invited!

So will it fly?

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Well, people do love a comeback, and this thing could surely rise from the ashes, flap its wings to the rafters, and not fall on anyone.

After all, they said J. Lo would never come back!

I feel the three possibilities are:

*The show will emerge as a streamlined, thrilling masterpiece that finally pleases both the artistic sensibility and the awestruck theatergoer. It will once again become the biggest theater story in decades, but for all the right reasons this time.

*It will be streamlined, but still flawed — different but not quite airborne. They will have taken the icky stuff out but not replaced it with anything much better.

*It will completely suck.

I love a good comeback more than anyone, so I’m rooting for a complete superhero transformation.

No, really.

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Kelly Clarkson in Spider-Man?

Someone posted on the ATC Broadway board that a high-profile visitor to Broadway’s troubled Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, who is famous from American Idol, might have gone as a precursor to possibly taking over one of the roles in the show.

That’s pretty vague — someone please turn off the dark — but occasionally the comments thrown at the wall on that board turn out to be almost sort of semi-true.

And the person in question sounds like Kelly Clarkson, who became famous under the gaze of Simon and the gang, and who did indeed see Spidey not long ago.

Does she sing well in double harness?

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Spider-Man Commercial Fudges the Quotes

I’m sure the producers of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark would love to just write all new reviews, but instead, they’ve simply done some creative editing on the existing ones.

As Broadwayworld.com points out, the show’s commercial makes the best out of a critical onslaught.

The ad quotes the New York Post as calling the show “dazzling” whereas the actual original quote was “dazzling at times and disappointing at others.”

The New Jersey Star Ledger is credited with saying, “Bono and the Edge have contributed the stellar songs,” whereas what they fully wrote was, “Bono and the Edge have contributed some stellar ballads that evoke the yearning grandeur of U2, though their more upbeat material tended to be nondescript.”

And while New York magazine is trumpeted as having said, “Succeeds thunderously,” the context was, “As maximalist camp, it succeeds thunderously.”

This will teach the critics a lesson.

Next time they hate a show, they should simply write, “Crap! Crap! Crap! Crap!”

There’s no way to edit that into a rave.