100 years ago today, Stan Lee was born and Between the Pages is celebrating. For this celebration, I wanted to look at one of the most famous lines of dialog that Stan ever wrote.
Peter Parker is the spectacular Spider-Man. In the early days of his comic, Peter lived with his Aunt May. May’s neighbor and best friend is Anna Watson. Way back in Amazing Spider-Man #15, Aunt May surprises Peter by telling him that she has made a date for him with Anna Watson’s niece. Peter doesn’t want any part of a blind date.
The will he/won’t he go on a blind date gag continues for a while. When Anna’s niece, Mary Jane, finally appears in issue #25, her face is obscured by a plant. So, you still never really see her.
It isn’t until issue #42 that Peter and Mary Jane finally meet and she utters the iconic line “Face It Tiger…You Just Hit The Jackpot!”.
This is classic Stan Lee!
Variations of “Face It Tiger…” have been used dozens of times in Marvel Comics. My favorite is Spider-Gwen is in a band called the Mary Janes and their biggest hit is Face It Tiger.
The classic first appearance of Mary Jane Watson was drawn by John Romita and lettered by Sam Rosen. John Romita based Mary Jane’s looks and clothes on Ann-Margaret from the movie Bye Bye Birdie.
A quick aside. My favorite Ann-Margaret role is when she played Ann-Margrock in the Flintstones’ season four opener – Ann-Margrock Presents. In this episode, Ann-Margrock is a celebrity scheduled to give a concert in Bedrock. She is tired of all the attention that goes with being a celebrity, so she hides out and becomes a babysitter for Fred and Wilma’s daughter Pebbles. Neither the Flintstones nor the Rubbles have a clue that she is a famous celebrity. Fred and Barney are trying to put together an act for the concert. Ann-Margrock sees them practicing and gives them a hand. Fred and Barney realize that they’re being selfish and that the person who should appear at the concert is Ann-Margrock. It ends with the trio performing on stage together and Ann-Margrock singing a lovely lullaby to Pebbles. If you’ve never seen the episode, I highly recommend it.
While Mary Jane’s reveal is a fun scene, I wanted to focus on it because it is a game changing moment in Spider-Man.
Spider-Man was the creation of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko (some comic book historians also say that Jack Kirby played a role in his creation.) Stan Lee was so busy working on so many Marvel Comics that Steve Ditko didn’t just do the artwork, he also did most of the plotting. Stan was involved in the basic plot of each issue and then scripted it after Ditko drew the comic.
The very first appearance of Spider-Man is in issue fifteen of Amazing Fantasy. On the splash page of that story, a bunch of high school students are talking. Off to one side and all alone is Peter Parker. In that panel, Liz Allen describes Peter “Peter Parker? He’s Midtown High’s only professional wallflower”. Steve Ditko’s Peter Parker reminds me a lot of Charlie Brown. Other than Aunt May and Peter’s on again/off again girl friend Betty Brant (J. Jonah Jameson’s secretary). Peter is friendless and picked on by his classmates.
In the very first Peanuts comic strip. you learn two things – what Charlie Brown looks like and that there are some people who really dislike him. The last line is Shermy’s – “Good Ol’ Charlie Brown … How I Hate Him!”. Shermy’s line could just as easily have been said by Flash Thompson about Peter Parker.
Mary Jane changes that forever.
A little history. The early issues with the will he/won’t he go on a blind date with Mary Jane Watson subplot were plotted and drawn by Steve Ditko. By the time, issue #42 appears and Mary Jane hit the scene, Ditko had left Marvel and John Romita was now the artist on the title. Romita had a done a lot of work in comics including a bunch of romance comics for DC Comics. Because that was his background, he was famous for drawing men and women who were attractive. His Peter Parker was handsome and his Mary Jane was lovely. Even Gwen Stacy who was created during Steve Ditko’s era on Spider-Man, became much more attractive.
Why is this important? Because Peter went from being Charlie Brown to being Archie Andrews. Archie is famous for dating both Veronica and Betty. Likewise, Peter was now dating both Mary Jane and Gwen. I can even see similarities between Mary Jane and Veronica & Gwen and Betty.
I know what some of you are thinking, how is Peter dating two attractive girls a game changer for Spider-Man?
To answer that question, we need to talk about stories.
Peter Parker/Spider-Man’s universe can be divided into four parts
#1 Peter Parker’s friends – Aunt May, Mary Jane, Gwen, Robbie Robertson…
#2 Peter Parker’s foes – Flash Thompson, Liz Allen, J. Jonah Jameson…
#3 Spider-Man’s friends – Black Cat, Human Torch, Daredevil…
#4 Spider-Man’s foes – Green Goblin, Doctor Octopus, Electro…
These four sections matter for two reasons. First, the more characters in each section, the more stories you can tell. It is one of the reasons that the cast of characters in Spider-Man comics keeps expanding. Second, while a good story can be told using one of these sections. The best stories are those where multiple of these sections intersect.
Let me give you an example. Here are two elevator pitches for an issue of Spider-Man.
Doctor Octopus Is Coming To Town: Christmas time is here. And, Doctor Octopus is planning to rob a laboratory of a rare isotope. Otto knows that Spider-Man will ruin his Christmas, so he hires two small time supervillains to distract Spidey. One villain is dressed in green, the other in brown. They’re the Grinch and Max and they’re paid for each Christmas decoration they destroy on Christmas Eve.
Anniversaries: It is the anniversary of Uncle Ben’s death. After all these years, Peter still feels guilty. Peter and Aunt May visit the graveside together. Afterwards, they go out to dinner and tell tales about Ben. After a good but bittersweet evening of reminiscing, they both head to their homes. Peter is climbing into his bed when his cell phone rings. It is Aunt May. There is a burglar in her house.
Doctor Octopus Is Coming To Town is a fun, light Christmas romp. Anniversaries has more pathos. The Doc Ock story only involves section #4, Spider-Man’s foes. The Aunt May story involves Peter Parker’s friends, his foes (the original burglar who killed Uncle Ben) and depending on the identity of the new burglar maybe Spider-Man’s foes.
Stan Lee and Steve Ditko did amazing work on Spider-Man, but their main focus was creating an absolutely astonishing rouges gallery for Spider-Man. During this run Green Goblin, Doctor Octopus, Electro, Mysterio, the Lizard and a bunch of other classic Spidey villains were created. Peter was featured a ton in these issues, but he was usually shown as not having any friends.
The introduction of Mary Jane changes that. Gradually, most of Peter’s supporting cast becomes more fleshed out and suddenly Peter has a supporting cast of friends. This opened up so many additional story possibilities.
Let me show you what I mean. Take my elevator pitch – Doctor Octopus Is Coming To Town. Lets add to it some of Peter Parker’s friends. It Christmas and Mary Jane and Gwen want to earn extra money to buy Christmas presents. Unbeknownst to each other, they both end up getting jobs at the same department store. That store is one of the first places that the Grinch and Max hit. In Home Alone fashion, MJ and Gwen take down the hapless bad guys. When Spidey arrives, there is nothing for him to do, so he isn’t distracted when Doctor Octopus commits his robbery.
Done correctly, this is a much funnier story than the original version because of the way the two stories and set of characters intersect.
This doesn’t just apply to Spider-Man. Even Charlie Brown didn’t stay the original Charlie Brown for long. Adding characters like Linus gave Charlie Brown an occasional friend and ally. While Sally gave him family and responsibilities. Peppermint Patty was a later comer, but she really like “Chuck”. Even though they’re in some of the classic Peanuts holiday specials, Shermy and Patty have largely been forgotten. These new supporting characters took on such a life of their own that some of Peanuts most famous storylines don’t have much to do with Charlie Brown. Linus and the Great Pumpkin and Snoopy battling the Red Barron are two examples of this.
This is a problem I have with long running super hero TV shows. They’ll start off with one or two super heroes and a strong supporting cast. Over time, every single supporting character will end up getting powers and becoming either a hero or villain. That can make for a great story short term, but after awhile, the main characters lose their uniqueness and the supporting cast loses what made them special.
One last example! In addition to being a big fan of Spider-Man, I also really like Superman. Superman’s supporting cast is so iconic that almost everyone knows who Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen and Perry White are. For a few years now, DC Comics has been debating whether Superman’s secret identity was necessary. DC revealed Superman’s secret identity in the comics. A short while later, they changed their mind and restored his secret identity. A few years later, they changed their mind again and once again revealed Superman’s secret identity. Right about the time this post is being published, DC is once again restoring Superman’s secret identity. DC Comics can’t make up their mind. I’m #TeamClarkKent because while revealing Superman’s secret identity makes for great storytelling short term, it doesn’t make for great storytelling long term.
Years ago, I read an interview with John Romita about his time working with Stan Lee on Spider-Man. He said that when he came on the book, Stan Lee & Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four was Marvel’s best selling title. To his surprise and delight, Amazing Spider-Man soon overtook it and became Marvel’s best seller. I think the reason Lee and Romita’s Spider-Man outsold FF is because as Peter Parker gained a strong supporting cast, the stories became even more complex and the readers cared more about Peter and could relate to him more.
The amazing thing about Stan Lee was that he was a natural born storyteller. I doubt he had the time to think about stuff like character development and long range storytelling. These days, Marvel is the #1 comic book publisher in the US. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a global box office phenomenon. Their TV shows are a key part of Disney+. But back when Amazing Spider-Man #1 was published, Marvel was the #5 comic book publisher. Archie, Dell, Harvey and DC were all significantly larger. Marvel was a tiny group and Stan had some role in almost every issue published by Marvel in those days. He plotted a bunch of comics and scripted even more. He wrote most of the editorial material and a lot of the promotional material. He was even involved in approving the design of most covers.
How busy was Stan? Roy Thomas was leaving the Marvel offices one evening and there was a city wide blackout that lasted for hours. Power had been restored by the next morning. When Roy returns to the office, he finds Stan upset. During the blackout, Stan was only able to write one script via candlelight instead of the two he was planning to write. So, Stan quickly assigns the other script to Roy. That’s classic Stan Lee.
The coolest thing about celebrating 100 years of Stan Lee is knowing that so many of the stories and characters that he had a role in creating will still be around in another 100 years!
Face it tiger…when Stan Lee began writing comics…we all hit the jackpot!