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INTERLUDE WITH SPIDERMAN: AAEC

On my weekend sojourn in Washington, D.C. for the convention of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, I spent a couple of hours in the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress, looking at original art for the first Spider-Man story, which was donated by “an anonymous” person. Ditko?

Judging from the evidence at hand, Ditko submitted his work to Lee in its penciled state. In this inaugural two-part Spider-Man tale, Lee asked for three adjustments, two of which would have required re-drawing a panel or whiting-out offending visual elements. But the original art for the pages I contemplated featured no paste-overs and no white-out, which would have been visible if the adjustments had been made after the art had been inked. So Lee was looking at the penciled pages, which Ditko adjusted according to Lee’s directions when he inked. Or, as it happens, did not adjust.

Lee made his suggestions in pencil in the margins. The notes have been erased but they are still discernable. The first one occurs on page 3 of Part One (below, left). The eighth panel shows a speeding automobile that almost runs over Peter Parker because he is so absorbed in thought that he is oblivious to his surroundings. The penciled art apparently included an arm protruding from the interior of the car, and that, Lee thought, implied that the car was being drive recklessly, so he asked Ditko to remove the arm so as not to suggest to young impressionable readers that reckless driving was acceptable. And Ditko removed the arm, as we see in the accompanying illustration. LeeDitko0001

On the last page of Part Two (on the far right), Lee’s comment focuses on the sixth panel. Here, he asks that Ditko “lift up” the second policeman’s head. In the original, apparently the second cop’s head is lower down in the panel — or perhaps just smaller. “Lifting it up” enhances its visibility, and Ditko complied with the suggestion.

But the other comment Lee made, his third instruction, Ditko ignored. On page eight of Part Two (below), Lee’s penciled comment is next to the third panel: “Steve, omit crook! Show door slamming!” Ditko quite sensibly LeeDitko0002ignored this command. He probably ignored it because omitting the crook would remove the visual interest in the panel: a vertical line indicating closed elevator doors is scarcely a dramatic picture, and the scene demands some drama, coming, as it does, at the end of a presumably heated pursuit.

Ditko may also have realized that the crook’s face, which establishes his identity at the end of the story (look again at the previous visual aid), needs a little more exposure than even the close-up of the next panel supplies. The figures of the crook in both second and third panels are small, but the heavy eyebrows provide a quick and certain means of identifying him. The profile in the fourth panel confirms in detail the distinctive eyebrows, but profiles, as a general rule, are not useful in identifying anyone except in profile; and the crook at the end does not appear in profile. Without page eight’s several exposures of the crook’s face, including the detailed profile, we might not be equipped to share Spider-Man’s moment of recognition at the end, and the story with its heart-rending moral lesson would be substantially spoiled. Ditko was right to ignore Lee’s dictum here.

Judging solely from this instance — perhaps the only “documentary evidence” we have — Lee, as editor and scripter, influenced how Ditko told the story that Lee plotted, but Ditko did the actual storytelling, enhancing its emotional highs and lows, and he didn’t always do what Lee wanted him to do. Ditko is clearly the better storyteller; Lee’s advice is either off the mark or almost superfluous.

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