The Equally Amazing Super Villain Generation Gap In The First 12 Issues of The Amazing Spider-Man
Spider-Man Vs. The Old-Men
The first 12 issues of The Amazing Spider-Man introduced several memorable and iconic villains, along with a few not-too-memorable ones such as The Enforcers and The Living Brain. With more debuting nemeses turning out to be hits rather than misses, several iconic villains' arrivals helped establish Spider-Man as an A-level hero and comic title.
Next to Batman, Spider-Man boasts of the most memorable rogues gallery of villains. As is the case with Batman's rogue's gallery, the villains in Spider-Man prove memorable thanks to unique personality quirks than performing a gimmicky bad-guy schtick.
The Classic Spider-Man Villain Archetype
Over the past several decades, numerous brilliant new comic book villains emerged from creator keyboards. Still, many lack a trait found among the villains debuting during Spider-Man's inaugural year. The villains Spider-Man faced looked downright garish and creepy, reflecting the brilliance of Steve Ditko shining through. He could draw these characters in their full gaudy (non)glory heightening the revulsion inherent with them.
The villains were also notoriously pompous and arrogant in a way that effectively stressed the generation gap between Peter Parker and his various nemeses. Stan Lee might not overtly push a "Don't trust anyone over 30 "mantra, but we indeed see the villains as stand-ins for overly self-indulgent, out-of-touch, self-serving everyday authority figures.
Strange Villains Debut
The second villain Spider-Man faced (The first being the incredibly dull Chameleon) was The Vulture. The Vulture took comic book creep and garish to new levels. Interestingly, Adrian Toomes, The Vulture's alter ego, is a decrepit older man. The Vulture seemed far removed from the typical comic book villain of the era. Giant robots, creatures from space, superpowered madmen, and the like generally comprised the antagonists working to thwart the average hero. However, the Vulture is a bitter old guy in a bird suit, a homicidal one at that.
If the Vulture represented the comic book equivalent to a cantankerous school janitor, then Doctor Octopus stood in for the egomaniacal, self-absorbed math teacher who arrogantly talks over his classroom's head while using every algebra equation on the board as an exercise in promoting personal brilliance. The trouble with Doc Ock is he is nowhere near as smart as he thinks. His lofty opinion of himself comes from living a sheltered life. Also, due to never having been challenged, he has never been put in his place, until High School age Peter Parker takes the initiative to do so.
While Doctor Octopus might somewhat accept losing to Spider-man in a fight, Ock probably feels torn up inside upon realizing Spider-Man also outwits him, deflating an ego in dire need of deflation.
Villains such as The Sandman and Electro are somewhat gimmick-oriented in terms of their powers. Their motivations appear straightforward. They have given up being blue-collar working stiffs after acquiring their new abilities and now wish to earn money through stealing. While the dynamic of hero vs. villain remains, there is an underlying hint of the older, more cynically worldly blue-collar, working-class villain taking part in a culture clash with the more academically oriented and still optimistic superhero.
What an Angst-Ridden Audience Wanted
Battling such pompous, self-absorbed exaggerations of common authority figures must have struck a nerve with the audience reading the stories when they were first published. The stories targeted an audience of readers that had grown out of the childish DC Comics titles and wanted something geared towards their comprehension level. They also preferred more realistic themes, even if the stories themselves lacked the sophistication they would develop eventually. What allowed The Amazing Spider-Man to strike a nerve with its readers was the ability to tap into teen angst among the disaffected. Peter Parker's troubles with the bully jock, Flash Thompson, likely struck hundreds of thousands of nerves. Setting up Spider-Man to do battle with villains that reflect scores of obnoxious adults contend with daily strikes another.
The Lizard Marks a Villainous Departure
Yet, Lee and Ditko did manage to find other takes on the nemeses that the web-slinger battled. The Lizard is best illustrative of such a villain.
The Lizard remains one of the more interesting characters because he is, in essence, a split personality. Dr. Curt Connors not only physically becomes The Lizard, but the Lizard becomes a sentient being with its own mind. There is no Curt Connors to as Dr. Connors maintains a separate personality.
Little difference exists between the older Connors and the younger Parker. Both are brilliant scientists driven to succeed. However, Connors reflects a dangerous warning to the young Parker about what can happen when work becomes so obsessive to the point of self-destruction. Dr. Connors becomes consumed by his work, literally. He becomes his life work, literally. As a result, Connors, the good person, disappears. In his place arrives The Lizard, a villain Spider-Man seeks not to bring down, but one the hero must save from himself in a cautionary story.
The Years Progress and So Do the Villains
The Amazing Spider-Man's second year would bring forth timeless villains such as The Green Goblin, Mysterio, and others. The garish "villain look" remained until the late 1960s, leaving only thanks to the different art style of John Romita. Moving Peter from high school to college also led to a change in more complex stories instead of the more commonly simplistic ones of the first 36 issues. If there were one trait that did endear through the series for several years, it would be the unique underpinning themes of the age and cultural differences between the hero and his villains.
[For those interested in more reflections on the classic Spider-Man books, please check out TwoMorrows Publishing's magazines Alter Ego and Back Issue]