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. Granted, there were a few not too memorable ones such as The Enforcers and The Living Brain, but a number of iconic villains did make their debuts in stories that helped establish Spider-Man as an A-level hero and comic title.
Next to the iconic Batman, Spider-Man probably has the most memorable rogues gallery of villains. As is the case with Batman's rogues gallery, the villains in Spider-Man are more memorable for their unique personality quirks more than the gimmick of the uniform worn or the schtick performed.
The Classic Spider-Man Villain Archetype
Over the past several decades, numerous new villains have emerged and many are missing a very common trait found in the villains established during the first year of Spider-Man's publishing history. The villains Spider-Man faced looked downright garish and creepy. This really was the brilliance of Steve Ditko shining through. He had the ability to draw these characters in their full garish (non)glory heightening the revulsion inherent with them.
The villains were also notoriously pompous and arrogant in a way that really did stress the generation gap between Peter Parker and his various nemeses. It would be doubtful that Stan Lee was pushing a “Don't trust anyone over 30“ mantra, but we surely see the these villains as stand-ins for overly self-indulgent, everyday authority figures.
Strange Villains Debut
The second villain Spider-Man faces (The first being the incredibly dull and utterly forgettable Chameleon) is The Vulture. The Vulture is a creepy and garish character. It is not a coincidence that Adrian Toomes, The Vulture's alter ego is a decrepit old man. This is a huge departure from the common villains most heroes had to face. Giant robots, creatures from space, super powered madmen and the like generally made up the beings trying to thwart the average hero. The Vulture, however, is a bitter old man in a bird suit.
If the Vulture was the villainous equivalent to a cantankerous school janitor, then Doctor Octopus could be considered a version of the egomaniacle, self-absorbed math teacher that arrogantly talks over the head of his classroom while using each and every algebra equation on the board as an exercise in promoting his own brilliance. The trouble with Doc Ock is he is nowhere near as smart as he thinks he is. 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 the High School age Peter Parker takes the initiative to do so.
While it can be acceptable to some degree that Spider-man beats the good doctor in a fight, the more troubling fact is that Spider-man really does outwit the Doctor which deflates and ego in dire need of deflating.
Villains such as The Sandman and Electro are somewhat gimmick oriented in terms of their powers. Their motivations are somewhat straight forward. They have given up being blue collar working stiffs after acquiring their new powers 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 clearly 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 a bit more geared to their reading level. They also wanted something more realistic in themes even if the stories themselves were not as sophisticated as they would eventually become. What allowed The Amazing Spider-man to truly strike a nerve with its readers was it ability to tap into teen angst among the disaffected. Peter Parker's troubles with the bully jock, Flash Thompson, certainly help strike this nerve. Setting up Spider-man to do battle with villains that reflect score of obnoxious adults they must contend with during their day 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 had to deal with. 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 Conners not only physically becomes The Lizard, but the Lizard becomes a sentient being with its own mind. There is no Curt Conners to as Dr. Conners is a separate personality.
There really is little difference between the older Conners and the younger Parker. Both are brilliant scientists that are driven to succeed. Conners, however, reflects a dangerous warning to the young Parker about what can happen when work becomes so obsessive that it is self-destructive. Dr. Conners becomes consumed by his work...literally. He becomes his life work...literally. As a result, there is no more Conners. The Lizard becomes not a villain that Spider-man seeks to bring down, but one he needs to save in a very cautionary story.
The Years Progress and So Do the Villains
The second year of The Amazing Spider-man would bring forth timeless villains such as The Green Goblin, Mysterio and more. It really was not until the late 1960s that the book would move away from its garish nature thanks, in large part, to the different art style of John Romita. Moving Peter from high school to college also led to a change in more complex stories as opposed to the more commonly simplistic ones of the first 36 issues of the series. If there was one trait that did endear through the series for several years, it would be the unique underpinning themes of the age and culture 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]