"The Master Planner Saga"
Writer: Stan Lee & Steve Ditko. Art: Steve Ditko.
Amazing Spider-Man #30-33, plus #9-10 (1963, 1965)
The Master Planner Saga is oft cited as a classic storyline -- and probably does warrant that label. It's hard to quite put your finger on why it stands out -- but it does. But because of that rep, it's funny it's never been collected on its own before (though is reprinted in Essential Spider-Man, vol. 2)
One of the significant factors was its length. Four issues (though some would label #30 as extraneous) is hardly an epic by modern standards, but at that time, it might well have been the longest Spidey saga to date.
Though written by Lee, the plotting for this period of Spidey was credited to artist Steve Ditko. But this Ditko plots/Lee scripts thing leads to an amusing problem in the first issue of the saga, #30. As I mentioned, some might regard the issue as superfluous, because the Master Planner gang is introduced only as a sub-plot. The main plot involves Spidey trying to track down a cat burglar (with the added comic relief that the Spidey-hating J. Jonah Jameson offers a reward for The Cat's capture...and then becomes horrified realizing Spidey might be the one to collect it). But Lee has the gang refer to their boss as The Cat (in absentia). It's only when they recur in the next issue, once The Cat is safely in jail, that Lee realizes his mistake and has them start referring to their boss as the yet unseen Master Planner (who is revealed as Doctor Octopus midway through the saga).
While Spidey continues his run ins with the gang, he's also dealing with that pesky thing called real life. He's starting University, his relationship with Betty Brant is coming off the rails as he realizes that Betty wants (and needs) a quiet, staid boy friend...something his moonlighting as Spider-Man definitely precludes. And to make things worse -- his Aunt May takes deathly sick and ends up in the hospital.
It's these aspects of the story that help lend it a real sense of, well, density (making it feel considerably more substantial than a comparable four issue arc today). Whole scenes and pages trundle by with nary a glimpse of a web, as Peter Parker is as much the star of the mag as Spidey. And it works, the human drama and character interaction as compelling as the super battles -- and those exciting and well staged in their own right, not just splash pages and pin ups. And of course there are plenty of witty quips and comedy to counterpoint the drama -- this era of Spidey easily as funny as it was dramatic. The super hero battles seem more real, less contrived, because they are a part of Spidey's world, not the whole of his world -- and because, even after his first couple of encounters with the gang, he still doesn't realize they're going to be anything more than a minor diversion, it allows the menace to percolate slowly.
Admittedly, the idea that Peter alienates fellow students (including Gwen Stacy and Harry Osborn in their first appearances) because he's so consumed with worry over his ailing Aunt that he doesn't hear them when they call him, and they just assume he's a snob, is kind of contrived. Obviously Ditko wanted to recreate the high school days of Peter as outcast (once Ditko left the comic, the other students would mellow out and become Peter's friends).
But instead of simply cutting between the two main threads of the Master Planner Gang and Aunt May's illness, the two plots converge -- it makes the plotting cleverly surprising (since you'd expect the connection will either be obvious from the beginning, or not there at all -- not held back for an issue or two). And it makes Spidey's battles with the Master Planner and his gang more emotionally charged. And maybe that's part of why the saga stands out -- as the story progresses it assumes a sense of emotion, of desperation, on Spidey's part, so the fights aren't just this month's battle with a generic foe, but a struggle with real stakes and real consequences for our hard luck hero.
This also builds to what has become one of the most oft cited scenes in Spidey -- and comics -- lore, as Spidey gets buried between tones of wreckage, and through force of will, as much as muscle, must heave free of the debris to save his Aunt May (it was even homaged in the movie Spider-Man 2). I suppose the notion of wrapping a climactic conflict around a battle with an inanimate object, and where the struggle is, in a sense, as much internal as external, was maybe seen as ground breaking in a super hero comic.
I had read the concluding chapter years ago (in the TPB collection The Very Best of Spider-Man) and though it was okay, hadn't really thought it lived up to the hype. But really, what do you expect reading a final chapter out of context? It's the saga as a whole that works, mixing the wit and whimsy, the snappy pacing, with some genuine emotion and angst, sending Spidey into a turmoil of desperation, resulting in a victory that is genuinely emotional.
For a modern reader, old comics can seem quaint and silly, at best, and just badly written at worse. I know, 'cause I've been there. But as you get older, you realize that -- sure -- sometimes they can be bad...but sometimes they're just different. Just as we can still watch old Humphrey Bogart movies and regard them as classics even though the dialogue and the acting styles are different than they are today. So it's true that the writing here is, of course, obvious, and full of exposition. But it's also snappy, and sharp, full of genuine human emotion...and some chuckle inducing quips and interplay ("Mr. Jameson! You're smiling! Is anything wrong?").
Likewise, I can have mixed feelings about Ditko as an artist, but regard this as one of his best periods. His line work is firm, with a nice use of shadow to model and shape the figures. Yet it remains quirky and idiosyncratically Ditko-esque, moving easily between the every day streets to the head trippy art deco interior of the villain's James Bond-like secret underwater fortress.
Since I'm imagining this as a TPB collection, to round out the pages, we might include Amazing Spider-Man #9 and 10 as well, as a kind of prologue to the main story. #10 because that's the issue where Spidey gives Aunt May the blood transfusion that causes her illness in the main story arc (and as a bonus, it is the story that introduces reporter Frederick Foswell, who also plays a part in the main story). But as such, #9 could be included, because that's the issue where Aunt May has the surgery that then requires the blood transfusion in the next issue! It's also a good issue (first introducing Electro), worth a read on its own...arguably better than #10. Of course, #10 introduces some cryptic plot threads involving Betty Brant -- but there are a few references in the Master Planner saga that harken back to that, so you get filled in on what you missed.