One time in comics: Peter Parker skipped the air pollution rally

This story is from Amazing Spider-Man #89-90, and was re-told in Marvel Tales #70-71 (from which the images below are taken)

Back in 1976, Peter Parker was invited to join a march in the streets of New York City. Randy Robertson, son of Robbie Robertson (editor at the Daily Bugle), and a passionate man with a mind towards improving society, let Peter know the event was happening, and that he was expected to participate.
IMG_6319I absolutely love this page. Every single panel is crucial to a subplot that is given two full pages here, then another few panels in the next issue, despite the sub- nature of this particular plot.

Robertson and his father were among the first black characters in comics to play straight dramatic roles Here, Randy is given the space to promote the fight against pollution by Stan Lee (who wrote this book).IMG_6319Air pollution (then and now) is not just some cause to blow off, though, and Robertson lays on the pressure. This event is a big one, too. Ralph Nader was coming. And these were the days of Nader’s Raiders, when the man and his like-minded progressive youth activists were capable of actually shifting national policy  for the better.IMG_6319But Peter Parker is Spider-Man, and Spider-Man has many problems (including pollution) to face. In this instance, Doc Ock, who is on the loose and looking for Spider-Man.  “Maybe you don’t give a hoot,” Randy says turning his back on an uninterested Peter, quoting the famous anti-pollution line of the 1970s, “About anything…’cepting Peter Parker.”IMG_6319Peter, good student and photo journalist and superhero, has already earned a reputation for being an uncaring, inconsiderate man. OF COURSE Peter Parker wants to fight air pollution! Who doesn’t?  IMG_6320But he’s gotta find that Doc Ock. Who is, wouldn’t you know, going to destroy the smokestacks on the local power plant. Ock’s trying to draw Spider-Man to him. With a rally coming to town, Robertson’s plea to Peter to attend, and Gwen’s interest, Doc Ock knows he can get Spidey’s attention by threatening NYC’s air quality.

Plus, it’s thematic. So Peter skips the rally, for the good of the city.IMG_6322

So why is this moment of comics history worth remembering?

For one, it’s actually a powerful call to social action. The edges of our contemporary comics often bleed over into the real world in fascinating ways. Today, superhero comics writers often include a pretty lame “Kids Today” vibe–social media and teen jargon, or worse–that places familiarity in irrelevance rather than vibrancy.

That’s just not the case here. Even with the ’70s speak that Stan Lee gives Robertson (very dated at best…), Randy manages to achieve a striking conviction for the cause he advocates, and that impulsive condemnation of Peter’s behavior actually hits home.

That condemnation works double duty. Stan Lee in condemning Spidey also manages to elucidate the difficulty in the life of Peter Parker, who must at all times suffer because of Spider-Man. Everybody says it. He doesn’t care about anything but himself. That’s harsh. But if your Randy Robertson, it’s also true.

Readers see the problem from Randy’s perspective, and the discomfort in Peter’s position. It’s great bit of storytelling, matched wonderfully by John Romita’s artwork which flows with a cinematic quality (note the panel from Robbie’s condemnation to his turning away to from Peter to Peter’s throwing away of the flier. Fluid pan of a tight film scene; I love it).

This little subplot actually carries over to the next issue of Spider-Man, called “And Death Shall Come.” As you can probably guess, that story ends in tragedy. But this kind of world building/world refection provides surprising power to a primary story that would be so much less without the knowledge of why Peter skipped that air pollution rally.

Complex storytelling, Stan.

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