Welcome to Spider-Man Roulette! Shelfdust’s Patreon backers were asked to pick a number at random – and now I’m going to write about whichever corresponding issue of “Amazing Spider-Man” they chose! This issue was picked by Patreon backer Matt O’ Keefe, who chose number 99 for the roulette!
When Stan Lee passed away, some of the many tributes included his interest in highlighting social issues and inequality, and the way he would insert his own politics into comics to try and push readers on progressive stances. At the time I thought people were overstating Lee’s politics a little, having not read that many of his older comics – not to say I thought he was a conservative, more that it would be surprising for him to be anything more than a person of his time. I figured he did make some stances, but that you wouldn’t expect him to, for example, spend an issue of his flagship series writing about the unfair treatment of prisoners in the US.
So Amazing Spider-Man #99 came as a huge surprise.
Now, in our current climate, there are a lot of people – y’know, comicsgaters – who would suggest politics don’t come into Golden Age Comics at any point, which demonstrates again why it’s important to actually read comics if you want to try and talk with authority about them. This is an incredibly political issue, not least for its time, and the core message here is as up to date and current as you could possibly imagine. This is Stan on a soapbox, and it was startling to me how loudly he was able to shout.
The issue has the classic framing story for Spider-Man, in that he needs money to take Gwen Stacy out on a date. To get money he needs work from J. Jonah Jameson at The Bugle – who, wouldn’t you have guessed, is just at that moment trying to cover a breaking news story happening elsewhere in the city, and needs himself a photographer immediately. It’s a great way to throw Spider-Man into any story the creative team want, because as the Editor-in-Chief Jameson can send the character off to cover any kind of breaking story. If they want to do a superhero story, then a villain can be on the loose – but if they want to do something a little more realistic and topical, they can set that up just as easily.
And in this case, that’s exactly what they want to do. There’s a prison riot taking place, Spider-Man needs money, so Jameson asks him to go take photos over at the prison. Simple as that, off we go, time for another classic Spider-Man story. It’s a perfect framing device for delivering a 22-page comic book story.
However, the issue quickly starts to tell the unexpected story, unfolding it in the classical storytelling style of the medium. Spider-Man starts off by finding a minion, capturing him, and asking him for more details on the story, just as he’s done a hundred (or 98) times before. This particular minion, however, has a bit of a different story to tell: he’s genuine, and the reasons for his decision to riot come across as fair and legitimate. Even if the means of protest is disruptive, the comic suggests, the protest itself is worthy. Reading the issue now, my thought was that this would probably not lead to anything different, and that Spidey would ignore the concerns and head after the ringleader of the breakout, just as he’s done 98 times before.
He does end up doing that… but in a different way to the one you’d expect.
When it’s revealed that the man leading the riot has the warden at gunpoint, Spider-Man is straight on the scene, and we’re all set to forget the complaints of the prisoner in favour of seeing the convict get stopped by the hero. But what actually happens is that Spider-Man hears the convict talking whilst approaching the room, and realises that only two or three of the rioters are doing so for their own benefit – they’ve whipped everyone else up into a protest as a distraction, but the reasons for the protest are completely legitimate. Later, the warden goes on to state that the jails are an issue, and that the prisoners’ rights need to be looked at more closely – from every level, Spider-Man (and the reader) and being told that this is an actual real-world problem, and it doesn’t matter if some people are jumping on the cause in order to score their own points. What matters is that the issue needs to be made public, so people can deal with it.
From this point onwards, every goofy plot development you might expect is actually twisted in order to serve this core moral message which the creative team want to emphasise to readers. Spider-Man somehow gets booked onto the Johnny Carson show as a guest, which he accepts as a way to make a little extra money – but once he does go on, and after he’s played along to the crowd in order to prove he’s the real Spider-Man, what does he do? He delivers a speech to the public about the prison system, and the reform which is needed. His speech doesn’t miraculously save the day (I mean, it’s an issue even today), and it’s notable that Lee cuts the scene by having Spider-Man chased off by the cops before he can finish his speech. Authority never likes it when someone disrupts the system, after all. The TV station puts on a soap advert instead.
The speech itself tips to a lot of issues which remain issues today: overcrowding, budget cuts, low staffing, as well as issues like young offenders being put into jails alongside people with life sentences – essentially bringing them into contact with organised crime. The bail system gets mentioned, and the long waiting periods during which people have to sit in jail even if innocent. Most clearly, he ends by saying that crime and justice are everyone’s problem. Johnny Carson, still in the room and not stopping the speech, has stopped becoming the focus. We’re now talking about social justice.
Throughout this issue are small affirmations, and it’s sometimes hard to note which are intended and which ones aren’t. I couldn’t help but notice that when the ringleaders of the riot are exposed as being frauds taking advantage of the situation, every one of the innocent people roped into the riot is African-American.
Artist Gil Kane specifically gives us an overhead scene so we can see three white prisoners holding two African-American prisoners as hostages along with the warden. They’re essentially used as human shields as well. Once Spider-Man busts the escape attempt, the African-American prisoners are notably put front and centre as the two people who defuse the riot by telling their fellow prisoners that it’s all a con. They then also praise Spider-Man – making it clear that they are the audience surrogate here. Again, there’s an intersectional acknowledgement in the story which builds up the central issue, noting how this affects people differently based on their race.
Of course, that does raise the point that there are probably more black people in this issue than in most other comics being published that month. This raises its own concerns.
Everything here is completely wrapped into the Spider-Man standard and it’s still that goofy Stan Lee scripting style, backed with Kane’s solid and traditional approach to the sequencing and storytelling. This is Spider-Man told in the Mighty Marvel Manner, but it’s worth reminding that it’s a manner which does have that political side, and does want to use the medium to convey a message. It’s heartening to see, and a reminder of just what sort of heart Stan Lee invested into his stories.
Amazing Spider-Man #99: A Day in the Life Of…
Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Gil Kane
Inker: Frank Giacoia
Letterer: Artie Simek
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