As early as 1964 — barely three years into what Marvel Comics’ editor-in-chief Stan Lee had already proclaimed “The Marvel Age of Comics” — it was already evident that the publisher’s output, ostensibly aimed at an audience of children and (maybe) young teens, was rapidly growing in popularity on college campuses. Besides the missives from readers with university addresses that frequently appeared in Marvel’s letters columns (perhaps somewhat out of proportion to the actual percentage of mail Marvel received from college students, though it’s hard to know for sure), Lee himself was being invited to speak at such august institutions of higher learning sas Bard College. In September, 1965, both Spider-Man and the Hulk managed to crack Esquire magazine’s list of current college campus heroes, “28 People Who Count”, where they rubbed shoulders with the likes of Bob Dylan and Malcolm X; by the following year, Marvel rated an entire six-page feature article in the magazine’s annual college issue, which reported that as many as 50,000 American college students had joined Marvel’s official fan club, the Merry Marvel Marching Society.
But, of course, American college students had a lot more than Marvel’s comic books on their minds in the Sixties, as became more and more obvious as the decade wore on. A wave of organized campus protest, sparked early in the decade by the Civil Rights Movement, continued to rise as opposition to the Vietnam War increased across the country. In the spring of 1968, one of the most dramatic student demonstrations to date occurred on the campus of Columbia University, in New York City. These protests were spurred by two distinct issues: the University’s intent to build a gymnasium in a nearby public park in Columbia’s Harlem neighborhood, which many students believed would be a racially segregated facility, and the University’s official association with a think-tank affiliated with the U.S. Defense Department. A number of university buildings were occupied by students, and the acting dean held hostage, before the NYPD quashed the demonstrations, using tear gas and clashing violently with some of the protesters.
New York City, where these events took place, was the center of the Marvel Universe in more ways than one — besides being where the publisher’s offices were located, and the hub of the metropolitan area where most of its staff and freelancers lived, it was where most of Marvel’s characters lived, as well. More specifically, it was where Marvel’s very own College Student Number One, Peter Parker — AKA your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man — lived and attended classes at (fictional) Empire State University. Taking those facts into consideration — as well as the significant audience of college-age readers that Stan Lee cultivated and prized — it was probably inevitable that, just a few months following the real-life events at Columbia, Spider-Man found himself involved in a “Crisis on the Campus!”
And what prompted the student unrest at good ol’ ESU? Racism? Militarism? Most of the signs carried by the protesters pictured on John Romita’s cover for Amazing Spider-Man #68 are obscured in one way or another, but if you look at ’em all closely enough, you can eventually work out the burning issue that’s mobilized these campus activists to militant action:
They want a low-rent dorm.
OK, there’s a little more to it than that. But, rather than get ahead of ourselves, let’s begin our examination of AS-M #68 with the beginning, i.e., the opening splash page:
For the record, this was the third storyline in Amazing Spider-Man to feature the Kingpin — and, as made obvious by this scene, he hasn’t lost any of the mad-on for our hero that he’s been carrying around since his last trouncing by the wall-crawler, in issue #61.
But just in case any reader hasn’t seen the villain before (and also to provide a bit of action in the story’s early pages, in the usual Marvel manner) Lee, Romita, and “illustrator” (i.e., penciler and inker over Romita’s breakdowns) Jim Mooney allow the plus-sized crime boss to demonstrate that he’s considerably more physically formidable than his wide girth might indicate:
Elsewhere, the hero of our story swings through the city, grousing about how even though he defeated Mysterio in the previous issue, he didn’t manage to get any photos of the battle to sell J. Jonah Jameson at the Daily Bugle. Having thus shown Spidey in costume in the first six pages (apparently, a requirement every bit as mandatory as the depiction of action), Lee & co. promptly send him off home to bed. The story picks up the next morning with Peter Parker slogging his way across campus, still moping about his money problems, when he’s approached by a stranger:
This is Peter’s first meeting with Randy Robertson* — a character who’d quickly join Spider-Man’s regular supporting cast, and then would continue to appear on and off through the following decades, all the way up to the present. As Randy himself notes, his dad is Joseph “Robbie” Robertson, city editor of the Daily Bugle — but we’ll have more to say about him a little further on.
Josh’s line, “We already did the bit,” indicates that he and Pete have met before — though, as far as I can tell, the character had never appeared on-panel before this scene. (But hey, it’s not like we can expect every moment of Peter Parker’s life to be captured on the comic book page, so that’s entirely reasonable.) His appearance — with hair and clothes just a bit hipper than Randy’s (or Peter’s) — are clearly meant to signify that he’s more “radical” than either of the two fellow students he’s talking to. And that makes him the logical person to provide the lowdown on the “Exhibition Hall issue” that’s unsettling the ESU student body.
And about that issue, which we’ve already ragged on a little bit, earlier in this post — while it’s true that a need for low-cost student housing is, perhaps, just about the mildest pretext for campus protest that one can imagine in the context of 1968 (AKA “The Year That Shattered America”, according to Smithsonian magazine), it must also be admitted that the fictional ESU’s Exhibition Hall issue does have some resonance with the real-life Columbia U.’s gymnasium controversy. The latter issue, though it clearly involved broader concerns about racism, was ultimately a local one; similarly, ESU’s plan in this story to repurpose an existing building as temporary lodging for visiting, well-off alumni, rather than as housing for economically disadvantaged students, is obviously a local matter; but, like Columbia’s “Gym Crow” controversy, it also evokes a larger societal concern — in this case, economic disparity.
To continue with our story… having now established both the menace Spider-Man will be facing this issue (the Kingpin) as well as the story premise heralded by the cover (campus unrest), the narrative now moves to the offices of the Daily Bugle — where we find publisher J. Jonah Jameson railing at Peter Parker in absentia for not bringing him any photos of Spider-Man’s battle with Mysterio, while city editor Joe Robertson (Randy’s dad) sticks up for the young photographer:
“Robbie” Robertson, though by now a well-established member of Spider-Man’s supporting cast, was still a relatively new addition to the series. He’d originally turned up in a single panel of issue #51 (see left), which didn’t even give him a name; that, along with his role at the Bugle (not to mention his signature pipe), would follow in #52 (see right).
Decades later, in an interview published in Comic Book Artist #6 (Fall, 1999), John Romita recollected that while Stan Lee had conceived the character of Joe Robertson back in 1967, it had been the artist’s idea to make him a black man (although he added the proviso, “I can’t swear to that.”). Romita also remembered developing a detailed backstory for the new character, some of which Lee used (Robertson’s “rebellious kid” and “beautiful, long-suffering wife”) and some of which he didn’t (Robertson’s winning a Golden Gloves boxing championship in his youth). Regardless of who brought what to the character, however, Robbie Robertson clearly fits in with what seems to have been a genuine, conscious effort on the part of Lee and his creative collaborators in the Sixties to increase the visibility of black characters in Marvel’s books — whether that be as costumed superheroes (e.g., the Black Panther), unnamed faces in crowd scenes, or non-powered supporting characters like Robbie.
Robbie Robertson would eventually prove to be one of the most durable and essential members of Spider-Man’s supporting players, serving as an effective foil to the blustering, Spidey-hating Jameson by standing up for our hero in both his costumed and civilian identities. And while he could have filled that role regardless of whatever racial identity Romita and Lee had given him, Robbie’s being African-American allowed them (and the creators who followed them) to explore certain themes they couldn’t have, otherwise — as we’ll soon see.
After a short scene in which Peter and his girlfriend Gwen Stacy check in on his Aunt May (she’s not doing well at all, but doesn’t want Pete to know how ill she actually is; spoiler alert, she gets better.), the story jumps to the next morning. Peter arrives back on the ESU campus, just as a demonstration — “the biggest one yet!”, as Pete calls it — is getting underway:
“Well, Brother Parker, you did it again!” our hero silently castigates himself as he walks away, alone. “My sympathies are all with the kids down there… but just because I don’t like anyone to push me, I flew off the handle again!”
It’s possible that Stan Lee intended for Pete’s “again” to refer generally to random occasions in the past when our hero had lost his cool in front of his peers — but it’s also possible that he was making a specific reference to the scene shown just below — which happens to be the only other time that readers had seen Peter Parker encounter student protesters:
That’s from Amazing Spider-Man #38 (July, 1966) — the last issue plotted and drawn by Spider-Man’s co-creator, Steve Ditko. By this time, Ditko’s work was beginning to show more and more of the influence of Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy, and he was probably mirroring Rand’s expressed attitude towards student demonstrators — e.g., her description of the “Free Speech Movement” protesters at the University of California, Berkeley in 1964 as “savages running loose on the campus of one of America’s great universities” — in his portrayal of them here.**
Ditko’s illustrations don’t provide any clue as to what the students are demonstrating about — perhaps it was irrelevant to him — and the dialogue provided by Stan Lee runs with that ambiguity, identifying the supposed cause as “protesting tonight’s protest meeting!” That absurdity gives a comic tone to the scene that Ditko most probably never intended — but, in the end, it’s no less dismissive of the student protesters. A few issues later, Lee got called out on this sequence in the book’s letters column, by one Bill Fletcher — a member of the George Washington University chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (a national body that would later help organize the 1968 Columbia University protests). Fletcher wrote: “…I was disappointed at the way you dumped on the protest marchers. It is unfortunately true that there are often a number of clods and politically naive schlemiels who frequent picket lines and social protest movements as a crutch for their own personal inadequacies. However, this fact does not necessarily detract from whatever issue the picket line is attempting to focus attention upon. The real point is precisely that issue, not the personal appearance or the boorish behavior of the protestors… If you can’t speak to the issue, then don’t speak at all. “Nuff said!” To which Lee replied: “Hooo boy! Chalk up another king-size, blushing bullpen blunder! We never in a million years thought anyone was gonna take our silly protest-marchers sequence seriously! We just tossed it in for a little comedy relief — or so we thought!” And maybe Lee really did think that’s what he was doing, although, as I’ve already indicated, I think the odds that Ditko intended the scene to serve as “comedy relief” are slim to none.
Some eighteen months later, however, Ditko was long gone, and the sociopolitical landscape had changed considerably. And so, Lee, revisiting the subject of campus protest in Amazing Spider-Man #68, took a different tack. This time, the protesters themselves are presented respectfully, and their issue of concern is treated seriously. Our hero is himself sympathetic to them, and to their cause Nevertheless, Lee and Romita still can’t quite bring themselves to place Spider-Man firmly on the side of campus protesters; in the end, Peter walks away from the demonstrators, just as he did in issue #38, leaving the march to proceed without him:
Very soon thereafter, television news cameras are indeed on the scene, transmitting the real-life drama live across the city — to be seen not only by Robbie Robertson, who quickly decides that this is a story he needs to to cover for the Daily Bugle himself, but also by the Kingpin, who determines that this is “the moment we were seeking!”
If you’re wondering why the heck our hero is even in this scene, considering the fact that he abandoned the protest marchers a few pages back — well, when he left them, for some reason he walked straight into the Exhibition Hall — exactly where they were about to go. Pretty convenient, plotwise, I’d say!
Meanwhile, the Kingpin and his henchmen have arrived on campus:
Pete quickly changes into costume, even as Randy and his fellow protesters attempt to block the Kingpin’s way:
Spidey springs into action, and is soon throwing down with the Kingpin — but things soon get more complicated, as Randy attempts to come to the web-spinner’s aid:
And with Spidey in hot pursuit of the Kingpin, as well as the stolen clay tablet — and with the ESU protest leaders taken into police custody, paralleling the real-world conclusion of the Columbia University protests — we reach the end of this issue; though, obviously, not the end of the story.
The story arc that began here, in Amazing Spider-Man #68 — involving the efforts of a number of characters to secure, decipher, and exploit the mysterious tablet — would continue for the next nine issues (seven, if you don’t count the two-issue battle with the Lizard that wraps up the saga’s loose ends, which I do). Fifty years later, I remember this storyline as a highlight of my first few years as a Spider-Man fan; so, as you might expect, I plan to return to it in the blog at least a couple more times. For now, however, I’d like for us to take a brief look just at the next two chapters, as the plot thread that’s been the primary focus of this post — the ESU student protests — is resolved there.
When we next see Randy, Josh, and the other arrested student leaders, in AS-M #69, they’re being grilled by the NYPD over the “coincidence” of their having staged their action at the Exhibition Hall at the same time that the Kingpin showed up to steal the tablet. Robbie is on hand as well, to show Randy that though he can’t completely condone his actions (“A protest is one thing! But the damage you caused…!”), he’s still there for his son:
This sequence, in which the tension between the younger and elder Robertsons that’s been suggested in earlier scenes finally comes to the fore, is one of the most interesting in the entire “protest” plotline. The concept of a “generation gap” was gaining considerable currency in the late Sixties, so it’s hardly surprising that Lee and his collaborators would eventually take it up. But placing the more general intergenerational conflict in the specific context of the African-American community, and associating it with the very real divisions in that community over the appropriate strategies to be uses in the struggle for racial equality, added a layer of complexity to these scenes. It may not seem like a big deal from the perspective of 2018, but in 1968 it was unusual — perhaps even unprecedented — to see such ideas discussed in a mainstream American comic book.
And it was probably eye-opening for my eleven-year-old, white, Southern Baptist self, reading these issues for the first time in Jackson, Mississippi, in the final quarter of 1968. While I think it’s likely that I had at least a notion of there being differences of opinion among black people regarding nonviolence, militancy, etc. — as sheltered as I was, we did watch the “CBS Evening News” with Walter Cronkite in my house every night — I probably hadn’t seen such ideas explored in popular entertainment before now. (It certainly hadn’t figured into other comic books I’d read which consciously promoted racial harmony and brotherhood, such as Justice League of America #57 or Daredevil #47.) And the use of the term “Uncle Tom” by one of the black protesters in issue #68 may well have been my introduction to that concept.
The Amazing Spider-Man comic’s “Ex Hall protest” plotline is finally resolved, more or less, in issue #70, in which the protest leaders — still in police custody, apparently — finally sit down together with the dean and other university administrators. Their discussion is mediated by retired police captain George Stacy, who’s not only the father of Pete’s girlfriend, Gwen, but is also, like Robbie Robertson, an adult who’s been shown to be sympathetic to Spider-Man:
And just like that, it’s over. The dean was on the students’ side all along! But, as he allows, he “thought students should be seen and not heard!” If everyone had just gotten together and talked things out in the first place, none of the furor would have been necessary. Everybody — including Dean Corliss and the militant student, Josh — walks out of the conference room having learned something; or, as Randy puts it, “…maybe everybody won… a little!”
By way of comparison, the real-life Columbia protesters of 1968 achieved their main goals as well. The university administration cancelled its plans to build a gymnasium in Morningside Park and severed its ties with the Institute for Defense Analyses, the weapons-research think tank the demonstrators had found objectionable. But those victories came with costs — including over 700 arrests, approximately 150 injuries, and more than 30 student suspensions. Scanning through a variety of retrospectives of the events of Columbia over the past week, I’ve seen a number of different opinions expressed regarding the protests’ ultimate legacy –some positive, some negative — but very little indication of a consensus that “everybody won” — even “a little”.
So, yes, the resolution to the ESU community’s difficulties provided by Lee and Romita in Amazing Spider-Man #70 is almost certainly a bit too pat; it depends too much on the assumption that almost everyone involved in such disputes actually has the best of intentions, and all that’s really required to work things out is for someone to step up and say “come, let us reason together”. Real life is, and always was, a little messier than that.
Of course, as I suggested in my post last week, it’s difficult to say for sure how much the “middle road” of moderate liberalism that Lee and his collaborators tended to take in stories like this one was driven by commercial considerations (i.e., a reluctance to offend readers on either the left or the right), and how much by genuine conviction. But since the message tended to be pretty consistent across the Marvel line (at least from around 1967 on), I’m inclined to believe the latter. And, as I said last week, even if that message wasn’t entirely adequate, at least they were trying. It was better than nothing. (Especially compared to Amazing Spider-Man #38’s take on student protest, which, let’s face it, was worse than nothing.)
That’s my opinion, anyway. What do you think?
*Though this is Pete’s first encounter with Randy, it’s actually the latter’s second appearance in the series; Randy had been briefly introduced in the previous issue, in a scene showing him visiting his father at the Daily Bugle.
**Over forty-eight years later, in the pages of Captain America and the Mighty Avengers #1 (January, 2015), writer Al Ewing referenced this specific scene — and the “late Ditko” period of Amazing Spider-Man in general — in a single panel that, essentially, apologized for the whole thing. (Art by Luke Ross.)