Steve Ditko, co-creator of the amazing Spider-Man, left his famous creation after the 38th issue under infamously mysterious conditions. He has told no one to this day why he left Marvel comics, though there has been much speculation over the decades. The most famous theory is that Ditko had a falling out with writer Stan Lee over the identity of the Green Goblin, of all things.
Ditko's last year on Spider-Man included some of his best stories, including the three-part Master Planner story that is often cited as one of the best Spider-Man stories -- if not best comic book stories -- ever. But his run winded down on a rather blase note. Issue 38, a story called "Just a Guy Named Joe", is typically considered a mediocre, by-the-numbers slugfest and a letdown for the end of such an illustrous run.
But is it more than that?
Let us consider once more the issue of the Green Goblin's identity. It is said that, while Lee championed the Goblin being someone close to Peter Parker, Ditko was philosophically determined that the Goblin should be an unknown stranger. Ditko had the chance to use his concept for a different character instead, the Crimemaster, in a two-parter teamed up with the Green Goblin. It might have been Lee's idea to placate Ditko, but another possibility is that it was Ditko's idea instead. What was important to Ditko was conveying his philosophical concepts regardless of which character served as his vehicle. In his post-Spider-Man days, many of his characters would interchangeably spout Ditko's personal philosophy. Whether Crimemaster or the Green Goblin was the vehicle, the important thing was to convey the message.
What message could be behind Joe? Joe was a guy who gained superhuman strength through a lucky accident, ran amok, and then was lucky enough to win a movie contract for all the publicity his actions had caused. In the same issue, Peter Parker is moneyless, friendless, and girlfriendless -- conditions he would continually find himself in throughout his long publication history. But what if the messages were switched? Parker, the perenially unlucky, would finally catch his big break. As Spider-Man, he had twice tried to make it big in front of the cameras, only to be short-changed each time (Amazing Fantasy #15 and Amazing Spider-Man #14). Should the third time have been the charm?
Also consider that Ditko had, before Spider-Man, never stayed with the same superhero since Captain Atom's 12-issue stint at Charlton Comics. True, to a large extent this was because Ditko had a non-mainstream style and was working for a smaller company, but we also know that Ditko mainly worked on what he liked throughout his career and would leave projects as quickly as he liked. We know he intended to leave Amazing Spider-Man after #38, as he was not fired. Thirty-eight issues (plus two annuals and an origin story in another series) is a long time for a creator accustomed to much shorter stints. Ditko might well have felt that Parker's story was all told and needed to go no further. Clearly, Marvel would not allow Ditko to retire one of its characters -- if not its most famous character. But if Ditko did want to write a happy ending for Peter Parker, he could just as easily have used Joe to convey it.
So what would that happy ending have been? Had Spider-Man been lucky enough to win a movie contract for big bucks, his Aunt May would have only the best medical care and never suffer needlessly again. He could even use his new resources to track down his missing girlfriend, Betty Brant. It is hard to imagine a character as obsessively responsible as Parker ever giving up being Spider-Man, but he might have done it for love. Rival love interest Ned Leeds seemed to exist only to show what type of man Brant was really interested in. Had Parker picked up on that, he might have forsaken his costumed identity and taken up, as Leeds had, journalism to champion the same causes he once fought for as Spider-Man.
All this is purely conjecture, of course, but in this age where iconic superhero characters infinitely recycled through the same stories, it is fun to look back and think how Spider-Man might have looked as a finite character in a story with a beginning, middle, and end.
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