Recently, I was inspired to dive into Amazing Spider-Man from the start.
In doing so, it becomes hard to make much of a case against the original Steve Ditko run with Stan Lee as a practically perfect execution of superhero comics. In many ways, Ditko’s contribution to the medium are less heralded as others in the field, including his contemporaries like Lee and Jack Kirby. But far beyond simply creating interesting characters and being an “ideas man,” Ditko was a master of visual storytelling.
Over the decades, the Nine Panel Grid has become something of a tool of nostalgia, or a throwback to a different era in storytelling. But even those who rail against the boundaries of the nine panel owe a debt to the formulators of the medium, who cemented this layout as the building blocks of coherent narrative.
While writers Alan Moore in Watchmen and more recently Tom King in, oh everything he’s done until very recently, along with their artistic partners like Dave Gibbons and Mitch Gerads seem to be the most noteworthy champions of the grid, the true master of this narrative form is Steve Ditko.
To explain why, let’s look at issue 32 of Amazing Spider-Man.
Very rarely does Ditko ever defer from the grid throughout his run on Spider-Man, primarily only doing so to combine a row into two panels as opposed to three, or a single image splash page to start off an issue.
This reliance on the nine panel structure makes every issue dense with action and narrative momentum. There is a rhythmic quality to this, the reader knows what to expect on every page
It’s part of why the book is so successful under Ditko’s pencils and plotting. Every page provides an opportunity for a set up, a conflict, and a climax. See below for an example of a full story in one page from issue 2(!!!).
By adhering to such a strict formulation, it gives Ditko the ability to use any divergence from the trend to his advantage for narrative weight. If every panel signifies a moment in time, the nine panels forces us to give each element of the page equal weight, assuming that time passes within and between those panels at equal measure.
The Master Planner story arc, told over several issues, is perhaps the most significant and iconic story in Amazing Spider-Man proper (thus disqualifying the origin in Amazing Fantasy). It is a master class of pacing both across and within each individual issue. While issue 33 gets very worthwhile credit for its dramatic use of the grid and its structure, 32 deserves equal consideration for its use of the grid to highlight Peter’s emotional vulnerability and set up the desperate odds he faces.
As I’ve said, it’s rare for Ditko to diverge from the 3 panels along the row, since each individual panel is so important to moving the dense narratives along. The one-two-three beat pounds at the reader, carrying you through the frantic energy of Peter Parker’s travails.
Pete is on the edge at the outset of 32, and we know it from the cover, boldly claiming “MAN ON A RAMPAGE!” The first introduction to Pete in this issue is a furious altercation with Ned Leeds and Betty Brant. So distraught with the weight of Aunt May’s illness, and his guilt on not being able to provide her help, he rejects all attempts at friendship, isolating himself for, he believes, the benefit of those offering a hand. Knowing also that Spider-Man is in part responsible for the death of Betty’s brother, and not being able to stand the idea of Betty getting too close to learn his secret, he hopes to ostracize her to save them both future grief.
The tension within Peter himself is made more effective because we are able to sit with it so closely across the page. The nine panels leave plenty of room for the conflict to play out, both internally and externally.
By the fourth page, Peter’s anger, frustration, and sadness are piled on the reader. Every panel structured to remind you how crowded Peter is by the anger and pain he is feeling. The narrow structure leaves the field of view tight, and each panel is either packed in by multiple faces or enveloped in dialogue.
The reader is weighed down by the density. Not until page 4 is there a moment where Peter has space. The emptiness of the dark hospital room, with only the doctor and his hand on Peter’s shoulder, stops him and us for just a moment. You can sense the ground shift from beneath Peter’s feet as the stark reality of the frantic preceding pages and panels crash over him and he has a chance to process it for the first time.
The next page is a stark departure. After crowding Peter in the entire issue, Ditko fills the page with only Peter. He coils up, cries into his hands, folds over the back of a table. Three panels. Three moments in time of equal weight, the emotion overwhelming him.
And then, for the first time–
a single panel across the middle of the page. Peter at the very center, shattering the table into bits. The single point perspective propels each broken element toward the reader, away from Peter.
It is the focal point of the page, sprawling across the grid, forcing the reader to confront his rage as the sheer force of it halts the narrative.
Ditko brings things to a standstill like this very rarely. For all of his internal conflict, Spider-Man provides himself little time to actually feel anything or let his own frustrations loose. So to do so here, as the center piece of a page in an issue that has been so densely filled until this point is all the more significant. The sheer force of his destructive fury is highlighted by the bits of timber and broken items nearly bursting from the confines of the panel border.
And then, we are back to three panels, still focused only on Peter and his internal strife. The emotional climax of the issue comes early on in that single panel, and then Ditko returns to the grid structure.
Alternating between two and three panels in each row , the rest of the story involves Peter confronting the Master Planner’s goons, searching the city on a frenzied mission to put an end to his schemes.
The six panel pages, still conforming to the rigid structure of the grid, put the rest of the issue on a much faster pace, as Spider-Man gets closer and closer to uncovering the Master Planner’s location, plowing through thugs and crooks to get there. Here, his personal conflict collides with his external conflict, and the rage that exploded on page 5 is carried through as a desperate assault that is exhilarating and rare in Ditko’s run.
The narrative is halted again later, when Spider-Man discovers the Master Planner is in fact Dr. Octopus, and is snatched from midair by his arms, trapped in the clutches of one of his greatest foes. Lee’s dialogue also reminds us that the fury about Aunt May’s condition is still the heart of the matter.
The final few pages see Ditko pull out more, but only to highlight the danger in which Spider-Man finds himself. Page 18 combines the bottom of the page into two tall panels, emphasizing the height and weight of the structure falling upon him. But the grids remains in tact, and the frantic pacing of the preceding pages are halted once again, as Peter himself is pinned down, nowhere to go. Nothing left to do.
The final two pages contract again, as Spider-Man attempts to escape. The first three panels of page 19 slow down time as he tries to escape
The second row then pulls out slightly, to emphasize Spider-Man’s small figure amidst the massive machinery, and the distance from his aunt’s life saving serum.
Then, three panels of water dripping from the ceiling.
Drip. Drip. Drip.
Peter counts the moments he has left.
Then page 20, futilely, futilely, futilely he tries to lift the weight off of himself.
Ditko then cuts to staccato imagery–Aunt May, dying, Dr. Conners waiting for the serum, the Master Planner’s men, waiting to finish him off.
As a final image, Ditko once again combines three panels into one across the page again, but this time it sits at the bottom, not the center. Spider-Man is small beneath the wreckage. The serum looming large in the foreground. It is not only the weight of the debris, but of the entire page that bears down upon Spider-Man. His physical and emotional predicament visually presented side-by-side.
Peter ends the issue hopeless.