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Spider-Man’s weirdest meme only gets weirder with context

Why doesn’t the pterodactyl man want to cure cancer?

Spider-Man stands in front of a chalkboard at the Jean Grey School for young mutants, wearing a green suit jacket over his full costume. On the chalkboard, he has written “Super Power Ethics. Mr. Spider-Man.” Spider-Man & the X-Men #1, Marvel Comics (2015). Image: Elliott Kalan, Marco Failla/Marvel Comics

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Susana Polo is an entertainment editor at Polygon, specializing in pop culture and genre fare, with a primary expertise in comic books. Previously, she founded The Mary Sue.

If you’ve been on the internet at all in the last five years, you’ve probably seen it. A comic book panel in which Spider-Man tells a pterodactyl man that if he has the technology to rewrite DNA, he could cure cancer. “But I don’t want to cure cancer,” the pterodactyl man says with infuriating insouciance. “I want to turn people into dinosaurs.”

Sure, the panel is funny, but it’s not viral because it’s funny. It’s viral because it paints such a coherent picture in so few words and only a single image. This Spider-man villain wants to turn people into dinosaurs. He’s already turned himself into a dinosaur! But here’s the thing.

That picture is wrong. And the more you pull at the layers, the more it falls away, like an onion of bad assumptions. This dinosaur man is an X-Men villain. He’s been a dinosaur man since the 1960s. He is also a vampire. And, canonically, he named himself after a character from The Lord of the Rings.

Let’s talk about Spider-Man and the X-Men.

Each Monday, while the comics industry takes a bit of a break, we’re looking back at some of the stand out moments in comic history — or at least in weird comics history. Think of it as part society pages of superhero lives, part reading recommendations, part “look at this cool art.” There may be some spoilers. There may not be enough context. If you missed last week, read this.

Written by writer and comedian Elliott Kalan and drawn by artist Marco Failla (Marvel Rising, New Mutants, All-New Wolverine), Spider-Man and the X-Men is a six-issue miniseries about what happens when Spider-Man becomes a professor at the Jean Grey School of Higher Learning. (See the top image on this post, in which Spider-Man’s concession to professional attire is to wear a size-too-large suit jacket over his costume.)

While he’s there, he takes on a breakfast club of mutant weirdos, from Glob Herman to Shark-Girl to Eye Boy, with the goal of teaching them about the ethics of super powers. Which, if you think about it, that’s a pretty good choice of subject for Spider-Man. They go on a series of wild adventures, encountering various Spider-Man and X-Men villains.

Glob Herman, a boy who is a skeleton inside of a body of pink goo, lies on the ground. “Please, Glob,” cries Spider-Man, “Tell us you’re still alive.” Glob gives a thumbs up from his supine position. “YESSSS!” shouts Spider-Man, “Still haven’t killed any of my students!” in Spider-Man and the X-Men #5, Marvel Comics (2015). Image: Elliott Kalan, Marco Failla/Marvel Comics

The kids learn valuable lessons about teamwork and using their powers for the greater good of all people, not just mutants. Spider-Man learns about his own privilege, and how hard it can be to think of the greater good when that greater good hates and fears you. It’s a funny, breezy little miniseries that’s on Marvel Unlimited and Comixology Unlimited, and you should totally give it a shot.

But what about the pterodactyl man?

“With tech like that, you could cure cancer!” Spider-Man tells the supervillain Sauron. Sauron, who is an anthropomorphic pterodactyl in a loincloth, riding a triceratops, replies “But I don’t want to cure cancer. I want to turn people into dinosaurs,” in Spider-Man and the X-Men #2, Marvel Comics (2015). Image: Elliott Kalan, Marco Failla/Marvel Comics

In Professor Spider-Man’s very first adventure with his students, they run afoul of a team-up between Stegron, a perennial Spider-Man foe who is a stegosaurus man, and Sauron, an X-Men villain. Together, they are devising a machine to turn all of humanity into dinosaurs like them, because they believe themselves to be superior life-forms. They’d already succeeded in using it on the citizens of Staten Island, but no one had really noticed.

And during that confrontation, in what is only the second issue of the series, the memetic panel appears.

Spider-Man and his students eventually foil the villains’ plans, restore the citizens of Staten Island to their normal state, and hand Stegron and Sauron off to SHIELD. Everybody goes home happy, except for Spider-Man and his students, who are immediately kidnapped (for unrelated reasons) so they can begin another adventure where they are menaced by a Spider-Man villain who has teamed up with an X-Men villain.

I regret to inform you that the pterodactyl man’s name is Sauron

Sauron takes a little unpacking. He is an X-Men villain of many, many years. He is also a pterodactyl man who doesn’t wear a shirt or shoes. He is also a vampire.

Or, at least, he probably would have been if not for the Comics Code. When Sauron was first written into comics in 1969, it was under the full weight of the industry’s strict content guidelines — basically the comic book version of the Hays Code. The Code had really, really specific rules about supernatural phenomena that, among other things, banned the depiction of vampires.

Sauron is a human man who depends on draining the energy of others to live. He can turn into a membranous flying creature. He can dominate people’s minds by making eye contact with them.

He’s a dinosaur energy vampire, because in 1969, writer Roy Thomas and artist Neal Adams were not allowed to put an actual vampire in their X-Men book.

But why is he called Sauron?

Any reasonable person would assume that the X-Men villain Sauron was not directly named after the ultimate villain of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy — that this is a case like the Red Bull of The Last Unicorn, where the name only came to mean something else years later. Or, perhaps, Roy Thomas named him Sauron as a little in-joke for fans, in a time when reading the Lord of the Rings much more of a niche interest.

Those reasonable people would be wrong.

Karl Lykos transforms into his pterodactyl form for the first time, saying that this power can be used for good or evil. “I choose evil,” he cries, “An evil so great, so monumental that only one name in all the annals of literature will contain it. The name of Tolkien’s ultimate villain, that dark lord who personified evil, who was truly evil incarnate... the name of Sauron!” in Uncanny X-Men #60, Marvel Comics (1969). Image: Roy Thomas, Neal Adams/Marvel Comics

This is from Sauron’s very first appearance, immortalized in Marvel continuity for half a century.

And now you know that the pterodactyl man who wants to turn people into dinosaurs instead of cure cancer is a dinosaur, a vampire, and a fan of the Lord of the Rings.

I’m sorry.

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