Thursday, 30 April 2009

Amazing Spider-Man #72, The Shocker's back

Amazing Spider-Man #72, the Shocker(Cover from May 1969.)

"Rocked By The Shocker!"

Written by Stan Lee
Art by John Buscema, John Romita and Jim Mooney
Lettering by Sam Rosen


So, it's back to the many-chefs-make-light-work approach when it comes to the pictures, with Big John Buscema hopping on board to help out. Even at a glance, it's pretty obvious what his contribution is. Even though Buscema always claimed to have copied his layout style slavishly from Jack Kirby, his character poses are instantly recognisable as being his and no one else's.

Of course, that still leaves the question of just what Romita's and Mooney's contributions to the art are. I'm not even going to guess. I'm assuming the inking's by Mooney, which leaves the small matter of how much of the pencilling is Mooney and how much Romita. Like I say, I'm not even going there. Umpteen issues of various hands having a finger in the artistic pie have left me far too confused by it all to even speculate.

Anyway, it doesn't matter because, as you'd expect with that combination of talent, the thing looks great and, in the end, that's all that counts, as The Shocker announces his return by smashing into George Stacy's living room and zapping him with his vibro-blaster. The ex-cop out of the way, the villain turns his attention to what he came for, the priceless stone tablet. Apparently Captain Stacy has let it become common knowledge that he has the tablet, even letting the newspapers know. Frankly, you'd have expected an ex-police captain to have a bit more sense than that and you'd have expected the tablet's rightful owners - whoever they are- to have more sense than to let him keep it.

Drawn by the noise, Gwen bursts in to see the Shocker purloining the artifact. And then he's gone, leaving Stacy senior with no more than a sore head.

The captain isn't the only one with a headache because, when he tries to fence the supposedly priceless tablet, The Shocker can't get shut of it. It seems the entire criminal underworld's too scared to touch it in case Spider-Man comes for them. Oh yeah? Well The Shocker's not scared of Spider-Man.

He gets an early chance to prove it as Spidey catches up with him on a rooftop. Cue the statutory fight. As it's only halfway through the story, cue the villain's escape. But not before Spider-Man plants a tracer on him. To The Shocker it might be goodbye but to Spider-man it's no more than au revoir.

Back to day-to-day reality as, an unspecified time later, Peter Parker sees off his Aunt May. She's off to Florida, for a holiday, which is the perfect excuse for the various creators to give us a flashback to Curt Connors and his tendency to become a human reptile.

Peter Parker, meanwhile decides to get all jealous when he sees Gwen and Flash talking. Flash, increasingly grown-up since his draft into the army, isn't impressed by Pete's behaviour, Gwen isn't impressed by his behaviour and, in the end Peter isn't impressed by his behaviour. There are times when he has to accept that he really is his own worst enemy.

But not right now. Right now, that title belongs to The Shocker. Spidey catches up with him. They have another punch-up - and then we get a masterclass in why, powerful as he might be, Shocky just isn't a top class criminal. The last time they met, Spider-Man beat him by firing webbing at his thumbs. This time he does it by firing webbing at his eyes. Unable to see, and with no way of removing the webbing, The Shocker falls easy prey to just one punch from our hero.

If only all of Spider-Man's problems were so easy to solve.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Amazing Spider-Man #71. Quicksilver

Amazing Spider-Man #71, Quicksilver
(Cover from April 1969.)

"The Speedster And The Spider!"

Written by Stan Lee
Layouts by John Romita
Pencils by Jim Mooney
Inks by Jim Mooney
Lettering by Sam Rosen


It's feeling-sorry-for-yourself time again, as Peter Parker sits alone in the pad he shares with Harry Osborn, bemoaning his lot in life. The police are after him. He's lumbered with a stolen priceless tablet he can't get rid of and he's inadvertently put J Jonah Jameson in hospital.

He's not the only one in a state of disgruntlement either because ex-Avenger Quicksilver's also lamenting his lot. Sadly for the mutant speedster, the whole world thinks he's a villain. This is mostly because of his, and his sister's, recent re-association with that menacing master of magnetism Magneto. Back in New York, he decides he has to see the Avengers to set the record straight. The only problem is, that when he reaches their HQ, he's told by their butler Jarvis that the super-group aren't there. They're all in Africa - presumably having problems with the Man-Ape.

So, that's that plan stymied.

Fortunately for him, the world of the super-powered is driven by coincidence and, when a pile of newspapers land at his feet, suddenly, he's presented with a plan. According to the front page, Spider-Man's a wanted man. Now, if he can only catch that wanted man, Quicksilver reasons, then the world will have no choice but to see him as a hero. His logic is somewhat flawed here. After all, if Dr Doom were to capture Spider-Man, it's hard to believe the world would feel it had no choice but to see him as a good guy.

Someone left with no choice but to see Spider-Man as a good guy is Joe Robertson. He's in charge of the Bugle now that JJ's in hospital. It's turned out the publisher didn't die at the end of last issue after all, he merely blacked out with fright. This, of course, doesn't explain how come he had no pulse but maybe Ned Leeds is just really bad at distinguishing between the living and the dead. Still, who can complain? He might be an idiot and a pain in the backside but a sequence at the hospital shows that the strip would be a whole lot less fun without the bad tempered publisher.

As for Joe, he's happy because Peter Parker's offering him pics that show Spider-Man fighting the Kingpin. Not only do they clear Spider-Man but, more importantly, from Robertson's viewpoint, they clear the student protesters - including his own son - of any involvement in the theft of the stone tablet. Needless to say Joe rewards Peter with a cheque the size of which, he's never before seen.

Things are looking up for our hero on the stone tablet front as well, as he finally figures out how to get rid of it. He takes it round to George Stacy (who, for once, isn't hanging around the police station) and leaves it with him for safe keeping. At last, all his problems are solved.

That's what he thinks - because that's when Quicksilver shows up. Catching Spidey unawares, he sends the arachnid adventurer plummeting from the side of a tall building.

But of course no mere fall's ever going to finish off our hero. He breaks his fall.

And now the fight can begin.

Not that it's much of a fight. It's all right having spider powers but, if you can't actually hit your foe, what use are they? It looks like it's going to be the shortest "fight" in history as Quickie literally runs rings around him.

But then...

...Spider-Man has it. He defeats his uncatchable foe with the simplest tactic ever devised in the history of super-herodom. As the mutant runs in circles around him, sucking the very air away from him, Spider-Man simply sticks his arm out. Quickie runs straight into it and is promptly knocked out.

The police show up. Spidey isn't hanging around to let them shoot him and he isn't going to leave the fugitive Quicksilver to their mercy either. He grabs his unconscious foe and carries him to a nearby rooftop.

Recovered, Quicksilver declares that, as Spider-Man saved him, he can't in all honour continue to fight him. That suits Spidey just down to the ground and, with a quick thwip of his web shooter, our hero swings off, pondering if maybe his luck has changed at last.

Well, really, what are the chances of that?

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Amazing Spider-Man #70. The Kingpin

Amazing Spider-Man #70, John Romita
(A spider at bay. Cover from March 1969.)

"Spider-Man Wanted!"

Written by Stan Lee
Layouts by John Romita
Pencils by Jim Mooney
Inks by Jim Mooney
Lettering by Sam Rosen


A wise man - or maybe one completely ignorant about prisons - once said that stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage. It shows how much he knew because, at the start of this tale, the Kingpin's in a police cell, trapped behind bars.

Not for long he isn't.

After a quick bout of judicious bar twisting, he's free, stomping along the corridor, like a rhino and knocking out a couple of guards before setting off to get his tablet back from Spider-Man.

Right now, Spider-Man has problems of his own to worry about, as the police are still on his tail and he still has a priceless stone tablet to get rid of. Not only that but Gwen's in full-on nag mode and, once he's back in civvies, wants to know where he keeps disappearing to in times of trouble. He does his usual thing of completely failing to communicate with her (all he has to do is tell her he's off risking his life to get photos of Spider-Man) then she bursts into tears.

Back in costume, he decides to put the heat on the Kingpin by roughing up a few of his men.

Then he decides to rough up a few more.

Then he comes across a hold-up. Being the fine, upstanding citizen he is, he soon sorts that out.

But it turns out it never was a hold-up. It was all a set-up by the Kingpin to lure our hero out into the open. Of course they promptly have a fight. With a two-footed kick to the head, Spidey drops the crime-lord.

But, before he can move in to finish the deal, a car screeches to a halt between them.

It's driven by Ned Leeds, with J Jonah Jameson in the passenger seat. Jameson's out to thwart Spidey's plan. He doesn't know what Spidey's plan is but, whatever it is, he's going to thwart it. That's all the web-slinger needs, that blockhead getting in the way. As Spidey argues with Jameson, another car screeches to a halt. A door flies open and a woman's voice calls from within for the Kingpin to climb inside. He does, and the car shoots off.

Meanwhile, Jameson's giving Spider-Man a heavy dose of ear ache. Our hero decides that's it. If Jameson wants to call him a menace, he'll act like one, and he grabs hold of the man to give him a scare.

But, sometimes, you can give a man too much of a scare and the publisher promptly blacks out. Leeds tells Spider-Man that he can't feel a pulse. The publisher's had a heart attack!

Could it be true? Could Spider-Man have proven Jameson right? Has he finally become what the publisher said he was all along?

Has Spider-man finally become...

...a killer?

Monday, 20 April 2009

Amazing Spider-Man #69. The Kingpin

Amazing Spider-Man #69, the Kingpin
(Cover from February 1969.)

"Mission: Crush The Kingpin!"

Written by Stan Lee
Layouts by John Romita
Pencilled by Jim Mooney
Inks by Jim Mooney
Lettering by Sam Rosen


So this is it. Spider-Man's tailed the Kingpin and his henchmen to their secret lair. Finding a metal-shuttered window, he's about to enter.

But then...

...he hesitates.

He senses a trap.

Inside the building, surrounded by flunkies, the Kingpin sits waiting, ready for those shutters to open and for Spidey to come leaping in.

And it seems he's got his wish because, moments later, those shutters fly open and Spider-Man leaps in. Instantly, he's sprayed with bullets by the Kingpin's henchmen.

Is this it? Can this truly be the end of our hero?

Of course it can't.

Why? Because the figure that came through the window wasn't Spider-Man. It was a web dummy wearing his shirt. They've been tricked.

Now the real Spider-Man swings in and give the hoods a good hiding. That's them dealt with. Now for the Kingpin.

But the Kingpin's fast. He grabs Spider-Man and flings him at the web dummy. Spider-Man gets tangled up in it.

It's not over yet. Our hero can still keep dodging the Kingpin's fist-first lunges at him while he gets his shirt back on and frees himself.

Now Spidey's free of the webbing and they can finally settle which of them's the stronger. Well, were we ever in any doubt? It's Spider-Man. At last, after a bit of mutual possum-playing, Spidey defeats his foe and, spotting a chance to line his pockets, the Kingpin's henchman Wilson goes off to nab the tablet for himself. The tablet's in a chamber that, due to the sheer weight of its door, only the Kingpin can enter. Wilson reasons that he can't move it himself but maybe if he uses explosives...

Maybe nothing. Spider-Man's followed him. After trapping Wilson in webbing, Spidey demonstrates that the Kingpin isn't the only one strong enough to open the door and helps himself to the tablet. Unlike Wilson and the Kingpin, he's got no intention of keeping it. The moment he spots a cop, he's going to hand it over.

That's the plan but, as John Lennon once said, "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." When Spidey tries to give the tablet to the police, they start shooting at him. Unknown to our hero, when the cops nabbed the defeated Kingpin, the would-be crime-lord told them that he and Spider-Man were in cahoots.

That's it. Spider-Man's fed up of being blamed by everyone for everything. As the issue closes, he vows that, if the world thinks he's a menace, then it had better brace itself because, from now on, a menace is exactly what he'll be.

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Amazing Spider-Man #68. The Kingpin

Amazing Spider-Man #68, John Romita, student riots and the Kingpin
(John Romita's fourth consecutive classic cover, from January 1969.)

"Crisis On The Campus!"

Written by Stan Lee
Layouts by John Romita
Pencils by Jim Mooney
Inks by Jim Mooney
Lettering by Sam Rosen


The Kingpin's back. Just seven issues since his last appearance, he's plotting another scheme. Lee and Romita really are in love with him as a villain. They don't seem able to resist the temptation to use him at every opportunity. It's hard to blame them. He's such a great villain.

But first, to prove to new readers how strong and fast he is, he has to polish off a bunch of trained fighters. At one point he says that people think he's just a jolly fat man, which suggests he's never looked in the mirror. "Jolly" is the one word even the maddest of lunatics would never use to describe the permanently scowling crime lord. He also tells us Spider-Man's only escaped his clutches in the past through sheer luck. That's odd because it's always looked to the rest of us like he escaped through the Kingpin's sheer stupidity.

Regardless, what's his plan?

Simple. He wants to steal a priceless stone tablet.

At least finding it won't be difficult, because it's on display at ESU where, as fate - and Stan Lee - would have it, there's a riot brewing. The students are angry because the dean wants to use some spare buildings as a place for visiting VIPs to stay, and the students want them used as halls of residence.

The Kingpin decides the student protest is just the distraction he needs to facilitate his theft of the tablet and arrives at the scene, in his big car, with a handful of henchmen. This is where his plan seems to make little sense. He wants to steal something, so he decides to do it in the middle of a riot. That'd be a riot guaranteed to attract huge numbers of cops, reporters and possibly the National Guard. Now, I'm no criminal mastermind but it seems to me that a site crawling with cops, reporters and soldiers might well be the worst possible place from which to try and steal anything.

And there's another odd thing. Wherever the Kinpin appears in this story, people recognise him. As far as I can recall, the general public have never seen the Kingpin before, so how they all know who he is is a total mystery.

Anyway, making more noise than a charging elephant, the overlord of crime smashes his way into the hall where the tablet's displayed and starts throwing his weight around. Spider-Man shows up and they have the usual fight but, in no mood to mess around, Spider-Man flattens him with a flurry of punches. Refusing to take his lying-down position lying down, the Kingpin fires his cane blaster at our hero but our hero leaps out of the way, meaning the blast hits the wall behind. The wall starts to collapse...

...and Randy Robertson's in the way!

Spider-Man swings to the rescue, grabbing him and shielding him from the falling debris. Thinking Spider-Man finished, the Kingpin grabs the tablet and departs.

But, of course, as always, he's underestimated his opponent. Spider-Man lives - and by the end of the tale, the masked webslinger's hot on his tale and determined to get that tablet back.

A landmark issue in more ways than one. It represents a genuine opening up of the Marvel mentality, with real world issues suddenly crowding in. One of them being the matter of race in America, with the presence of angry black characters, including Joe Robertson's recently introduced son Randy.

Despite Stan Lee's self-confessed prediliction for corniness, he actually handles this with surprising sophistication, resisting the urge to preach, or even to take sides, by showing us Joe Robertson's viewpoint, showing us his son conflicted over how to react to the scenario that's unfolding around him and showing us determined student activist Josh, who's got "Trouble" written all over him but seemingly more out of justified anger than genuine evil intent. That's not to say there's not a simplification of the issues involved - this is a comic book when all's said and done - but it's light years away from anything that could previously have been expected from a mere super-hero comic.

It also hands us the then-topical subject of student riots. For several years in the 1960s, the popularity of Marvel's comics had been growing among students, and, with this issue, Lee seems to have decided that a strip whose reader base was increasingly of university age could ignore their concerns no longer. It could be seen by cynics as nothing more than a token nod at the readership in order to boost sales but, nonetheless, it was a remarkable step for the comic to take. It could simply have done what comics had always done in the past and ignore real life, concentrating instead on pure escapism. This new approach was destined to continue in the future, ultimately leading to questions in Congress and a situation that would force a rethink on how the entire industry was regulated.

Friday, 17 April 2009

Amazing Spider-Man #67. Mysterio

Amazing Spider-Man #67, John Romita, Mysterio
(You need hands. John Romita's third consecutive classic cover, this time from December 1968.)

"To Squash A Spider!"

Written by Stan Lee
Layouts by John Romita
Pencilled by Jim Mooney
Inked by Jim Mooney
Lettering by Artie Simek


Bam, a giant fist crashes down, seeking to smash Spider-Man to the pulp that all super-villains want him to be. He's still trapped in the model amusement park, still only six inches tall and still stuck with Mysterio out to get him.

The rest of the issue's made up of Spidey trying to survive a series of amusement-park-style traps while striving to work out what's going on. He knows something's not quite right (apart from him only being six inches tall) but can't work out what. He quickly realises that Mysterio's desperately trying to keep him moving, trying to stop him finding the time to think.

But why's he doing that, when he seemingly no longer has anything to fear from his doll-sized opponent?

Spider-Man decides to risk it. Knowing his foe's history of illusion, he flings himself at the giant figure of his enemy, who promptly vanishes to avoid contact. Why does he do that? After all, the impact would have hurt Spider-Man more than him. It confirms Spidey's suspicions. However it may seem, he's not six inches tall and Mysterio's not gigantic.

Then he spots it - a tower at the heart of the park. It's the only building there with a light on. He heads for it, rips the roof off...

...and there he is, the villain of the piece, sat in his control room, the same size as Spider-Man and suddenly in trouble. Spidey knocks him out, relieves him of his boots and helmet, and that's that all sorted.

Well, it's not really. Maybe it's just me but it's not altogether clear what Mysterio's been doing. They appear to be in a real amusement park, which begs the question of how they got there, as Mysterio and Spider-Man were in a warehouse when the villain fired the gun that "shrunk" him, and Spidey at no point lost consciousness. So, how did Mysterio get him to an amusement park without him noticing? For that matter, how come a real life amusement park happens to have Mysterio's control tower in it? Did the staff and management never notice it was being built? As for the giant figure of Mysterio, what was it? Was it a giant robot? Was it an illusion? The same goes for the deadly attractions. Were they real or just illusion?

Oh well, maybe we just have to accept there's some things we'll never know. Like we'll never know why Mysterio turned to crime when he was supposedly the greatest special effects man Hollywood had ever seen. You'd have thought, with a talent like that, making a highly lucrative but honest living would be well within his capabilites.

On the art front, after a one issue absence, Jim Mooney's back and produces some lovely work, especially a sequence in a deadly hall of mirrors and another in a house of horrors.

On the supporting cast front, we may have lost Mary Jane but we've gained a new character, Randy Robertson, introduced as Joe Robertson's son and revealed to be a student at ESU, which, of course, means he's going to be meeting Peter Parker before long. And what's that we see at the very end of the story? A student protest? How will that affect the life of our hero?

Sob Watch, Gwen Stacy gets through a whole issue without crying. Well done, Gwendolyne, we knew you could do it if you tried.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Amazing Spider-Man #66. Mysterio

Amazing Spider-Man #66, Mysterio
(Cover from November 1968.)

"The Madness Of Mysterio!"

Words by Stan Lee
Layouts by John Romita
Pencilling by Don Heck
Inks by Mickey Demeo
Lettering by Artie Simek


So, after finding a new artist last issue, this month it's back to Don Heck. Actually, this reversion to confusion doesn't matter that much; one, because Jim Mooney's back next month and, two, because there's something pleasingly cartoony about Heck's art in this tale.

As for the story, it's another of my favourites, as the perennially under-used Mysterio makes his return. We can tell he's made his return because he tells us so. Clearly suffering from the same affliction that struck Kraven the Hunter in his last appearance, he spends the first few pages talking to himself. He tells us how vital a model amusement park is to his plans and how he escaped captivity by using chemicals stolen from the prison pharmacy. Presumably, this is the same prison where the Shocker garnered the tools to create his first vibro-blaster. The regime at that place just never learn do they? Anyway, he's out for revenge on Spider-Man.

But first he has to get Spider-Man's attention.

To do this, he appears in a street, emerging from a cloud of smoke, and then vanishes. Now, with the class that only a criminal mastermind could muster, he hides down a drain, wondering why Spider-Man's not shown up. Probably because it's only seconds since you appeared, and what're the chances that he'd just happen to be in a street you randomly selected?

Well, plenty, as it turns out, because Peter Parker just happened to be right there in that street at that moment. Not that Myserio has any way of knowing this and not that he had any reason to expect it. Anyway, for once, Peter shows some kind of sense and can't be bothered to go after him. He's got better geese to cook, like having to sell his bike to pay the bills and the fact that Gwen's still not speaking to him.

Then it turns out she is. Coming across him, she tells him her dad's cleared up the whole, "Peter attacking Capt Stacy" thing of a few issues ago. At this point, she does the usual and bursts into tears. This is the fourth consecutive issue that Gwen Stacy has burst into tears. I've heard of hormones but really.

Elsewhere, Mysterio doesn't care about the failure of his previous master plan. He can always get attention another way.

He can do it by appearing on TV and declaring that he's going to destroy New York unless the arachnid adventurer meets him at the scene of their first battle. Happily, unlike me, Spider-Man remembers where the pair first fought and heads there. Seeing no need for subtlety - as the goldfish bowl wearing menace is expecting him - he tears his way in and confronts the villain who uses his smoke of mystery to bamboozle Spidey while he rains blows on him. There's a pretty obvious point here which is that Mysterio could just shoot Spider-Man while he's disoriented. But, of course, Mysterio isn't a common-or-garden crook, he's a criminal mastermind and so is determined to do the deed with ridiculous amounts of extravagance.

Having annoyed Spidey a bit, he now reveals his master weapon, a big gun gizmo. Before Spider-Man can get out of the way, he fires it at him. The thing clearly hits our hero full on, although in the next panel, Mysterio says that Spider-Man's jumped out of the way of it.

Not that it matters because the gun's fired some kind of gas and therefore it makes no odds whether the thing was on target or not, merely whether our hero has the sense to hold his breath.

He doesn't.

Now, as the world goes all swirly on him, he starts to feel weird, telling us that he simultaneously feels like he's dying, and being born.

And then he finds out why.

Because, when the smoke clears, he finds himself a changed man. Where once he could look his foe straight in the goldfish bowl, now he's a mere six inches tall and in the model amusement park Mysterio was so proudly showing us earlier.

Now, at last, his foe can crush him like the bug he's named after.

Amazing Spider-Man #65. Spidey in jail

Amazing Spider-Man #65, jailbreak
(Cover from October 1968.)

"The Impossible Escape!"

Words by Stan Lee
Layouts by John Romita
Pencils by Jim Mooney
Inks by Jim Mooney
Lettering by Artie Simek


So, like a dropped ball in a football match, we kick off where we left off, with Spider-Man out cold on the ground, as a baying mob try to close in on him and remove his mask.

Happily for him, Captain George Stacy's at hand and, in conjunction with a cop, holds them off, declaring that removing his mask might be a violation of his legal rights. Gwen, meanwhile, is worried about Peter Parker, goes in search of him and, when she fails to find him?

You've guessed it, she bursts into tears. This is her third bout of sobbing in two issues. If she hadn't become such a dull character, you might think she was emotionally unstable.

Someone else who might feel like crying is Spider-Man, who regains consciousness to find himself in a prison hospital. Realising that no one's in a rush to unmask him, he decides to bide his time and stay in bed, to give himself full opportunity to recover from the bumps and bruises of last issue.

But, of course, it's never a quiet life for Aunt May's favourite nephew - because he soon discovers there's a break-out in progress. As the would-be escapees have Captain Stacy hostage, Spider-Man decides to pretend he's on their side and that he's going to lead their jail-break. Then, one by one, in the darkness he's created by sabotaging the prison's fuse box, he polishes them off till there's only one left.

He polishes him off and that's it, job done. Captain Stacy tells him he should stand trial so he can clear his name. Spidey says he can't. Captain Stacy says why not? And Spidey departs the scene, knowing that, for Aunt May's sake, he can never run the risk of his real identity coming out. Captain Stacy meanwhile, tells the authorities that Spidey helped foil the escape, and the issue's over. It's a simple tale, noticeably atypical, with no super-villains, no actual threat to Spider-Man and no real doubt that he's going to thwart the jail-break but it's all the more pleasing and memorable for that and features one of my favourite covers from a period when classic covers had become the strip's norm.

When it comes to other news, there's a scene where Mary Jane's hanging around on a street corner, looking like a hooker. What she's doing on that street corner, looking like a hooker, is never explained and I quite like the idea that she actually is a hooker, although I suspect that was a million miles from John Romita's intention. I could be wrong but I think this is her last appearance for a startlingly long time. It seems that, for some reason, at this point Lee and Romita decided to drop her from the strip, and she goes out on a sour note, insulting Harry Osborn who's too worried about his dad's increasingly erratic behaviour to bother with MJ. In retrospect, it seems that, when Harry walks away from her, leaving her alone in the darkness, it's a metaphor for the strip itself walking away from her, as though it no longer has any use for a character it's fallen out of love with.

On the art front, at last things are more or less resolved. After the artistic roundabout of the last few issues, where it seemed like anyone who was free at the time was randomly chipping in with panels, things have settled down, with Romita doing the layouts and Jim Mooney (at last credited) doing the finished pencilling and inking. The strip looks great as a result. Mooney's one of my favourite Spider-Man artists, his work giving weight and depth to Romita's somewhat 2-D style, even if he could occasionally be a little heavy-handed with the inks.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Amazing Spider-Man #64. The Vulture

Amazing Spider-Man #64, the Vulture
(Cover from September 1968.)

"The Vulture's Prey"

Written by Stan Lee
Art by John Romita and Don Heck (officially)
Inking by Mickey Demeo
Lettering by Sam Rosen


Sometimes, it doesn't matter how much experience of fighting crime a hero has, he really needs someone to give him a few pointers on the subject. This issue's a case in point. The tale kicks off with Spider-Man perched atop a building, clutching his injured arm, as the Vulture closes in for his deadly attack. Clearly the concept of keeping any weakness a secret from your foes is beyond the tactical might of Spider-Man, and the Vulture immediately picks up on the fact that our hero's injured. Then Spidey picks up on the fact that the Vulture's picked up on the fact that his arm's injured.

Of course he's picked up on it, you muppet! You're clutching it! Argh!

It'd be quite a nice touch if, at this point, the Vulture refuses to fight his arch-nemesis, on the grounds that defeating an injured foe would prove nothing, and flies off to return another day. After all, the reason he wanted everyone to see him beat Blackie Drago in the previous issue was to prove how tough he is.

Needless to say, such consistency is beyond the average super-fiend and, within moments, the pair are fighting. In trouble from the start, Spider-Man entangles the villain's legs with webbing. What with being able to fly, the Vulture's never likely to be deterred by that and flies straight at the Bugle building, aiming to mash Spidey to a pulp by sending him crashing into it.

Fortunately, our hero's tactical sense has improved since the opening panels and he has the sense to let go of the webbing by which the villain's swinging him. Unfortunately, he's landed on a sign which the Vulture promptly launches himself feet first at, sending large chunks of it falling toward the onlooking J Jonah Jameson. Good riddance some might say.

But not Joe "Robbie" Robertson who flings himself at JJ and pushes him aside. With his usual luck, the old blow-hard's fine but Robbie's injured. Jonah, his traditional lack of logic intact, blames Spidey and grabs him from behind to hold him ready for the Vulture's next attack. Spidey flings him aside but makes his arm worse in the process.

The fight resumes and Spidey, unable to hold onto the Vulture any longer, falls to the street below. Just in time, he fires off a load of webbing to create a cushion. But, despite landing on it, he lies still.

Anxious to see if he's finally achieved victory over his nemesis, the Vulture flies down and lands.

And still Spider-Man lies unmoving.

Is this it?

Is he finally dead?

Of course he's not.

The moment the villain gets close enough, our hero grabs him, digging his fingers into the hump on his opponent's back - the hump that contains his wings' power source. With that damaged, the Vulture could be captured, and so, with what power he has left, the winged wrong-doer flies off, leaving Spider-Man to call after him in taunting triumph.

But it's all front. Spidey's taken too much punishment and passes out - as the surrounding crowd close in, suddenly realising they have the chance at last to unmask the man of mystery.

An unusual issue in being basically one, long, twenty page, fight - the only breaks coming from inserts featuring the women in his life. Captain Stacy, recovered from his brainwashing, has finally remembered what happened when Peter Parker "attacked" him and tells Gwen that Peter was only trying to help him. Gwen bursts into tears (she's doing a lot of that these days). Then, making their way along the street, they bump into Betty Brant who tells them what's unfolding on the Bugle roof. Realising that Peter's in danger, Gwen bursts into tears (I said she was doing that a lot).

On a decidely less lachrymose tangent, Mary Jane's had a radical change of image, gaining herself a terrible new hairdo that isn't a patch on her classic style but does at least help to distinguish her more clearly from the previously near-identical Gwen Stacy.

On the art front, it's still a seemingly random patchwork of panels and pages by Romita, Heck and a still-uncredited Mooney. Next issue, that situation at least will start to be resolved.

Monday, 13 April 2009

Amazing Spider-Man #63. The two Vultures

Amazing Spider-Man #63, the two Vultures
(Cover from August 1968)

"Wings In The Night!"

Written by Stan Lee
Art by John Romita and Don Heck (officially)
Inking by Mickey Demeo
Lettering by Sam Rosen


Just in case anyone was in danger of forgetting how good a visual story-teller John Romita is, he kicks off the story with a classic of a splash page, all packed with menace and mood, as the original Vulture perches on a rooftop, gazing sullenly down at the rain-soaked city, for all the world like a malevolent gargoyle.

That's right, fifteen issues after dying, the original Vulture's back. It seemed a perverse, and frankly disrespectful, decision to kill him in the first place and it seems Lee and Romita have come to the same conclusion.

It's also clear, from the first few panels, that Romita's back too. OK, so he's never really been away but, for most of the last few issues, he's been happy to just do the layouts and the odd face, leaving the rest to Don Heck. However, right from the start of this tale, he's clearly far more involved, contributing strings of panels, in alternation with Heck.

They're not alone on this artistic roundabout because, as the story progresses, it's clear that Jim Mooney's contributing panels too and, in one or two cases, entire pages. For some reason Mooney isn't credited but, for long-time Supergirl fans, his style, especially when it comes to the way he does eyes, is impossible to miss.

As for the story, we're told, in flashback, that when he realised Blackie Drago'd done the dirty on him, the original Vulture was so fired up by lust for vengeance that he made a miracle recovery, climbed from his hospital bed, knocked out his guard, put on the fallen man's uniform and left the prison by pretending to be part of the search for Drago. Once away, he licked his wounds, built himself a new pair of wings and, when he was ready, returned as the Vulture. Blimey, maybe they should hand out "thirst-for-revenge" tablets on the NHS if a need for vengeance can cure a dying man so completely.

You might think that after this unlikely recovery the Vulture would be a happy man.

Not at all. He's not happy that people might think Blackie Drago's a better vulture than him and so, after liberating a spare pair of his wings from the city museum, he liberates Drago from the local jail.

Drago, not the sharpest knife in the drawer, thinks he's rescued him so they can team up. Er, that's right, Blackie, the last time you saw him, you told him, while laughing, that you were the one responsible for the fatal "accident" that had left him at death's door and that it was all a plot by you to steal his wings and identity. Of course he wants to team up with you.

In fact, the original Vulture plans to fight him in the skies above New York so that everyone can see his total defeat and recognise the original as the real deal.

That all cleared up, they start to fight, just as Peter Parker's approaching The Daily Bugle building. Earlier in the story, thanks to his webbing not sticking to a building in the torrential downpour, Peter hurt his arm and is in no mood to take on two Vultures at the same time. He leaves them to their fight, happy to stand on the Bugle rooftop with J Jonah Jameson and take snaps of the scrap.

But of course, he hasn't counted on the old Peter Parker luck, because there's a child on a nearby rooftop - a child who, thanks to the fighting, finds himself hanging from a crumbling roof edge.

That's it, our hero can stand idle no longer. Doing a disappearing act when Jameson's not looking, Pete changes into his Spider-Man guise and goes to the rescue. The sight of his old nemesis prompts the real Vulture to get the fight over with quickly, and Drago falls to a rooftop declaring that he knows when he's beat. He reckons that no one could beat the Vulture.

Really? Does that include Spider-Man?

Well, normally, Spidey can beat the Vulture - he's done it enough times in the past to prove that.

There's only one problem.

That injured arm.

After carrying the boy to safety, he can no longer move it, which means, as the issue draws to a close, that he's going to have to face one of New York's deadliest menaces, with just one arm.

Sunday, 12 April 2009

Amazing Spider-Man #62. Medusa

Amazing Spider-Man #62, Medusa
(A not altogether honest cover from July 1968.)

"Make Way For... Medusa!"

Written by Stan Lee
Layouts by John Romita
Pencils by Don Heck
Inking by Mickey Demeo
Lettering by Sam Rosen


So, we get straight into the action, with Spider-Man's webbing being cut by a foe unseen.

Is it Doc Ock?

No.

Is it Electro?

No.

How about the Beetle? He's the sort to cut a man's webbing in half when he's not expecting it.

Nope.

As it turns out, it's no foe at all. At least, not in the conventional sense of the word. It's Medusa, still using the Madame part of her name, who's been sent on a misson by Black Bolt to find out if humans are yet ready to accept the presence of Inhumans amongst them. Medusa grabs the falling Spidey with her hair, to stop him going splat all over the pavement and, after flinging a quick bit of haughtiness his way, she sets off to get herself noticed.

And noticed she gets, as the boss of a hairspray company spots her and decides the tonsorial temptress is the perfect woman to plug his product. As Medusa has total control of her hair and therefore no need whatsoever for his product, she seems an unlikely candidate for the role. Nonetheless, the job's offered and, nonetheless, the job's accepted. She reasons that working with humans will give her the chance to study them at close quarters.

The only problem is, she has no patience whatsoever and, after throwing a hissy fit, storms out of the photo shoot. It's an odd depiction of Medusa's character we're being given in this story, bearing no great resemblance to her original behaviour as a villainness or her remodelled role as conscientious heroine.

Our ambitious executive, however, is not a man to be easily thwarted. He calls out to Spider-Man, who just happens to be passing, and tells him Medusa's gone mad, that she trashed his office and is now out to destroy New York. Through the ensuing fight, he aims to get maximum publicity for his hairspray. How? Who knows? And how a woman armed only with her hair could have any hope of destroying an entire metropolis is an issue not addressed.

Not surprisingly, Spidey's somewhat sceptical of the man's story but, taking no risks, goes to investigate. When he reaches her, he finds Medusa in the mood for a fight. The fight isn't exactly epic. It only lasts a couple of pages before Spider-Man entangles her in enough webbing to hold The Thing. Let's face it, given her somewhat underpowered nature, it was never going to be much of a fight. A quick conversation and both parties realise they've been manipulated, before going their separate ways.

And that's it, a brief coda involving Mary Jane aside, that's the end of the story. It's not exactly substantial and has to be regarded as a light-hearted bit of filler before the more serious tales to come. The only thing of any real import that happens this issue is that Norman Osborn's still having those flashbacks - and now he's getting glimpses of a maskless Spider-Man.

It can only be a matter of time before those memories start to make sense to him...

Saturday, 11 April 2009

Amazing Spider-Man #61. The Kingpin

Amazing Spider-Man #61, the Kingpin
(Vat's all, folks. Cover from June 1968.)

"What A Tangled Web We Weave--!"

Written by Stan Lee
Layouts by John Romita
Pencils by Don Heck
Inking by Mickey Demeo
Lettering by Sam Rosen


Mickey Demeo's back! Why this should give me such pleasure, I don't know but, in his previous run on the title, I did grow quite attached to his inking and it has to be said, it does work remarkably well with Don Heck's pencils. He's so much better than that awful Mike Esposito who's been inking the last few issues.

What's that? Mickey Demeo is Mike Esposito?

I'll get my coat. :(

The story kicks off with a symbolic splash page showing a group of Peter Parker's friends and loved ones battling to escape the sticky entanglements of his webbing. Although, bearing in mind Mary Jane's presence - and her activities on her last appearance - it could also be interpreted as them doing a very strange kind of dance. Either way, the message is clear, that being involved in the life of Peter Parker does not a happy bunny make.

One particular unhappy bunny is Gwen Stacy who, thanks to The Daily Bugle, has just discovered her dad's a thief. In time-honoured fashion, he decides to do a runner and she goes with him, declaring that wherever he goes she goes. Gwen's mother is nowhere to be seen. Were we ever told what happened to her?

The point does bring up another question, the matter of parents in Spider-Man. Peter Parker's an orphan. Harry Osborn's mother's dead. Gwen Stacy's mother appears to be dead. As she seems to have been brought up by her Aunt Anna, it seems reasonable at this time to assume that Mary Jane's parents are dead. Unless memory fails me, I'm fairly sure that John Jameson's mother's also dead. If Flash Thompson has parents, they're never referred to. In fact, throughout Stan Lee's writing of the 1960s, there seems to be a preponderance of dead or missing parents but nowhere is this felt more strongly than in the pages of Spider-Man. Is this coincidence? Was it a deliberate policy? Does it reflect on the inner psychology of Lee? Bearing in mind Batman and Superman's orphaned state, is it merely a convention of super-hero comics? Only Lee could tell us.

Back home, Peter realises what a total plonker he's been. By exposing Stacy, he's put the ex-cop's life in danger and, by leaving Gwen alone with a potentially violent brainwashing victim, he's also exposed her to terrible risk. There's only one thing for it. Unlike the police - who seem not to have thought of descending on the Stacy residence to arrest the man - Petey, in his Spider-Man guise, heads over there...

...just in time to see some of the Kingpin's goons leaving the place.

The goons have arrived too late. The Stacys are already at the airport, but they get no further as two more of the Kingpin's men apprehend them there. At first Gwen, not unreasonably, thinks they're cops but soon cottons on to the fact that they're not. The goons take them to the Kingpin's secret lab, which it's already been revealed is in Norman Osborn's chemical plant. Osborn, who's been having troubling flashbacks to the death of the Green Goblin, has almost accidentally stumbled on the lair but has been fobbed off by Kingie's science stooge, the worryingly named Winkler. Now, Gwen and the Captain are tied together under a huge vat of lead just asking to be dropped on them. Why he doesn't just shoot them is anyone's guess but that's criminal masterminds for you.

Spidey smashes in through a window and confronts the villain. How did he know where they were? Back at the Kingpin's club he checked out the site of the now-removed brainwashing machine and found a manufacturer's tag associated with Osborn's company. The usual fight breaks out. This time our hero's shown some foresight and put a gas mask on under his spider-mask, to make sure the Kingie's trick tie-pin can't work on him.

And that's when Norman Osborn finally stumbles on the Kingpin's lair. Spotting Winkler waving a gun around, he rugby-tackles the scientist but that makes Winkler accidentally fire the gun. The bullet hits the brainwashing machine. The machine explodes. The explosion snaps a cable and that vat of molten lead, begins to fall.

And Gwen and her dad are sat right beneath it!

Spidey swings to the rescue and gets the two captives out of the way. How Osborn survives the floor being flooded with boiling lead isn't revealed. Meanwhile, Spidey goes in pursuit of the Kingpin but, too late, the corpulent king of crime has fled in Osborn's private helicopter that just happened to be sat on the roof. Finally showing some appetite for their job, the police turn up and, irony of ironies, Gwendolyne helps to give the web-slinger some good PR by telling everyone of his part in the rescue.

So, Gwen Stacy, who just a few issues back hated Spider-Man and loved Peter Parker, is now a confirmed Spider-fan and hates Peter Parker. Clearly, it's not entered her head that Peter's grapple with her father in the previous issue might have had anything to do with her dad's brainwashing. Gwen, who just months earlier was quite the spunky, feisty, lively romantic counter-foil - MJ with a brain - is rapidly becoming the character Gerry Conway was so happy to get rid of.

I have to admit that, despite all this action and drama, my favourite scene this issue is one that's technically irrelevant. In it, Mary Jane and Harry go to the club to collect her pay for her previous night's work; only to find the place shut down and abandoned. Leaving aside how great her hat is, and that we finally get the pleasure of seeing Mary Jane being unhappy, it's the little scenes like these - that, in strict terms, aren't really necessary to the story - that give the strip its distinctive feel and make it quite unlike other super-hero titles of the time.

It's interesting too what's happening with the art. Thanks to the credits, it's a little vague as to who's doing what by now. John Romita seems to be doing the layouts, with Don Heck doing the actual pencilling but some of the faces are clearly being drawn by Romita, and, in at least one panel, the whole figure of Spider-Man seems to have been done by him. It's a strange confusion of roles and styles that, involving various other artists, would affect the strip for a surprisingly long time to come. It wouldn't be true to say the title suffered because of it but it is odd that, for a lengthy period, what had become Marvel Comics' flagship title seemed incapable of settling on a single artist.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Amazing Spider-Man #60. The Kingpin

Amazing Spider-Man #60, the Kingpin
(The Kingpin decides to stand in for Spidey's dad and give him the good swing-around he never had as a child. Tomorrow, if he's lucky, he'll be taking him on the roundabouts. Cover from May 1968.)

"O, Bitter Victory!"

Written by Stan Lee
Layouts by John Romita
Pencils by Don Heck
Inking by Mike Esposito
Lettering by Sam Rosen


So now Spider-Man's in trouble. The Kingpin has a hold of him and is swinging him round and round and round.

Amazing Spider-Man #60, don heck, john romita, kingpin grabs spider-man by the ankles an swings him around

Luckily Spider-man has a plan - to crash into something. Upon release, he crashes into the control panel of Kingie's brainwashing machine and sends it kaput. Flames burst forth. Smoke's everywhere. Confusion reigns. In that confusion, our hero escapes.

But not without a cost.

As a result of the explosion, he's suffering from double vision. He's in no state to return to the fray. The Kingpin, on the other hand, is suffering from nothing. Spider-Man's act of sabotage came too late to save Captain Stacy from a good brainwashing, and now Kingie can proceed with the next part of his plan - to send Stacy off to await his next set of orders.

Amazing Spider-Man #60, don heck, john romita, at the club, mary jane is perturbed and tells harry osborn and gwen stacy about the fight behind the scenes

Amazing Spider-Man #60, don heck, john romita, at the club, mary jane watson is telling gwen stacy about the fight behind the scenes but then george stacy shows up and tells gwen there's nothing to worry about

Making his way back into the club's main hall, the brainwashed cop assures MJ, Gwen and Harry there's nothing to worry about, and everyone except Pete gets on with enjoying the evening. Where's Pete? He's gone back home to get some rest so he can be fully fit to fight the Kingpin next time round.

The next day, knowing something has to be done about Captain Stacy, Peter goes round to confront him and, in an act of self defence, ends up knocking him to the floor - just in time for Gwen to walk in and find him standing over the fallen pensioner.

Amazing Spider-Man #60, don heck, john romita, gwen stacy drops a tray as she walks into the room to find peter parker standing over her father who peter has just knocked to the floor

Now, this is where Pete's total cluelessness about how to deal with people kicks in because, we can all see that it's right here that he should tell Gwen that Spider-Man's told him her dad's been brainwashed by the Kingpin. She won't believe him of course but it does mean that, when she notices her dad's acting oddly (ie, being evil) that the penny'll drop and she'll see that Pete was in the right all along.

Needless to say, showing the same failure to communicate that's repeatedly wrecked his love life for years, he keeps his silence, causing Gwen to throw him out and to declare to herself that she can never forgive him.

Amazing Spider-Man #60, don heck, john romita, spider-man smashes his way in through the window to confront captain stacy who's trying to steal from the police building

There's only one thing for it, Spidey's going to have to get some evidence that the captain's under the influence. He follows him and, hey presto, the ex-cop goes down the police station - where he practically seems to live despite being retired - and tries to steal some documents. Spidey gets it all on camera and, the next day, it's splashed all across the front of The Daily Bugle. Well, it makes sure everyone in the whole of New York knows there's something going on...

...but, if Gwen felt like she could never forgive him before, how's she going to react to him having been the one to dob her dad in?

Oh, Peter, if only you'd just learn to pass-on information, like other people do...

Amazing Spider-Man #60, don heck, john romita, gwen stacy bursts into tears as she sees the daily bugle's story about her father conducting a robbery - and the photographer is peter parker

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Amazing Spider-Man #59. The Brainwasher/Kingpin

Amazing Spider-Man #59. Mary Jane Watson's first ever cover appearance
(Cover from April 1968.)

"The Brand Of The Brainwasher!"

Written by Stan Lee
Layouts by John Romita
Pencils by Don Heck
Inked by Mike Esposito
Lettering by Artie Simek


At last Mary Jane gets her first ever cover and, after being criminally underused for the last few tales, she finally gets a pivotal part in a story.

But first there's other matters to be dealt with.

For a start, Peter Parker still hasn't come up with an explanation as to where he's been for the last few issues. A quick visit to the cop shop soon puts that right as he tells the assembled investigators that he was kidnapped by Spider-Man, who'd lost his memory, and that he'd been released the moment Spidey got his marbles back. In one fell swoop, Petey's explained his own absence while portraying Spidey as a no more than a confused and bewildered innocent.

Amazing Spider-Man #59, don heck, john romita, returned from wherever he's been, peter parker is surrounded by people wanting to know where he's been

That's not all that happens while he's down at the station, because one of his interrogators is none other than Gwen's dad George Stacy who, despite being retired, seems to spend all his time at the police station, doing police work, and being called Captain. It's the first time the pair have ever met but won't be the last. Pete also learns that a person unknown has been releasing criminals. Clearly things are afoot in the world of crime.

Amazing Spider-Man #59, don heck, john romita, at a mystery nightclub, mary jane watson dances as her gangster employers watch on

Things are also afoot in the world of Mary Jane. When we join her, she's using those feet to dance on a table as she finishes off her last rehearsal before starting work on her new job at the happeningest club to have opened in New York in many a year. Her dodgy boss tells her - and us - that her job is to dance for the punters and to take their photos - but only of people sat at tables with a star on them.

Amazing Spider-Man #59, john romita, don heck, at the club, mary jane watson puts her coat on and asks her new boss mr slade how she did

After she leaves, we're told by the man of mystery behind the plot that the camera she's been given is nothing less than a brainwashing machine, designed to get hapless punters under the Brainwasher's control just long enough for him to give them a mega-dose of his big brainwashing machine. Not that he has a one-track mind or anything.

Oblivious to all this, the gang turn up for the big opening night and to give Mary Jane moral support.

Amazing Spider-Man #59, don heck, john romita, as peter parker and gwen stacy watch, mary jane dances her heart out on the opening night of the club

Amazing Spider-Man #59, don heck, john romita, gwen stacy gives mary jane watson the OK sign as she walks around the club with a camera in her hand, peter parker and harry osborn are also present

Not that she needs it. She's merrily dancing away like a mad thing, pausing only to take the required snaps. And, with the sort of bad luck that seems to befall anyone who finds himself trapped within Peter Parker's inner orbit, despite being retired, Captain Stacy just happens to be on the Brainwasher's hit list. MJ snaps his map and, suddenly feeling dizzy, the ex-cop sets off outside to get some fresh air.

Amazing Spider-Man #59, don heck, john romita, george stacy is led into a room where a mad scientist waits with his brainwashing device

Peter's suspicious. What's the deal with only people with a star at their table being snapped? He has to find out. Making his excuses, he sets off to see what's going on and, in the corridors, blunders into a bunch of petty crooks. He disposes of them with ease but finds himself in a room where Stacy's got his head under a huge hairdryer. And it's a safe bet he's not there for a Marcel Wave. He's about to be brainwashed - big time!

Spidey demands that the shady scientist operating the equipment tells him what's going on. The scientist declares that it's not a secret - even though it clearly is. Presumably there was nothing in the club's promotional material along the lines of, "Come to our club and get yourself brainwashed." Regardless, the scientist blabs his mouth off and says it's all the work of the Brainwasher.

The Brainwasher? Demands our hero. Who's he?

Suddenly someone's grabbed him by the arm. It's the Brainwasher.

No it's not. It's not just the Brainwasher.

It's the Kingpin!

Amazing Spider-Man #59, don heck, john romita, appearing from nowhere at the tale's climax, the Kingpin grabs spider-man's wrist

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