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.

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