Sunday, 29 November 2009

Amazing Spider-Man #132. The Molten Man

Amazing Spider-Man #132, the Molten Man returns - and so does Liz Allen/Allan
(Cover from May 1974.)

"The Master Plan Of The Molten Man!"

Words by Gerry Conway.
Art by John Romita/Paul Reinman/Tony Mortellaro.
Lettering by Artie Simek.
Colours by P Goldberg.

There are times when you just wish Spider-Man would shut up and think before he acts. This issue's a case in point as Gerry Conway continues his seeming quest to revive every old foe our hero has ever met. This time round we get the Molten Man.

And what a welcome return it is. I have to confess that, in the past, Moltie's never really lit my candle but, here, he's terrific, a man driven mad by his affliction, more interested in finding a cure for his plight than causing trouble but forced by his very nature to be a menace. You can't help feeling that, at a time like this Spidey should be more interested in helping Mark Raxton than in fighting him but, like I say, he doesn't always seem to believe in thinking before he acts.

And where does that policy leave him?

It leaves him lying at death's door as the tale draws to a close.

Will he learn anything from this?

Of course he won't.

A welcome return too for Liz Allen/Allan. You could hardly claim she's been missed in all these years but it's oddly pleasing to see her back again. I was going to knock Conway for having Peter say that Mary Jane and Liz never got on in the past, on the grounds that, as far as I was aware, they'd never even met. How wrong I was. There they are, in issue #25, having a pointed, if brief, encounter. Clearly Conway had a better memory for these things than I have.

Really, my only quibble with this tale is the heat issue. Spider-man seems able to hit the 300-degree Molten Man with impunity and to be hit with impunity. Peter Parker having a few blisters or the odd bit of heat rash after their encounter might at least have been some acknowledgement of the difficulties involved in battling such a foe.

Amazing Spider-Man #131. Dr Octopus & Aunt May's wedding

Amazing Spider-Man #131, Aunt May, wedding dress, Dr Octopus
(Cover from April 1974.)

"My Uncle... My Enemy?"

Words by Gerry Conway.
Pencils by Ross Andru.
Inks by Giacoia and Hunt.
Lettering by Artie Simek.
Colours by P Golderg.

Telly Savalas. He knew of what he spoke.

So, Spider-man flings itself as far into the realms of the unlikely as it could have done had Peter Parker discovered the entrance to Narnia in the back of his wardrobe. Maybe Gerry Conway was saving that storyline for later. It turns out that, unknown to her, Aunt May's inherited a Canadian island containing a nuclear reactor - as you do - so it's off to Canada for the lot of them.

Dr Octopus, meanwhile, seems somewhat confused. We're initially told he wants the island because it contains a nuclear reactor with which he can create weapons to terrorise the world but then, later, he's startled to discover the island contains a nuclear reactor. If he didn't know that, why was he so desperate to get the island in the first place? For that matter, Hammerhead clearly doesn't know the place contains a nuclear reactor either (or even seem to know what a nuclear reactor is!) so the pair of them seem to be battling over a barren lump of rock without either of them having any reason to think it's worth having.

For that matter, where are the plant's workforce? Since when is a potential atomic bomb left unattended?

On top of that. Only last issue it was established that Spidey can't drive. Now he's flying a jet.

And what's happening with Hammerhead? Here, he leaps, feet first, into the world of the lame. After last issue's partial rehabilitation, where he was happy to kill people - even his own flunkies - this issue his men are armed only with stun guns. Stun guns? This is supposed to be a ruthless killer.

Aunt May's stupidity hits new levels as, even as Doc Ock is calling his men dolts in front of her and threatening to have them done away with, she still doesn't seem to register that he might not be the nicest man in the world. Even Octopus producing a secret helicopter - and a secret island - from nowhere doesn't seem to make her seriously question him.

And since when can, "the slightest vibration," cause a nuclear reactor to explode? What idiot designed that thing?

Mary Jane Watson leaves the party, Amazing Spider-Man #131The odd thing is that, despite the ludicrousness of it all, I actually don't mind this story that much. I mean, I could tear it apart all day long but it's a comic book and comic books are an odd sort of art form. Where novels, movies and TV shows can be destroyed by silliness, comic books are strangely immune to it. In fact, they often feed on it. Let's face it, Galactus and the Silver Surfer are pretty ridiculous but that never stopped their first appearance in the Fantastic Four from being a classic. In truth, my real gripe would be that this issue's pretty much action from start to finish, whereas, the appeal of Spider-Man has always lain most in its quieter moments.

This means that the true highlight for me is actually well away from the action.

Back in New York, at the tale's finale, Mary Jane and Betty Brant discuss MJ's relationship with Peter Parker. In a masterful piece of visual story-telling, Ross Andru uses light, shade and a few snowflakes to unveil a darker, more troubled side to MJ than we've ever seen before. I told you Telly Savalas was right. A picture really can paint a thousand words and, here, Ross Andru proves it.

Amazing Spider-Man #130. Hammerhead, the Jackal and Dr Octopus

Amazing Spider-Man #130, Hammerhead, the Jackal and the Spider-Mobile
(Cover from March 1974.)


Words by Gerry Conway.
Pencils by Ross Andru.
Inks by Giacoia and Hunt.
Lettering by Artie Simek.
Colours by P Goldberg.

Spider-Mobile Spider-Mobile. What are we to make of you? So like the Batmobile in so many ways but, in so many ways, not.

Maybe there's something wrong with me but, reviled as it is, I actually like the Spider-Mobile. I mean, I wouldn't want Spidey to have spent the rest of his career driving around in it. It would've somewhat hampered the style of a man we're used to seeing swinging from skyscraper to skyscraper but I can't help feeling that people tend to miss the point of it. It's supposed to be naff. It's supposed to be a travesty. It's supposed to be an embarrassment. It's supposed to be the worst idea ever. And being lumbered with it is exactly the sort of thing that would happen to Spider-Man. It wouldn't happen to Superman. Can you imagine the Thor-Mobile? And it definitely wouldn't happen to the Hulk. But poor old Spidey, that's the way his cookie crumbles. It does also give us a chance to be reminded that our hero can't drive and doesn't care.

On the villain front, Hammerhead's back, the Jackal's back, Dr Octopus is back. We can hardly complain of being short changed this month. In truth, between them, they feature for a surprisingly small percentage of the tale. But that's fine. This issue is prologue to bigger things and it's not like we don't get much action in the meantime.

I'm a lot happier about the return of Ock than Hammerhead but anvil face is handled pretty well this tale. Possibly because we don't get to see a lot of him and also because his men suddenly have laser beams and jet packs and die if they try to say his name. It at least moves him away from the just-a-1930s-style-gangster portrayal we were given on his previous appearance and almost into a modern day Fu Manchu.

As for the tale's conclusion; it's completely ludicrous. It's just about believable that Aunt May might want to marry Doc Ock. She has, after all, singularly failed to spot him for what he is ever since she first encountered him. But would she really not tell her own nephew?

But you know what?

I love it.

Yes, it makes no sense but, to have a hero's closest living relative marry his deadliest enemy who then becomes his uncle is a twist so audacious, ridiculous and Spider-Manny that I just can't resist it.

Amazing Spider-Man #129. The Punisher makes his debut

Amazing Spider-Man #129, first appearance of the Punisher and the Jackal
(Cover from February 1974.)

"The Punisher Strikes Twice!"

Words by Gerry Conway.
Pencils by Ross Andru.
Inks by Giacoia and Hunt.
Lettering by J Costanza.
Colours by Dave Hunt.

Clint Eastwood’s got a lot to answer for. In Britain, he inspired the comics world to give us Judge Dredd and, in America, he inspired it to give us the Punisher. I have to say, things may have been bad in the UK in the 1970s but, on this occasion, the Brits came out smiling, having got a character of wit, satire and imagination where the poor old US had to settle for a man in black just out to shoot anyone he took a disliking to. Still, at least we didn’t get Spider-Man coming up against a comedy orang utan. Even the power of Clint wasn’t up to that.

And so it is, that in this tale, we get not one but two new characters; the Jackal and the Punisher. The Jackal’s an odd cove. He seems to be fairly clearly modelled on the Green Goblin, having the same mentality and, apparently, motivations; leading you to assume at first that he must be Harry Osborn.

But then we see Harry back at the apartment he shares with Peter Parker, ranting on to himself about being the Goblin. As Conway was clearly determined, even at this stage, to bring the Goblin back, it does make you wonder why he didn’t just make Gobby the antagonist of the next few tales. Perhaps he felt it was too soon. Or perhaps he wanted to prove he too could successfully create such a character. Whatever it was, bearing in mind the outcome of the whole Jackal storyline, it would’ve made more sense and not done as much damage to the strip’s believability if it had been Harry.

As for Frank Castle, the Punisher, what a loop-fruit he is – not to mention being mind-bogglingly stupid. If he can’t work out that a character who calls himself the Jackal might not be a man to trust, you hold out little hope for him. In retrospect, you do have to wonder why a man who’s so clearly wrong on so many occasions managed to end up with a comic of his own. Still, its a strange world out there and perhaps, in complex times, people want a simple (or even a simple-minded) character to root for.

On the art front, I can’t deny that Ross Andru’s my favourite Spider-Man artist of them all and, to my mind, this is the issue where he hits his peak period, capturing both Peter Parker’s everyday tribulations and Spidey’s action scenes perfectly. The simple truth is I could look at his artwork all day long when it’s like this.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Amazing Spider-Man #128. The Vulture - or is it?

Amazing Spider-Man #128, the 2nd Vulture
(Cover from January 1974.)

“The Vulture Hangs High!”

Words by Gerry Conway.
Pencils by Ross Andru.
Inks by Giacoia and Hunt.
Lettering by J Costanza.
Colouring by M Brand.

So, in the end, it all comes down to look-alikes.

It has to be said it's a not-altogether satisfactory conclusion to the tale. What're the chances that Dr Shallot's mutation machine would just happen to make him come out looking and (presumably) sounding exactly like the original Vulture? What're the chances that Christine would be identical to her recently murdered flatmate?

There's also the question of Spider-Man's fall at the start of the tale. As we've seen him survive falls from great heights before, and its been long established that he can make parachutes from his webbing, there can't have been anyone convinced he was going to die. Well, apart from Spidey who seems to have completely forgotten that he can make a parachute and thus creates a trampoline - something else it's been long established he can do.

For that matter, the webster's not the only one who seems to be suffering amnesia about the extent of his abilities. The Vulture also seems to have forgotten he has claws that can tear through the "protective" webbing Spider-Man throws around Mary Jane to keep him at bay.

Spidey also does something monumentally stupid at the finale, where the exposition dump he launches into gives Christine so many clues to his true identity that she - or Shallot - would hardly have to be Miss Marple to find out who he really is. Again, it's Conway having characters doing things to service the needs of the story rather than things they'd actually do.

So, all in all, while the issue has a nice feel to it and is appealingly drawn by Ross Andru who's really getting into the strip now, it has to be put down as a bit of a failure.

Oh well, at least next issue promises so much more.

Amazing Spider-Man #127. The Vulture - or is it?

Amazing Spider-Man #127, the Vulture and Mary Jane Watson
(Cover from December 1973.)

"The Dark Wings Of Death!"

Words by Gerry Conway.
Pencils by Ross Andru.
Inks by Giacoia and Hunt.
Lettering by Tom Orzechowski.
Colours by Glynis Wein.

Yo ho ho. It's December. Time to get the turkey out and remember old friends. Or at least to get the Vulture out and remember old foes.

Or is it?

There's something different about the Vulture this time round. He's more bird-like than once he was - and seemingly more homicidal. He may have been ruthless in the past but he never seemed the type for the cold-blooded murder of women in the streets.

I have to admit I've always had mixed feelings about this tale. On the one hand, I like the fact that Spider-Man enters Murder She Wrote territory with what's basically a whodunnit. Off the top of my head, I'm not sure he's ever done that before and it's a nice precursor to Conway's subsequent career in television.

But what seems all wrong is the portrayal of Mary Jane as a woman cowering in her apartment, refusing to go to the police because she's too scared. This is a woman who's encountered numerous threats in her time in the strip and seemed fazed by none of it. Suddenly, she's a cowering, trembling wreck. Having got rid of Gwen Stacy, Conway seems here to be writing MJ as though she were the late departed blonde. Much as I like his era on the title, it has to be said there are times when the behaviour of his cast seems to be more dependent on the needs of the story than on their own inherent character.

Then again, the depiction of our hero's a little odd too. Knowing that Mary Jane's on the Vulture's hit list, after losing track of him you'd expect the wall-crawler to head straight back to her apartment and make sure the villain doesn't get her. Instead he goes over to see the Human Torch, to have a laugh and a joke working on the Spider-Mobile. Oi! Parker! Your new squeeze could be getting murdered while you do that, you plank!

For that matter, the Vulture's also acting a little oddly. Escaping from a police net and blinded by Spider-Man's webbing, he grabs our hero, thinking he's grabbing the woman he came to ESU to get. Why? Why did he think Spidey was this mysterious Christine woman when she was nowhere in sight only seconds earlier?

One person acting in character is Harry Osborn - well, in the character he's recently become. His descent into madness and evil continues apace and that for, some of us, is a more than welcome sight.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Amazing Spider-Man #126. The Kangaroo returns

Amazing Spider-Man #126, the death of the Kangaroo
(Cover from November 1973.)

"The Kangaroo Bounces Back!"
Words by Gerry Conway.
Pencils by Ross Andru.
Inks by Jim Mooney.
Lettering by Artie Simek.
Colours by Linda Lessmann.

A Boomerang. Perhaps it's what Gerry Conway mostly needed; a stick that always comes back.

As mentioned elsewhere in these pages, two of his defining traits as Spider-Man writer were a love of bringing back old foes (a stick that always comes back) and a liking for having a minor villain under the influence of another villain (after all, a boomerang can't work without someone to throw it).

Here we get both, with the evil Jonas Harrow, last seen in issue #114, back to repeat his endeavours to create a super-lackey. This time he does it with the Kangaroo, surely one of the least worthy villains Lee, Romita and Mooney ever concocted. The story makes no secret of the uselessness of the character, with Spider-Man ridiculing him on their reacquaintance; and so Conway does what he always does with characters he sees no use for.

He kills him.

It has to be said that Harrow's plans make no great sense. He's a scientist and yet sends his lackey on a mission into the heart of a nuclear inferno, a mission guaranteed to achieve nothing but the Australian's death. It's also hard to believe that just standing behind an open lead door in a room being flooded with deadly radiation would save Spidey from sharing the Kangaroo's fate. Oh well, the simple truth is the strip needs Web-Head and it doesn't need bouncing boy, so the Antipodean antagonist dies and Spidey lives.

Conway's third love in the strip is of course injecting humour into the trials and tribulations of our hero and we start to see the full emergence of that with Spidey's deal to build a car. Some people view this particular strand with horror. Some with affection. It's going to be interesting to see how I view it on my planned re-reading.

An appealingly clad MJ finally dumps Harry. Harry's turning evil. This is more like it.

J Jonah Jameson keeps his dying son in a free hospital? I'd have thought better of even that old skinflint.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Amazing Spider-Man #125. Man-Wolf

Amazing Spider-Man #125, Man-Wolf
(Cover from October 1973.)


Words by Gerry Conway.
Pencils by Ross Andru.
Inks by John Romita and Tony Mortellaro.
Lettering by Artie Simek.
Colours by Dave Hunt.

Who could take against a man called Ross Andru?

No one could.

The man only has first names, and that means you just have to like him. Even if you were trying to address him contemptuously by his surname, you'd still be calling him by a first name.

Happily, in this issue, there's nothing to take against. If a replacement was needed for Gil Kane, Andru was the perfect choice. Not only had he already been drawing the web-spinner for his other mag Marvel Team-Up but his love of extreme angles and exaggerated perspective was similar enough to Kane's to make the break from one artist to another almost seamless, and, here, he gets into his stride straight away, revelling in Spider-Man's agility and three dimensionality of movement. In fact, for the first few panels, his pencilling disguised by Romita and Mortellaro, it could be possible for the casual observer to not even notice that Kane had gone.

That aside, it's a good solid issue, nicely melodramatic, with Mary Jane acting a little oddly but that can be put down to the fact that, after years of determined shallowness, she doesn't actually know how to handle people with serious issues. Such a thing doesn't come naturally. It has to be learned and she's still at a stage in her development where her lack of judgement means she'll tend to listen to people, without the sense to know if she should be listening to them.

As for John Jameson. It's odd that, if the gem that turns him into the Man-Wolf is grafted to his skin, he's not tried seeing a surgeon about removing it. There is, of course, the question of why, if its powers respond to the rays of the moon, he hasn't tried covering it up.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Amazing Spider-Man #124. Man-Wolf makes his debut

Amazing Spider-Man #124, first ever Man-Wolf
(Cover from September 1973.)

"The Mark of the Man-Wolf"

Words by Gerry Conway.
Pencils by Gil Kane.
Inks by John Romita and T Mortellero.
Lettering by Artie Simek.
Colours by David Hunt.

Werewolves are like London buses. You go for years without seeing one and then two come along at once.

Only weeks after Spider-Man encounters his first Lycanthrope, in the form of Werewolf By Night (Marvel Team-Up #12), he's now up against another. Quite why Marvel Comics' powers-that-be decided our hero needed such a crash course in lupine savagery is anyone's guess. Still, it could have been worse. They could have given him a crash course in lupin savagery. Now there would have been a story to fear. In truth, the overdose of wolfmen's probably pure coincidence but who cares? For once, it gives Spidey a chance to fight villains who don't answer back.

So, that settled, which wolf is best?

For me it's got to be Man-Wolf. Leaving aside the fact he's got a snappier nomenclature, he's also got a costume - and his head actually looks like a wolf instead of a coconut. On top of that, the dramatic potential of him being J Jonah Jameson's son is far stronger than that of him being someone we'd never heard of (Jack Russell) until he got the mark of the beast.

Still, you have to feel sorry for John Jameson. Seemingly a decent chap, on his first appearance, way back in Amazing Spider-Man #1, his space capsule nearly crashed. In a subsequent appearance, deadly space spores turned him into a mad super-villain. And now, moon beams have turned him into a wolf. Clearly outer space and John Jameson don't mix. All the more unfortunate then that he's an astronaut.

I have to admit the era of the strip we're in now's my all-time favourite. I mean, the Ditko era has a charm all its own and I've always viewed the Romita epoch as "classic" Spider-Man but the months - and even years - in the wake of Gwen Stacy's death, and Peter Parker's subsequent romance with Mary Jane - not to mention the shifting in his relationships with the other characters, and with himself - grabs me the most.

And this issue? Highlights of the month have to be the closing panel, with Spidey looking the wrong way as the Man-Wolf leaps at him, and also Peter Parker, in class, snapping his pencil in half. Who would've thought that a man snapping an HB in two would grab you so much? It just goes to show it's a strange old world.

But then, John Jameson could have told you that.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Amazing Spider-Man #123. Luke Cage - hero for hire

Amazing Spider-Man #123, Luke Cage, hero for hire
(Cover from August 1973.)

"Just A Man Called Cage!"

Words by Gerry Conway.
Pencils by Gil Kane and John Romita.
Inks by John Romita and Tony Mortellaro.
Lettering by Artie Simek.
Colours by Dave Hunt.

There's a theory that, whatever your calendar might say, each decade actually begins three years into its tenure. Can it be the same rule applies to Spider-Man?


In many ways Luke Cage is a corny and clich├ęd character and definitely a creation of his time. But he can also be a compelling one - hard-bitten and cynical, driven more by the need to make money than a desire to be the good guy - and his appearance in Spider-Man can be viewed in some ways as a precursor to the arrival of The Punisher. The Punisher, of course, has other motives but, like Cage, inhabits a landscape harder and meaner than our hero's previously inhabited. It may be 1973 but, maybe, in acknowledging a harsher reality out there, perhaps the rule stands true and this is the tale in which Spider-Man fully enters the 1970s.

Of course, being a pro doesn't mean Cage won't do the right thing in the end and he's a suitable foe for Spider-Man; even if, in reality, he wouldn't stand a chance against the web-spinner. Still, the fight allows Spidey to get a few things off his chest, and the contrast in mentality between the two characters makes the story work.

Cage also turns out to be a lot smarter than most foes Spidey's ever come across. He works out the three places our hero's most likely to be and, by a speedy process of elimination, works out exactly where to find him. It makes you wonder why none of his previous foes - or the police for that matter -have ever been that bright.

As for the set up, yet again we have the, "J Jonah Jameson gets someone in to capture Spider-Man," storyline. But this time it's different. This time, Jameson's motives seem pure. He really does see Spider-Man as a menace - and, for once, has good evidence to think so. With this and Joe Robertson's defence of Jameson early in the tale, it's a noticeably more balanced portrayal of the Daily Bugle publisher than we're used to and all the more welcome for it.

But there's other business here. There's still that shadowy figure from last issue, the one who saw the Green Goblin's death, and now, it transpires, has since removed the Goblin's costume to make the whole world think Spider-Man murdered Norman Osborn. Who is he? Who can he be?

I think we can guess.

But can we guess right?

Monday, 23 November 2009

Amazing Spider-Man #122. The Green Goblin dies

Amazing Spider-Man #122, the death of the Green Goblin
(Cover from July 1973.)

"The Goblin's Last Stand!"

Words by Gerry Conway.
Art by Gil Kane/John Romita/Tony Mortellaro.
Lettering by Artie Simek.
Colours by Andy Yanchus.

"And so do the proud men die. Crucified not on a cross of gold but on a stake of humble tin." Issue #121 may be the attention grabber; the one in which Gwen Stacy actually dies but this is the issue that redefines the strip and redefines comics in general. Never before had a super-hero title dealt in raw emotion the way this one does. Not content with killing off one major character, we now have two bodies on our hands. First Peter Parker's greatest love and now his greatest enemy. Gerry Conway may have taken command many moons ago - and done it quietly - but this is the moment in which he positively shouts his arrival.

But Gwen and the Goblin aren't the only ones to have died this night. Steve Ditko's Spider-Man dies too, the wise-cracking one who fought villains out of a sense of responsibility. Now his co-creation's on a mission for vengeance and doesn't care who gets hurt along the way. The Goblin's cluelessness in this story's astonishing. He clearly doesn't get that this isn't the old Spider-Man he's up against. The rules have changed. This is Spider-Man as avenging angel. This is a foe even more murderous than he.

Amazing Spider-Man #122, the Green Goblin dies, impaled by his own gliderSpider-Man of course stops at murder. Marvel would never, and should never, let one of its heroes go that far - not, at least, without suffering the ultimate retribution themselves - but it means the Goblin never had a chance.

Dead too is the Mary Jane of old, the care-free, careless, callous party girl with the teflon persona to which nothing, not even being held at gunpoint in issue #59, sticks. In comes a new Mary Jane; perhaps not more complex but willing at least to show those complexities. When the Goblin calls Gwen a simpering, pointless girl who never did more than occupy space, was he merely voicing the thoughts of Conway? And is this why the tale ends with Mary Jane so prominent? Glad to be rid of her, Conway simply couldn't wait to fill the vacuum that he saw in Gwen?

Amazing Spider-Man #122, Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson at his apartment. Mary Jane crying

But, in all this turmoil, there's one other strand. Just who is that figure lurking in the dark and what part can he have to play in all this?

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Amazing Spider-Man #121. The Death of Gwen Stacy

Amazing Spider-Man #121, the death of Gwen Stacy
(Cover from June 1973.)

"The Night Gwen Stacy Died"

Words by Gerry Conway.
Art by Gil Kane/John Romita/Tony Mortellaro.
Lettering by Artie Simek.
Colours by Andy Yanchus.

Just as lives change, so do times. Had this issue been produced in a more recent era, it would have been marketed as an, "event," with eight different variant covers, five million copies shipped and a media blitz. As it is, there's none of that.

Granted, the men behind it were shrewd enough to know they had a big deal on their hands. The cover lets you know that, as does the decision to hide the story's title until the very last panel. But they had the sense to not give the game away. We're told someone's going to die but not who. It means the comic gets by purely on surprise and power.

And of course the death of Gwen Stacy is more than a surprise. It's an outright shock. Never before had a comic done anything so dramatic or daring. Lois Lane might have got kidnapped on a virtually daily basis but you were never left in any doubt that, thanks to Superman, she'd escape without a scratch on her.

But this isn't Superman. This is Spider-Man; and Spider-Man does things differently.

Amazing Spider-Man #121, how does Gwen Stacy die?
But exactly how does she die? To me it's pretty unambiguous. As Spider-Man fires his webbing to save her, he hears a, "Swik."

We see a, "Snap."

Clearly the sudden halt to her descent has broken her neck, killing her instantly.

The Goblin has other ideas, claiming that a fall from that height would kill anyone long before they hit the ground. Oh yeah? Try telling that to all the zillions of parachutists out there. No no no, in his attempts to save her, Spider-Man - not the Green Goblin - killed Gwen Stacy, and that makes her death all the more shocking.

But, shock ending aside, does the story actually stand up?

Well, yeah, in its own way. It has to be said that, up to the climax, it's not an exceptional tale. Harry's on the drugs - been done before. Norman Osborn, a man under pressure, snaps and rushes to a secret hideout to become the Green Goblin - been done before. Peter Parker goes into battle feeling under the weather - been done before. We even get the obligatory scene at the Daily Bugle where J Jonah Jameson has a rant at Peter before discovering he's got sensational pictures of Spider-Man. So, all in all, just another Spider-Tale from the production line that's been churning them out for a decade now.

But, in a way, that's the story's strength. It means you're not prepared for it to become so epoch-making. Yes, we know someone's going to die but the front cover hints at one of a whole bunch of people. Events early on suggest it's either Harry or Norman Osborn. The cover implies it might even be Randy Robertson, a dispensable character if ever there was one. And, had this story been done now, you know it would've been a double-length issue, with the last few pages each containing less frames than the one before until it climaxed with one big frame (And mustn't forget the internal monologue that'd accompany each picture. Mustn't forget to let us know just what Peter Parker's thinking as his beloved plummets to her death. The word, "no" would have featured at some point, as well as, "can't.").

OK, so this does end with one big frame - but the build up to it involves no gimmicks, just the style of story-telling we'd expect to see in any issue. And the normality of the tale, the fact that it's executed just like any other up until that fateful scene, that's why the climax hits so hard when it arrives.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Amazing Spider-Man #120. The Hulk in Canada

Amazing Spider-Man #120, the Incredible Hulk, Canada
(Cover from May 1973.)

"The Fight And The Fury!"

Words by Gerry Conway.
Pencils by Gil Kane.
Inks by John Romita/Tony Mortellaro.
Art assist by P. Reinman.
Lettering by Artie Simek.
Colours by Stan G.

Hard to believe that something the size of the Hulk might quickly become an irrelevance but, oddly enough, that's exactly what he is this issue. After all the big build up, last month, to the fight between the not-so-jolly green giant and the webbed wonder, this issue, he doesn't really need to be in it at all.

The core of the tale is this; Peter Parker goes to meet the mysterious lawyer Mssr Rimbaud, only for the solicitor to be shot before he can tell Peter what the big deal with his aunt is. All of which makes Spider-Man's twin meetings with the Hulk so much padding. Remove them and the outcome of the tale would be exactly the same. It's inevitable I suppose. Whatever Spidey's many attributes, he's never going to win a fight with the Hulk, so any action between the two can only be used as a temporary diversion in a wider plot.

On the art front, Gil Kane's back. His layouts this issue don't seem as imaginative as they have in the past but, of course, they still have all their usual polish and slickness.

Something that's oddly pleasing to me is the final panel on the page where the Hulk uproots a column and flings it at our hero. The depiction of the Hulk in that frame is remarkably Ditko-esque. I'm sure it's pure coincidence, just a natural overlap in styles but still, it's oddly pleasing to be reminded, at this late stage, of the strip's original artist.

How unlucky is Peter Parker? It's the second issue running where he happens to be in a vehicle that just happens to blunder straight into the path of the gamma-spawned monster. I mean, really, what're the chances?

Friday, 20 November 2009

Amazing Spider-Man #119. The Hulk in Canada

Amazing Spider-Man #119, Spider-Man vs the Incredible Hulk, Canada
(Cover from April 1973.)

"The Gentleman's Name Is... The Hulk!"

Words by Gerry Conway.
Art by John Romita.
Lettering by John Costanza.
Colours by Andrea Hunt.

Spider-Man and the Hulk. Kindred spirits in so many ways. Both men of science. Both products of a radiation-based accident. Both misunderstood by a society that views them as a menace. Both of them Marvel big hitters.

Odd then that, up to this point, they'd met so rarely. In fact, off the top of my head, this is their first real encounter I can recall. Oh yeah, they met in Amazing Spider-Man #14 and Amazing Spider-Man King-Size Special #3 but, in both cases, their encounter was brief and only part of a bigger story (Spidey vs the Enforcers/Green Goblin, Spidey auditions for the Avengers). Here, they finally get a full-fledged battle to themselves.

And what a battle it is, as the Hulk and the military fling everything they've got at each other. There're times when Romita's ability to capture action is truly remarkable

But it's interesting to see Romita and Conway's take on the Hulk - and on General Thunderbolt Ross. It's a more violent view of both characters than we're used to from Jade Jaws' own mag. For instance, by this point in that strip's history, Ross had mellowed into a more thoughtful character, torn between a sense of guilt that he might have to kill his daughter's beloved, and a sense of duty to stop the Hulk before he causes a major catastrophe.

Not here he's not.

Here, he rants his way through the story - J Jonah Jameson style - in a portrayal that owes more to his original depiction in the early days of The Incredible Hulk comic.

As for the green one, here he's positively murderous in his rage. Not for Conway and Romita the tortured beast who only wants to sit on a log and play with the wildlife. Here, we have a creature that attacks everyone and everything in its path, with no regard at all for human life. At the story's close - as the Hulk's trying to kill him - Spidey declares that the behemoth doesn't want to hurt anyone, but the truth is that, in this tale, he seems to want to hurt everyone and everything. Even a dam!

Other points. The driver of the truck the Hulk attacks should be court-martialled on the spot if he can't see a ten foot tall, bright green man looming mere feet ahead of him. Also interesting to see that Spidey's webbing seems to have grown in strength dramatically, judging by the huge lump of rock it stops, mid-flight, and then sends zooming back to the Hulk.

Norman Osborn's acting a little strange this issue. Hmn. Wonder what that could mean?

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Amazing Spider-Man #118. The Smasher and the Disruptor

Amazing Spider-Man #118, the Smasher and the Disruptor
(Cover from March 1973.)

"Countdown to Chaos!"

Words by Stan Lee/Gerry Conway.
Art by John Romita/Jim Mooney/Tony Mortellaro.
Lettering by Rosen/Duffy.
Colours by Stan G.

Confusion. It was the title of an old ELO song and it might as well be the title of this titanic tale. At one point Spider-Man gets so befuddled, he calls Joe Robertson, "Joe Robinson". Never can a man have been so confused since Bruce Banner spent a whole issue of the Fantastic Four calling himself Bob.

But then there's no wonder our hero's confused. Anyone who wouldn't be baffled by the goings-on in this tale would need the mental storage-capacity of Einstein and the deductive powers of Jessica Fletcher. In a nutshell, this is it: Spidey tracks the Smasher to the Disruptor's HQ and discovers the Disruptor is in fact hugely popular mayoral candidate Richard Raleigh.

Well that's no surprise. Hands up anyone who didn't see that coming? What I didn't see coming was the total lack of explanation for any of it. The obvious assumption is that Raleigh was trying to boost his electoral chances by staging a series of attacks against himself. The only problem is, Raleigh was leading the polls all the way and didn't need to do any such thing. Certainly not anything this risky. It also doesn't come across as his motivation back at his lair, where his motivation seems to be... ...erm... ...erm...

That aside, the Disruptor's clearly a complete plank. Not content with wearing a terrible costume no self-respecting villain would be seen dead in, he does the old super-villain thing of completely ignoring his scientific advisor, thus getting carried away with his remote control and sending his own creation on the rampage.

Nice touch of the issue has to the be the "scrolling" news updates that accompany Spidey's fight with the Smasher.

Lowlight of the issue has to be Harry Osborn's startling resemblance to Aunt May when he spots the Smasher heading towards the gang's van.

Mary Jane has a strange personality transplant and is happy to see Gwen and Peter together, whilst chastising Harry for paying too much attention to them and not to her. That's the girl who's spent the last couple of years coming onto Pete in front of Harry at every possible opportunity? Does one spot the moment when Gerry Conway's rehabilitation of Mary Jane as a character began? Did he already have in mind what we later found out he had in mind?

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Amazing Spider-Man #117. The Smasher and the Disruptor

Amazing Spider-Man #117, the Disruptor
(Cover from February 1973.)

"The Deadly Designs of the Disruptor!"

Words by Stan Lee/Gerry Conway.
Art by John Romita/Jim Mooney/T Mortellaro.
Lettering by Sam Rosen/Artie Simek.
Colours by Stan G.

The Amazing Spider-Man goes into full-blown cornball mode with the arrival of... ...the Disruptor. So-called, presumably, because he disrupts political meetings. Let's face it, as concepts go, disrupting political meetings isn't quite on a par with Galactus, the eater of worlds, and the man seems to have the same blind costume designer as Daredevil's Masked Marauder.

Regardless of his less-than-classic status, we're left to ponder just who the Disruptor could be.

Except that anyone with a brain between the ears already knows who he is; especially as Peter Parker keeps dropping hints that all might not be right with Richard Raleigh - as does Joe Robertson. And, of course, that fabulous judge of character, J Jonah Jameson is a big fan of Raleigh's. So why do I get the feeling readers aren't exactly going to be gobsmacked when the big reveal happens next issue?

The Smasher's still in this saga but might as well not be, appearing only briefly in the middle and end of the issue and suffering from the fact that he has no mind of his own and we never got to see him before he became The Smasher. Herein probably lies the basis for why - in the annals of comicdom - despite looming so large he ultimately left no shadow.

Nice to see that Mary Jane's previous interest in politics seems to come down to nothing more than lust.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Amazing Spider-Man #116. The Smasher

Amazing Spider-Man #116, the Smasher
(Cover from January 1973.)

“Suddenly… The Smasher!”

Words by Stan Lee/Gerry Conway.
Pencils by John Romita.
Inks by Jim Mooney.

Well, knock me down with a kipper. If it isn’t Stan (the Man) Lee, back in the writer’s chair and ready to thrill us all with his latest tale.

Well, not really. If my understanding’s right, this is a story devised for the original, short-lived Spectacular Spider-Man comic, way back in the 1960s, dusted off and redone for this era.

And it shows. The whole thing feels like a tale from six or seven years earlier and, as such, it’s oddly pleasing. You almost expect Peter Parker to drop into the Coffee Bean for a quick round of quick-fire banter with Flash and the gang. Sadly, it never happens.

The tale itself is oddly familiar, with strong echoes of the Bullitt storyline (whole city eager to vote for a politician who’s vowing to smash the crime wave. JJ flinging The Daily Bugle’s weight behind his campaign. Joe Robertson being suspicious about him), and Romita tips his hand way too early by letting us know from Moment One that Richard Raleigh’s a ranting basket case. It would’ve been more effective to leave us thinking he was the real deal. Instead, we’re left in no doubt that he’s going to turn out to be the villain of the piece and that, therefore, he’s the man behind The Smasher.

The Smasher, what can you say about him? Somehow, the name alone lets you know he’s not destined to go down as one of Marvel’s great villains and I know from trying - and failing - to sell these issues on eBay, how little interest in them there is. They’re pretty much the only issues from the early 70s that are next to impossible to shift.

Mary Jane’s into politics? Really?

On other fronts, yet again Peter Parker shows his tendency to defy all logic. He spots that the ceiling’s supporting beam is going, so he makes his excuses, slips away, wrecks the lights and leaps up onto the ceiling to fix it with his webbing - which isn’t strong enough - when he could just have shouted to people to evacuate the hall.

And now, because of it we’re all going to have to endure a cliff-hanger ending of unbelievable tension and drama.

Oh Peter, will you never learn?

Monday, 16 November 2009

Amazing Spider-Man #115. Dr Octopus and Hammerhead

Amazing Spider-Man #115, Dr Octopus. Aunt May threatens to shoot Spider-Man
(Cover from December 1972.)

"The Last Battle!"

Words by Gerry Conway.
Art by John Romita/Tony Mortellaro.
Lettering by Artie Simek.

Two facts emerge from this tale.

One. Aunt May has the intelligence of a cabbage. Even after all these encounters with Doc Ock, she still hasn't figured out he's a bad guy.

Two. Her heart's clearly coming on in leaps and bounds. A woman who traditionally collapses at the sight of a kitten, somehow manages to get through an armed siege on a house and two encounters with Spider-Man - during one of which she tries to shoot him - and her heart seems fine. You start to wonder if she's been putting it on all these years, just to get sympathy.

May Parker aside, you can't get away from it, this is one of the most action-packed issues of recent years - and all the better for it. After a couple of not very memorable months, the tale suddenly bursts into life, with out-and-out war between its two villains, and also starts to set things up for the future. At the very end of the story, Hammerhead even briefly manages to become an interesting character; and that takes some doing.

Highlight of the month has to be the "gentleman" act Dr Octopus puts on for Aunt May during his confrontation with Spidey. You get the feeling Conway was having fun with it.

On other fronts, Gwen's still calling Aunt May, "Mrs Parker." Sigh.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Amazing Spider-Man #114. Dr Octopus and Hammerhead

Amazing Spider-Man #114, Dr Octopus and the first full appearance of Hammerhead
(Cover from November 1972.)

"Gang War, Shmang War! What I want To Know Is...Who The Heck Is Hammerhead?"

Words by Gerry Conway.
Art by John Romita/Jim Starlin/T Mortellaro.
Lettering by Artie Simek.

Hammerhead. What images that name conjures up. Right from the moment you first hear it, you know what a character called Hammerhead's going to be like; a deadly opponent of the Sub-Mariner. Sleek and deadly, armed with huge strength and cunning.

What's that? He's not? Turns out he's just some two-bit hood with a hard head?

You may have guessed I've never been a huge fan of Hammerhead. I mean, if Spider-Man - or anyone else - wants to beat him, all they have to do is make sure to hit him anywhere except the noggin.

Sadly, this never seems to occur to either Spidey or Doc Ock, two men of proven genius. The story itself''s OK but I don't think anyone's going to be putting it on their list of Spider-Man classics. I also have to say that Hammerhead's revolving office is plain ludicrous. Exactly what purpose it serves for the villain is anyone's guess.

Highlight of the tale has to be its climax, with Aunt May in league with Dr Octopus and clobbering Spider-Man - also introducing the concept that Spidey can't sense threats if they come from friends or loved ones. It's an idea Gerry Conway would use again in a far more significant tale than this but, right now, it's new, and if there's an ending you didn't see coming, it has to be this one.

On the art front, it's the second issue running that Jim Starlin gets an art assist credit - and the second issue running that I can't see even the vaguest hint of his involvement. I guess that, despite having once been bitten by a radioactive artist detector, my artist detector sense isn't all it could be.

Or perhaps I can only detect art assists from my enemies and not from my friends and loved ones...?

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Amazing Spider-Man #113. Dr Octopus and Hammerhead

Amazing Spider-Man #113, Dr Octopus bursts out of a newspaper
(Cover from October 1972.)

"They Call the Doctor, 'Octopus!'"

Words by Gerry Conway.
Art by John Romita, Jim Starlin, T Mortellaro.
Lettering by Artie Simek.

What an unbelievable Doctor Dr Bromwell is. Just by planting a stethoscope on Peter Parker's chest, and having been told none of his symptoms, he can tell instantly that he has a duodenal ulcer. No wonder Americans don't want a National Health Service if their system produces medics of this calibre.

But then, doctors have always been clever in Spider-Man. Look at Doc Ock. Not content with seeing off our hero - and removing his mask in the process - he then refuses to fall into the trap of his mysterious new rival for control of the local crime scene. But, in truth this isn't that much of a story. Spidey fights Octopus a couple of times, ultimately beats him with one punch and then Octopus's mystery rival's revealed.

Something that does leap out at me during this issue is a strange thing that happens only in the world of comic books, where people who're basically friends insist on calling each other by their surnames. It happens in The Fantastic Four all the time, where, for instance, Mr Fantastic and Ant Man will have a conversation, and Mr Fantastic will be calling Ant Man, "Pym," and Ant Man will be calling Mr Fantastic, "Richards." The very same thing happens in this tale with Peter and Ned calling each other by their surnames even though they've known each other for years. Why is this? As every writer seems to do it, it's clearly a convention of the comic book industry but I've never been able to work out why.

On the Gerry Conway front - not content with giving Spider-Man an ulcer - for some reason, he decides to lumber him with a comedy mask he can't breathe through. In my book, the replacement mask has to be one of the most annoying subplots the strip's ever had and it's a blessed relief for us all, not just Spider-Man, when the day finally arrives where the mask is disposed of.

Trouble is, that's not till issue #116 and we're only on issue #113. :(

Friday, 13 November 2009

Amazing Spider-Man #112. Spidey cops out

Amazing Spider-Man #112
(I'd heard the crime rate in New York was high but...
Cover from September 1972.)

"Spidey Cops Out!"

Words by Gerry Conway.
Art by John Romita.
Lettering by Artie Simek.

It's surprising how an issue can be made by just four panels. In the case of The Amazing Spider-Man #112, it just so happens to be the last four panels.

John Romita's claimed in the past that every time he inked Gil Kane, he learned something new from him. And it shows here. The three vertical panels of the penultimate page are pure Gil Kane both conceptually and in execution, and the panel-by-panel arrival of the villain's shadow - a thing you only fully appreciate on close inspection - is sheer genius.

As for the final - and mightiest - panel of them all, the sense of menace, danger and anticipation Romita creates is irresistible, Just look at the way Octopus smashes bricks from the surrounding walls, the way one tentacle heads for Spidey, its ruthless claw packed with intent, the sense of space and height and of Spider-Man's smallness relative to his surroundings. Kane in many ways rehabilitated Octopus and now Romita carries that on.

As for the rest of the tale, on first glance it's just a rehash of issue #50, with Peter Parker deciding he can't be bothered fighting crooks anymore because of its affect on his personal life and those around him. But Conway and Romita bring a new element to the tale. It's not that Peter Parker wants to give up being Spider-Man but that, for once, he's determined to use the identity to get what he wants. This concentration on the needs and life of Peter Parker strengthens the story considerably. Stan Lee always talks of Spider-Man as a soap, and this issue's focus on Peter's interactions with those around him fulfils that claim. At times (especially the Daily Bugle scenes), it really does feel like you're watching an episode of a TV show - which I suppose is inevitable given Gerry Conway's later career path.

And of Conway himself? Interesting that, in the credits, he still has second billing to Romita. It seems he yet has some way to go before he convinces the powers-that-be that his name too can sell a comic.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Amazing Spider-Man #111. Kraven and the Gibbon

Amazing Spider-Man #111, Kraven and the Gibbon
(Cover from August 1972.)

"To Stalk a Spider!"

Words by Gerry Conway.
Art by John Romita.
Lettering by John Costanza.

For the first time ever, an issue of Spider-Man has no writing credit for his creator, as Stan Lee steps down to be replaced by Gerry Conway who, by my reckoning, can have been barely more than a foetus when he started writing the strip.

And how does he do?

Pretty well. The truth is that, this early on, it's hard to spot the difference between his writing and Stan Lee's. Clearly his own style developed as it went along.

One thing that does seem to be typical Conway though is the idea of Kraven using the Gibbon as his pawn. "Scheming villain using a more malleable villain/character for his purposes," is a theme Conway returned to repeatedly throughout his stint on the strip. Remember the machinations of the Jackal and Dr Jonas Harrow?

Something odd appears to be happening to time in this tale. For Spider-Man, the gap between his meetings with the Gibbon seems to have been just a few hours but, the way Kraven and Blank are talking when they're back at the hunter's lair, it seems like they've been working together for weeks, with Blank talking about the training Kraven's given him - and the seemingly lengthy course of herbal draughts. Clearly Kraven's the kind of man who'd tear up a "Learn to Play Guitar Like Jimi Hendrix in Three Days," book because it was taking too long.

Also interesting to see Kraven's latest attack on Spider-Man being motivated by a desire to avenge the death of Gog, showing a "moral" side to the man that we've never even had hints of before. So, perhaps, "the man who killed Gwen Stacy," is already starting to impose his own ways on the strip after all.

On the art front, John Romita's busier style of these stories is starting to grow on me. I'm never, I think, going to like it as much as his simpler work of the late 1960s but it's more appealing than I once thought.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Amazing Spider-Man #110. The Gibbon

Amazing Spider-Man #110, first appearance the Gibbon and origin
(Cover from July 1972.)

"The Birth of the Gibbon!"

Words by Stan Lee.
Art by John Romita.
Lettering by John Costanza.

At the start of this tale, Stan Lee declares the Gibbon to be, "One of the greatest new superstars in the Mighty Marvel Universe." He doesn't just say it once, he says it twice. Whether he really believed this hyperbole is anybody's guess but he was clearly wrong.

Martin (the Gibbon) Blank was never in the running to knock the likes of Spider-Man and Wolverine off their plinths of popularity. But that's only fitting. His entire ability to hold our attention comes down to his total irrelevance. Indeed, he's an oddly haunting character. In so many ways he echoes Hobie (The Prowler) Brown, a character so beaten down by the injustice of his life that the only escape he perceives is to wear a bad costume and run around town not totally sure if he's a hero or villain, just as long as he's not a nobody.

But Hobie Brown's "tragedy" was never really that. However bad things got for him, he always had the ingenuity, and the love of a good woman, to help him turn things around. The Gibbon's alone, despised and ignored, doomed to a life of failure; the one talent he has - the agility of an ape - being the very thing that's held him back as people have labelled him a freak. Thus his despair at the climax, as Spider-Man can't even be bothered to fight him but leaves him alone on a rooftop, his attempts to be first a hero and then a killer, both thwarted. There can rarely have a been a character so bleakly drawn in all of comics and it's a tribute to both Lee and Romita that they were willing to excavate so far beneath the skin of a putative, "villain."

It's also a tribute to them that they were willing to make Spider-Man's treatment of the Gibbon so crass. To anyone with a functioning brain it'd be obvious that what the Gibbon needs most is the one thing he's never had - a friend. But, no, Spider-Man, with that customary ability to say the wrong thing at the wrong time, acts like a complete jerk, ridiculing him and dismissing him, even as the man's trying to kill him; leaving his foe's psyche to implode into a sense of total despair. One of the appeals of this series is that it's hero isn't always as clever as he should be and here's a perfect example of him putting both feet in it completely.

Away from the action, there's a nicely rendered dream sequence by John Romita. He was never flamboyant but he really was a master story-teller. And there's the revelation that Gwen Stacy still calls Aunt May, "Mrs Parker," even after all these years.

But there's one more character in our little tragedy. Who can it be, this figure at the story's very end, the sinister pair of eyeballs with plans for Martin Blank?


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