Wednesday, July 19, 2017

1st Marvel : Iron Man- Spider-Man & Luke McDonnell, the guy to call when it's down and dirty

First, Happy Birthday, Luke McDonnell! Every since I discovered recently he was born July 19th I knew how to break apart the O’Neil run- largely defined by Denny’s work with newbie John Romita, Jr.-and which day to post. It fit neatly with an Alan Kupperberg tribute remembering him on the anniversary of his death, July 17th. It’s interesting to me, anyway, that McDonnell starts superheroes on Spider-Man and goes on to a long Iron Man run, while Romita essential is vice versa.
I note this type casting of sorts where, when you need to put characters through a rough time- when you want to tantalize or depict their downfall or hard times-Mr. McDonnell looks like the go-to guy! If you start from putting clean-cut square nebbish Peter Parker in jail, you then get Tony Stark penniless on the streets, the premier DC Comics team Justice League of America in crisis free fall, and end up with an even bigger set of doomed rejects in The Suicide Squad!
For my theory about McDonnell’s grimier comics work, he’s nonetheless from the start done a lot of work that ties into film. For one, his Marvel debut adapted the venerable, seminal science fiction television classic, Star Trek. He draws Star Trek #12, 14, 16 (1981) Mar ‘81 May ‘81 July ‘81 Those three issues overlap with Luke’s debut in mainstream superhero comics, which we briefly covered in “Peter Parker finds a voice in Roger Stern”:
Spec Spider-man #55 June 1981 Here, the former Champions lawyer overrides Nitro’s worried daughter to essentially get him legally freed to wreck havoc.
So when we’re talking first Marvels, bear with me as I pick one beloved in my childhood, printed later in spring of ‘81. It teases a shocking, out-of-character development, complete with a seething, tormented Frank Miller cover (and you know what a business Frank went on to, drawing noir-ish tales of seedy disarray).
Amazing Spider-man #219 has a terrific, unique plot. It’s the best O’Neil-penned issue I’ve read, bar none (except Peter, who’s barred effectively). Expectations for Denny must’ve been sky-high, after he Marvelized Superman and took Batman back to his night creature roots with Neal Adams- his collaborator on an innovative, youthful approach to social realism shaping his team-up of the previously far-out Green Lantern and the counter cultural, hot-tempered bleeding heart take on new partner Green Arrow. In the Kupperberg essay I mentioned the episodic nature of O’Neil’s Spider-Man, and this, again, is a stand-alone story. There’s a whiff of that realism hinted in the prison breaks and life in jail. If Peter had spent more time on the inside, we might’ve gotten some of Denny’s strengths writing people from recognizable walks of life. And it might’ve been cringe-worthy. Playing safe with a character who’s about to be in two new cartoon series by fall, and keeping action compact, Denny plays up a misunderstanding: Spider-Man breaks IN to Ryker’s Island Prison, so as Peter Parker, he can investigate the “revolving door” of known criminals shedding their incarcerations. Camera at hand, Peter catches a glimpse of a jail break, but gets caught trespassing!

I love McDonnell’s Spider-Man, inked by Jim Mooney: he looks classic, he moves with way-cool agility. His Peter Parker’s nicely on-model with the recent Romita take; Matt Murdock and Aunt May look just right. McDonnell perfectly paces a story I found just slightly confusing as a little boy, a suspenseful build-up unraveling the mystery of just what Parker witnessed and what’s really happening at Ryker’s. He has a lot of story to squeeze into twenty-two pages, but he does his best to draw Grey Gargoyle with impact and some smooth movies, while his skulking Jonas Harrow’s just fine as the crackpot mad scientist who’s been plaguing Spidey with super-criminals he’s enhanced since the Kangaroo in #126.

We actually saw the Wizard broken out of Ryker’s going into the Frightful Four story months ago, so this is one of Dennis’ ongoing ideas across his tenure.

Ryker’s provides a desolate, formidable setting, so the opening pictures are very atmospheric, different than our usual Manhattan skylines, warehouses & apartments. Luke’s splash makes you want this comic! Pete dispenses with his costume, so he’s in civvies when he runs across a trio breaking out. He takes a photo before he knows who they are, but he’s detained immediately as a trespasser. Soon we’ll see Armand DuBroth, a trustee with blackmail over the warden, testify in court that Parker’s the real break-out ring leader! Peter Parker in prison is an idea that could’ve taken up more space for sure- but maybe it would’ve been too different for The Amazing Spider-Man as a title. It’s certainly in line with Denny’s work later on The Question: dignity of prisoners, jail yard politics, personal stories. He took this on without any idea from Jonah, who refuses to make bail. Pete gets free counsel provided by Matt Murdock, whose senses can pick out the power of Spider-Man, costume or no, but bail’s provided by Aunt May. I really like this: she and her retirement home friends believe in Pete’s innocence and take a big chance for him. Spider-Man- and Peter- has played her hero many times, so it’s nice to be reminded, should he be helpless, May Parker has always and will always be there for him!

That’s what sets up the issue’s stakes: Peter still needs evidence of the crime he witnessed, and with his skill at skeevy characters, McDonnell’s shown us the alcoholic janitor make off with Pete’s very nice camera, to pawn. Suspense builds, but we get a Parker Luck detour where Peter utilizes his original Spider-Man costume, recently ruined by a detergent he’s concocted to wash out the brine from his encounter offshore in #213 with Prince Namor.
With May’s friends’ bail at risk, Spider-Man breaks into Ryker’s a second time, presented by Don Warfield as a pale-colored ghost. I had a washed-out Spidey Underoos t-shirt myself; maybe that’s part of why this scene connected with me. He finds the replacement Spider-suit he abandoned on Ryker’s Island, changes, then webs up the ruined original one with some reflective thoughts about disposing this part of his history “like sinking a part of myself.”
This nostalgic attachment for a long-time memento of his years-long career fascinated, moved me. After years of presentations of his differently-aged incarnations, I’d realize he’d have filled out a bit since he was fifteen and replaced his costume long since, but I found Spider-Man’s attachment to his old disguise, the secret personal decisions and dangers it represented, relatable. As a child, I was already gaining a sense of life passing along through eras. I wondered at the meaning of “sinking a part of myself.” This was also the first comic book I was conscious I’d lost, and so, appropriately, I’d one day hunt down and replace it- a lost piece of my own past. I imagine that’s an appeal of this book to many of you, too.

Spider-Man hunts down the pawned camera by tracking the Grey Gargoyle and Dr. Harrow, who want it destroyed, and Parker, framed. Personal stakes hinge now on a single, fragile camera, and the battle’s on. Gargoyle demonstrates his deadly power to turn things to stone and use superhuman strength to grind them to powder. As Thor and Iron Man discovered early on, it’s hard to fight someone you can’t let touch you. (Spidey had found out about that stone touch while teamed up with Cap against G.G. and A.I.M. in Marvel Team-Up #13) Harrow’s always played behind the scenes, as he has no powers and uses no special weapons, but while Spidey ducks a deadly stone basketball, clunks Gargoyle with a television set, and after Spider-Man’s webbed Grey Gargoyle to the ground, Harrow gets his hand on the camera and smashes it into the wall-obliterates it, really. Now that might’ve ruined the film, but it’s safe now for the pawn shop owner to come forward with the roll- which he’d taken out so he could use the camera- as we saw-to take pictures of his grandson. Spider-Man: “Mister, you just saved a man’s freedom...and for that, he is eternally grateful.”

DeFalco kept putting together teams that gave us Spidey on-time and in-character every month, tapping a trio of sub artists (and on writing chores for the creepily-covered ASM #220, the suitably Michael Fleischer-style “A Coffin For Spider-Man!”) while Romita plays catch-up here and on Invincible Iron Man. Now, just as Romita’s about to leave Iron Man...

Iron Man #151 : McDonnell fills in after the very cool anniversary issue battle with Dr. Doom that hurtles he and Iron Man back in time- with another buggy hero as the guest headliner. Luke’s solo Ant Man tale’s based at Stark Enterprise nonetheless, complete with a run- amok computer security system and the signature humor defining the Scott Lang version of the hero, from these Iron Man guest stints to his eventual star movie turn. Luke’s next shot also comes with a guest star, the rising-popular Moon Knight- and then, away Luke and Denny go on a near-unbroken run of almost three years. The set-up for Tony Stark’s problems with raider Obadiah Stane marks the new era (Iron Man) 161, 163–187, 189–195 (1981–1985). By #167, the bottle’s back in a splash page sort of way.
Luke’s art suits my point about giving McDonnell the call when you’re ready for a gritty take. Throughout the run, even after James Rhodes takes over soon, Iron Man himself is less shiny and sleek overall than under Layton’s inks. Steve Mitchell brings in more shadows and silhouettes; their artwork’s characterized by Benday dots and color holds. The shading joins the figure drawing to produce an effect that to me is a callback to the Gene Colan days. Their less-glamorous faces convey more world-weariness; aside from femme fatale Indries Moomji, there’s an aching realism, less models and, sometimes, madness, drunkenness, and lived-in, rumpled supporting characters. The settings, especially around Tony as his fortunes fold, go from the Playboy Club to the Bowery itself. We go from Beth McCabe to addicted expectant mother Gretchen. James Rhodes drops into see kin in South Philly.

Is it just me, or does this art team put Iron Man in the air more than ever? Early Iron Man soon could fly, but the interlocking demands on his power supply- the finite, self-created superman-fit with the overall Marvel motif of not introducing many conventionally-flying superheroes. (Torch and Namor, of course, are the two holdover creations from the original World War II-era Marvel.) Rhodey’s a pilot; once he gets used to the mighty strength and susses out the armory with Morley Erwin, the original “guy in the chair,” I daresay what he still loves most about being Invincible Iron Man is one of his very best qualifications. It certainly seems Luke McD enjoys the flight scenes like his hero does!

One more thing about the look of the strip under McDonnell/ Mitchell.
Outside of the initial Chessmen motif, and a clash with the intellectual Wrecking Crew member Thunderball, we get quirkier villains, and several new ones, too: no more repeat bouts with the Titanium Man. Perhaps the most classic foe of Iron Man’s run, however, does return, this time with a cowed Radioactive Man as his henchman, before the newest-look Mandarin steps from the shadows to get the jump on Iron Man.
We get a cool run-in with S.H.I.E.L.D. in the rookie turn of Rhodes rounding up Stark’s unfinished business, like sinking a fleet of Iron Man armors that becomes international salvage pirated by Atlantean warlord Krang. Rhodes also has an Achilles heel built-in that surfaces just in time to save his hypnotized life from “Mandy”: his mysterious headaches that take another year to clarify. Room to make radical changes, more adult, realistic and serious problems, and as the trifecta, layers of unfolding, ongoing subplots: this was everything Denny didn’t have in Amazing Spider-Man that made his Iron Man turn with Luke and Steve so memorable.

Luke then joins DC, a company going through an editorially-driven change towards mature content perfect for McDonnell, including an increasingly-grim Justice League run and, grittiest yet, his dominant presence on John Ostrander’s maturely-themed government villains, the Dirty Dozen-like Suicide Squad. So not only did Luke work on stories that influenced the successful Iron Man franchise, but he also illustrated most of the first four years of the series inspiring “the other guys’” hit movie starring Margot Robbie and Jared Leto!
Suicide Squad #1–24, 35, 38–39, 44, 46, 49–51 (1987–1991) Drew debut of Oracle in #23 (1987-1991)
Justice League of America #245–261 (1985–1987) Outlaws #1–8 (1991–1992) The Phantom #1–13 (1989–1990)
As per Wiki, McDonnell mainly works as a toy designer and illustrator at Craig Yoe's Yoe! Studio. We at Integr8d Fix wish Luke Many Happy Trips More ‘round The Sun!

Monday, July 17, 2017

Spider-Man and the Avengers

From the start, The Avengers, the Marvel Comic, was created to bring together as many of the company’s big solo stars as possible. His appearance in Captain America: Civil War marked the untangling of difficulties with rights-holder Sony, to allow a Spider-Man to come flipping onto that Berlin battlefield and snatch the shield of no less than Cap himself! A complicated circumstance under which to join any form of Avengers, but a logical one: Stark took a chance on the mystery teen and masterminded his recruitment. His non-adventures afterwards are the set-up to Spider-Man: Homecoming. I love the personally-filmed documentary of Pete’s Berlin mission and even the selfies going into that fight- what better way to reflect how star-struck and still immature Parker still was? With daily texts back to liason Happy Hogan, Pete yearns to break the bonds of his successful but comparatively uneventful scholastic life at Midtown High school. His tendency towards barging in without consultation iterates multiple times. It’s forced by his side-lining by Tony Stark, but it’s also very true to the character. I won’t spoil the ending, but Pete’s future as an Avenger falls right into his own hands. Prematurely?
I’ll let you- and Parker- decide.
For some reason, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee decided to keep developing their new teen character Spider-Man separately. He debuted just after most who joined the Avengers; the first issue of Amazing Spider-Man coincides with the premiere of Iron Man that month in Tales of Suspense (cover date, March 1963). There’s probably a cartoon version of him with them; he’s an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. in one Ultimate Spider-Man-style cartoon, along with Nova, Power Man and Iron Fist and the female White Tiger.

Maybe your friendly neighborhood wall-crawler, drawn lithely by co-creator Steve Ditko, had many reasons he wasn’t initially included in the group of Iron Man, Ant Man, the Wasp and Mighty Thor that first hunted down the Loki-controlled Incredible Hulk. David Anthony Kraft, a huge Avengers fan from their first years, said Spider-Man, the talkative wisecracker New Yorker, “seemed almost like a second stringer” compared to those heavy hitters. The team evolved soon to mix in more lower-powered characters to be sure, like the revived Captain America in issue #4, but even Ant-Man became a Giant Man by Avengers #2. (The Wasp, powered-up in her Tales to Astonish episodes some time after her own debut as Hank Pym’s size-changing partner, would finally receive her due as team leader as penned by Roger Stern, as you can read in “She’s the Boss.”) Amid many opinions, pro and contra, Stan finally gave Spidey a shot at teaming-up and possibly joining them in Amazing Spider-Man Annual #3. He brawls with them in hot-headed fashion, but a misunderstanding about his assignment to essentially capture and bring back The Hulk results in his compassionate side letting Banner go. I really didn’t like 1) how the Avengers had time to stand around Avengers Mansion but not to provide back-up in that dangerous mission and 2) the absurd rush contrived to keep Spider-Man from asking if they had a kinder agenda than to simply imprison or destroy their old teammate, Hulk! The Wasp’s “natural antipathy,” Thor’s memorable invitation, and Hawkeye’s boosterism- which doesn’t preclude offering to be the first to spar with him!- are nice characterization touches, as is the Banner identity discovery.
"I Want to Be an Avenger!"
With that hindsight, Roger Stern and Al Milgrom, inked by Joe Rosen, got a chance to reset the reasoning for that status quo, in Avengers #’s 236, 237. Like his movie counterpart, he’s eager to join, though not so starstruck. Echoing his attempt to join the Fantastic Four in Amazing #1, Peter brashly breaks into Avengers Mansion. His aggressive show of his abilities then takes a cooler approach this time- after all, he’s matured a few years. One motivation remains similar to that FF guest shot: he could really use the dough!

Although he’s been to Project: Pegasus before- in recent issues of Marvel Team-Up, as I recall-Spider-Man’s not cleared to pass security and join the Avengers when the Lava Men boil up there to wreak havoc. In true webbed buttinsky fashion, he stows away aboard a Quinjet and sways Captain America and the team to see his usefulness. His lack of teamwork training works against him with the Lava Men invasion-oops! The goddess-like appearance of the latest Captain Marvel saves the Avengers’ hash. (In fact, Monica Rambeau premiered as the Captain Marvel like no other in the previous Amazing Spider-Man Annual, #16!) It’s made apparent the surface world’s inadvertently the true invaders, via innocent energy research drilling.

Ah, but the escaped Blackout frees partner Moonstone, who chooses to break out old Spider-foes Electro and the Rhino. Project Pegasus ends up in a new peril poised to blow them all sky-high! Spidey’s science know-how saves the day. What a great turn-around, from bungler to science hero, all in true Spider-Man style, right alongside the Avengers themselves. But this time, it’s the Avengers expressing reservations: he rejects their offer to join the training program. Same goal accomplished, with my previous caveats addressed artfully.
Speaking of reserve, in Avengers #329, the wall-crawler does indeed become an Avenger-with official I.D. complete with communications properties- on stand-by status. His old enemy the Sandman-you know how fond he is of reforming, but I mean he went straight back then-joins under reservist status as well!

New Avengers #1. Finally, the deal’s done: it’s another breakout, instigated by Electro, at The Raft, a Ryker’s Island super villain prison installation. It’s a grueling arm-breaker of a battle- a deluxe version of the original Avengers impromptu gathering. At this point, the Avengers are officially disbanded, but writer Brian Michael Bendis reforges what he took apart, with 70’s refugees Spider-Woman, Luke Cage and super-popular Marvel heroes Wolverine and Spider-Man now working with Iron Man and Cap. Even Aunt May eventually moves into Avengers Tower- the location we see vacated on a Moving Day overseen by Happy Hogan in Spider-Man: Homecoming!

Speaking of moving out, Integr8d Fix is about done here for now. So, that’s rookie Spider-Man, eager to fit in with the Avengers; more experienced Spider-Man, invited; and veteran Spidey applying, participating, and eventually helping found, essentially, a new Avengers. When things go cosmic in Avengers: Infinity Gauntlet, get ready for the wallcrawler to end up pretty far out of his neighborhood. If my I.D. card’s still working, we’ll talk to DAK about what he thinks makes a good Avenger and why Spidey didn’t and does fit.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Remembering Alan Kupperberg, and the Denny O’Neil Amazing Spider-Man days

Remembering Alan Kupperberg, and the Denny O’Neil Amazing Spider-Man days

As I was vividly recalling each page of one of my childhood possessions, Amazing Spider-Man #221, I realized Denny’s run, save for the Deb Whitman subplot, seems very episodic, like television at the time. This simplicity might be one reason his ASM’s not as widely critically regarded, yet I recall his work distinctly. He’s very obsessed with time- the costume change and the trip back for the antidote come to mind-in a way that helps set the drama in detail. He’s blessed with longtime Spider-Man inker Jim Mooney, who keeps things consistent despite numerous fill-ins over an already-promising John Romita, Jr. I think the last time a cover declared the blurb “Crisis On Campus!”- back in ASM #68, was it?-Jim was often inking John Romita, Sr. or Don Heck.From Alan's Custom Comics work

One of those fill-ins featured Alan Kupperberg, whose work I want to remember today to mark his passing from this world on July 17th, 2015. I remember his name and work on Amazing Spider-Man #221 very clearly. Always a handy utility artist, Alan caught the agility of the wall-crawler, hand springing and kicking his opponent Ramrod, staying a step ahead of the very punk-rock-looking bruiser. I remember his sweaty Dr. Kissick and his sinister Ramrod along with his great Spider-Man figure work. The issue was briefly the only comic book I owned, surviving the ravages of my childhood ownership, so from the day Mom let me get it at North Broad Produce Market, I read it dozens of times. It became one of six comics from 1981 I got in real time. I rarely got to visit that Market, but I loved its citrus smells and would later see Iron Man #169’s dramatic tease about the new Iron Man- but we’ll get to Luke McDonnell July 19th, since that’s his birthday!
I committed every creator’s name to memory back then, as each issue that I gratefully took home was, to me, a star turn. After I became Facebook friends with Alan, I asked him about his turn on Incredible Hulk #300, which I finally got decades after its dramatic appearance in 1984. Alan got to draw most of the New York City-based Marvel superheroes in that issue, which sent the Hulk off to the Crossroads and his savage otherwordly final arc under Bill Mantlo. My attention to his credit, he said, brought quite a blast from the past. It was nice to get new fan mail, he said, from such a long-forgotten job. But Alan’s not forgotten. OH, yeah, sometimes confused with his Doom Patrol revivalist writer brother Paul, sure! But, from his first Marvel work on Crazy, the Magazine That Dares To Be Dumb, in 1976 onward, Alan had a journeyman career, from Captain America #240 throughout the 80s and 90s. He broke in, in 1974, at Marvel, working with Neal Adams’ Continuity Associates.
He had a good Black Cat you can find in issues of Peter Parker, and kind of excelled in the kind of parodies and cartoon humor with which his professional career began. Just look for Spider-Ham back-ups in Marvel Tales! He also took over the Howard the Duck newspaper strip after Gene Colan. In 1987, he drew the Peter Parker Honeymoon annual and the infamous ASM #289, where Ned Leeds is finally killed as the apparent Hobgoblin in flashback. Blue Devil, Firestorm, JLA, Warlord- his list afterwards at DC is a busy one!

What we’ll do here, though, is spend a few minutes over that one of many art jobs Alan probably spent a couple of weeks knocking out, ever reliably. Spider-Man was still in the long-standing pattern, only briefly messed with by Marv Wolfman when he finally decided Peter ought to at least graduate college, where the company really didn’t want to change his status quo and had a reasonably successful formula to keep pumping out adventures of their busiest trademark. Character studies and short story ingenuity become the episodic recourse. One can only take their best shot at saying something meaningful, like the colorfully-titled “Blues For Lonesome Pinky!”

I remember many times trying to ape Alan’s able splash page, where Spidey soars over Empire State University campus. His ESU phase as a Master’s student in physics and teaching assistant is usually handled over in Peter Parker, referenced in our Roger Stern Spectacular Spider-Man overview. His relationship with Debra Whitman, a secretary at the college, and rivalry with Biff Rifkin over her is, like his Daily Bugle dealings, usually Amazing’s province, under Denny. We’re swept into Dean Sloane’s office for a quick rundown on his status as T.A. and student. But a big creep’s leaning on a Doctor Kissick, nearby, blackmailing the professor for a poison.
The shiny-skulled baddie, as referenced by editor Tom DeFalco, is Ramrod, a Steve Gerber-Bob Brown “’Frisco” era creation who fought Spider-Man during his guest appearance in Daredevil #103. He sets off the ol’ Spider-Sense, and – I think it’s a ten second costume change later- the wall crawler’s taunting the heavy on the University Commons. Alan gives us a round one resembling what you might call The Rhino Strategy, until Ramrod wises up to the way out: heave a massive statue at the clustered students, then beat feet!

Peter consents to a bluegrass bar visit at the behest of his neighbor, the Kinky Friedman-styled country warbler Lonesome Pinkus, who’s become a fixture in recent issues, his goofy lyrics resounding off-key throughout Parker’s apartment building.
Here, the arm of coincidence stretches, with Debbie showing up on a date with her returned ex-husband Biff, and Peter settling on a glass of milk before a wretched Lonesome Pinky performance ends with erratic behavior worthy of a punk rock riot. Why? The beer’s poisoned...and Spider-Man clashes with the spiked patrons. But now, we get O’Neil’s human interest touch: Pinkus tries singing, desperately laying down some blues. This somehow quiets the bar, so as I recall, Spider-Man swings back to ESU campus to consult Dr. Kissick.

His grilling leads to a dose of antidote set aside to complete Ramrod’s ransom scheme. Spider-Man’s moving fast, again gracefully rendered, clock ticking. The pulse-pounding race, however, comes across a hurdle I’ll bet doesn’t surprise you much: Ramrod’s posed masterfully outside, to check out his crime scene. Would you believe he picked this bar because they told him he couldn’t sing and would give him a gig? A guy with an endo-skeleton like his would be a natural for heavy metal. Insults. Hopping. Wall-crushing. But a few mighty thumps from Spidey just aren’t slowing him down, and time’s running out for the bar patrons. Meanwhile, Lonesome Pinkus delivers the performance of his life, eschewing the corny country and western act for some apparently improvised painfully-real blues. I think it makes a subtle cultural comment on country’s new-found pop turn of the times compared to less-put-on, more sincere songwriting of the kind that made Greenwich Village famous, as quintessential 60s kid O’Neil would doubtless know. Lonesome’s expressions by Alan Kupperberg stay with me as much as Spider-Man’s kicks and bounces; facial expressions are his strength.

The junkyard finale actually takes a humorous turn. Ever the wise ass, Spider-Man makes good use of puns and used tires to set Ramrod up for a coup de grace. What do you do with a man with a metallic skeleton and skull who just won’t stop being antisocial? You stick him to a crane-mounted salvage magnet! O’Neil’s been good at finding non-Rogue’s Gallery types Spidey can’t just punch out; he even smushed together his new Hydro Man with the similar classic Sandman to make a mud creature you don’t want to muck with, in ASM #218. I loved Spidey’s immobilization of his bullying metal-enhanced foe.

But where the team goes for the extra-special touch is the depiction of Pinkus grasping his throat. He’s been begged to stay in the Spidey-turned spotlight and keep the crowd in check, because if they rampage elsewhere they may never be cured in time. His harsh rasp gives out just as the wall-crawler arrives in the nick of time to play bartender, a role we’ve never seen anywhere else. Debbie, Biff, everyone’s saved by the elixir-enhanced beer, but unnoticed, unheralded in a way we usually associate with Spider-Man himself, Lonesome Pinkus wanders off after the show of a his crazed audience will find impossible to remember.

And so memorably did Dennis and Alan and company tell this over-looked tale, I can tell you, all these years later. It’s the unsung heroes, like Mr. Pinkus, that keep the grind of recurrent trials going, pouring maybe a little special something of themselves into these crevices between the concrete of earth-shaking canon events. It’s the dreamer who comes for that forgotten turn in the spotlight that keeps the club there through good months and bad. Sometimes, they leave a little flower of beauty, struggling to survive in its natural way of finding life, noticed by the humble random passerby.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

1st Marvels: Iron Man & Spider-Man's John Romita Jr. Invincible Iron Man #115 From Mantlo to Michelinie/Layton

1st Marvels: John Romita, Jr. INVINCIBLE IRON MAN #115

Mantlo’s run becomes history, and Layton/ Michelinie/ Romita makes history

Paired with the inker who would notably join him on Uncanny X-Men- Marvel’s best direct market seller- the son of Silver Age Spider-Man artist John Romita followed his namesake over a decade after that future Art Director came to Marvel. I virtually forgot John Romita, Jr. got his first assignment drawing a back-up for Amazing Spider-Man Annual #11 in 1977. His full-book premiere comes in Invincible Iron Man #115, a 1978 issue which, with a few fill-ins, marks his regular tenure there.
When new writer and new inker David Michelinie and Bob Layton begin directing Iron Man, next issue, a definitive Bronze Age team comes together, making a modern look and feel for the mechanized marvel that influenced Jon Favreau and his own team on the box-office smash Iron Man movies.

But everyone’s got to start somewhere, and it so happens JR, Jr., as he’s often nicknamed, got the Iron Man assignment as Bill Mantlo departed the strip. Nowadays, a one-hundred-twenty-degree heat pounds a location like modern Mosul, where remainders of American armaments fell into the hands of ideological extremists who brutalized their Iraqi neighbors they could not recruit. No reasonable, woke person could blindly romanticize the power of advanced field weapons, which are only as good as the soldiers wielding them. By 1978, the attitudes shaped by Vietnam and Americans touched personally by foreign policies had led to a more counter-culturally-shaped, energy-research-oriented Tony Stark. Mantlo revived many old favorites such as the old Mandarin-gets-switcheroo-Iron Man, Ultimo stomping towards the capitol where Stark’s again been subpoenaed, Spymaster, Madame Masque and Jasper Sitwell. Outside Midas and his recruits there was nothing really new going on.

If you were new to Invincible Iron Man, Mantlo and Tuska delivered a reasonable superhero take with remixed classic touches- even a new Guardsman, complete with O’Brien brother inside. If you liked those things, you now had the latest version. As a young collector, I was attracted to the look of the Guardian armor and the back issue price was right, so these were my first versions of these characters, and #100 came with a Starlin cover, too. Mantlo gave us a the only appearance of the initially-successful Frankenstein Monster in a few years, and for many more, along with Dreadknight, a new villainous successor to Black Knight. Outside the Soviet Super Soldiers and brand-new Jack Of Hearts, we were back to the 1960’s story ingredients without the virulent anti-Communism. This would fit well with the general Jim Shooter approach coming in the 1980s; this was, in fact, the year Shooter was assigned Editor-in-Chief.

Romita’s debut continues those revisited elements. In fact, the hardest part of this storytelling- and granted, there are fans of this handbook-like approach-is how #115 takes the “revisit” element to such an extreme, there’s literally almost no new story whatsoever! When we reach the end of “Betrayal!” Stark’s ambushed by more characters from the past: the Ani-Men, recruited as muscle, apparently quite quickly, by Whitney Frost (Madame Masque), turned, as it were, on a dime by the return of Count Nefaria, an old-time Avengers foe. This is the sequel to his appearance in Avengers, a title being written at this point by a combination of Shooter, Micheleinie, Steven Grant and Mark Gruenwald, drawn in alternating arcs by John Byrne and George Perez.

There’s a rich reliance on existing Marvel continuity, but it overwhelms the utterly decompressed plot. Funny thing is, continuity between issues is about to fly out the window when the next team debuts, but then a new set of long-term threads begin weaving a modernized classic overshadowed at the time only by the revolutions in Uncanny X-Men and Daredevil.
Romita doesn’t take a strong presence in plotting this early in his career; the writer and inker will become the prime story drivers and give him lots of great stuff to draw.
JR will get to co-create Jim Rhodes, Justin Hammer- famously picked up and re-defined by the movies, Rhodey going on to become an Iron Man in his own right.
He gets the unflappable Mrs. Arbogast, reliable plant security chief Vic Martenelli, French business woman Yvette Arvil, bodyguard/ private investigators Bethany Cabe and Ling McPherson, who represent a Charlie’s Angels-flavored new breed of female support characters. Beth especially has more depth than the average love-interest, doubling as an action hero and confidante, not to mention an initial rival for the job of Tony Stark’s bodyguard! Suddenly, a character doesn’t have to be an Avenger to be recognizable. Everything gets specific!

It’s hard not to look ahead to this much-regarded three year run, because JR’s debut relies entirely on looking backwards. There’s a few proportion problems and the inking leaves the new penciler seeming a bit old-fashioned, appropriate for the Mantlo-era tone which often sported Jack Kirby covers, too. The bigger challenge yet, however: illustrating several pages of handbook review of the past of the fallen Unicorn, capped on front by a wrap-up of the departing Avengers, filled in with more morose Stark distance and the cliché “there goes a guy without a care in the world” from a guard, and a Tony Stark fist fight with Bird Man, Frog Man, Ape Man and Cat Man that ends with yet another betrayal from the recently-disguised Whitney/ Masque. Stark doesn’t get a particularly clever showing, just a scenario meant to invoke armor-less peril of the title character and a reasonably-quick-to-comprehend motivation for Masque’s betrayal. His shadowed intention was to make the dying Unicorn a pawn to the silhouetted “Other”- hard to miss the general shape of the Titanium Man, who re-outfits Unicorn with a new power beam and points him destructively in Iron Man’s direction. This all comes out when Stark utilizes a device to read Unicorn’s discordant memories, which nonetheless play out as an orderly recap of his previous three appearances and an unrevealed scene behind his present attack. There’s little discernible personality- he’d make a complex Saturday morning cartoon villain, but his character hook’s unchanged. Worse, this is all unveiled at this juncture without any development for another year, so it’s really just Bill leaving us a planned thread and cashing another quick check for hitting deadline. Romita’s relieved of pacing actual scenes, in favor of a pastiche flashback. This might’ve made the drawings themselves a simpler task for the beginner, who, with little plot and an information dump, has plenty of space, indeed, has to stretch some to get his seventeen pages.

We do revisit “he’s alone in his shell,” emphasized once again amidst the Avengers. He’s bossy jerk to the Beast. This is underscored by his later lonesome thought that he’s always surrounded by obedient machines. His concern over standing up Whitney is meant to establish he has a heart beyond his now-never-depicted lady’s man playboy life. Bill’s giving us characterization- but little interaction.

What we come to associate with John Romita Jr. suggests he’s better suited for what’s ahead. Prefiguring Magnum P.I., we’ll get a James Bond spin on Tony, complete with wry flirtation and glamorous women. Romita loves the cosmopolitan. If his Iron Man moves far away from the socially-conscious style, his superheroics embrace the coming decade’s love of computers and futuristic sheen. If his work’s subsumed beneath a very stylistically-heavy Bob Layton on inks, the armor itself becomes sleek, characters, realistic and demonstrative, and settings, referential. Suddenly we have a Stark who might take time to hit Studio 54, gambling in a tux in Atlantic City, disguising as a phone company worker on Long Island. The battle to remain free of munitions making embroils Stark Industries with S.H.I.E.L.D. itself! Stark has turmoil, but also friends, and reflects new ideas.

In 1980, JR Jr. begins Amazing Spider-Man in #208. Leaning on character drawing and a love for New York City itself, he catches on by #223-the end of O’Neil’s run-as the regular artist for another amazing team-up under Tom DeFalco with former Spectacular Spider-Man writer Roger Stern.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Spider-Man's French Connection- The Conspiracy Delusion!- and Gerry Conway's run on Amazing

“The Delusion Conspiracy!” is a funny title for a story I remembered because President Trump’s going to France- like Spider-Man, Robbie Robertson, and J. Jonah Jameson do in The Amazing Spider-Man #144. Rich guy leaves America to go to France in the middle of, in hopes to deflect from, speculation of his collusion with a known menace: that’s the premise. Writer Gerry Conway’s about to dangle this entire distraction before the reader’s eyes before lowering the boom with the bizarre sequel to his most famous story.
“Delusion” also appeared in Marvel Tales #121, printed the summer of 1980. On this very rare occasion, my Mom relented and purchased my sister and I both comic books from Rudy’s, the country town grocery store in the neighborhood where we’d one day attend Model Elementary, in the same building where she and her sister attended high school. Though the storytelling’s recognizably from an earlier time period, you also get a five-page back-up which introduced me to the 1950s version of The Original Human Torch and his partner, Toro. I deduced back then, as a reader of every single fraction of an inch of print in my rare ownership of each single comic book, the stories were reprinted from 1975 and 1954, so it’s also a window into the rich publication history of Marvel Comics. I liked the wild, Burgos-inspired uses of Torch’s powers, like flame doubles. Even a imbroglio with common crooks done in five pages could be ignited by child’s play imagination and one’s introduction, also, to the Statue of Liberty!

It’s a second part of two, so we begin with J. Jonah Jameson, esteemed Daily Bugle publisher (an original purveyor of truly ‘fake news’), boss to city editor Robbie and freelance photographer Peter Parker, held for ransom by a French terrorist supervillain. Buying comics in those days was always a gamble on a single piece of a larger tapestry, which bothered me not at all. This was the comic that introduced me to the sights of Paris, France, illustrated in both parts by Ross Andru and his longtime inking partner, Mike Esposito. On the subject of monumental action scenes, the Eiffel Tower seemed a more cliché choice, but it could’ve been a setting to rival Spider-Man: Homecoming’s Washington Monument rescue. Conway and Andru instead chose a solution based on a hardware store and some Parker science know-how to defeat Cyclone in a very, shall we say, comic book use of that science.

The cover, however, points to the truly suspenseful part: the ending. Maybe rejected NATO contractor Cyclone draws a “huh?” from your recognition- I’m sure he was disposed of by Scourge in that famous C-list villain Bar With No Name doom portrayed in Captain America #319. But that fashionable boot on the cover, paired with Spider-Man’s crouched, pointing figure exclaiming “but you’re dead!”, might be a stunning giveaway if you’re a reader of 1975...especially one who’s waited to see if Gwen Stacy, Peter’s tragically murdered girlfriend, could defy the grave one day.

Any book focused on the Bronze Age of Marvel- even with the allowance that many of its most written-about highlights are reserved for Integr8d Fix, volume two-would be remiss to ignore Gerry Conway’s run on Amazing Spider-Man, but especially, to omit the Death of Gwen Stacy. As I’m looking for a way into less-discussed but memorably-rendered storylines, the President’s summer Paris visit became the perfect reminder of Conway’s kick-off to his final story arc. Gerry shook up Spider-Man’s world and attempted to find something fresh in tone and subject, as only the second continuing writer of The Amazing Spider-Man, after co-creator Stan Lee (Roy Thomas, yes, did fill-in on ASM #101-104, memorably introducing Morbius, the Living Vampire). Whether you credit John Romita most for pointing out the possibility, laugh about Stan Lee’s nervous plausible deniability, or praise or damn Conway to the heavens, at the time, when supporting characters simply did not also become superheroes themselves (and that’s a subject of personal inspiration, as you’ll see when I finish Chrysalis of the Butterfly for next year), and Peter Parker was practically obliged by corporate trademark logic to remain unmarried, there was just nowhere else they could think to take Gwen Stacy. In fact, while a later generation would embrace strong female characters in storylines with roles more challenging to (or becoming!) their titular stars, Gwen had become bogged down by the limits and necessities of remaining Peter’s girlfriend but eternally not clued in on his secret identity. Her death instilled a sense of danger and consequence to the comic book world, growing up its stories in a way that might better match its now-older audience cohort.

I thought Robbie and Peter made a pretty interesting pairing in resolving Jameson’s dilemma, though we’re again in territory where the astute newspaperman could ascertain Parker’s dual identity, if he had not back in the days when he’d meet Captain George Stacy for those lunches that unnerved Peter so. I always liked how Robbie could be an integral character for his own sake, functioning in the story mostly as a voice of reason and a mature professional reporter, without ham-handed attempts to highlight his blackness. I also thought, including occasions his ethnicity did shade his perspective, Joe Robertson was written with knowledge of the world and certainty of his self.
Tough-minded, good-hearted, intelligent and wry, Robertson’s always been one of the most consistently-written, strong supporting characters in all of comics. The opposite of his publisher counterpart, Joe played things close to the vest where Jonah went off the deep end in speculation.

Jameson’s collusion with Mysterio (the second one, Danny Berkhart, if you’re keeping track) left him open to a blackmail attempt that maybe didn’t catch enough story traction: this was the set-up to his flight to Paris “in the night” as it were. I took a lot of things on face value as a very young fan, but I’ve come to agree with those that don’t think JJJ works as well when he crosses over into actual criminal territory, as with his Spider-Slayer gambits with Spencer Smythe. He and Robbie both end up hostages at Notre Dame Cathedral, where Peter plays Cyclone’s men until he can draw out Cyclone himself. Cyclone uses a belt-mounted gizmo he says he created as a NATO weapon to generate vorticity, perturbing the air in a given area into a destructive defensive and offensive force. Let’s just say Peter’s a big fan of ingenuity, shall we?

When Parker left LaGuardia Airport in part one, he shared a first whopping kiss with Mary Jane Watson, who had been his friend in all the fraught months following Gwen Stacy’s demise. I feel like, you may think of Conway’s villains as hit and miss, or even all the original ones are “hot air,” but the young writer, already the author of a few science fiction novels when he’s tapped by Lee to succeed him, excelled in making Peter and his cast interesting. You might find Parker being so morose, off-putting and unfair; he’s certainly written with some first hand experience in neurosis and manic depression. But Pete’s romantic life seems to have naturally evolved to a point where it could come back to life. Unfortunately, so then does Ms. Stacy!

May Parker collapses at the sight of the as-yet-unrvealed Ms. Stacy earlier in the story; I found it gripping stuff. When Peter comes home and rushes to the top of the stairs to confront the impossibility that’s been turning crazily in his mind, you’re left with a stunning cliffhanger! Gwen sightings have been hinted in earlier issues- in fact, coinciding at least once with the sorts of tricks Mysterio II uses to attempt to unnerve Spider-Man with his “back from the grave!” shtick. That sets up a very nice feint: after all, does Mysterio’s supposed ghost now know Peter’s secret? And so, little me learns of the legendary Death of Gwen Stacy in a completely backwards fashion. If it’s one of your first Spider-Man stories, you have no real idea why everyone’s so upset, but if certainly feels spooky! The returned Gwen Stacy, be she ghost, impostor, vampire, delusion- it’s completely open to speculation and in no way telegraphed she’s a clone, which was a relatively new science fiction idea I don’t think’s ever been depicted at this point.

Regardless of how you come to feel about the Clone Conspiracy, revisited just this summer, how its almost unending 90s derivatives may color your perspective, the moment, in its time, is breath-taking. It’s all together possible that it’s become as consequential to Spider-Man’s story world as the Stacy death-fall, which makes this pivot that much more remarkable, like lightning striking twice in Conway’s run. Best of all, for more Spidey fans than not, it’s the takeoff point of a wild story arc, a culmination of all Conway’s accomplished on the strip (including the introduction of The Punisher in #129, along with the villain behind this scenario, too, incidentally, the kinda-OK Jackal). The original return of Gwen Stacy arc singularly rivals the fevered writing behind the deaths of Gwen and the Green Goblin/Norman Osborn- and it’s never more baffling, controversial, dismaying, shocking, than on the final page of “The Delusion Conspiracy.”

Friday, July 7, 2017

Review, Spider-Man: Homecoming- not always cool, but ever Amazing!

Spider-Man: Homecoming

2017. As the opening title suggests so very cinematically, the Marvel Universe marches on: so many successful, entertaining movies, and with the arrangement struck with Sony, last spring’s Civil War reunited them with the company’s flagship character: the best selling merchandise character in the entire world by a wide margin. Now, Spider-Man’s on, more or less, his new solo debut. We’re getting a lot of things I’ve longed for: no Origin Story repeat, for one, the most formulaic aspect of these wildly-popular movies. Humor. A full Marvel Universe. But as I read a few interviews to prepare a preview, some questions roll into my mind.

Is Heroism still hip? Is altruism relatable to modern audiences? What sort of attitude will Pete have?
How much actual teenager culture will we see in Peter’s life?
Any room for friends? After all: who’s a complete loner anymore?
How different will this villain be- from previous Marvel villains and from his comics incarnation?
Speaking of friends: how different will Spider-Man be with mentor Tony Stark as a supporting character? Not always, but most of the time, Peter was alone against trouble, alone in the angst of his secret identity- especially emphasized in his earliest years under Ditko.

The day’s finally come. Before we get to any spoilers, I have to tell you Spider-Man: Homecoming’s A-grade entertaining! The three ladies who went with me all enjoyed the movie very much- but Spidey always did seem like the type of personality appreciated as much by fans regardless of gender. The ten year-old boy joining us says “It was amazing!” Kids almost always enjoy a Spider-Man movie, and hey, most of all, this is definitely for them! The diverse cast offers a friendly attitude towards a future, in America and around the world. Classic fans get Liz, Betty Brant, an MJ, and best of all, a Flash Thompson, the popular kid who picks relentlessly on our nerdy hero. Space that went towards the tragic origin and the Daily Bugle and ever-curmugeonly J. Jonah Jameson, this time out, goes instead to Peter’s high school life. For once, he’s definitely a teenager- just as he began under Stan Lee and Steve Ditko.

Some of that space also goes to Tony Stark and his trusted valet, Happy Hogan, reprised by Robert Downey, Jr. and Jon Favreau. This gives Avengers fans- of which there’s so very, very many brought together by the organically-grown super storyline dating back to Iron Man (2008). This brings, to many, the deepest structural changes to the Spider-Man mythology this time out: he’s the junior superhero in every since. Captain America PSA’s are shown in the high school. (Hannibal Burress plays the gym teacher with the line: “...although I’m pretty sure Cap’s a war criminal or something by now, but I’m required by the state to show these!”

The move from Avengers Tower to the new upstate New York compound creates a huge part of the plot, and its climax. The fallout on the streets of New York from the battles of aliens and gods directly effect the life of that villain to whom I alluded earlier: a pleasantly-fleshed-out Vulture, complete with much more realistic and dangerous-looking equipment with which to take to the air, played by Michael (Birdman, Batman!) Keaton. I’ll publish another post with the spoilers, but let’s just say his alter ego springs a fascinating surprise- and gets one himself- based on his private life.

Super heroes always call forth a bit of inherently-optimistic futurism; it’s part of their wonder. From his original appearance on, Peter Parker always devised technology for his personal uses, inventions like his web shooters, webbing, and even back in 1963, his tracer tracker. I think the quantum-leap in his equipment-for which he’s clearly not prepared, but whatevs- makes him more appealing to the imagination of future audiences for some time to come. His use of special personal devices fits neatly with the lifestyles of millennials everywhere.

Like in Civil War Iron Man’s again a support character instead of the lead. But his part doesn’t overshadow screen time for Spider-Man; in fact, there’s a long Marvel tradition of loose cannon Spidey getting down-country from the officially licensed Avengers. The close personal tie provides a rich surrogate older-brother figure, or some might say, a father-figure. Paternal instincts make an interesting mix with the aging but still vivacious playboy.

I loved the casting. The other big change, on a more subtle level, gives Peter- and Spider-Man- someone with whom he can talk. Ned’s an engaging best friend. And Karen’s maybe an even bigger change- but from director Jon Watts’ point of view, this A.I. gives Spider-Man another screwball companion to allow for extended suspense sequences that aren’t played in awkward, boring silence. AS my pal Dave Kraft, a dyed-in-the-wool pulp aficionado who grew up thinking of Spidey as a “second-stringer”- but eventually got to write him in many popular media-put it, Spider-Man’s a very talkative, witty, wise-ass guy. The movie plays up that part beautifully. His youthful naivete is touching, realistic, and grounded. Tom Holland above all really shines.

Stunts, special effects – a part they’ve been getting very right in Marvel Cinemaverse. The final battle’s unique nonetheless in its mid-air and Coney Island isolation.

Spider-Man, in the comics’ fifty-five year search for novel approaches, has basically evolved into a type of Tony Stark-like boss of his own technological corporation. I’m glad we didn’t have to experience that level of shock. Back to high school, and more ground-level simplicity than ever, while presenting novel gimmicks that enhance action and the ongoing comedy of Peter’s adjustment to his role: these six screen writers pulled together.

And oh yeah: is heroism hip? Oh, probably not. Without overwhelming the story in melancholy, Peter’s dual life, true to form (Parker Luck!), ruins everything he looks forward to as Peter Parker and complicates his every accomplishment. If one thing rings home, it’s as I told ten year-old Presley: “No matter how cool you become, stupid stuff still happens.” You just can’t be a spectacular figure in any realistic light without mixing it up with the occasional garbage can.

Jon Watts starts the myth anew with an appealing young star, an Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) with whom everyone’s flirting, a promising alliance with the Avengers- and a good old fashioned friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Peter Parker finds a voice in Roger Stern (1980-81)

Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man, seemed in 1976 to fill distinct market and story-telling needs. There was enough demand for Marvel’s mascot hero and enough room in his well-developed life for a second title devoted to telling it. Already, he headlined most months in Marvel Team-Up, a commercial vehicle widely used to pare him with lesser known and new characters, but these adventures were first and foremost action stories that rarely played upon developments in his life as student/photographer Peter Parker. Marvel Tales kept a steady supply of his five year-old adventures, already paid for, in print and selling better than a lot of new material of other characters- not to be confused with his adventures for five year-olds, the easy-readin’ Spidey Super-Stories.

PPSSM filled another need for a while, too: a Spider-Man title for then-editor-in-chief Gerry Conway, without evicting Amazing Spider-Man scribe Len Wein. His campus-oriented stories carried over the supporting cast’s lives and attempted to cross-over with events in ASM, but despite modest successes like Frank Miller’s guest stint featuring Daredevil and the mainstreaming of Marvel’s first Hispanic superhero, the White Tiger, three years in, two problems faced one title: a lack of continuity for its characters to go with its lack of a distinct cast, and lack of a strong recurrent art team. It was capably told, but in a very workman-like fashion that lacked spark and inspiration. Some might argue 1980 was not an overall high point for the wall-crawler’s adventures in Marvel Comics, but without a strong direction, PPSSM seemed increasingly superfluous.

Enter new freelancer Roger Stern.

His new full-time writing career, after both editing by day and writing Incredible Hulk and Dr. Strange by night, soon included a reputable nine-issue run on Captain America, another title languishing in creative doldrums. The chance to write Spider-Man, however, daunted Stern at first; he was wary of the high-profile and the magic of the character. As told in his interviews years later, the saving grace mentally was his ability to look at the Peter Parker title as “not really Spider-Man,” free of the responsibility of getting the flagship Amazing Spider-Man title right. Here, he developed his affinity, not only for the voice and decision-making characteristic of Spider-Man, but also for the milieu, the challenges and supporting cast stories that work best for Webhead.

He also mastered the question, “what makes a compelling Spider-Man opponent?”
To this end, from his very first issue, #43, Roger tried his own creations. It’s arguable, especially when the writer does not have primary control over the main character, that the choice of foe holds the greatest creative freedom. A noir, pulpish villain did not yet exist in Spidey’s rogues gallery, and an entrepreneur as that villain’s foil expanded the opportunity to tell a crime story about something besides simply mobsters. For that matter, female opponents: Marvel was just trying its hand again at seriously revamping its heroines, so the day was right to introduce more female costumed characters. Why not combine those elements in the mysterious Belladonna? He went a step further in giving her a unique motivation: aside from her criminal activities, Spider-Man’s appearance and m.o. seemed creepy to her. She hated him because he scared her. This added back another long-lost element to Spider-Man: he’d become the focus of so many toys, cartoons, even a TV show. His wit and his identifiable alter ego had made him a kind of daylight character beloved by children. But from the start, Spider-Man as rendered by Ditko had a shadowy, enigmatic quality- a young nerd who became a faceless creature of the night! His disconcerting inhuman “face” and spidery movements had a terrifying quality, underscored by the fears of this one villain. Her power set relied on gadgets, like many early low-powered rogues- such as The Crime-Master in ASM #26 & 27.

Roderick Kingsley, meanwhile, provided an opening for plots into the world of high fashion as well as finance- good stuff for artists to enjoy, and an opportunity for crime and above-average resources for plotters. But best yet, Kingsley not only carried a subtly-delivered secret- that his brother played his double when it suited their advantages-but from the start of Stern’s co-creation of the Hobgoblin over in Amazing a couple of years later, Roderick Kingsley was Stern’s secret pick to be the arch-villain’s alter ego!

That’s a really strong opening gambit. Only the coming months would allow Stern to develop an identity for the supporting cast, which soon featured more of Aunt May (knock off the innuendo, it’s Spidey’s aunt, man) (not his Ant-Man, yo)- and a long-neglected chance for her to move on from lonely widower and worry wart to a fuller human being with a love interest! Rog attempted to develop Peter’s Teaching Assistant graduate student colleagues - but temporary cast members always marked Peter’s ongoing phases of development. Contrasting takes on Captains Bird and Keating spice up police partnership. White Tiger wraps up his supporting hero career, in a rare, realistic retirement for a street level hero.

The Smuggler was actually a returned early Avengers foe Power Man, a.k.a Eric Josten, who would recur with other picks in Stern’s small army The Masters of Evil in his epic Avengers storyline years later. A built-in development put Josten in Spidey’s weight class, if his portrayal as small-time mastermind is not precedented or followed-up. He gets a return story where he’s a victim caught in the middle, which is an inventive use of a known villain- a plot twist to which Stern will return with The Cobra in Amazing. In fact, Stern sets up Cobra’s troubles in #46 by having him break up his partnership with Mr. Hyde- which seemed like a practical idea at the time, sure. Cobra’s the first of several interesting match-ups with villains created for other Marvel heroes (Thor)- like Power Man (Avengers), Nitro (Captain Marvel) and exemplified in Amazing by the Mad Thinker (Fantastic Four) and, best of all, the X-Men’s foe The Juggernaut!

The theme of returning in Amazing to his set-ups in Peter Parker would give that title a strong sense of development: now even the villains had continuing stories and arcs! An example is Killer Shrike’s struggle with Will O’The Wisp, who appears next in the Brand storyline following Cobra/Hyde.
Using existing Spider-Man enemies always pleases a certain long-time contingent of fandom- so long as it’s done well, all the better! He revamps The Beetle- yet again, with a weaker villain, the Ringer, and then Martin Blank, the Gibbon, caught in the middle as pawns- in a trilogy with which he essentially ends his Peter Parker run. He calls back to the earliest Spidey stories in a big way, as he revisits the solitary visit with “aliens” in #2/ Peter Parker #50, tying Mysterio in, very satisfyingly. But he’s best known for his work on his favorite classic Spidey villain, The Vulture, bringing him onboard for four different stories! I hope to talk to him about The Vulture’s big turn as the villain in Spider-Man: Homecoming. If I reach him at fan-run message board IMWAN as I did before, to discuss Machine Man, I may even let you laugh at why I vainly waited for his reply these past few weeks. Peter Parker #48

Speaking of Machine Man, that ill-fated title did spawn its share of new villains, but the one with any real staying power came along at its end, the Ditko-designed Jack O’Lantern. The cover where he faces Spider-Man stayed with me as a child: I didn’t get to read or own it then, but wow, what a visual1 I wanted to go home and play that out! Both characters looked pretty spooky, and not since ASM #188 had anyone done such a cool interpretation of Spider-Man’s effect when fought in the darkness. Plus, it turns out Jack has the kind of lower-powered, armament-based m.o. that marks many classic Spidey villains, in addition to a ghoulish appearance so suited to the art of even later Steve Ditko.

Interestingly, that character would become tied to Stern’s Hobgoblin in unforeseen ways: as his successor in that guise! So his appearance in PP #56 is one of many keys to the as-yet-unwrit future. That issue was also drawn by editor-in-chief Jim Shooter, in a great rush: that’s a sign of how strapped for regular artists the title remained, after Marie Severin, all through Stern’s run.

Oh, but what could’ve been…

I got my hands on the fifty cents I needed to stop by the Fina gas station around the corner from my house and purchase, for the first time, my very own comic book for myself. It’s Peter Parker #58: the one issue of the title drawn by John Byrne! My expectations were raised beyond measure. Stern made the issue very funny, even if the bits about the teaching assistants punishing one of their own for yanking a head-covering off TA Marcy Kane confused me at the time. I loved the menace of the mystery villain who kidnaps and threatens the Ringer, who himself had really neat gadgets.
Good Daredevil or Moon Knight opponent, potentially, even after this...and he even came with a pre-existing philosophical outlook that might’ve spun another good encounter. But against Spidey? Ouch. His ongoing struggles with dental care add another down-to-earth touch. I mean, how many times can these guys hit each other’s faces without needing new teeth- or at least some caps or veneers. At least his gadgets offer him a momentary advantage! “No! Come back!” is probably some kind of villain first. What a bizarre fight!
Spider-Man finally remembers not to stand up poor Debbie Whitman for a change, leaves their battle after laughing at The Ringer, then comes back to pick it up. There’s a moment when The Ringer’s terrified that he’s going to die for failing to beat Spider-Man, but the explosive belt clamped around his waist has just enough charge to total it after serving its purpose: to transmit data to the newly-re-armored Beetle! Byrne wished to draw for Stern again after their Cap stint, and what a solution that would’ve been, John Byrne as regular penciler on the title that Roger Stern finally mastered. Byrne didn’t find an inker for his new run as writer/author of Fantastic Four, however, so he didn’t have time...until Rog was on ASM, which had an artist.
My last word on that lucky one-off collaboration again involves the villains: the one you see, and the one you really don’t. The barely-alarming encounter with ex-army college freshman Greg Salinger’s a precursor to trouble ahead- once more, paid off in Amazing. He seems like a nice, ordinary fellow, a likely new friend for Pete. Then he gets followed by men in suits...and not without reason.
In fact, the follow-up’s one of the very first stories Stern writes when he joins that title and soon gets the regular assignment. Greg’s ties to the past also tie into my personal future. His alter ego is The Fool Killer: this identity is the second incarnation, first written by Stern while filling in for the original Fool Killer’s creator, Steve Gerber, on a byzantine title I’d come to cherish for its way-out execution and unfulfilled potential: Omega The Unknown. (That’s also where Stern first wrote Nitro, who acquires a symapthetic daughter and the former lawyer for the now-defunct Champions- like Brand Corporation, more of Roger’s able use of existing Marvel characters.) That very early fill-in assignment’s only the second writing credit I know of for Stern at Marvel, who’d written some issues of Guardians Of The Galaxy in Marvel Premiere- following Steve Gerber. Steve’s become such a huge influence and delight to me. I came to know his rather-mature, nuanced work well into my adulthood. He broke ground writing Man-Thing and Defenders, basically setting the mode for how those characters and titles would be written for years to come. The regular writer who followed Gerber on Defenders? The creator of The Ringer: Dave Kraft, who would become one of my favorite people, a genuine, unique friend (to Steve Gerber, too). Ringer’s anti-capitalist take had been refreshing when he faced Nighthawk, but his power set marked him the hapless fall guy, in a rare outright “all’s well” ending for Spider-Man.
Kraft wrote this Peter Parker Annual of the era.
Endings, tied to beginnings...the continuity of events and ideas adds another layer of texture to the execution of well-written comics. It’s something that only comes with time. Something’s got to click from the start, and as detailed in his interview for Marvel Masterworks, for Roger Stern, it’s his identification with nebbish Peter Parker. His Midwestern Everyman take on life suits Parker well, and as he humorously put it, his collaborator John Romita, Jr., the urbane city-culture guy, is the flashy Spider-Man to his common-problem, down-to-earth values Peter Parker. We’ll have a lot to say about that collaboration, as we go post-by-post through the story arcs of the watermark Stern-Romita issues of The Amazing Spider-Man. Can ya swing that?