His post-retirement plans were quite a bit more exciting than a 401 K and a house in Florida. We’re still so early in the Marvel Age at this point, a foe whose power was, primarily, flight and strength, makes a formidable challenge- maybe not as imaginative as what is to follow, but a nice use of visual and a great combatant for the neophyte wall-crawler. As super-villains go, The Vulture was not a bad start. For one, he makes a terrific test of Spider-Man’s new combat skills, as dizzyingly depicted by co-creator Steve Ditko. His technology-based abilities provide an obstacle that requires not only Spider-Man’s agility and strength, but uniquely, his Peter Parker side’s love of science, to create an engaging gadget to screw up the Vulture’s electromagnetically powered harness! Their battle features the first time Parker starts out with the idea to take photographs for money, a career that becomes a recurrent story engine for decades.
The Vulture is also the first of the Spider-Man’s Rogues to re-appear, as he does in Amazing Spider-Man #7. His craftiest move in these early stories is, once he has guards for a diamond shipment looking skyward warily, The Vulture simply pops out of a manhole to make the snatch!
When our as-yet unnamed winged thief returns next, he begins his occasional partnership with the rest of the Sinister Six, a confederation of enemies who team up in the first Amazing Spider-Man annual in 1964. It’s more important for its significance going forward than for his showing here as one villain among many (would you believe, six). He’s appeared in most incarnations of this idea since, revived over the summer of 1990. But after this, we won’t hear from the Vulture again for quite a while, and when we do, Stan Lee’s experimenting with removing the one weakness associated with this geriatric bad guy, the one trait that defines him visually nearly as much, and more uniquely, than the wings.
Our third key Vulture story comes along in Amazing Spider-Man #48, the origin of his replacement, a cellmate called Blackie Drago who engineers an accident in the prison work shop that seems to spell the original’s demise. This younger, stronger Vulture has a strong showing against a cold-ridden webspinner, with a few new improvements such as a short wave radio in his cowl, but he gets caught in a cross-up with Kraven The Hunter and Spidey that puts a quick end to his high-flying career. A couple of issues before, The Shocker debuts, with his own tech gimmick-based powers to smash safes and vaults, in #46. Cinema fans will also meet The Shocker for the first time this summer, played by Bokeem Woodbine. It’s just as well Romita vetoed Lee’s initial idea to name him The Vibrator, huh?
Over a year later, we discover the as-yet-unnamed inventor of the Vulture persona isn’t dead, after all. He arms the kidnapped Blackie Drago with a pair of wings, then kicks his butt across the skyline of New York! The Vulture nearly wins a stand-off with Spider-Man, and in fact, he gets away, after terrorizing J. Jonah Jameson and his city editor, Joe Robertson. Then he lays low for many years.
The next time we have a Vulture, it’s during Gerry Conway’s writing tenure, a murder mystery that plays out in Amazing #127 and 128. With monstrous, body-warped features, we get closer to a freakish creature Vulture, who targets witness Mary Jane Watson for a death all too similar to that of Gwen Stacy’s just a few issues before. Poking around, Parker realizes this third Vulture is a professor named Clifton Shallot, who loses his powers and never returns as the Vulture.
Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man #5 &6- from the second full-time all-new Spider-Man title, aside from Marvel Team-Up and his reprints in Marvel Tales- pits the returned true Vulture in a three-way battle with an Archie Goodwin mercenary called The Hitman. It’s time for a good Vulture/ Spidey dust-up by this point, but other than the cross-fire of mob-motivated foes, we don’t get anything especially unique or “key.” That’s going to require the services of writer Roger Stern, the first to really ask: who IS this old guy? What, in fact, is his darn name besides The Vulture? How did he come up with his costume and device, and what made him so bitter and anti-social? What, in short, made him not just a two-dimensional combatant and clever thief- but a person?
I’m not as familiar with the three-parter in Peter Parker #43-45, but Stern was obviously interested in giving an inner universe to the characters of his stories. What was that wistful something they just can’t reach? He wrote the sixth truly key Vulture story in Amazing Spider-Man #224. Stern names him Adrian Toomes, and ties the retiree Vulture into that of Aunt May’s first genuine love interest since the death of Ben Parker in the Spider-Man origin. From Amazing Spider-Man #224, by Roger Stern, John Romita, Jr. with inks by Pablos Marcos.
In one go, May Parker, her Sunshine Boy, Nathan Lubensky (an ex-vaudeville performer now retired and wheel-chair bound) and The Vulture all acquire a new level of characterization, with both Peter and Spider-Man caught in the middle! On his next Vulture outing in Amazing, we get the back story of inventor Adrian Toomes, and his desire for revenge on industrialist Gregory Bestman, who cheated on their company's shared profits about the time Adrian created his flying harness. It all goes down in Amazing Spider-Man #240 & 241.
It’s arguable that some of the appearances following this are more key, but the first new Vulture story I ever read began in yet another spin-off Spider-Man title (apt phrase here), the replacement for Marvel Team-Up, Web of Spider-Man #1. While wrapping up the initial Black Alien Costume storyline, we also meet The Vulturions, a costumed gang more reminiscent of the Drago approach. Differently colored, armed with blow darts of varying poisons, we get a higher-stakes variation that seems to promise a new interpretation of a classic foe. But in Web #3, we’re back to another echo of a classic story, that of ASM #63 and 64, as Toomes angrily returns to whip the young bloods with daring new stunts and his canny knowledge of mid-air combat. This sort of works to build up The Vulture as a greater threat, and ties into a side plot with the Kingpin and...Aunt May’s birthday hat? This idea was fun, as it evoked Spidey’s team-up with Cannonball of the New Mutants in MTU #149 months before, where he got the notion of buying the tea party hat, which is strangely rescued by The Kingpin as he watches from his penthouse in Web #2. That favor comes back to bite Spidey in Annual #19, with nice Mary Wilshire art depicting a bizarre supposition by yet another second generation villain, the son of the inventor of the original Spider-Slayer robots. I’ll save that one for you to look up, but I had to mention the whole spiel because it’s both a key Vulture appearance and part of the nice, if slightly superficial, way that different writers tied Spidey’s adventures together into one successful tapestry in the 1980s.
Here’s the idea behind the next key Vulture appearance, Amazing Spider-Man #336. I missed his Atlantic City return in Web #16- spotty distribution and newstand/ magazine rack sales meant you either had money when an issue came out or missed it at your own risk. But I was in my last phase as a monthly collector when the Vulture returned in Amazing Spider-Man to involve Lubensky in an altercation that leads to Nathan’s accidental death, the culmination of careful sub-plots about Nathan's fear of death and his gambling addiction. His ties to the long-time supporting character are curiously not followed through until another great Spider-writer, J.M. DeMatteis, picks up Micheleinie’s story later in Spectacular Spider-Man. One thing about J.M.: his love and reverence for the elderly showed through in his desire to flesh out May and even her elderly friends- a move above and beyond the call of duty in a title that began as the ultimate youth versus age.
J.M. comes back with a tale about mortality, and proposes the final days of the Vulture in a multi-part story “Funeral Arrangements, beginning in Spectacular #186. Will he rejuvenate through some uncanny scientific means, or must another Spider-villain perish dramatically at the hands of DeMatteis?
Our ideas about the aged, as you’ve seen evolving over this very post, have changed, even as the same youngsters who picked up Amazing #2 now arrive in grey-haired territory themselves. The Vulture was a bit ground-breaking in his own way, an elderly man, by all appearances, making himself virile and capable of death-defying feats in a manner that foretells the Baby Boomers’ obsession overall with remaining as young and interesting and adventuresome into their golden years. We still get a wide contrast of ages in the upcoming Spider-Man: Homecoming movie, but our Vulture, portrayed by Michael Keaton, is more what we’d call late-middle aged, and not obviously decrepit in any way. In a wink to his film history, we’re going to have the lead actor in Bird Man- a strange character study more than anything like a conventional superhero movie- and the next blockbuster superhero hit after Superman, 1988’s Batman! If anything, Batman’s got a special significance for kicking off the first wave of big screen full-length superhero movies, as the next several years saw studios trying hard to cash in on the interest following Batman to bring us more comics-based movies like Dick Tracy, The Rocketeer, original creation Dark Man, pulp inspiration The Shadow, even more Batman.
For more than those superficial reasons, it’s Keaton’s capabilities as an actor that make the guy who had everyone but Tim Burton pretty much scratching their heads at first announcement a promising Vulture. The studio’s floated the idea that this a blue-collar answer to Tony Stark, which begins an intriguing motivation to a guy with the know-how who’s been passed over and probably cheated and ignored- a character owing to the Stern characterization that finally made him more than a simple cartoon beside his better-developed antagonist Spider-Man. In fact, with his salvaging business, Adrian's modus operandi is actually scavenging-in this case, from alien tech and weapons left behind in some of the other conflagrations that devastated New York in previous Marvel movies! The Marvel Cinema Universe itself, now that Spidey’s come “home” to their wildly-popular care, promises to care for the stories of the characters, as well as offering us the kind of outrageous spectacle film now so seemlessly integrates. Add in RDJ as Tony Stark, playing Peter’s mentor (hit or miss to the degree of how you like his Iron Man, who is bound to be somewhat chastened after the disasters of Captain America: Civil War) and I think you’ve got crowd-pleasing entertainment for fans across the age spectrum. Let's hope they avoid villain-overload and keep a focused story; the trio featured in Homecoming should work well together in a connected, close-knit story line. It helps that The Tinkerer isn't a punch-up kind of guy, usually content to arm villains, traditionally, filling orders for special devices.
The Vulture himself looks much more formidable than ever, fitted at last with the sort of devastating and wicked-looking suit that sells him as a capable menace. It looks like a new playing field for their battles, too-if anything, fans complain there’s too much given away by the previews, which I’ve mostly missed on purpose. What I read in preparation for this article, however, guarantees we’re in for a truly key Vulture story. If all goes well, I’ll be sharing opinions from Spider-Man writers such as Dave Kraft (who scripted many Spidey Super Stories, much licensed Spider-Man product outside comics, and developed supporting characters like Jameson’s son, as the Man-Wolf) and, since I asked nicely, maybe Roger Stern himself!
If you enjoyed this article, look out for Hero Duty from IDW Publishing later this year, drawn by Joe Phillips and scripted with yours truly, and Integr8d Fix: the book, presently in proposal and filling up with more fun material each month this summer, okay?