The Brand saga mixes corporate villainy with established super-villains, drawing in Spider-Man through informant Nose Norton, but really pulling in Peter through concern for supporting cast members Ned Leeds and Betty Brant. We get maybe the best use of the Daily Bugle to date, as regular folks ply their heroism against non-powered Brand executives. We also write finis to two recurrent 1970s Spidey villains in memorable fashion. Combined with Peter’s research intern ruse, it’s a terrific use of realistic elements, and together, a very contemporary background of events.
Identity mistakes are thematic in ASM #231: from page one, we’re given an opportunity to mistake Cobra, hiding from the investigating police security, for the wondrous wall-crawler. Little of the fake-out play is necessary to the actual function of the plot, but is rather an enhancing characteristic. The huge figure tromping around looking for someone for revenge, constantly shadowed, is absolutely a call-back to the terror of the Juggernaut in the two issues before: is it possible, in his uncanny unstoppable fashion, he’s free of his concrete prison already? We are pretty much in on the third one: it’s paranoia on Cobra’s part, when he finds Norton wheedling all the money he can out of Leeds for a big tip related to Brand. This causes all the trouble that brings Spider-Man swooping in for a fairly evenly-matched battle with the possibility of collateral damage.
The plot’s begun with a set-up the year before in Peter Parker #57, which is how Marla Madison’s involved, as a scientist kidnapped by Killer Shrike while she’s exploring work at Brand. That’s also where Will O’ The Wisp really came in, too, as he had hijacked the Shrike battle suit as part of his plans to avenge himself on Brand. It’s a fine example of a phenomenon we’ve many of us noted, exemplified in what David Anthony Kraft calls his “DAK verse”- to himself, of course- inside the Marvel Universe, where characters and plots connect and build, novel-like, in later serialized work.
This allows the plot to begin in earnest with Marla, Jonah and Ned all talking over the Brand expose at the Bugle. Marla, presently billed as Bugle science advisor, has started a relationship with JJJ, too, which adds depth to his often-caricatured voice. This is the real plot, swallowed up inside what one might call a sub-plot where Cobra (interrupting Norton’s informant work in fear of betrayal) and Hyde (seeking vengeance for being abandoned) get mixed up with players going forward into the Brand saga.
Norton’s a survivor and a low-life- also, I think, the one original character brought in by Stern, who only creates one other character for his eighteen-issue run- one he’s actually created previously in Peter Parker. (You could include Alfred Bestman in the Vulture’s story...and let’s not forget Monica Rambeau as the new Captain Marvel in Annual 16.) My insight is that Stern’s highly-regarded run doesn’t lean on creating characters, but he’s quite a resourceful storyteller, nicely accompanied by Romita, Jr.’s consistent pencils.
He’s made Norton as a low-key catalyst, the sort of villain whose threat depends solely on knowledge rather than individual power. It’s not a series that depends on a regular supporting cast on the bad guys’ side, though they do bring their supporting players along in a usually faceless fashion. Nose Norton’s key to the Brand series.
That’s why he goes from being an incidental target to a man on the run in #233, titled by JJJ: “Where the #%$@! is Nose Norton?” He’s vanished with the Leeds tip pay-out (funded by the Bugle) AND the tip. A proactive decision to offer a $1500 reward for his return sparks off competition at the Bugle and draws in reporter Ben Urich, too (making waves over in DAREDEVIL). Soon he’s targeted for a set-up and assassination attempt, using the Tarantula, lying low as a smuggler since his appearance kidnapping the Mayor to kick off PETER PARKER #1. The tone’s set this time by these secretive figures, hiding their identities and location.
We’ll get an interesting cross-section of Crime throughout the series-in-a-series: regular scum-level operatives like Norton, to professional criminals like Tarantula to organized legal businessmen to rogue powers like Wisp. (Businessmen with legitimately-recognized enterprises are a favorite villain well for Stern, going back to his Brand stories in Hulk and forward with the Kingsleys. At least he doesn’t vilify Jameson- that’s usually the wrong direction.)
The professional status of the criminals of the Marvel Age had been a gradual innovation. I listened to Dick Cavett’s Watergate. The year the Brand Saga appeared, 1982, a decade after that story broke, now had writers who came of age AFTER The Tet Offense. Nixon’s tapes, filled with vengeance, break-ins, getting even, screwing the other side- the Enemies define the nefarious nature of those in power, and it’s a time of questioning those in power rather than simply defending whomever’s part of the status quo. The Fantastic four and Spider-Man in the days of Lee never fought any corporation, outside fuming over some Daily Bugle headlines. The FF face the wealthy Gideon, but usually FF enemies were too far outside the law to legally hold corporations. And Spidey faced, what, Heavenly Hair Spray?
But foreign and alien and extra-legal powers were not the boundary for antagonism, anymore: now, the institutions of American life held sinister views. Villains were outsiders to power, trying to seize it, until the 70s, when people stopped being proud of the President and the Army and Big Business- when those things began to seem Outside and Other to the actual American Way of Life.
Granted, Loki was prince of Asgard (adopted); Norman Osborn was an industrialist while he was secretly The Goblin!
So, the Tarantula. The very fact that, once he loses the advantage of surprise, Spider-Man’s grown to out-class him becomes a story point, an arc differing from Black Cat, Juggernaut, Hyde, Cobra. I note how many times the immediate past of the villains, before they appear in Amazing, gets a Stern reference. That small bit of detail sets off the idea of their lives between these appearances: it tells you life’s gone on for heroes and villains, alike.
After making the Big Apple itself Spidey’s setting for previous stories, Stern and JR Jr narrow their focus: three issues set around seedy bars, alley ways, a pier, realistic underworld settings- then the next ones center around a secret hi-tech laboratory. Finally, Spider-Man makes his stand again in The City: those high rooftops are a battleground Spider-Man has learned to utilize. It’s Home Turf. It’s where Spider-Man defeats his foes, using the city in each tale. This suddenly will change when Spidey doesn’t know how to use the city to win- against the Hobgoblin. This time, he doesn’t have a Bugle investigation to supplement his curiosity. He’ll beard The Vulture in his own lair, but more generally, Spider-man’s style improvises, using his surroundings towards numerous strategies. Stern’s run climaxes with another battle over knowledge, which ends in victory, but mystery, without closure. Happily, DeFAlco and Frenz would have a chance to do many stories with their own take on Hobby.
The (Staten Island) ferry where Peter joins Ben Urich in his search for Norton (and a $1500 reward) seems a callback to the first Tarantula battle, under Conway nearly 100 issues before, when he was merely a skilled mugger with an organized gang of robbers. His story as a failed revolutionary, under Conway, has led him to this sorry end, living in secret, smuggling for a living. He’s offered a quarter million dollars to find and encounter Norton. When I mentioned Watergate, the cover-up was of course the part of the story that had addicted morning audiences the summer nine years before the Brand Saga. A set-up to plant the idea that Norton’s selling Brand secrets- and the plan to kill Norton with private investigators- converges on Norton’s hiding place, same time as Urich and Parker. It’s a good intrigue!
Peter must slip out after the initial Tarantula attack at the bar where Norton shouldn’t have come downstairs for a beer after all. I laughed that Ben thought Daredevil’s shadow flew overheard, when it was really, as echoed by Urich and Tarantula: “Spider-Man?”It’s a cool looking fight, but an angry Spidey defeats Tarantula decisively. That’s going to set-up an awesome development, as we find out first-hand the sort of secrets Brand Corporation keeps!
Ben hopes Parker shot a photo of whether or not Norton’s seen drawing his gun first, or the investigators (hired by Roxxon, via Brand). The Tarantula’s scooped up when no one’s looking.
This is one issue that might be considered a little...padded. But I can make a case for the value of showing Peter when, not fighting crime per se, he just does something the Spider-Man way. He could’ve dropped down to street level somewhere for his change, but he’s certainly safer making the clothes change up on the Bugle roof, where he swings, musing about quitting the teaching assistant job to make better money with his Spidey/Bugle set-up. (He’s gravitating towards leaving that college world altogether over a year’s issues.)
He can’t really go down and use the front door after he’s changed. So he messes up a steel door, to the maintenance guy’s chagrin (a Bugle mishap that deserves outrage against Spider-Man!). I like how he uses the elevator cable to reach his floor, but...how does even a well-greased cable not hurt his hand? It’s nothing, but it does show Peter’s unorthodox approach to life- I think that speaks to readers. Some of the fun IS imagining how you’d use super-powers to break out of every day rules.
And I’m not trying to introduce the subject of Amy Powell under the rubric of “padding”- I nearly forgot, she’s another new character, meant to set off a year-long subplot. I wonder if Roger knows MJ is coming back to town as he begins to set up the comedic three-way crash-up with Amy, Lance, and Pete? Amy’s encounter with Peter’s speedy reflexes plays into her ongoing calculations about the games she and Lance play to avoid a more serious commitment. It’s not a huge point, but introducing an open relationship seems a social move forward in modernizing the possibilities- maybe it’s something of interest to older readers. I can tell you anything hinting at how the adult world works was plenty interesting to me as a kid comics reader!
Now we’re halfway into the Brand story, with one new addition to the intrigue: Will O’ The Wisp starts wrecking Brand facilities-and a new inker, after stalwart Jim Mooney bows out of the strip. Here, we’ll get a preview of the team on Uncanny X-Men, as Dan Green inks an issue, with a distinct style on the faces. They’re not on ASM much, but I think of them as defining JR Jr. in this era. How about we pick up the trilogy as a group? It’s a distinct change in setting.
Summer, 1982: The trench-coated Will O’The Wisp haunts security at Boston’s Brand (Haunting, Boston Brand? If I mix up my comics companies, I’m a Dead Man).. He’s so powerful: he’s intangible at will, he can become blinding bright and hypnotize people, he can become super strong and forms a ball of destructive power, which is his mode of transportation, too!
We learn he’s an ex-Brand employee, with suggestions- many- to which they never listened. Without hurting anyone else, he blows up the central utilities core, promising more.
Looking at the structure, Wisp gives us an action opening. Aside from a page visiting the wounded Tarantula, the entire story follows its main character, balances Peter and Spider-Man. Like the scene breaking into the elevator shaft, it’s crystal clear Peter’s always secretly Spider-Man, with the abilities in and out of costume. There are several pieces that come together to produce the Marvel newsstand champion of its day. That younger “spinner rack” and “magazine rack” crowd finding Amazing Spider-Man issues in grocery, pharmacy and convenient store outlets- and of course, newsstands- had colorful desires met in this unique package, and when it was done at all, it could delight a young reader. When it’s done at its highest quality, it’s worth analyzing! One element is the identification with Peter as Spider-Man, Spider-Man as Peter.
Being Spider-Man, being Peter Parker, is the central attraction, the preoccupation. It’s always about more than the super-fights every fan young and young at heart thrills to read. But it’s absolutely about that!
How we get there allows us to explore the elements that captivate the imagination as we move into life more from childhood: the little daily life moments, so real, with that Spider-Man approach, whether crossing town, getting a paper, or fending for dinner. People who think that something about Peter’s attitude and bad luck define Spider-Man, I suggest what really makes it his story is simply dealing with daily things that characteristic way! I think this is the basis, too, for Spider-Man the solo operative. Today, he has matured into a dream for clever vehicles and devices to sell under the Spider name, and he’s even been a team member ever since his friendships on Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends! But dealing with day-to-day problems is the depiction by which an era of fans know him best, locked into the inefficiencies of having to figure out everything himself.
So here, we get Wisp opening with a bang, then build back to the suspenseful action ending.
The way everyone converges there, to create further mayhem and hazard, is quite interesting. Brand is a spider of its own kind, a Roxxon Oil subsidiary often dedicated, since at least the days of Steve Englehart’s origin of the Beast, to creating super-powered operatives. We’ve been drawing closer to it, trying to figure out what’s going on mostly from Peter’s perspective. The glimpse over to the villain’s side for the fateful moment James Melvin tells the wounded hired assassin “I can give you the power to BE Spider-Man!” is our last divergence from a plot that moves its main character right along towards a collision with Melvin (Brand), Will O’ The Wisp and The Tarantula.
Being Spider-Man, as I mentioned, is the primary point of telling or reading his adventures: this may apply widely to the various psychological shapes of general Marvel Universe characters, but I’d rather discover their features in the process of zooming in on my favorite childhood character. When the world was still filling with Sinbad, the Lone Ranger, Buck Rogers, Knight Rider, the Duke Boys, the Fall Guy, Magnum, P.I. Robin Hood and Godzilla, I played them all, but recall keeping none as my secret identity so preciously as Spidey!
So, four seasons of Spider-man cartoons, one personal appearance, a birthday cake, a funky live action TV show and 20 or so comics featuring Spider-Man: this is where I was by spring of 1982, when I first caught sight of the Cobra and Mr. Hyde’s exciting appearances at a grocery store stand somewhere Mama and her friend Sue Culberson were double coupon shopping. I’m still playing the Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four board game with my sister at this point! (Remember that one?)
A trip to Kroger unveiled the contents of ASM #234- I probably flipped to the battle! The Tarantula’s horrific fate really unnerved me. I found a later chapter of it, horrified that what had once been a man was now a monstrous man-spider. It called to my imagination, you know? He was not the kind of Spider-Man you, Anton Rodriguez or anyone would want to be!
Peter, while still struggling to survive and grow as a young adult, has a smidge of self-certainty. He’s still self-effacing, but he’s not a self-loather. The team tries to offer us elements that made Spidey great, while modernizing the approach and capitalizing on Pete’s Marvel Time history.
You have to love Peter using his identity as a student to get in the door at Brand, on a suggestion from lab partner Roger Hochberg. JJJ snaps a Havana raging at the wall crawler, and Peter’s flirted with by a sexy blonde who wants to make a Parker rival jealous – you could see these things happening over in Marvel Tales, reprinting the original Spider-Man comics at this time! Deliberate attempt to create a super-villain to stand up to Spidey: see what I mean? It’s all there.
But everything’s got a fresh twist. This time, the villain’s trying to BE Spider-Man! That’s an interesting, ominous promise; it’s not a disguise/ frame-up, but a misguided effort to make a new, villainous spider-man. It’s all going to go wrong, and whether the hazards could’ve been detected and monitored, the process halted before its grisly result, the vengeance of Will O’ The Wisp will create too much chaos. Brand, we’ll discover, accidentally made him a monster without trying; now that mistake cascades. Rodriguez was clearly a cruel, petty man, but the loss of humanity’s horrific.
Wisp, too, is trying to take Spider-Man’s place, without knowing: they are both out to take down Brand. One wants to break a few rules to use the system: Wisp wants to break EVERything! His humanity, too, seems lost. His monstrosity becomes very apparent as he menaces James Melvin at the end of ASM #235. He’s at best an anti-hero. He’s seen by Spidey as a mixed-up guy.
For the second time in the Brand Saga, Peter’s attempt to procure evidence via photography fails. He’s trying to correct the limitations of the auto-shutter by taking these pics himself in the air shaft. He wants to use his cunning for solutions, but is thrown into fighting for his life, anyway!
So, a man who doesn’t value his humanity would risk it to gain more power, a helpless pawn in an experiment disrupted by two men altered by science, struggling with their own humanity. But Peter, at least, is comfortably human, complete with its many discomforts. I like how Peter’s so busy thinking of others that he does the bachelor thing and opens an empty fridge! How cool that his niceness to neighbor Mr. Pincus- apparently no longer in country-western garb- comes back to him when Pinky needs to thaw the fridge? Peter traditionally does get these little breaks courtesy of the very friends for whom he inevitably has risked his entire life.
Peter’s humanity is what strengthens his resolve to save even James Melvin’s life, in part to preserve the integrity and soul of Wisp, aka Jackson Arvad. But he’s not in control of every element: he can pull a punch to the Wisp when he finally gets the drop on him, but he can’t stop James from firing the experimental blaster, nor Wisp from thinking he’s a traitor on Brand’s side. The revolting Tarantula emergent from his power-bath was already set on destroying Spider-Man...who is only trying to save each of them, even if he also wants to foil each plan!
Spider-Man’s battling for his life in the midst of monsters- and so, in a way more reflective of the real world, is the Daily Bugle. They, trying to do the right thing, are being stopped by who they perceive to be the good guys- the defenders of society’s status quo in its fairest sense, working by law. They have ventured into the darkened alleyways- and it’s important that Dr. Marla Madison got involved now in a couple of adventures, set in both places where these are based: the unglamorous
alleys and piers, and the fantastic, promise-of-tomorrow laboratory. Her home base for the story is that third critical setting, where in the publisher’s penthouse, Ned leads us into a meeting that both reveals the fantastic comics history of Roxxon’s schemes and encounters, but also, that collecting evidence might be foiled by this well-intentioned expose. JJJ has a worthy dilemma, after a series of them: respecting his girlfriend’s wishes to accompany Leeds to meet Norton, losing that money to Norton,
offering a $1500 reward (a real JJJ dilemma, trust me!), Urich’s encounter, and now: back away from the hard-earned story, for the sake of trying a lasting case? Jonah’s really Stern’s secret weapon.
JJJ’s actually behaving like he’s learned a thing or two, even if the Stern tenure ends with his attempt to face a past mistake. Treating events to that point as back story: this may have made Marvel seem impenetrable reading to some, unwilling to take on what promises to be many, many puzzle pieces. That is, of course, part of creating Marvels.
Where else might Stern be drawing inspiration? He’s at this point aware he’s in a contemporary environment where the primary media outlet, numbers-wise, is the NBC Saturday Morning cartoon, which he’s probably begun seeing while writing these issues, but I rather imagine he had this plot in mind, probably boiling away as he came on to the book. Wouldn’t I love to ask him? Remember, the pacing of I Love Lucy plays into all this, too- but for that three-part interview, I suggest checking out the Roger Stern Spider-Man Omnibus.
One story of which I was not aware was begun by Stan Lee and completed by Roy Thomas, the first time anyone else wrote an issue of Amazing Spider-Man, much less four: in it, Peter decides his desire for humanity and a life as a normal man- able to marry Gwen and pursue a career, family...outweighs his obligation as Spider-Man. He takes out a formula, itself not fully tested. His accident leaves him with four extra, human, arms. However grotesque, at least Peter’s spider-changes gave him human limbs. The Tarantula? What a mess! If that’s what Peter had become, at his origin or that time with the serum...it’s just the most awful way to be a spider-man, if you’ve been a man, you think? But one man performed an experiment with his all know-how and daring in an effort to stop being a spider-man. The other man is subjected to an experiment that underscores his brutal lack of concern for the know-how: he is all daring! But the monstrous deeds of his life reflect his transformation: power has made him less human.
A non-comics source of inspiration may have been the rising consciousness about technology’s fallibility, crystallized in the work of Rachel Carson, the environmentalist. Her controversial work exposing asbestos, as well as DDT and other pesticides, had been a part of the Earth Day movement that had made ecology a household word as Roger Stern came of age. The effects of industrial technology- adverse side effects, environmental ruin- are echoed in the rampant transformation.
One thing about the story in real time: at first it seems the Tarantula might be a new, monstrous form of super-villain. Only as the issues progress do we realize he’s on a collision course with a complete, inhuman change. There’s blame to spread around for the calamity, adding to the horror.
I see the King Kong parallel in Tarantula’s ending- again, so freakin’ horrible! He wanted to EAT James Melvin by the middle of #236. Yick! The fact that Spider-Man himself webbed Melvin in place to rein in the situation with Will O’The Wisp means he accidentally put the crummy corporate executive in the jaws of death! Would serve him right, too, for his part in the Tarantula’s descent to inhuman darkness.
In fact, that’s what the cliffhanger of #235 suggested! Spider-Man’s trying to keep Melvin from being murdered in his own home while reporting to his Roxxon superior. Suddenly, it’s apparent Wisp and Tarantula both walked away from the plunge into Jamaica Bay ending the laboratory confrontation. In fact, since Wisp has taken hypnotic control and posed Tarantula as his guard, Willow’s now the man to beat. The fact that Spidey’s got to reach his decency to really have any lasting victory for fairness means a moral struggle, of a sort he’s not had with anyone since the appearance of the Black Cat.
In fact, he’s been fighting pretty merciless, cold-blooded baddies lately, right up to Wisp here, who I think attracted Stern precisely because of that “must reach his conscience” element I recall when he was created by Len Wein- I’m inclined to say he was designed by John Romita? So, this time Spider-Man’s persuasive (panicky, preachy?), but for the Tarantula, there’s only enough human left in him to want Death, which he’s so long admired.
I remember those Kroger issues- I seem to have found them in two trips, though all three or two of them could’ve been out on the same magazine rack- primarily for how they made me wonder about the possibilities by which one might transform into a spider-man. There are some horrible ways indeed to become what you wanted, that’s for sure.
The fight between Spidey and the Wisp resolves with some ingenuity: no one can use a power plant quite like the wall-crawler. I love how he tricks Wisp- and Jackson Arvad is an engineer, himself, so this is quite careless- into dematerializing his form in time to send it through three banks of generators. Comics science is most often a bit dodgy but it’s fun watching the writers use it unconventionally. The emergency salvation of trapped James Melvin leaves Wisp with the decision he ultimately must face: take a life, or save it. “Perhaps I’m tired of being one of your monsters,” Wisp says in #236, while freeing Melvin from the webbed chimney. While his powers further break the rules, at least send the twisted executive to the police, confessing. When you can subvert the wills of people and you already feel isolated from humanity, it’s pretty hard not to be a monster, but he’ll try.
In closing, Stern proffers the under-rated and previously too-oft-ignored Spider Sense as the greatest and most uncanny Spider-ability. Good on for Spider-Man now realizing that’s a trade secret!
I love when he tests to see if Tarantula has it (no, just those eyes). There’s even an old-time hint of menace and emotional downturn at the Brand Corporation story close: Melvin’s been Wisp-o-Tized into confessing. But the companies are deeply entrenched with real world political power. The TV newscast? Sponsored by Roxxon Oil.
Peter’s gotten over being whiny and off-putting to people personally, and of course, now his friendships with people lead him ever to where danger lurks. Being Spider-Man seems such a necessity, this Parker can’t live without it and he’s not fighting that, even while this shapes a path in life diverging from what Peter Parker seemed most to want. Maybe that was the world he felt safe in, but ask Uncle Ben, it wasn’t so safe. I am glad, at least if he has to miss his going-away party, someone wanted to throw Pete one! It was meant as a goodbye, too, to Stern’s supporting cast over on Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man, as you’ll find discussed a bit elsewhere in this book. I do like how DeFalco’s facilitating Mantlo and Stern and even DeMatteis over at Marvel Team-Up, depicting different parts of Spidey’s life, acknowledging each others’ characters and story lines where appropriate. MTU sort of becomes Aunt May’s boarding house while still giving us a bit of Bugle and its reporters- J.M.’s really into making up non-costumed folk for his stories. Debra Whitman’s dilemma about Peter’s dual identity won’t be resolved here in ASM (too bad), but her quiet fears and imaginings do take a panel. You can add a lot of depth with one intense panel- when you find a moment intense for the character, you acquire definition, right?
It was a real blast checking in on young adult Pete, though. With Stern, wrapping up that crucial first year of stories, he’s not nearly so depressed. His supporting cast is at a high-water mark, in the midst of three well-coordinated titles and a ratings success on Saturday morning, to say nothing of 7-11 Slurpee cups. Still capable of making mistakes (see: most of his relationship with Debra Whitman), but determined to pick up broken pieces with such decency and courage, just as Stan and Steve intended. Peter’s a fine hero, set in a world outside your window. Not unlike the web of a spider, man.