Spidey Miscellanea Pt. 6: “Murder by Spider”

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In late 1981, Christmastime, my pre-adolescent heart was broken when I lost both Elektra and the Black Cat in the pages of Daredevil and Amazing Spider-Man, respectively. Elektra was skewered on her own sai courtesy of Bullseye, while Black Cat had taken a plunge off a pier and disappeared into the murky waters. Elektra was definitively dead (or so it seemed), as readers saw her get run through with that sai and later laid out on a slab in the morgue. Black Cat was definitively not dead, as there was no body found, but her romance with Spidey was certainly kaput, which meant she may as well have been dead for boys like me, who had become ’shippers of the Spidey-Cat pairing.

When the next issue of Daredevil came out a month later, creator Frank Miller charted an appropriate course, as DD/Matt was an absolute mess dealing with the loss of Elektra—to the point of his grief driving him to (or perhaps even past) the brink of insanity. I wanted to see something similar with Peter Parker/Spidey, but when I spied Amazing Spider-Man #228 (May 1982) on the racks, I was greatly disappointed. At the mere sight of the cover alone, I immediately smelled a fill-in, and sure enough, there was no Stern or Romita to be found in the credits. The story here, “Murder by Spider,” was written by some guy named Jan Strnad, with art by Rick Leonardi and Dave Simons.

It was the blandest, most vanilla Spidey story I had ever encountered up to that point, and may remain thus for me even today. Basically, this scientist invents a device that controls spiders—a device he uses to make spiders kill people for him. How do they kill people? By swarming over them by the hundreds (or possibly thousands) and biting them. Could hundreds (or even thousands) of bites from common spiders actually kill someone? My guess would be no. Anyway, the guy’s device affects Spider-Man as well, which is how our webhead gets involved in the plot.

Like I said, it was a fill-in issue, and as such it was a standalone story that likely had no firm pub date when first created, so the writer (Strnad) could not have known what stories might come before it or after, so all we got in regard to the Black Cat was one throwaway line. No supervillain here, just your garden variety, generic-scientist dude, in a tale that left no impression on anyone. When I first read it (and even today) it strikes me as an unused script for that low-budget, dull-as-dishwater, live-action CBS show from the 70s that starred Nicholas Hammond. This was not an awful comic, it did not offend my senses or anything, it simply wasn’t good.

(I’ll concede the theme for that Spider-Man series was pretty cool though. Television theme songs from the 70s were the best.)

Getting back on topic: So why am I writing about this very weak story from ASM #228 today? Here’s why.

The Journal

I didn’t purchase my first issue of The Comics Journal until 1985, but in later years I started buying up back issues until I had a complete run from basically 1977 to 1988. So at some point I got my hands on The Comics Journal #72 (May 1982), which contained a review of ASM #228 that might seem a bit perplexing. See for yourself here:

Jan Strnad is best known for his collaborative work with illustrator Richard Corben on such graphic story projects as Neverwhere and New Tales of the Arabian Nights. He is also an occasional critic for The Comics Journal, and has recently expressed an interest in writing for Marvel Comics.

Amazing Spider-Man #228 is Strnad’s first effort in scripting mainstream comics. The issue is worth looking at because it represents a fairly rare example of a writer shifting his creative focus from the underground and alternate concerns to that of a somewhat conservative major publishing firm.

Strnad’s basic plotline for this story is this: a fairly nondescript rapscallion develops some miniature devices that attract hordes of biting, aggravated spiders. The villain then markets them to various sordid clients who plant them on the individuals they would like exterminated. The prognosis for those unfortunate persons is terminal spider bites, shock, and death. It’s a nice little system except that the electronic gadgets also attract and affect the hero whose book this is and he tracks the inventor down and puts the bite on him.

This story seems rather pale when compared in scope to some of Strnad’s previous work, but if viewed considering the confines of the character and the form (which he is obligated to respect), it isn’t bad at all.

One positive aspect of this plotline is that it effectively combines the superhero and mystery genres, offering the reader the type of intense, engaging story that is not often seen in Spider-Man. The absence of the usual costumed super-villain also has some worthwhile ramifications. The villain of this piece makes no bones about it: he’s a coward, and he runs and shoots at the same time. It makes for a nice change. As for the plot itself, “Murder by Spider” is so off the wall that I can’t help but like it. Yes, those electronic arachnid attractors are ridiculous, but then so is a man with the abilities of a spider, so why nitpick? At any rate, those gadgets provided for some effective sequences wherein Spidey is electronically tormented like his eight-legged namesakes (rendered to near perfection by Leonardi and Simons, who do the moodiest meld of the Ditko/Romita Spider-Man that I’ve encountered in recent months).

Story aside, perhaps the most important question is why would Strnad choose to write for Marvel when he is a successful wordsmith elsewhere? Perhaps he is simply diversifying his talents, but I suspect that economics may be a consideration here. In his letter to Ted White in Journal #63, I recall him stating that the writing rates at Heavy Metal were contemptible. As such, perhaps he is seeking a better financial return at Marvel, for which I certainly can’t blame him. But if this is the case, he is definitely sacrificing more than a little of the creative freedom he has enjoyed in the past. You cannot place a value on such artistic freedom, and I for one hope that he carefully weighs his options before making a final decision.

“Definitive vs. Derivative: Kevin C. McConnell on Saga of the Swamp Thing, X-Men, Spider-Man, and Power Man/Iron Fist,” The Comics Journal #72, May 1982, pp. 49-51.

If the alarm on your bullshit detector is screeching right now, rest assured it is not a malfunction. A few lines from this review that absolutely demand parsing:

“…if viewed considering the confines of the character and the form (which he is obligated to respect), it isn’t bad at all.” Hold up, since when does the Journal grade on a curve? While I haven’t read every review they’ve ever done, I feel confident in saying that this was the first, last, and only time they ever cut a superhero comic like ASM any kind of slack. And they did this for a story that had absolutely nothing to recommend it. In case you didn’t already catch it in that opening paragraph, something is clearly up.

“…those electronic arachnid attractors are ridiculous, but then so is a man with the abilities of a spider, so why nitpick?” Why nitpick? Are you kidding me? When it comes to superhero stories published by one of the big two, the Journal EXISTED for the purpose of nitpicking!

“…rendered to near perfection by Leonardi and Simons, who do the moodiest meld of the Ditko/Romita Spider-Man that I’ve encountered in recent months.” I hadn’t touched on the art up until now, but it was also not very good. While I love Rick Leonardi and I love Dave Simons, they were not a good match together. So the story was really weak (and maybe this left the artists a bit uninspired, which led to them giving less effort than they might have otherwise) and the art did it no favors. To invoke Ditko and Romita here, for this art job? Sacrilege.

Obviously, the reviewer, Kevin McConnell, was friends with Strnad and gave him a total pass. In the grand scheme of things, this is not that big of a deal, but still—when I think about all those times the Journal unfairly ravaged a random issue of Superman, Batman, Thor, Defenders, et al., I get a tad angry.

By the time I finally got this issue of TCJ, I knew who Jan Strnad was, and knew he was a very talented writer. He wrote many good and even great stories, with Dalgoda being my personal favorite of all his work, but “Murder by Spider” was a swing and a miss. The story doesn’t end here, however. Just three issues after this review was published, Strnad would go into some detail about his experience at Marvel in a fresh Journal piece.

“My Brilliant Career at Marvel”

Cover of The Comics Journal #75 (Sept. 1982), illustrated by a young Kevin Nowlan.

In “My Brilliant Career at Marvel,” the featured article for the cover of The Comics Journal #75 (Sept. 1982), Jan Strnad revealed a great deal about how the sausage was made at Marvel Comics. After going into some detail about how he got the assignment, followed by assurances that everyone at Marvel were nice guys, Strnad talks about the importance of things like characterization, theme, plot, and the difference between a plot synopsis and a full plot. Then he gets into the Marvel Method and how beginning with a plot synopsis and not a more detailed script, did not fit his approach as a writer. As he put it, “Separated from the character aspect and from the story’s thematic content, the plot alone is indeed a drunkard’s walk.” (Jan Strnad, “My Brilliant Career at Marvel,” The Comics Journal #75 (Sept. 1982), p. 44.)

It also took him five synopses to get one approved, as his rejected ideas were deemed too similar to stories already published, either by Marvel itself or DC. While Strnad understood the reasoning for this, he pointed out that while there are many comic books out there clogging the spinner racks, there are only a limited number of basic plots, making duplicate plots practically unavoidable. “What must differ is not the story itself, but the handling of it, the way it’s told, the way the concept is manipulated and how the characters react to the situation.” Strnad also offered the analogy of the Marvel Method being like filming someone dancing to silence, and then dubbing in the music behind the dancer later. (Ibid.)

I find all of these arguments to be valid. As I’ve discussed here before, the Marvel Method can be tricky business, and Marvel’s obsession with avoiding plot duplication during this era might have created more bad comics than good (look no further than Avengers #200). As Strnad’s article goes on, however, some of his other complaints have a bit less validity. Most of them involve dialogue changes.

Now I understand, as a writer, how annoying an editor’s text changes can be. But I also understand, as an editor, that text changes are sometime necessary. I’m not going to go over every single change DeFalco made to Strnad’s text; I’ll just say that I tend to agree with Strnad that most were unnecessary, but at the same time it’s not as if any of these changes hurt the story. One thing that I’d say was necessary was that aforementioned throwaway line about the Black Cat, which DeFalco added after Spidey first feels the effects of that spider-agitator device. After Spidey asks himself, “What’s wrong with me tonight?” DeFalco added, “I guess I’m still coming down from the death of the Black Cat. Man, I miss her.”

I mentioned at the beginning how much the end of the Spidey-Cat romance affected me at the time, so naturally, if ASM #228 had contained no mention of the Black Cat at all, I would have thrown a monster fit. As it was, the lines DeFalco threw in weren’t very satisfying either, but at least it was something. To be fair, after this fill-in we got the Juggernaut two-parter in ASM 229-230 (Jun.-Jul. 1982), with no mention of the Black Cat at all, so maybe Stern had no plans of making much of her “death” either.

Let the record show that about a year later the Black Cat would return in a last-panel-cameo cliffhanger of Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man #74 (Jan. 1983), becoming a cast regular and full-time love interest from issue #75 onward. Mantlo had brought her back and gave me everything I had seemingly wanted, but within another year or so, I realized Stern was right the first time around—this didn’t work. Maybe I had developed more mature tastes, or maybe it was just the way Mantlo was writing her. Maybe both.

Circling back, Strnad’s article ran across eight pages while that review from TCJ #72 ran across three—that’s a whole lot of Journal space to devote to a nothing ASM story. While Strnad shed a lot of light on how Marvel made its comics, and also offered some interesting insight on writing for comics in general, this does not change the fact that, at its core, “Murder by Spider” is not a good story. Not actively bad, not offensively awful, but still not good.

2 thoughts on “Spidey Miscellanea Pt. 6: “Murder by Spider””

  1. I’m sure I got that issue of ASM but have no memory of it and not inclined to dig in my box for it. I do remember reading The Comics Journal #75. I’d starting getting TCJ a few months earlier and rather enjoyed it for its diverse opinions and beginning my exposure to a wider world of comics than I’d previously had any awareness of. Also, many of the reviews were hilarious as well as cutting. I didn’t fully agree with all of them but felt they were worth reading. As to the Black Cat storyline, I don’t recall having strong feelings about that one way or another, maybe because their relationship such as it was seemed rather shallow. However, I did feel a similar reaction to your own feelings in regard to the follow up issues after Vindicator was “killed” in Alpha Flight — he turned to ashes in front of wife at the end of one issue and in the next few following issues, there is no reference to that whatsoever — Byrne just went off with storylines involving other characters, all entirely and blissfully unaware that their leader had died. Clearly, Byrne did this purposely, although I have no idea what his reasoning was, but after a few more issues I simply stopped collecting, Seemed he didn’t much care about his own characters and as such, I felt “why should I?” I was just so turned off by Byrne’s writing, although I still loved his art. When he took over the FF, initially I thought he was doing great, but eventually some aspects of his writing turned me off enough to quit collecting at some point, after over 10 years. One bit was the tortured logic by which Reed Richards defended Galactus, by which in essence he is arguing, “I was willing to risk destroying the universe to keep my planet from being Galactus’ lunch, but I’m perfectly ok with him wandering around the universe and possibly eating your planets when he gets the munchies again.” I had also been turned off by JIm Shooter’s writing in the Secret Wars. As a young adult, I was becoming much more critical of the comics I was collecting and losing the mania to get every issue every month and starting to become much more selective in what I did collect. By that point, even great art was not sufficient to keep me loyal if I thought the writing sucked.

  2. You’re absolutely right, Fred—the Black Cat relationship was shallow. But I was too young and immature to see it at the time. Some clarification and deeper context are likely called for regarding this.

    While I’m a Gwen partisan now (and have been for twenty-something years at this point), she was already dead when I bought my first Spider-Man comic. Mary Jane was the primary love interest when I started reading, so I just went with that and became a ’shipper of her relationship with Pete. Then Pete proposed in mid ’78 and she jilted him. When the Black Cat first appeared in the Spring of 1979, I was still in the single digits of age, still not really capable of grasping mature-adult romance or relationships, and immediately jumped ship to the Black Cat. I did not, and could not, judge things like how good a match these two characters might be or if the pairing even made sense, all I knew was that Black Cat was hot and she would certainly be more useful in a fight than MJ or any other girl in Spidey’s orbit would be. I’m guessing a lot of boys my age shared this point of view and let Marvel know via their fan mail.

    Roger Stern’s two-parter in ASM 226-227, which may have been written in response to fanboy ’shippers like me, perfectly illustrated why a romantic relationship between these characters could never realistically work, but I was too young and ignorant to grasp this. Almost exactly a year later, Bill Mantlo (a weak writer whose maturity was clearly closer to the twelve-year-old me than it was to an adult like Stern), just paired Spidey and the Cat together anyway, essentially ignoring what Stern had given us a year earlier. The prepubescent me was thrilled at first, then realized over time that Stern was right the first time around.

    So I never intended to make it sound like I was endorsing the Black Cat as Spidey’s ideal partner today, in the here and now (or ever, really); I was just revealing what I was feeling at the time, when I was still a dopey kid. Most dopey kids don’t reason out their opinions, they just feel what they feel and express those feelings without much thought at all. (As an adult now, it’s the opposite—I overthink everything.)

    One last thing I’d like to point out is that I also loved The Comics Journal— as mentioned, I own every issue between 1977 and 1988, and I use it as a source almost constantly. I just wish they were more even handed in their criticism of super hero comics.

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