Just a friendly little reminder: this is a series of posts exploring when Spider-Man jumped the shark, not when he swam over the shark—because we all know precisely when the latter happened.
Moving on to the Lee-Romita Era now. I figured I’d start this post with the last question of the previous one, since that’s the easiest question to answer here.
Is He Still Pete/Spidey?
Dude . . . this is Stan Lee and John Romita at the height of their powers, in what was probably the happiest creative marriage of Lee’s career. Romita totally got what Lee was going for and they were in complete agreement, with all the oars were rowing in the same direction—which is the opposite of what Lee’s relationship with Ditko was in the latter days of their collaboration.
The deteriorating characterizations touched on last time were wiped away immediately (in Romita’s very first issue, in fact, just as I recounted in my Gwen doctoral thesis), as basically all the characters, including and especially Pete/Spidey, went from caterpillars to butterflies, achieving their ideal forms in short order. This is the Spidiest Spidey and the Peterest Peter you will ever find on a comics page.
When Did It Start to Suck?
Never. If you go by the “suck” interpretation of the phrase “jump the shark,” then this era never jumped. Are some issues/storylines worse than others? Certainly. But suck? Nah.
Creative quibbling aside, what no one can debate is that this was Spider-Man’s commercial zenith, at least as a comic-book product. Amazing Spider-Man not only achieved its peak sales under Lee and Romita, it became the top seller across the entire Marvel line during this era.
When Did It Pass Its Peak?
As before (and likely will continue to be), the posing of this question is when the discussion seems to become the most interesting.
The obvious criticism of this era (or so it would seem to me) is that it only existed as a purely two-man partnership for eighteen months. Jazzy Johnny’s first ish was Amazing Spider-Man #39 (Aug. 1966) and he would continue as full penciler through issue #56 (Jan. 1968), an eighteen-issue, year-and-a-half stretch. Then things start to get really patchy.
First, Romita starts doing layouts with Don Heck doing full pencils. Then Jim Mooney comes in for inks before doing full pencils and inks (again, over Romita layouts). This goes on for just over a year, from ASM #57 (Feb. 1968) through #71 (Apr. 1969). Then John Buscema comes aboard with issue #72 (May 1969), working with Romita and Mooney in a similar fashion through #85 (Jun. 1970).
The collaboration between Lee, Romita, Buscema, and Mooney during this stretch gets rather chaotic, as there are times when Romita and Buscema are credited as “innovators,” which I take to mean full plotters, with Lee just doing dialogue. There are also times when Romita will still do a full-pencil job, specifically ASM #83 (Apr. 1970), the first appearance of the Schemer. Then we’re back to just Romita and Mooney for issues #86 (Jul. 1970), featuring the redesigned Black Widow, through issue #88 (Sept. 1970).
Gil Kane then comes aboard doing full pencils with ASM #89 (Oct. 1970) and will be the primary penciler through issue #105 (Feb. 1972), with the only interruption being a two-issue stint for Sal Buscema in ASM #94-95 (Mar.-Apr. 1971). Romita will still regularly contribute inks or (in the case of Sal) layouts during this time.
In the midst of the Kane run, Roy Thomas comes in as writer for four issues, #’s 101-104 (Oct. 1971-Jan. 1972). As it’s just four issues, I wouldn’t categorize this as its own era, as it’s simply too brief a timespan; it actually feels more like Lee taking a semester break from writing the book. Speaking of whom, he’ll return to the writer’s chair for Kane’s last issue of this era, ASM #105 (Feb. 1972). (Kane will also later return for several issues of the Conway Era, but that’s for the next post in this series, not today.)
Appropriately enough, the Lee-Romita Era then ends in a five-issue stretch, issues 106-110 (Mar.-Jul. 1972), where it’s just the two of them, Lee and Romita, reunited (and it feels so good!). Issues 108-109 (May-Jun. 1972) were probably Romita’s artistic highpoint—or at least Romita himself considered it such.
Sounds like there was a multitude of cooks in the kitchen during this time, right? But really, no matter who else might be pitching in, Stan Lee and John Romita were the driving forces behind Spider-Man, always. For one example, even when Roy Thomas came in as writer, he had to deal with the six-armed/eight-limbed Peter Parker that Lee had dropped in his lap. He also created Morbius at the behest of Lee, who nixed Thomas’s original idea to introduce Dracula himself into the story.
As for Romita, he always had a strong influence on the title, regardless of what he may (or may not) have received formal credit for. In discussing how Gil Kane wound up drawing so many of the “big event” stories, Romita told The Comics Journal that “Gil [Kane] used to get all the plum issues. I plotted that sequence [the drug issues] with Stan, as I did with all of them. I was just being used on something, probably The Fantastic Four. . . . So I gave the plot to Gil by phone, and he got all the plum issues that way! He got the death of Captain Stacy [ASM #90 (Nov. 1970)], the death of Gwen Stacy [ASM #121 (Jun. 1973)] and the drug issues [ASM #’s 96-98 (Mar.-Apr. 1971)]. Those were all major sequences. It was just luck of the draw.” (“The John Romita Sr. Interview.” The Comics Journal No. 252, May 2003, p. 113.)
So even when he wasn’t the credited artist, Romita still took part in the plotting and would then ride herd on whoever had the art assignment(s), exerting a tremendous influence over all of the stories. It would seem he was Marvel’s de facto art director years before being formally granted the title. (Or, at the very least, Spidey’s de facto art director.)
After all this, my point is that even with all those other hands pitching in, I don’t see any shark-jumping as a result of this. Lee and Romita remained the ones steering the ship, and even with the artists seeming to play musical chairs those last few years, damn near everything about this whole period is still pretty freakin’ great.
Early Peak Candidates
. . . But the whole idea here is establishing a peak, so I’m gonna still give it the old college try!
There’s so much to love about this era, but let me start with some generalities. As I said, the characterizations grow by light years, for one. Partisans for the Ditko Era will say that the art was more pioneering, more imaginative, and Ditko certainly created/designed more iconic villains—but the characterizations were deteriorating terribly by the end of the Ditko run. Almost the second Ditko leaves, all of the characterizations improve vastly.
Take Jameson, for example. He started out in an antagonistic role, yes, but he was also used for humorous effect at times in those earliest days. By the time we get to the end of the Ditko run, however, there wasn’t much humor in him anymore, he was just a monster obsessed with destroying Spider-Man at any and all costs. Once Lee and Romita take over, Jameson becomes far more multi-dimensional. Yeah, he’s still largely a jerk and a skinflint and a curmudgeon™, but he’s also a devoted father who loves his son, hates racism, and will even show signs of some journalistic integrity every now and then (at least when Spidey isn’t the topic). He also regains his value as a humorous foil.
Not only do the existing characters get better treatment, but we also get several new characters that really add to the strip. In strictly social terms, none are bigger than African-American Joe “Robbie” Robertson, the Bugle’s City Editor. His son Randy will follow sometime after, along with other great cast members like Captain Stacy and, of course, Mary Jane Watson. While Ditko gets much-deserved credit for the creation of all those great villains in the first thirty-plus issues of ASM, the growth and development of Peter Parker’s supporting cast during the Romita years is just as important in its own way.
Getting past the characters, we also had some great stories to go along with ‘em. Right off the bat we get the resolution of the long-running Green Goblin mystery in an absolutely stunning tale—Gobby figures out Spidey’s secret identity! Then attacks him and captures him in the front yard of his own home! Then he’s finally revealed to be Norman Osborn! You weren’t getting plot developments like this in any other comic back then; not from any other publisher nor any other title at Marvel, in fact. As we all know, Spidey comes back to beat him in the following issue and the Goblin/Osborn is left with amnesia and no longer a threat . . . or is he? Perfect way to tie things up while leaving the door open for the Green Goblin’s inevitable future return.
In the third ASM Annual (Nov. 1966) we get “To Become an Avenger!” I stumbled onto this at a flea market around the age of ten and it holds fond memories for me. Like a lot of kids that age, I had always wanted Spidey to be an Avenger, plus that Hulk confrontation on the cover was irresistible. It turned into my earliest (and likely best) lesson for why the web-slinger is better off solo.
The fiftieth issue of ASM (Jul. 1967) gives us the iconic “Spider-Man No More!” This wasn’t the first time Pete wanted to quit being Spidey, nor would it be the last, but there’s something special about it this go-round. Maybe it’s that all-time cover by Romita, maybe it’s because of the Kingpin’s debut, I don’t know. Joe Robertson first appears in the next issue, #51, and then Frederick Foswell dies near the end of this storyline, so a lot of big stuff seems to be happening at this time. (The Foswell death led to one of those good character moments for Jameson, too, as touched on earlier.)
Amazing Spider-Man 66-67 (Nov.-Dec. 1968) is the storyline where Mysterio appears to shrink Spidey down to mouse size. The mileage for others may vary on this one, but boy did I ever love it.
Outside the pages of ASM proper, we had Spidey’s forays into the magazine market with those two issues of The Spectacular Spider-Man. The first issue of the series (Jul. 1968) had a trim size of 8.25″ x 11” and was published in black and white. The second issue (Nov. 1968) was 8” x 10.25” in full color; both were 64 pages with a cover price of thirty-five cents. The first issue was okay, but that second issue is the one that really cooked, as it featured the original return of the Goblin after he had lost his memory back in Amazing Spider-Man #40 (Sept. 1966). The dinner party scene is an all-timer in terms of suspense, and was recaptured beautifully in the Thanksgiving dinner scene in that first Spidey film in 2002.
ASM #68 (Jan. 1969) brings us another campus protest at Pete’s school, ESU (Empire State University), but unlike the prior Ditko portrayals of such events, the students and their cause are treated with respect here, behind another classic Romita cover. This issue also kicks off the “Tablet Saga,” an elaborate storyline that will take up the bulk of the year. For those who have never read it, I’ll try not to spoil it, but it’s about this ancient, petrified clay tablet and anyone able to decipher the hieroglyphics etched onto it “may learn the greatest secrets of all time!”
The tablet is put on display at ESU and the Kingpin tries to swoop in and steal it during the student protest. It quickly becomes the proverbial hot potato, passing through several hands during this very extended (certainly for its time) arc. There’s a lot to follow here, but it’s really not overly complex. In many ways, this arc can be seen as a handbook on how to use continuity properly: it can be a great tool for storytelling, but continuity should never be the point of the story.
Get to the Peak Already!
Alright, alright! I’m getting to it, but really, it’s a very tough question for this era. Gun to my head, force me to pick a peak, and I’ll go with the “Tablet Saga,” which ran from ASM #68 through #75 (Aug. 1969). Lee himself described this period as “a sparkling example of the way we weave plot, subplot, and counterpoint relentlessly together, blending drama with action, with romance, with satire, until you clamor for a scorecard. And if you gather from this starry-eyed little soliloquy that I’m kinda proud of our wondrous web-head, you better believe it!” (Stan Lee, “The World’s Best-Selling Swinger,” Origins of Marvel Comics, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1974, p. 151.)
But I can’t bring myself to stop at issue #75, because a subplot featuring Dr. Curt Connors/the Lizard that had been running in the background of the “Tablet Saga” nearly the entire time would then become the main plot of issues 76-77 (Sept.-Oct. 1969). It’s a direct continuation of the preceding eight issues, pretty much. But I can’t bring myself to stop here either, as we THEN get the introduction of the Prowler in ASM 78-79 (Nov.-Dec. 1969). No direct connection to the “Tablet Saga” like those two Lizard issues, but it’s such a great story, with Hobie/the Prowler serving as such a wonderful literary double for Pete/Spidey, it would pain me to leave it out.
So ya wanna peak? There! That’s your peak! Amazing Spider-Man 68-79! The entire cover-pub-date year of 1969, strangely enough. Ya happy now? Yeesh!
The Fall from the Peak?
About three years ago, on his Attack of the 50 Year Old Comic Books blog, Alan Stewart first got into Marvel’s doomed policy of “no continued stories,” first announced in “Stan’s Soapbox” in their October-dated, July-released titles in the summer of ’69. About eight months later, in his coverage of Amazing Spider-Man #85 (Jun. 1970), Stewart noted how Stan Lee utterly ignored this policy in the case of ASM, outside of a three-issue span that kicked off the 1970-cover-dated issues.
As fate would have it, if we end peak Spidey with ASM #79, the very next issue, ASM #80 (Jan. 1970), featuring the Chameleon, would actually be my pick for the weakest story of this era—and perhaps not coincidentally, it’s the first story that kicked off that aforementioned three-issue, one-and-done-story stretch. It’s not offensively bad or anything, but it’s so paint-by-numbers formulaic that it comes off as a rather soulless exercise. This was followed by the introduction of the Kangaroo in ASM #81 (Feb. 1970) in another so-so tale, but I’ll generously give them a few points here for at least trying to create a new villain.
This brings us to ASM #82 (Mar. 1970), featuring Electro. Now I’ve seen some parties lump this one in with the preceding two issues in terms of mediocrity, but sorry, I ain’t havin’ it. I absolutely love this one and I’m even willing to go so far as to say it’s one of my all-time fave issues of Amazing. It’s got Pete worrying about his aunt and his money troubles throughout. It’s got Pete having to put a bag over his head so he can enter a laundromat to wash his Spidey suit. We also get what may be the very best portrayal of the Pete-Gwen relationship that Lee ever offered us. And it closes with a fun Electro fight that Spidey somehow manages to both win and lose at the same time.
Classic. F*cking. Spidey.
Then ASM #83 kicks off the Schemer three-parter, which I also love. This is when we’re formally introduced to the Kingpin’s wife, Vanessa (after getting just a few allusions to her during the “Tablet Saga”). She would add major layers to the Kingpin, turning a fun, comic-book villain into a much deeper and more human character.
Shortly after we get the classic death of Captain Stacy in ASM #90 (Nov. 1970).
And then the monumental drug storyline from issues 96-98 (Mar.-Apr. 1971).
Finally, at the very tail end of the Lee-Romita Era, we get the Viet Nam two-parter in Amazing Spider-Man #’s 108-109 (May-Jun. 1972). As mentioned, this may be Romita’s high point as an artist, as he takes great inspiration from his idol, Milt Caniff, and his work on Terry and the Pirates in terms of both story and art. And on the writing side, Lee turns Flash Thompson, originally a one-dimensional bully, into a much deeper, fuller character, in one of the most positive and humanist tales of Lee’s career. Some truly superb stuff.
Now you know why it was so hard for me to isolate a peak during this run. All of the storylines I just mentioned could be considered peaks of their own—the “Tablet Saga” might be considered slightly better by some or even most (including myself), but the margin of difference ain’t much. This era is clearly the absolute height, both creatively and commercially, for Spider-Man comics overall.
Sidebar Mini-Rant: Mention of that Kingpin storyline from ASM #83-85 (Apr.-Jun. 1970) reminded me of just how much weight (no pun intended) the Kingpin carried in the pages of ASM at this time. In the Lee-Ditko Era, Spidey’s two biggest antagonists were Doc Ock and the Green Goblin. In the Lee-Romita Era, Spidey’s single greatest antagonist was the Kingpin, and it’s not even much of a contest. Kingpin was Spidey’s primary big bad in his greatest era, which is why it annoys me to this very day that Daredevil basically poached him. Don’t get me wrong, I’m willing to share the Kingpin with Daredevil, but he should never be taken away from Spidey completely. End rant.
So again, for me, the nadir of the Lee-Romita Era is just those two consecutive issues (80-81) featuring stories with virtually no bearing on anything that came before or after, which renders them easily ignored. And I wouldn’t even call these stories terrible, exactly; they’re just not very good. (And certainly nowhere near as good as the other stories that surround them.) But if one insists on nailing down an issue number where this run passes a point of consistent greatness, I’d have to go with ASM #80.
Outside of that tiny, two-issue span (80 and 81), there’s just one other instance that could perhaps be considered a shark jumper.
Spidey’s Creative Kryptonite
If Spider-Man has a creative kryptonite, it’s his biological parents. (If you don’t want to take my word for it, just ask the creators of those two Andrew Garfield Spidey films.) This was evident from their very first appearance in a story from Amazing Spider-Man Annual #5 (1968), appropriately titled “The Parents of Peter Parker!” The reason why they sink every story in which they appear is simple: in every thematic, symbolic, and literary way, Aunt May and Uncle Ben ARE Peter’s parents—which renders his real, biological parents redundant and rather pointless.
In less artistic, more practical terms, they’re also problematic because they were secret agents in the employ of S.H.I.E.L.D. Peter Parker is supposed to be this shlub living a dull life (as Peter, at least), so when you give him these extraordinary parents, it compromises what is supposed to be a very ordinary existence. Then there are still more problematic elements related to the actual story.
When originally published, the Red Skull we see here was supposed to be the real Red Skull; the same one that gave the real Captain America so much grief. But it had already been revealed that the Red Skull entered suspended animation around the same time Cap did, right before the end of World War II—and the Skull’s interactions with the Parkers here had to take place several years after the end of the war. Later, they would retcon it so this was the commie Skull from the 1950s, but even this retcon inevitably became unworkable, as time always marches relentlessly forward, putting the 1950s too far back in the rearview to serve as a proper timeframe for Peter’s birth (and the loss of his parents soon afterward).
Ultimately though, none of this really mattered. Much like those two particularly weak issues of ASM (80 & 81), this story had little bearing on anything that came before or after (at least not until a couple decades after) and was easily ignored (again, at least for a couple of decades or so).
Next time we’ll get into the Conway Era. Probably not much suspense on the direction that blogpost is going to take.
Don’t Go in the Water!
In the spirit of that Spidey Super Stories cover, I thought it would be fun to close this one out with some reaction videos to the movie, Jaws. Always great to see this classic film through fresh eyes . . . enjoy!