When Spidey Jumped the Shark, Pt. 5: The Marv Wolfman Era

Today it’s the Marv Wolfman Era of Amazing Spider-Man I’ll be covering. Let’s kick it off with some words from the (Wolf)man himself: “I accepted the job of writing The Amazing Spider-Man with great consternation. As I’ve mentioned before, I wanted to write Fantastic Four, but Editor in Chief Archie Goodwin—one of the best writers and nicest people I have ever known—wanted me to write Spidey as well. While I thought the FF fit my wheelhouse, I did not believe I could even come close to capturing the wonderful dialogue that Stan Lee had created for [Spider-Man]. Ironically, once I began writing both books, I found that FF was a lot harder to do than expected, while I really enjoyed and got into writing Spidey’s unique form of banter. Such is life.” [Marv Wolfman, “Introduction,” Marvel Masterworks The Amazing Spider-Man, vol. 19, October 12, 2016, p. i.]

In a much earlier interview, he said, “For the most part my [early] reputation has been on mystery comics. Spider-Man was the first superhero I thought I did well.” [Heidi D. MacDonald and Gary Groth, “Marv Wolfman on the New Teen Titans,” The Comics Journal #80, March, 1983, p. 88.]

Looking back for the purposes of this post today, I’d agree that he did quite well during his creative stewardship from Amazing Spider-Man #182 (Jul. 1978) through #204 (May 1980). I’ll confess, however, that as a kid in the single digits at the time these issues came out, I didn’t much care for it. Part of this was because I was only faintly aware of the classic Ditko Era of Spider-Man then, and the thrust of Wolfman’s efforts here was to recapture the spirit of that first era. Ergo, said efforts were lost on the young me. As they put it in the Spidey Bible (better known to everyone else as the fifth issue of FantaCo’s Chronicles Series from 1982):

An answer to a fan letter in issue #183 says, “Marv and the rest of the creative team on Spider-Man are making a real effort to bring [this] spirit of innovation-and change back . . . Marv, in fact, intends that each issue of Spider-Man contains a real development in Peter Parker’s life.” The idea was to return Spider-Man to Stan Lee’ s early 60s school of perpetual plot twists, to the days when Smilin’ Stan struck while the irony was hot. [J. A. Fludd, “The Web-Slinging Adventures of Wolfman & Pollard,” FantaCo’s Chronicles Series No. 5, July 1982, p. 17.]

The adult me, however, knows the Ditko Era backward and forward and thus can recognize these efforts and properly appreciate them. So how does Marv stack up overall?

When Did It Start to Suck?

I can’t see a definitive shark-jumping moment of this run (as far as it sucking). In fact, I’m not sure I can find any kind of definite low point. Wolfman was steady, like Wein before him, but without that one clear misstep that Wein had made on a couple separate occasions (i.e., invoking the clone). All of this was good comics, without a real stinker in the bunch.

Now there were points when things could have gone bad—and based on some leaked plans, this run would have absolutely jumped the shark if Wolfman had stayed on just one more issue, but he didn’t . . . so it didn’t. (I’ll get into details at the appropriate time.)

When Did It Pass Its Peak?

See above. There are a number of potential peaks here, but on the flip, nothing bad; no great fall from grace during this run. I’ll make note of the potential peaks and valleys (and my personal choices for such) as we go along.

Is He Still Pete/Spidey?

Going forward, I’m going to just start copying and pasting what I’ve basically said the last two times: The Boomer generation of writers that held the reins over Amazing Spider-Man in the twenty years or so after Stan, they all grew up on Spidey and knew all the strip’s characters extremely well. Character voices remained remarkably consistent. Pete/Spidey always sounded like the same Pete/Spidey we all know and love; ditto the supporting cast and villains.

The Marv Wolfman Era

Similar to last time, there’s a one-issue fill-in before the new incoming regular writer gets his proper start. Amazing Spider-Man #181 (Jun. 1978) was written by Bill Mantlo and penciled by Sal Buscema and served as a look back on Pete/Spidey’s life. Sorta the comic book equivalent of a television clip show. If you never heard of Spider-Man before, this issue fills you in on just about everything you need to know about him circa 1978.

Marv then takes the reins with issue #182 (Jul. 1978), which sees Spidey have a return bout with the Rocket Racer. From the start, we can see Wolfman is serious about this “spirit of innovation and change” and giving us “real development in Peter Parker’s life” every issue because here, in the very last panel of his very first issue, Marv has Pete proposing to Mary Jane. This is resolved the next issue, #183 (Aug. 1978), when MJ turns him down.

This was brilliant because it made perfect character sense. In rejecting the proposal, Marv was bringing Mary Jane back to her roots as a “free spirit,” as well as breaking her out of that Gwen fill-in mold and potentially opening the door for some deeper character development. It also cleared the path for a new (as well as old) romantic possibility.

As Amazing #184 (Sept. 1978) opens, we see Betty Brant Leeds sitting in Pete’s apartment, waiting for him when he arrives. After initial greetings, Pete mentions that he thinks he may have just “split” with MJ, after which Betty informs him that she just left Ned. Is it fate (as Betty suggests)? Will these two crazy kids be getting back together after all this time?

On the superhero front, Spidey’s got the White Dragon to contend with—a Chinatown supervillain connected to Pete’s classmate Phillip Chang (who will eventually become a regular in the supporting cast, appearing mostly in Spectacular). On another front, Jonah Jameson’s son John is suffering from some deadly condition and the only thing that can forestall his death is cryogenic freezing.

We end on the cliffhanger of the White Dragon dropping a chained-up Spidey into a vat of flaming oil. This is resolved at the start of ASM #185 (Oct. 1978), with Spidey escaping the vat and vanquishing the Dragon shortly afterward. The issue then ends with Peter Parker effectively, if not literally, graduating college. He goes through the ceremony without his name getting called, later learning that he was still one gym credit shy of meeting his degree requirement. So in true Parker fashion, he’ll have to make up that gym course over the summer. Still, he was effectively a college graduate and would be moving on to ESU’s grad school in the fall. Once again, Wolfman was moving things along at a brisk pace.

Goodbye Ross

ASM #185 also marked Ross Andru’s final issue as artist after a run of five years. Half a decade, quite impressive. Actually the longest run as an ASM penciler ever, considering Romita stopped doing full pencils regularly after just eighteen issues. As mentioned in the past, while I didn’t dislike Andru’s work at the time, I did much prefer Sal Buscema’s more dynamic action over in Spectacular and MTU, or Jazzy Johnny’s slick depiction in Marvel Tales or the newspaper strip. When I got older and started delving deeper into the history and art behind the comics, I grew to appreciate Ross Andru a WHOLE lot more. This was when I started recognizing just how much effort Andru put into his work. The villain his last two issues, the White Dragon, is a great example—just look at the detail Andru put into that headpiece mask.

Andru put in the work, gave us the detail, to create not just some garden-variety dragon design, but a Chinese-style dragon. He could have mailed it in, given us a plain, regular dragon and no one would have uttered a syllable of complaint, but no. Andru went the extra mile and gave us a design that put this villain in proper cultural context. A superb effort on his part. Note that no other artist since has portrayed the White Dragon this way—I’m guessing the level of detail is too much for other artists, who simply could not match Andru on this score.

More than anything else though, Andru was dedicated to bringing the real New York City to life in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man—and only ASM, as I don’t believe he used photo reference to this extent on any of his other work. There’s a group on Facebook called “The Scope of Ross Andru” where one particular gentleman has offered 125 posts showing a whole bunch of ASM pages and panels alongside Andru’s photo references for those pages and panels. If you’ve never seen it, you’ll be left in awe if and when you take a look. Just to offer a little taste, here’s the Brooklyn incinerator where Spidey destroyed his clone:

There’s 124 more examples like this for anyone who cares to go exploring on Facebook. Or just pick any Andru issue of ASM set in a locale you think might be interesting. For example, for anyone curious about what Coney Island looked like in the 70s, just check out ASM 161-162.

Spidey Cleared

In ASM #186 (Nov. 1978), Wolfman was joined on the title by artist Keith Pollard, the same artist who collaborated with him to great effect on Fantastic Four. Here, as in FF, the two men would build toward and produce a 200th anniversary issue of an iconic Marvel title—but that’s more than a year away at this point. This issue, aside from a little dust-up with the Chameleon, the story revolves around District Attorney Blake Tower announcing that Spider-Man was no longer wanted for questioning in the deaths of Captain Stacy and Norman Osborn. This meant that Spidey’s outlaw days were over; that he didn’t have to worry about being hounded by the cops anymore. In fact, the story ends with him being carried off by a crowd of admirers led by Flash Thompson. This felt like yet another big development at the time. (And it certainly thrilled me—this meant that the people in Spidey’s world were finally recognizing him for what he really was: the greatest of heroes.)

Issue #187 (Dec. 1978) featured a tale teaming Spidey with Captain America against Electro up at the Indian Point power station, with Jim Starlin co-plotting and doing layouts (with finishes by Bob McLeod). It also featured a young boy infected with the bubonic plague in an interesting plot point. Even more interesting was the conversation Spidey had with himself while he was hopping between some suburban rooftops of Westchester County.

I almost committed myself to marrying Mary Jane. Thank goodness she had the sense to reject me! Hmmm. I wonder what she’s doing now? Is she dating someone else? Does she think about me at all? Sometimes I wonder what it is she does think about. In all our years together, I don’t believe I ever really understood her. Whenever we’d get serious, she’d put on her “Hi, isn’t life wonderful” routine, then jiggle off. I know she’s a caring person . . . but why does she have to hide her true emotions under that veil of flakiness?

Again, more development hinted at for Mary Jane; more good work from Marv.

The following issue, ASM #188 (Jan. 1979), Spidey battles Jigsaw on a cruise. But the most interesting development takes place in the first two pages of the story, when a group of criminals abscond with John Jameson’s cryogenically-frozen form from the hospital (which was made possible when Electro’s antics at the power station the previous issue de-powered the alarm). John would then reappear as the Man-Wolf across the next two issues, 189-190 (Feb.-Mar. 1979), where John Byrne and Jim Mooney would fill in on art chores. Some cool memories of buying and reading these comics (and listening to certain music) at the time, as recounted here a few years back.

A fun brawl that starts with Man-Wolf, under the control of some evil mastermind, kidnapping JJJ and then Spidey chasing them across Manhattan. The mastermind behind it all (including the recent antics of the Chameleon and Electro) is revealed in the second part (issue #190) as Spencer Smythe. It’s also revealed that the radioactive materials Smythe’s been using to build his Spider-Slayers all these years have made him terminally ill, for which he blames both Spidey and Jameson (who bankrolled most of the Slayers). This explains why the previous issue had our then-unrevealed villain make it clear his plan was to destroy both Spider-Man and J. Jonah Jameson.

Also notable is that the battle between Spidey and the Man-Wolf ends at the Brooklyn Bridge. After a brief scuffle atop said bridge, Man-Wolf changes back to John, leading to a temporarily joyous father-son reunion. But then Smythe lashes out remotely, causing John to stumble off the bridge in pain. Spidey leaps after him. “Gotta save ’im . . . and I can’t take the chance of webbing him up from this height! Not after what happened to Gwen!” The invocation of Gwen and her death here comes off as a somewhat casual thought. I would have preferred to hear Spidey expressing dread at the mere sight of the bridge as he was approaching it.

Anyway, Spidey manages to grab on to John’s hand, but then he slips off into . . . not the East River, but some pink flash of light. Smythe has teleported him away, though there’s no way for Spidey to convince anyone of this. When he gets back to the top of the bridge, Jonah naturally accuses him of killing his son.

Taking a Break

I took a break from ASM after this issue. I wouldn’t call this a conscious decision on my part; it was something that happened as a result of several factors. One was that I could see what was coming: Jonah was going to start a fresh Bugle campaign accusing Spider-Man of being a murderer. Again. Just four issues after D.A. Tower had effectively cleared him. This frustrated and annoyed my juvenile self, even as my adult self can now recognize what a brilliant move it actually was. The young me didn’t appreciate such suffering in Spidey’s life; he just wanted sunshine and happiness for Spider-Man and Peter Parker 24/7.

Which brings us to Betty Brant, another development I didn’t like at the time in ASM. There was a moment in issue #189 where this relationship seemed poised to be going someplace real, like she was going to be Pete’s girl, which I hated because I was actually (believe it or not) a Pete-MJ ’shipper back then.

After this passionate sequence with Betty, the next panel on the following page has Spidey swinging across town “several hours later,” thinking to himself, “So maybe I do love her . . . what’s wrong with that? She is separated, and she says she’s filing for divorce, and heck— after everything bad that’s come down the pike, I deserve a good break now and then.”

. . . “Several hours later”? “So maybe I do love her”? Going back and reading this as an adult, I can’t help but wonder: is the implication here that Pete and the-still-legally-married Betty just had sex? Because it sure does sound like Pete is trying to rationalize precisely this to himself.

But all this aside, the biggest reason I took a six-month break from ASM was because I was saving up my comics-spending money (and Spidey-spending money in particular) for Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man. This is because Spectacular was running two big storylines at this time that I absolutely loved: one where the Masked Marauder blinds Spider-Man, and another introducing a new enemy called Carrion, who looked 50% mummy, 50% zombie, and 100% badass. Also, a new, young-punk artist illustrated a couple of these issues and I was spellbound by his work—kid’s name was Frank Miller. We’ll get back to him later.

Bodies Dropping

Another development of note during the Man-Wolf issues: Aunt May, who had been in the hospital since the Goblin Epic that closed out Wein’s tenure (adding up to about a full year of real time), was moved into a nursing home in ASM #189. This would lead to some big things down the road.

As for other developments taking place during my ASM break, I had predicted one with perfect accuracy: Jameson runs a “Spider-Man: Killer” headline immediately after his son takes that fall off the bridge. The rest of Amazing Spider-Man #191 (Apr. 1979) runs exactly according to the Jameson playbook: he verbally abuses his staff, complains to everyone about Spider-Man, turns the public against Spidey via his headlines, and ultimately calls on Spencer Smythe to build him a new Spider-Slayer to destroy the webhead. JJJ is in for a surprise though, as after Smythe’s robot manages to incapacitate Spider-Man, Smythe binds our hero to Jameson with these manacles that also serve as a time bomb set to go off in twenty-four hours.

ASM #192 (May 1979) shows us the day from hell Spidey has to suffer through attached to Jameson. Being trapped in his Spidey guise also causes Pete to miss a potential reunion date with Mary Jane and blow a big assignment for Joe Robertson, one that will cost him his job at the Bugle. He also misses picking up his Bachelor’s degree after officially graduating college (finally), disappointing his friends, who were planning a surprise celebration for him. On the superhero side, he suffers some lumps from the Fly after trying to fight him with one hand (as his other hand is tied to Jameson). Finally, within the last minutes of the bomb’s countdown, Jameson has a breakdown, begging Spider-Man to save him before confessing, “Your very existence has served to humiliate me . . . to make me less than the great man I could have been!” Spidey then manages to free them from the bomb with seconds to spare. Smythe didn’t live to see this final defeat, having expired from his illness a short time earlier.

It’s a good thing I took my break when I did, because as bad as Spider-Man’s suffering was here, it was about to get even worse.

Amazing Spider-Man #193 (Jun. 1979) opens with Spidey a paranoid mess, as he’s sure Jameson peeked under his mask at one point when they were cuffed to each other, after the Fly knocked him for a loop. (In fact, he did not peek. But Spidey doesn’t know this.) He enters Jameson’s office as Pete, gets a tongue lashing from JJJ, and is then fired. Robbie’s mad at him too for missing the photo assignment he went out on a limb to get for him.

As Spidey, he’s anticipating the Fly attempting to rob the Tut exhibit at the museum. Meanwhile, at the old house in Forest Hills, the burglar that killed Uncle Ben (last seen in the pages of ASM about two years prior in real time) is tearing up the place looking for something. Then, when the Fly hits the museum, Spidey is ready for him but is still unable to capture him. He goes home and tries to apologize to MJ over the phone for missing their recent date, but she tells him to “forget you know my number.” Then Betty shows up with Ned right behind her—he ends up socking Pete in the jaw before dragging Betty away by her hand.

Now Pete/Spidey is really pissed. And he’s determined to take out all his rage on the Fly. He spends the rest of the issue looking for him, only to discover near issue’s end that the police (with the help of some S.H.I.E.L.D. tech) have just caught him, leaving Spidey with a whole lot of anger left unvented. (The only good fortune hinted at this issue was the possibility of Pete getting a job for the Bugle’s competitor, The Daily Globe.)

The final page offers a glimpse of Aunt May’s new life at the Restwell Nursing Home, where a Dr. Ludwig Rinehart (name ring a bell?) is caring for her. After finishing with May, Rinehart returns to his office to discover the burglar waiting for him, brandishing a gun.

Right after this story, Spidey appears in Fantastic Four #207 (Jun. 1979), also written by Wolfman, where he helps the Human Torch fight the Monocle at Security College (the school Johnny Storm was attending at the time). This is also where Pete gets a formal offer from the Globe and begins working for them. (At a salary!)

Next comes a fairly historic issue; one that I (sadly) did not purchase when first released, as I was still on my ASM break.

The Black Cat

The Black Cat makes her debut in Amazing Spider-Man #194 (Jul. 1979), but she was not originally meant to. Originally, she was supposed to be a Spider-Woman adversary, slated to debut in Spider-Woman #9 (Dec. 1978). The offices at Marvel must have been anticipating her success, as they gave her a whole lot of space in the letters page of ASM #194:

To Ed Via and the others who mentioned it: This issue indeed introduces a female antagonist for Spidey to battle. We, too, believe it’s been too long in coming. Hope the Black Cat suits your tastes.

And, speaking of our feline femme fatale, we thought you’d be interested in seeing two previous covers that were rejected by the front office both featuring the Black Cat. The first was by Marv and drawn by Captivatin’ Carmine Infantino for Spider-Woman. B.C. would have been a very different character had she appeared in Spider-Woman, but when Smilin’ Stan saw the cover, he felt something was missing. And, just before Marv had Carmine redesign the cover, the Marvelous One moved on to other projects, and took the Black Cat along with him.

The second cover was the first one Marv designed with Klobberin’ Keith Pollard. Once Stan felt there was a better way to handle our villainess’ first appearance, and had Amiable Al Milgrom draw the cover you see sporting this very mag.

Such things happen often up here. Such concern is taken that many dollars will be spent correcting art or story until they are the best we can possibly do. We don’t want to merely publish a cover because it’s there. We’ll take the time and energy to fix it up, redraw it, and change it until it is right.

The rejected covers, along with Cockrum’s revised character design, from the letters page of Amazing Spider-Man #194:

And here’s the Milgrom cover that was ultimately used:

I agree with Stan about Pollard’s original cover—when a character debuts on a cover, you want a frontal view of them, not a view from behind that shows us more of their backside than their face. I disagree on the original Spider-Woman cover though—this isn’t an obscured view of the debuting character, but a mysterious and suspenseful one, made such by design. I feel it works well. And Carmine Infantino, whose work I generally disliked at the time, did a really fine job with it.

Many years later, Wolfman would recall the genesis of the Black Cat:

For some reason I can’t explain, I visualized the Black Cat dressed in an old 1940s noir-movie look, with a long, dress and large brimmed hat. I didn’t want to give too much away on the cover, so even before I wrote the story I had our artist, Carmine Infantino, draw a Spider-Woman cover with the silhouette of a black cat menacing her. . . . But before I got too deep into writing my plot, I decided I was going to give up writing Spider-Woman. I just never felt I had a solid grasp on the character. And since I was already working on Amazing Spider-Man, I took Black Cat with me.

Where Spider-Woman was noir, Spider-Man was much more action oriented. So away went the long dress and hat and, courtesy of the always creative Dave Cockrum, in came the wonderful black cat suit everyone knows today. (We had her costume zipped up a lot higher than it is these days.) [Marv Wolfman, “Introduction,” Marvel Masterworks The Amazing Spider-Man, vol. 19, October 12, 2016, p. ii.]

Wolfman’s original version of Black Cat was very different from the one we got, but it was very much like another villainess that would appear a year later: Belladonna. Since Roger Stern created Belladonna and Stern drew on Marv’s notes for a few other stories, could Belladonna have been inspired by Marv’s original conception of the Black Cat? It would seem quite possible to me.

ASM #194 opens with the Black Cat beginning to assemble a crew for purposes unknown. We see Pete visit Aunt May at the nursing home while Rinehart deals with the burglar. When the burglar smacks Rinehart across the chops, the good doctor does not express much in the way of dismay; in fact he thinks to himself, “I’ll take care of you . . . just as soon as I know what you’re looking for.”

Back at the Bugle, Jameson is ranting, as usual. Spidey is still paranoid that JJJ knows his identity and is just waiting for the right time to spill it. Then Spidey finally crosses paths with the Black Cat when she’s in the midst of purchasing some guns. They go back and forth a bit until the Black Cat decides to adopt an alternate strategy for escaping Spidey.

Taking the guns back to her new crew, Cat reveals her plan: they’re breaking into a prison. Meanwhile, Peter Parker is still catching grief from Ned Leeds as well as Harry and Flash. And Aunt May’s health is deteriorating again, just when it seemed she was getting better. On the plus side, there’s a potential new love interest—April Maye, who works at the Globe—but Pete’s got to realize she exists before anything can happen between them; at the moment he’s too occupied with the Black Cat. When he catches up to the Cat at the prison (where’s trying to break out an inmate named Walter Hardy), they scuffle again, which ultimately results in Spidey badly injuring his right arm courtesy of an exploding prison wall.

The following issue, Amazing Spider-Man #195 (Aug, 1979), reveals that Walter Hardy is the father of Felicia Hardy, the Black Cat. After dealing with more misery in his personal life with Betty, Ned, and his friends, Spidey tracks down the Cat to the Hardy home without much difficulty. They fight again and this time the Cat takes a spill into the ocean and seemingly dies. When Spidey goes back to the house for Walter Hardy, he has also died—with his wife at home, as opposed to alone in prison, which was the Cat’s purpose in breaking him out. Then Pete returns to his own apartment to find a telegram from Western Union.

The (Original) Death of Aunt May

That’s five deaths in a six-issue span: John Jameson, Spencer Smythe, Walter Hardy, Felicia Hardy, and Aunt May. Yes, three of these deaths are not real, but Pete doesn’t know this, and that last one was an all-time gut punch, leaving Peter Parker in the darkest of places. Amazing Spider-Man #196 (Sept. 1979) increases this feeling by treating the death of Aunt May in a painfully real manner.

Ninety percent of the book reads nothing like a superhero comic. It opens with Spidey swinging to the nursing home in disbelief, unable to accept that his aunt is truly gone. When he gets there, he sees her laid out, leaving no more room for denial. Then Rinehart starts talking to him about the mundane details of funeral arrangements and such, at which point Pete feels the need to get out of there. He spends two pages walking through the rain talking to himself, working through his grief, and we get a floating heads sequence of those he’s lost, including the aforementioned John Jameson and Felicia Hardy, along with Aunt May, Uncle Ben, George Stacy, and Gwen Stacy. He later grieves with Anna Watson and then shares the sad news with Harry, Flash, and Sha Shan.

This is followed by Joe Robertson (after quitting his job at the Bugle) running into Pete at the docks that evening. Having heard what happened, Robbie offers his condolences. As they converse, Robbie reveals that he and his wife lost another son before they had Randy—Patrick Henry Robertson, who died at just six months old. Talk like this takes up the bulk of the issue; ordinary talk between people sharing their pain and sympathy. As I said, it feels very real.

We get pulled back into superhero world when Pete pays a visit to the old Parker home in Queens and discovers it’s been torn apart on the inside. Then it hits him: He remembers who Ludwig Rinehart is. He suits up as Spidey and is on his way back to the nursing home, but gets interrupted by two former members of the Black Cat’s crew, who capture him and deliver him to their new boss . . .

The Kingpin

Amazing Spider-Man #197 (Oct. 1979) is a key issue within my own Spidey fandom: it’s the issue that got me back into regularly buying ASM again, thanks to my old pal ’Rice giving it to me as a birthday gift in the summer of ’79. Picking up where Len Wein left off, Wolfman once again gives us A) a glorious brawl between the Kingpin & Spidey, with extra credit to Pollard here, as he did magnificent job illustrating the action, and B) an inspired character study and showcase for the Kingpin.

Kingpin’s wife Vanessa has issued an ultimatum to him: he’s got twenty-four hours to choose between her and his violent life of crime. It’s one or the other. Some new readers less familiar with the Kingpin might be surprised to hear this, but he’s only too happy to choose her—there’s just this one, itty-bitty, loose end he wants to tie up first: kill his most hated enemy, Spider-Man. He figures twenty-four hours is plenty of time to get this done; then he can ride off into the sunset with his wife and live out a peaceful, happy life. Of course, by the time he’s captured Spidey and their battle is set to begin, Kingpin’s only got six hours left, but he ain’t sweatin’ it. That’s still plenty of time to “get rid of the one constant thorn in my side!”

Let’s take a moment for some character analysis. Kingpin’s set to leave his life of crime behind for Vanessa, right? So if this is the ultimate outcome, why does he need to kill Spider-Man? If he’s not involved in crime anymore, he won’t be crossing paths with Spider-Man again anyway; he’ll no longer be a headache for him. So what need is there for this fight? The answer is simple: pride. One of the Kingpin’s defining traits, which is part of why this is such a great character piece.

The Kingpin has enjoyed a very successful criminal career—he was the crime boss of all New York. Capo di tutti capi. Up to this point, only one man has ever thwarted his criminal schemes: Spider-Man. Every physical fight he’s ever had, there’s only one man he ever failed to tear apart, let alone been beaten by: Spider-Man. The point of this fight, from Kingpin’s view, is to finally kick Spider-Man’s ass just so he can say that he did it.

And what a work of art this fight is—so beautiful. And the whole time Spidey’s fighting with his dominant arm in a sling, adding to the drama and suspense. These two spend almost the entire issue beating the hell out of each other and absolutely wrecking the Kingpin’s mansion in the process. Literally, they bring down walls and crash through floors. The fight alone would make this comic an all-time classic, but then it goes to the next level with the character work that ends it.

Kingpin’s finally got Spidey down and almost out, dragging him into his den to finish him off. “From the day . . . from the moment I first embarked on my criminal career,” he declares, “I have always succeeded in all my endeavors. Your death, therefore, is my crowning achievement. And my farewell.” He’s got his blaster cane trained on the webhead, ready to end him, when the clock strikes midnight.

At that precise moment, Vanessa enters and tells her husband it’s time to choose. Kingpin requests just “a moment more,” but Vanessa refuses. “Spider-Man’s life . . . or our life— together? Which shall it be?”

Kingpin struggles with himself. “One second, that’s all it would take. It would be so simple to squeeze this trigger . . . so simple then to leave everything behind me . . . One brief instant and my absolute record of success would remain unblemished! This isn’t fair . . . THIS ISN’T FAIR!!”

But then he drops the blaster cane. Vanessa smiles and sheds tears of joy as he goes on.

“B-but where other men tremble at my power . . . I tremble with my love for you. I cannot now or ever live without you at my side. My dear, my loving Vanessa, I am now and forever— your slave!”

They kiss and walk away together.

“So let us go. We have a future that awaits us . . . and a past to forget!”

Spidey protests that “you can’t just walk out,” but he can’t even bring himself to his feet, let alone stop them. The story ends with him there, lying on the floor, struggling to not lose consciousness as the sounds of the footsteps of the Kingpin and Vanessa echo down the hallway.

F*cking.  Masterpiece.


A few years back, I mentioned that the Scorpion was likely the last classic Ditko villain I was introduced to in Spidey comics, but now I’m fairly certain such is not the case. Now I’m thinking Mysterio had to be the last, as I believe these next two issues were my introduction to him (in the comics, a least), and I had first met the Scorpion in Spectacular #21, a little more than a year earlier. (Full disclosure: I may have first met them both via the ’67 Spidey cartoon in television syndication prior to the comics, I’m not sure.)

In any case, we pick up with Spidey out cold on the floor where some cops discover him and then take him to a hospital. While he’s there, the burglar and Rinehart are having a talk back at the nursing home where the burglar reveals that the Parker family was unknowingly “sittin’ on a treasure worth millions.” With this revelation, Rinehart decides he no longer needs to put up with the burglar, assaults his senses with illusions, and takes his gun. Though he hasn’t put on the costume yet, it’s pretty clear Rinehart is Mysterio. Spidey figured this out when he remembered that “Ludwig Rinehart” was the alias Mysterio assumed when he posed as the psychiatrist that tried to convince him he was going insane all the way back in Amazing Spider-Man #24 (May 1965). Mysterio decides to take the burglar captive and not kill him, as he “still may possess certain knowledge that will prove beneficial in the long run.”

When Spidey wakes up in the hospital (with his right arm now set in a cast), he’s immediately off to the Restwell Nursing Home. Upon his arrival, there’s a host of illusory menaces he’s got to fight through if he wants to reach Mysterio. Meanwhile, back at the Daily Bugle, Jameson is having what appears to be a nervous breakdown. Returning to the nursing home, Spidey webs over the eyes of his mask so he can no longer be misled by what he sees, trusting his spider-sense to show him the way. Finally, he’s face-to-dome with Mysterio. They fight, with Mysterio eventually getting the best of our hero, and the issue ends with Spidey chained to the floor of a swimming pool as it begins to fill with water.

Allow me a moment to note that these two Mysterio issues, Amazing 198-199 (Nov.-Dec. 1979), were illustrated by Sal Buscema and Jim Mooney, filling in so Pollard can get a head start on the double-sized 200th issue, I’m guessing. So Spidey escapes drowning at the beginning of issue #199, and only after doing so does he realize it was yet another illusion. With his spider-sense telling him Mysterio has fled the premises, he goes home and collapses in bed and sleeps for twenty-four hours straight.

When he awakes, he’s all healed up and feeling great, busting out of his cast by merely flexing his muscle. Then the gang stops by—Harry, Liz, Flash, and Sha Shan. This feels like something of a course correction from Wolfman, as if he realized that maybe he’d been overdoing it with all the misery he was heaping onto Pete, as it’s a very positive encounter. Apologies are made on both sides and Pete explains how his recent harsh behavior toward Betty was meant to push her back toward Ned. However, Liz informs him that Betty is still proceeding with the separation. It’s the only down note in this otherwise lovely scene.

After everyone leaves, Spidey returns to the Parker home and finds Mysterio there. Their battle takes them all the way back to the Restwell Nursing Home, where Mysterio gets the drop on Spidey with a gun. Spidey wants to know what he was looking for in the Parker house and Mysterio informs him, “what I was searching for no longer seems to be there.”  Then he shoots Spidey with a tranquilizer dart “filled with enough depressant to kill an elephant herd.” Mysterio begins to fade away as Spidey collapses, with Mysterio declaring, “Spider-Man is dead!!”

As noted at the beginning, Wolfman was trying to recapture the flavor of the Ditko Era with this run, and the biggest recurring theme of the Ditko Era was illusion vs. reality; truth vs. lies; the real vs. the unreal. So while the two tentpole villains of the Ditko Era were clearly Doc Ock and the Goblin, the villain that best matched Ditko’s primary theme was Mysterio. This makes him a very important character even if he’s not as “big” as Ock or Gobby. It makes sense then that Mysterio would get the excellent service he received here in these two issues; it was quite the showcase for him.

Amazing Spider-Man #200

I’ve done a lot more detailed plot recapping here with this particular “shark” article—something I found necessary because so many of these issues were a big part of the build toward ASM’s 200th anniversary issue. And I wanted to give this issue proper coverage because I thought it was pretty darn great. Maybe, probably, the greatest anniversary issue of a comic book ever.

And let’s give Len Wein proper credit. I don’t know how much of Marv’s work on Amazing Spider-Man #200 (Jan. 1980) came from Len, but even if Marv came up with every later plot detail completely on his own, bringing back the burglar still began with Len Wein thirty issues earlier, so he deserves credit for getting this whole thing started. I even think it’s possible that Len brought in the burglar with the idea that his plot would be resolved in the 200th issue. Having said this, I can tell you Len still could not have executed this story any better than Marv did—because literally no one, not even Bill Shakespeare, could have done a better job than Marv writing this one. Even if the original idea was Len’s, the build (and it was certainly an epic build, as you can see from my recaps) and final execution is all Marv.

The foundation of ASM #200 is the revisiting of Spider-Man’s very origin in Amazing Fantasy #15 (Sept. 1962). Technically, this makes ASM #200 a retcon because it adds things to history and backstory long after the fact. But it’s so unobtrusive and smooth that it doesn’t feel like a retcon. You wouldn’t even think of it as such unless you stopped to really think about it. Like Frank Miller with Elektra in Daredevil, it is strictly an addition, subtracting nothing from what came before. Moreover, it is an addition that the reader is free to ignore if they so choose, so it is not remotely disruptive. It’s a perfect example of a good retcon, which is a bit odd considering it was written by the same guy responsible for giving us one of the worst retcons ever, Crisis on Infinite Earths, which was awkward, messy, extremely obtrusive, and most certainly disruptive (though granted, disruptive by design).

Now Spider-Man’s origin is perfectly beautiful in its simplicity: a crook runs past Spidey in a hallway, security guard yells to stop him, Spidey takes no action, crook escapes. Later, this same crook murders his beloved uncle and Spidey blames himself. As a result, he swears to use his powers responsibly forever after and never ignore a call for help again. Revisiting this origin and adding details to it is a dangerous game, as there’s a very good chance you’re going to compromise (if not totally ruin) the original story.

But as perfectly beautiful as Spidey’s origin is, it did leave openings. Not holes, not gaps, not weaknesses, but openings—openings for further story exploration. What if you could work with these openings and come up with fresh story possibilities from this? What if, by adding some new details and fresh context, you could create a deeper story beneath the surface of this origin?

Here’s an example of an opening left in the origin: why was a house burglar being chased by a security guard in a television studio? You could wave this away with, “well he’s a crook. One day he’s robbing something at a T.V. studio, the next he’s robbing someone’s home.” And this is a reasonable response, sure, and you can leave this as is and be perfectly fine—but what if you can offer an alternative, deeper explanation? You may also wonder what he’d be stealing from a T.V. studio at all; it’s not like they typically keep large sums of cash there (unless they’re taping a game show with cash prizes, maybe, but even this feels like a reach). Also: why would he then burglarize the Parker home, specifically? The Parker family isn’t rich. At best they’re middle class; more likely, they’re straight-up poor. What would they own of any great value that the burglar would want? Another opening in the origin was that Spidey tied the burglar up and delivered him to the police at the end, so he’s still alive—could he possibly get out of prison someday? Escape or be released somehow? Come back and create new problems?

Let me restate that Spidey’s origin from Amazing Fantasy #15 is perfect and should never be changed or tampered with. But none of what we’re given in ASM #200 compromises Spidey’s origin one iota. None of it changes the origin in principle. In every way that matters, it’s still exactly the same: it’s the same crook in the same hallway running by Spidey that he fails to stop. It’s the same crook that later kills Uncle Ben, leaving Spidey to carry the exact same guilt he’s always carried and always will. All of these pivotal facts remain unchanged.

“The Spider and the Burglar . . . a Sequel”

When the issue opens, Spider-Man is no longer unconscious, but he is in a state of shock and disbelief, as Mysterio’s tranquilizer seems to have stripped him of his super-powers. As if this isn’t causing him enough dismay, he also realizes that Aunt May didn’t die of natural causes—that she was probably murdered by Mysterio. Powerless and at his wit’s end, he trudges home in the rain.

Back in the basement of the Restwell Nursing Home, the burglar escapes from the ropes that Mysterio left him tied in. The following day, Pete returns to his childhood home and begins to speculate how much of a hand Mysterio played in all of this after all, beginning to wonder if there might be someone else behind it. He talks to neighbor Anna Watson, who suggests he stop by the office of the agency that rented out the house. Pete goes there and speaks to a guy named Grimsby, who gives him the burglar’s name. (But not the reader—we never hear any proper name assigned to the burglar in this story, just as he never had a name in Amazing Fantasy #15.)

This leads to a dramatic scene where Pete goes home, puts on his Spidey costume (despite having lost his spider powers) and swears he’ll hunt down Uncle Ben’s killer once again, just as he did years earlier. Then he begins digging. The last stop in his research tour is “The Black Rock,” a building that serves as the corporate headquarters of a television network—the same building where Spidey first crossed paths with the burglar. There, he digs up some old videotape that proves revealing. As Pete’s leaving, a security guard yells for help and he sees this dude running away. Pete tackles the guy, a purse snatcher, and decks him. “Thank you, son,” the old security guard says. “These days nobody wants to get involved.” Then Pete realizes this is the same guard that yelled for help that fateful day years earlier.

The videotape was from some old news special on a gangster from Prohibition days named Dutch Mallone. In the 1930s, Mallone owned the house that the Parker family would one day own. And according to underworld legend, Mallone left a stash of wealth hidden there. On the day he first crossed paths with Spider-Man, the burglar had broken into the office looking for this same videotape in order to discover the address of the house. When he broke into the Parker home several days later, it was Mallone’s hidden loot he was really seeking. And all this time later, he is still determined to find it.

When Pete returns to his apartment, he finds the burglar there waiting for him, gun drawn. Even without his super powers, Pete tries to fight him, driven by rage. He knocks him down and attempts to strangle him until the burglar stops him by clocking him in the head with the butt of his gun. Then he takes him back to the old, abandoned warehouse where Spidey first caught him and ties Pete up so he can interrogate him about Mallone’s loot. He gives Pete a healthy beating but Pete refuses to talk. Pete’s also beginning to snap through his ropes, indicating that his powers are slowly returning. But before he can free himself, the burglar has an idea. “I know what’s gonna make you talk,” he says, and then he leaves.

Once he’s gone, Pete bursts free, puts on his Spider-Man costume, and follows him back to Restwell. The burglar eventually spots him and holds him off with gunfire as he goes back inside the nursing home. After following him in, Spidey gets winged with a shot in his side. The burglar thinks he’s dead but he’s not, of course. When Spidey gets back to his feet, the burglar’s already taken whatever he came for and has left. So Spidey returns to the warehouse to (hopefully) finally catch him.

Back at the warehouse, it’s revealed that Aunt May is alive—Mysterio merely staged her death to keep Peter Parker from nosing around the nursing home. The burglar has brought her here to use as leverage against Pete. However, he finds that Pete is no longer there, but Spider-Man is. Terrified by the sight of him after believing he’d killed him, the burglar starts firing away. Then Spidey closes in and it becomes a fistfight. Still nowhere near 100%, the burglar is able to hold his own for a bit before Spidey takes the upper hand. Asking “Why are you doing this? What do you care about Parker?” causes Spidey to pull off his mask and reveal his identity. “I care because Ben Parker was my uncle!”

The realization of who Spider-Man is drives the burglar into a state of absolute terror. Believing Spidey/Pete is going to kill him, the burglar tries to run, but Spider-Man is there to stop him at every turn. Finally, the burglar collapses from what will prove a fatal heart attack. Spidey pulls the fire alarm to bring help. Then he returns to May, offers her his hand, she accepts it, and he takes her to a hospital.

At the hospital, Aunt May reveals to Peter that she and Uncle Ben did find an old box when they were pulling down some wallboards one time, but whatever had been in it was eaten away by silverfish. The final page, written by Stan Lee, has Spidey swinging around town and talking to himself aloud about how he is rededicating himself to the pursuit of justice and how he’ll never stop striving to prove himself worthy of the power he’s been given and its concomitant responsibility.

Great story; probably an even greater run of issues. As it was put in the Spidey Bible:

The Wolfman-Pollard issues of Spider-Man, taken as they are, constitute, a high point in the series. This writer-artist team showed an admirable amount of skill in manipulating a storyline of head-spinning complexity and creating a 200th issue that more than lives up to the tradition of such stories. It may be a long time before Spider-Man fans see anything else to match this. [J. A. Fludd, “The Web-Slinging Adventures of Wolfman & Pollard,” FantaCo’s Chronicles Series No. 5, July 1982, p. 20.]

Gun to my head, I’d call Amazing #200 the peak of this era, but really the whole run up to it feels like one peak after another. From Spencer Smythe to the introduction of the Black Cat, to the “death” of Aunt May, then Kingpin, Mysterio, and #200. For me, only the Tablet Saga from the Lee-Romita Era is better.

End of the Marv Wolfman Era

Amazing Spider-Man #201-202 (Feb.-Mar. 1980) featured the return of the Punisher—to ASM that is, as he just appeared the previous month in Captain America #241 (Jan. 1980), plus maybe a few other places in prior years that might be escaping me at the moment. This was an entertaining two-issue storyline with Punny that also offered a longer look at Globe reporter April Maye. We also get a couple brief interludes with Jameson, who escapes a hospital in #201, shows up at the Bugle in #202, and then winds up knocked out in an alley with a mystery man’s shadow lingering over him.

April Maye remains interesting to me (and probably only to me). She appeared just six times in comics published over forty-three years ago: five issues of ASM, 194, 201, 202, 208, 210, and one of Spectacular, 38. When we first meet her in ASM #194, she compliments Peter’s work (specifically his photos of Spidey and the Torch from FF #207) and suggests they discuss it further over lunch, but he completely blows her off without even giving her a second look, as his mind is preoccupied with Spidey business. This was very reminiscent of Peter’s introduction to Gwen and maybe that’s why I find April interesting. Then again, maybe I’m just a sucker for what-might-have-been conjecture like this.

When they cross paths again in issue #201, Barney Bushkin tries to introduce Peter and April before pairing them up on an assignment and she responds, “We’ve met, Barney . . . only I doubt if Mr. Parker would remember. He was much too busy to notice I said hello.” The two go on to fight like cats and dogs over the next two issues, though issue #202 did also showcase April’s journalism chops and her dedication to the job. I’ll always wonder what Wolfman might have done with her if given the chance. New romantic interest feels like the safest bet, but then again, Mary Jane was still buzzing around in the background, so who knows?

Speaking of new love interests, then-new character the Dazzler guest stars in ASM #203 (Apr. 1980) and teams up with Spidey to fight a returning Lightmaster. Although there were no real romantic possibilities teased on the page, the young Crusty still felt some sparks there between Spidey and Marvel’s newest heroine and wouldn’t have minded seeing the two get together. (I guess I thought Dazzler looked hot; or maybe I was transferring my Debbie Harry crush, as Dazz was also supposed to be a musical performer.) Keith Pollard did a great job on the art and that cover, with its reds and pinks and purples and yellows was . . . well, dazzling.

Then came Marv’s last issue, Amazing Spider-Man #204 (May 1980). It was supposed to be the first half of a two parter featuring the return of the Black Cat, but Wolfman quit Marvel for DC before he got to the next issue, #205 (Jun. 1980). David Michelinie ended up writing this issue and his resolution to Marv’s story felt off. Said resolution sees the Black Cat reveal a romantic fixation with Spider-Man, one that is rather unhinged, with her claiming that all of her recent thefts were meant to be gifts for him. This sounded nothing like the Black Cat we had gotten to know in her previous appearances, but it did resolve the two-issue storyline.

The Shark Jump That Wasn’t

Remember at the beginning when I said Wolfman’s run would have likely jumped the shark had it lasted just one more issue? Here’s Roger Stern (straight from the Spidey Bible) to explain why:

I was doing some of the letters pages for The Amazing Spider-Man. I’d done the page for #206, I brought it to Denny, we started kicking around the schedule, and there was no #206. Denny was working on his first issue already, which was #207, and David Michelinie had finished the second part of [the Black Cat storyline], which was #205. But there was no #206! In the scheduling crossover and reorganization, it got missed and it was due real soon. We went like, whoa. We looked at the stuff and there were all these loose dangling ends. I said, “There must be some way we can take care of this.” I later saw a copy of a synopsis that Marv Wolfman had done on what would have happened. His second part of the Black Cat story ends with Jonah, under the control of Jonas Harrow, killing the Black Cat. You know, shooting her dead, bam, right there on panel. That’s one of those things where I thought, gee, even if we could prove in a court of law that Jonah wasn’t responsible for his actions, he could never go back to being publisher of the Daily Bugle again after a thing like that. His life would be ruined for all time. I kept looking at it and the more I looked at it, the more I realized Jonas Harrow is like the eight ball in this story. There’s something not quite right about Jonah having a nervous breakdown. Jonah is too stubborn to have a nervous breakdown, so I figured that maybe it’s not real. I sat down for a half hour, I talked over some rough ideas with Denny, and I called up John Byrne. I said, “Can you do an issue of Spider-Man? We need it pronto.” He was in the middle of something, but he says, “This isn’t that urgent, I can do it.” I told him the plot over the phone. He drew it in four days and got it to the office; it was a Friday. I took it home and wrote the entire story that weekend. It was lettered. We had to find someone to finish it. Gene Day was available, so we sent it up to Canada. He finished it in four days. It came back, it was proofread, it was colored, and it went to the printer. The book travelled something like 10,000 miles before it ever got to the printer! It was bizarre. It was one of those overnight jobs, and here it is and everything’s complete—BOOM. I don’t know if Marv ever realized this, but we paid a little tribute to him in the story. Jonas Harrow’s device he used on Jonah is the Mental Attitude-Response Variator or MARV ray. [Fred G. Hembeck, “The Amazing Roger Stern,” FantaCo’s Chronicles Series No. 5, July 1982, pp. 41-42.]

Roger Stern is absolutely right here for all the reasons he outlined. (Stern just knows Spider-Man so well; probably better than literally anyone.) His Amazing Spider-Man #206 (Jul. 1980), “A Method in His Madness,” saved the J. Jonah Jameson character, as it reveals Jonas Harrow (who was revealed in ASM #204 to be the mystery man in the alley with Jameson from #202) has been using his MARV ray on Jameson and driving him to his recent breakdown. Spidey, who is introduced to Harrow for the first time here, foils his evil plan and saves Jameson.

Assuming all the plot details Stern relayed here are accurate (and I can’t see why Stern would lie about this), Marv’s plan for the second half of the Black Cat storyline would have absolutely been a shark jumper if published. It would have destroyed Jameson figuratively and the Black Cat literally. But thankfully, Marv’s #205 wasn’t published, leaving the Marv Wolfman Era of ASM an unsullied, all-time run of great comics.


I’ve always argued that characterization is the most important thing in any story, the most important priority for any writer of fiction, and this is one of the things that makes Marv’s era great: the characterizations. He does a great job with Pete/Spidey, of course, but really, he does a great job with everyone. But especially the villains.

The Kingpin issue, #197, could be considered one of the peaks of this era. The fact that I also consider Wein’s Kingpin storyline the peak of his era is telling though. Maybe Kingpin is just a wonderful character and has such great chemistry with Spidey that it’s almost impossible for him to have a bad story with Spider-Man.

And maybe it’s the same deal with Mysterio. The last time we saw a Mysterio in a Spider-Man comic was ASM 141-142 (Feb.-Mar. 1975), but this wasn’t the true, original Mysterio, it was a poser named Danny Berkhart, Mysterio’s prison cellmate who assumed the identity after believing the original had died in an attempted prison break. He was a Mysterio but not the Mysterio. Not the genuine article.

The last time the genuine, true, original, REAL Mysterio had appeared in a Spidey comic was ASM 66-67 (Nov.-Dec. 1968), an eleven-year gap. That’s eleven years out of the sixteen that the ASM title had been in existence at that point; more than two-thirds of the title’s life. Astounding when you think about it in those terms. And Wolfman makes his return an appropriately glorious one.

Once Mysterio gets the information out of the burglar he was looking for, he dispatches him like he’s nothing. Then when Spidey comes along, Mysterio handles him almost as easily. It feels like he’s always in control, always several steps ahead of every opponent he comes up against in his two issues (198-199). Look at the conclusion: he just shoots Spider-Man with that dart gun and fades away, untouched. It will be over a year before Spidey finally catches up with him in the pages of Spectacular and delivers some payback. Mysterio is smart, slippery, and dangerous—a great villain.

Now there are some who dislike Mysterio because they find his costume design goofy or dumb; maybe they think his power set is weak, but I would disagree with all these sentiments. I love the original Ditko design of this character—in fact, when I first saw his floating head on the contents page of that first Spider-Man treasury (given to me by my older sister’s boyfriend when I was around six), I thought the eye clasps of the cloak were the character’s actual eyes. I always thought this visual effect was cool; Ditko was just a brilliant designer. As for the illusion powers, they may be weak in action terms, but their strength is in their symbolic value. If you want to best utilize the classic Ditko illusion vs. reality theme, Mysterio is your go-to villain.

On the non-superpowered side of the aisle, Marv did some interesting things with Betty and Ned and their marriage; with Robbie and the infant son he lost; but the Mary Jane stuff remains the most interesting to me. First, she turns down Pete’s proposal, citing her being too “free a spirit to tie herself down.” In ASM #192 (May 1979), Wolfman hinted at MJ’s deeper reasons for the rejection. After agreeing to see Peter again (for one more date, at least), as she’s getting ready to go out to meet him, she recalls his proposal and expresses fear that he might propose again. “I don’t think I could go through the tragedy of marrying, only to break up—like Betty and Ned . . . or like Mom and Dad so many years ago.” It would be several years before Stern and DeFalco would pick up on this; another excellent piece of character development for MJ by Wolfman.

Wolfman also restored some of MJ’s wit and humor. In ASM #201 (Feb. 1980), Pete is in a cab with April on the way to their assignment when he sees MJ and has the cabbie stop. After Pete shares a few words with Mary Jane, April gets out of the cab to see what’s keeping him and, upon seeing April, MJ quips, “I didn’t know you went for older women, Peter.”


The Wolfman Era had just one or two things that were, or at least could have become, problematic. One was its treatment of J. Jonah Jameson.

We know it was Wolfman’s intent to bring back the flavor of classic Ditko Era Spidey, but in doing so, you don’t want to repeat the flaws or weaknesses of that era. As discussed in my original shark-jump post, the characterizations suffered when Ditko was doing the comic on his own and no longer co-plotting with Stan Lee. With the shark-jump post that followed, covering the Lee-Romita Era, it became even more clear, in contrast, how bad some of the characterizations had gotten under Ditko, with Jameson, specifically, being the worst. As I put it at the time, “By the time we get to the end of the Ditko run . . . [Jameson] was just a monster obsessed with destroying Spider-Man at any and all costs.”

During this Wolfman Era, one could readily argue that Jameson devolved back into this same absolute monster, obsessed with destroying Spider-Man. In discussing ASM #192, where JJJ and Spidey were cuffed together by those exploding manacles, Wolfman said:

I love stories where hero and villain, and by this point JJJ was definitely a villain, are forced together. Guards drop and true emotions take over. JJJ sees himself for what he’s become but it only makes him double down on his hatreds. It’s almost heartbreaking to watch. I really loved this story. [Marv Wolfman, “Amazing Not Quite Adult Spider-Man,” Marvel Masterworks The Amazing Spider-Man, vol. 18, March 14, 2016, p. iv.]

“JJJ was definitely a villain.” This is the wrong approach to take with Jameson. When Jameson is reduced to a moustache-twirling villain that is completely defined by his hatred for Spider-Man, he is stripped of all depth and left a one-dimensional character. Such characters can get boring in a hurry (assuming they generated any real excitement in the first place).

Jameson is not a villain. He certainly can (and should) play an antagonistic role, and can even be the villain for one issue or one (brief) storyline, but never a full-on, full-time villain. Stan Lee’s multi-faceted Jameson, the man who loves his family, hates racism, and is a dedicated (if at times misguided) journalist, this guy has depth, is a much more interesting character, and offers far more possibilities for exploration. This Jameson is also able to offer great comedic potential. This is the right approach to take with Jameson.

So why wasn’t Jameson’s characterization a shark jumper here? Because his behavior only became extreme after he thought he had lost his son, John. So within the context of the storyline, his behavior was a result of dealing with his own overwhelming grief and thus understandable. Now was this Wolfman’s intent? Or did he see JJJ as a complete and true villain? I don’t know, but intentional or not, Jameson does have this out for the behavior he displays during this run.

As we know, Jameson’s mad obsession with destroying Spidey eventually led to a nervous breakdown, a development that is also debatable. In the Spider-Man Bible, J. A. Fludd believed that:

This was the culmination of years of development in Jameson’s character: his admission to Spider-Man, that his greatest fear was his own human frailty. A real nervous breakdown could and would have added compelling new dimensions to Jonah’s already complex personality. But instead, the matter was resolved with a standard “revelation-of-the-hidden-villain” melodrama. A pity. [J. A. Fludd, “The Web-Slinging Adventures of Wolfman & Pollard,” FantaCo’s Chronicles Series No. 5, July 1982, p. 19.]

Others, like Roger Stern (and myself), believe that “Jonah is too stubborn to have a nervous breakdown.” [Fred G. Hembeck, “The Amazing Roger Stern,” FantaCo’s Chronicles Series No. 5, July 1982, p. 41.] Marv Wolfman himself may have ultimately agreed with this, as it was his idea to bring in Jonas Harrow as a manipulator of Jameson. Now did Wolfman intend to show that Harrow was using his ray on Jameson all along (which was the course Stern took in the published issue #206)? Or was Marv’s plan that Harrow would only start using his ray on Jameson in that hypothetical issue #205, where he would have caused him to shoot and kill the Black Cat? We may never know.

Misery Loves Company?

One other potentially problematic concern during this run: Wolfman’s Peter Parker endured some epic misery, and while I enjoy reading it today, as a kid I hated it. And I doubt I was the only kid that felt this way.

Not many comic readers (especially not kids) are masochists. They are not going to enjoy reading about Peter Parker being in constant misery. You have to balance this with some occasional positive developments and humor. It’s also not realistic for absolutely everything to go wrong for anyone all the time. Peter has to have occasional victories, even if he stumbles into them ass backward. There were also brief periods during this run when Peter was utterly friendless—this was too much. Whatever else is going wrong, give him one or two friends (at least) to hang onto.

Writers should think of Peter as Charlie Brown. Now Charlie Brown loses all the time, but none of these losses are life-changing or world-shaking: Lucy pulls the football away. The kite eats his tree. He loses another baseball game. These are the type of losses Peter Parker should suffer regularly: the mundane, everyday kind. We can all relate to such losses, which makes Peter more relatable to all of us.

Yet again, I don’t consider Pete’s misery here a shark-jumper. He reconciles with his friends in issue #199, then gets his Aunt May back in #200, so things wind up ending well. As I said in my recent Spidey Miscellanea post, it’s something Spidey writers need to keep an eye on—be judicious about the amount of suffering you heap onto Pete/Spidey. Also be aware of the nature of that suffering. Keep most of it in the realm of the mundane and try and use it for comic relief. You don’t want to be killing off major supporting characters every issue just to make Pete miserable, as stuff like this this will ultimately do more harm than good.

Spider-Man Annuals

Things were fairly quiet on the annuals front during the Marv Wolfman Era. In ’78 there was just one annual, Amazing Spider-Man Annual #12, which reprinted the Hulk fight from ASM 119-120 (Apr.-May 1973). Both characters had live-action shows on CBS at the time, which is probably why they were put together for this annual, figuring their television exposure would boost sales.

The following year, they had a fun little experiment when they connected the ASM annual to the very first Spectacular annual. Amazing Spider-Man Annual #13 (1979) “The Arms of Doctor Octopus!” by Marv Wolfman and John Byrne, was a Twilight Zone-ish yarn with Spidey tackling Doc Ock. The two would then renew their battle in Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man Annual #1 (1979), “And Men Shall Call Him Octopus!” by Bill Mantlo, Rich Buckler, and Jim Mooney, a more conventional superhero tale. At the end of the ASM annual, Spidey had torn off one of Ock’s tentacles, and at the beginning of the Spectacular annual we see Ock getting the tentacle replaced. Outside of this, the two stories did not feel very connected, though, neither in plot nor theme.

We did finally get the second MTU annual this same year, Marvel Team-Up Annual #2 (1979), “Murder in Cathedral Canyon!” by Chris Claremont, pencils by Sal Buscema & Alan Kupperburg, and inks by Jack Abel. Hulk is Spidey’s partner for this team-up, pairing Marvel’s two television stars in an annual for the second year in a row, only this time we get an all-new story. The primary antagonists were the Soviet Super Soldiers.

Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man

All the Spectacular stories during the era were written by Bill Mantlo, with Sal Buscema, Frank Springer, and Jim Mooney handling most of the art. We get some returns and some surprises, as Lightmaster and the Enforcers show up to give the webhead some grief. In a bit of a shocker, Hector Ayala outs himself as the White Tiger after Lightmaster mistakenly took him for Spider-Man. Then we get a two-parter where Spidey teams with Moon Knight against the Cyclone (with Mike Zeck doing the art for the first half of this storyline.)

Then Spectacular re-enters fad territory as Spidey tackles the disco menace known as the Hypno-Hustler in “Spider-Man Night Fever” in Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man #24 (Nov. 1978). Believe it or not, as much of a joke as the character may seem, Donald Glover is set to play the Hustler in a movie project of some sort sometime in the future (that’s as of this writing; as Hollywood watchers well know, the project may yet fall through).

Immediately after, the Masked Marauder and Carrion plots both begin in Spectacular #25 (Dec. 1978). MM blinds Spidey at the very end of the issue and then Daredevil will show up at the end of the following issue (#26) and get neck deep into the storyline. Watching Spidey struggle with his blindness was so compelling I could barely look away. And the irony of Daredevil helping him (the blind literally leading the blind) was indeed rich.

The only weakness was the art, which I wouldn’t call bad, but let’s just say it felt fairly pedestrian. Then a very young Frank Miller shows up to finish off the Marauder plot in Spectacular #27 (Feb. 1979), and his art instantly catches up to, if not surpasses, the story quality. Miller had previously worked on John Carter, Warlord of Mars for Marvel (along with some Twilight Zone stuff for Gold Key and Weird War for DC), but this was his first professional work in the superhero genre. Frank Springer probably does more harm than good on the inks, both here and in the issue to follow (#28), but even weak inks can’t compromise too much of Miller’s powers at this time.

Now I don’t do much bragging on this blog, but allow me to indulge myself here: Even as a little kid, Frank Miller’s art struck me the instant I saw it. I recognized almost immediately that the guy had “it.” The panel flow, the camera angles, the action—all were just outstanding. Even as a dopey kid, I knew I was seeing something special here.

As mentioned, Miller will finish off the Marauder plot this issue and then help shift the focus to Carrion in the next issue. Carrion was strong enough to toss around grown men like nothing, could teleport, levitate, and repel anything of an organic nature, including natural elements like water. Bullets seemed to pass through him harmlessly and he utilized this dust he called “Red Death,” which was potentially lethal. On top of all this, he also knew Spider-Man’s secret identity. We learn this when, while Spidey was still struggling with his blindness, Carrion broke into his apartment, smashed up some furniture, and scrawled “THE DEAD WALK PARKER” on the wall. Then when Pete/Spidey finally meets this monster face-to-face, Miller gives us a grand fight scene.

With his power set and the way he was portrayed on the page, Carrion seemed all but unbeatable. He was such a powerful villain and a complete mystery, I imagine there weren’t many kids my age that could resist being enthralled. So how did this awesome character manage to vanish into obscurity for a decade after this?

On the final page of Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man #30 (May 1979) Carrion reveals himself at last as “the living clone of Professor Miles Warren!” When my young self first read this, his heart immediately sank. Didn’t help matters that Miller was gone after just those two issues, either. In 1979, I hadn’t read the entire, original clone saga, just the very end of it. And I didn’t even hate it at this point in my development (in fact, I probably liked it), but I knew that attaching Carrion to this storyline was a weak resolution. Carrion needed to be his own thing; needed a fresh and original backstory of his own. Plus this left the strip with too many darn clones. Of course, I would not have articulated it this way back then, I just knew it felt . . . stupid.

Fun (Or Perhaps Not-So-Fun) Facts: According to Marc Guggenheim in 2018, Mantlo’s original plan was for Carrion to be Spider-Man’s clone. Guggenheim mentions this in his intro to Spectacular Spider-Man Masterworks, vol. 2, but he doesn’t go into any details beyond this, so we don’t know what led Mantlo to change course. We also don’t know if this was supposed to somehow be the original Spidey clone, whose remains should have been destroyed in that incinerator, or an altogether new clone of Spidey/Pete. I hate this in any case, of course, but I do wonder: might it have been the lesser evil to let Carrion be a clone of Spidey/Pete here, assuming this would have precluded the larger 90s clone disaster from ever happening?

More recently however, Tom Brevoort stated on his blog that:

The identity of Carrion was changed at the last minute. Writer Bill Mantlo, who was trying to take big swings in the title (no doubt a result of other readers feeling about the book the way I had) intended for Carrion to legitimately be Norman Osborn, the Green Goblin, brought back from the dead. He wrote the story with that intent for several issues, literally getting up to the unmasking panel issues later. And that’s when it hit the fan. As I understand things, AMAZING SPIDER-MAN writer and editor Marv Wolfman became aware of the reveal at that point and was unhappy with the idea of bringing back Norman in such a fashion, as the Goblin’s death along with Gwen Stacy was such a seminal storyline in the character’s history. As the ASM writer and editor, he had seniority and the right of way, and so Mantlo had to struggle to come up with an alternative reveal that would still be effective.

This is intriguing, as this reveal would certainly match Carrion’s undead-like appearance, but if you’re bringing Norman back without him being the Goblin, that would ultimately feel like a colossal waste to me.

Anyway, Carrion wound up causing his own destruction with the creation of the “Spider Amoeba,” this blob-like creature he created from Spider-Man’s blood that ultimately destroys him. The villain then disappeared for a decade, as mentioned. A bad wrap-up to a storyline that started out with great promise.

Spectacular 32-34 (Jul.-Sept. 1979) was a three-parter that introduced a new reptilian menace named the Iguana. This menace involved Curt Connors, which meant the Lizard would also get involved. Several months later, events here would turn Spidey himself into the “Spider-Lizard” in issue #40 (Mar. 1980).

Another memorable story featured the Champions villain called Swarm in Spectacular 36-37 (Nov.-Dec. 1979). Swarm’s body was comprised of living bees, which certainly made this villain stand out. Add the fact that most kids are scared of bees and that an insect-based antagonist always seems to make sense to pit against Spider-Man, and the premise feels like a natural hook. On top of all this, these two issues had GREAT covers, with #36 being done by Ed Hannigan and #37 by Michael Nasser. (Sidebar: Nasser really should have gotten a lot more assignments in comics in the 70s and 80s. He was a great artist.)

This era of Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man ends in a crossover between Spectacular #42 (May 1980), and Fantastic Four #218 (May 1980). Electro joins the Frightful Four and this fresh foursome takes on Spidey and the FF in a very fun superhero battle across these two issues.

Marvel Team-Up

The Claremont-Byrne team was all but done on their Team-Up tenure as this era is starting. During this period, MTU 71-93 (Jul. 1978-May 1980), Claremont’s only MTU collaborations with Byrne were on issues #75 (Spidey and Power Man) and #79 (Spidey and Red Sonja). Both great issues, and while the two men certainly did great work when they collaborated, this period proved that Claremont could whip up a great Marvel Team-Up story with or without Byrne. Claremont wrote a dozen other issues with different artists during this time, and his best MTU stories (and in my opinion, the best Marvel Team-Up stories ever) were done with artists Sal Buscema and Steve Leialoha in issues 82-85 (Jun.-Sept. 1979). Other writers during this period include Bill Kunkel, Bill Mantlo, Gary Friedrich, and Steven Grant (who wrote the second-most stories after Claremont).

Silver Samurai was a recurring villain for Claremont during this run. Created by Steve Gerber and debuting as a villain in Daredevil #111 (Jul. 1974), this was the character’s first and only appearance before Claremont brought him back for Marvel Team-Up #57 (May 1977) to give Spidey and the Black Widow some headaches.

Gwen-reference-that-I-forgot-to-mention-last-time sidebar: During the fight with Silver Samurai in MTU #57, there’s a sequence where Spidey catches this guy who’s falling with his web and thinks, “The speed he’s falling, if I snag him wrong, his neck’ll snap like a dry twig. Like Gwendy’s neck snapped.” When I’m done with this series, maybe I’ll go back and count all the Gwen references since ASM #121, just to demonstrate how much her presence in the strip had shrunk during this time. Lord knows there aren’t many such references, so it shouldn’t take up much space or time.

Samurai returns in Marvel Team-Up #74 (Oct. 1978) “Live from New York It’s Saturday Night!” with “The Not Ready for Prime Time Players” by Claremont, with art by Bob Hall and Marie Severin. This is a favorite issue because it’s got Spidey with the original cast of Saturday Night Live, and anyone of a certain age will revere this cast and those earliest seasons of SNL. The story, however, is okay at best, with its greatest weakness being that it simply isn’t very funny. Is it still great to see Spider-Man rubbing elbows with Akroyd, Belushi, Radner, and the rest? Yes. Yes it is.

We next see Silver Samurai in MTU 82-85, which, as mentioned, is all-time peak Team-Up in my book. This is where we first see the Samurai paired with the Viper, a tandem that will terrorize basically every Claremont-written comic throughout the 80s, from Spider-Woman to New Mutants to X-Men. It’s got a great plot with a series of tasty team-up partners, from the Black Widow to Nick Fury to Shang-Chi, with the finale bringing ALL the partners together at once. Plus some good character work with the Black Widow retreating into an alt persona (“Nancy Rushman”) to resist the Viper’s torturous interrogation. “Nancy” was a grade-school teacher from upstate New York who knew nothing of espionage and even less of combat—her interactions with Spidey/Pete are very memorable. I think all four issues were collected into some kind of TPB at some point; track it down if you’ve never seen it before as it’s definitely worth a read.

Cissy Ironwood

Here’s another obscure love interest for you: Priscilla “Cissy” Ironwood, whose surname was clearly inspired by longtime letter writer Cat Yronwode (who later gained greater fame for her “Fit to Print” column for the Comics Buyer’s Guide, and then still-greater fame as editor of Eclipse comics).

Cissy only made four comic appearances—two less than April Maye. Cissy’s first appearance was in Marvel Team-Up #80 (Apr. 1979), followed by #81 (May 1979), then the Marvel Team-Up Annual that year, #2, and her final appearance was MTU #90 (Feb. 1980). Those first three comics were written by Claremont, while the last was by Steven Grant. Under Claremont, Cissy was very into Pete and the two seemed to have strong chemistry; under Grant, Cissy seemed bored by Pete and rather disinterested.

I’m not sure why I’m paying any attention to these potential love interests that barely existed. Maybe they’re just fun pieces of trivia, but maybe there’s more to it than this. We’re in a period when Pete’s love life was wide open and he could potentially date anyone, and I think I found this rather exciting at the time.

Spidey Super Stories

Between Spidey Super Stories 34-46 (May 1978-May 1980), there are just a couple of issues that I feel are worth noting. (Anyone who’s read my previous Spidey Super Stories post already knows the issues I’m talking about, of course.)

First, there’s the Thanos appearance in issue #39 (Mar. 1979), along with the Thanos copter.

Then we’ve got Spidey Super Stories #44 (Jan. 1980), notable because two new, all-original characters are introduced (and then never heard from again). The first was a villain named Dr. Time, who goes up against Spidey and the Vision in the opening story, followed by the Butterfly, a heroine who helps Spidey against Doc Ock in the last story of the issue.

The Wrap-Up

I’m thinking I’d rank the Wolfman Era third overall (after Lee-Romita and Lee-Ditko), but in terms of the Bronze Age, and the age of multiple Spider-Man titles (factoring in Team-Up, Spectacular, and Spidey Super Stories), this era was likely the best of this larger timeframe. This was just a great time to be alive for a comic-book fan—perhaps an even better time to be alive for a Spidey fan, specifically. A big thank you to Marv and Ross and Keith (and Claremont and Byrne and Buscema and Leialoha; along with Mantlo, Miller, and Mooney) for giving us some wonderful comics that I, personally, will always remember quite fondly and cherish deeply. Thanks for contributing so much to my childhood, people.

4 thoughts on “When Spidey Jumped the Shark, Pt. 5: The Marv Wolfman Era”

  1. Re: the new material added to Spider-Man’s origin for AS-M #200, I’ve always favored the phrase “continuity implant” for this kind of thing. “Retcon” may be just as technically correct, but, as you indicate, it generally carries a connotation of established history being altered or eliminated, rather than simply being expanded upon.

    1. In modern comics parlance, yes—“retcon” has come to mean a heavy revamp that eliminates much of what was previously established. The phrase “continuity implant” would likely leave less room for confusion in present-day discussion. I guess I say “retcon” because I was trying to make it clear that I’m not completely against using continuity as a creative tool. Like I mentioned, it only becomes a problem when that’s all the story is about.

  2. Excellent post. I remember reading the Wolfman run and having a lot of similar thoughts but I appreciate the behind the scenes look. I felt the Jameson plotline was really jarring when I read it. I’m glad Black Cat wasn’t just shot at the end of it all. Would have been a waste of both Jameson and Black Cat for them both to have such a fate. Thank goodness Stern changed that.

    You did forget to mention another notable villain in this run: The Big Wheel! My favorite Spider-Man joke villain.

    Honestly my first impressions of Wolfman’s run was that I was rather bored of it at first; I found Wein’s stories a little more enticing, but then I realized Wolfman was building up to a big story and Mysterio’s reveal was a great return for the character. I also have the thought that Mysterio has a cool gimmick and a great costume; I never understood why people hated the dome. It’s a comic book! They’re allowed to get silly.

    1. Yes, I forgot about Big Wheel. Should’ve made a passing mention of him, at least—he’s a joke, but his plotline also showed the Tinkerer making gear for criminals for the first time, so it’s kinda notable. The big event of ASM #183 was MJ turning down Pete’s proposal, and it looks like I got caught up in that and neglected to fully cover the Spidey side of things that issue.

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