We’re calling it the Denny O’Neil Era of Spider-Man, which it is, but it’s also the stealth beginning of the Roger Stern Era. Stern would start his run on Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man just a couple of months before O’Neil took over Amazing; then he’d take the baton from O’Neil immediately after he left ASM, smoothly gliding over directly from Spectacular. O’Neil was also the editor of Spectacular when Stern started, so there was a lot of synergy between the two books during the Denny O’Neil Era. As O’Neil recalled, “By 1980, the guy who had become Marvel’s editorial honcho, Jim Shooter, hired me to write The Amazing Spider-Man, and to edit its companion publication, The Spectacular Spider-Man. Our Web-Slinger appeared here and there as well, continuing a custom that had become, almost from the beginning, part of Marvel’s publishing strategy. Stan [Lee] once told me that he wanted everything at Marvel to support everything else.” [Denny O’Neil, “Introduction,” Marvel Masterworks: The Amazing Spider-Man, vol. 20, 2018, p. iv.]
The Denny O’Neil Era of ASM officially begins with Amazing Spider-Man #207 (Aug. 1980) and only lasts seventeen issues, through #223 (Dec. 1981). Minus two fill-ins—#220 (by Michael Fleisher) and #222 (by Bill Mantlo)—equals fifteen issues plus two annuals by O’Neil. Not a lot. This worried me at first, making me question whether or not I could find proper peaks or valleys across such a short span, but when I sat down and started looking the issues over, it proved fairly easy.
When Did It Start to Suck?
Like the most recent, previous eras, there is no great collapse during this run. There were probably more seemingly-mediocre stories than great ones during this period, but only one I’d call a straight-up stinker: Amazing Spider-Man #218 (Jul. 1981), which featured this strange kinda spoof of King Kong. It felt silly and weird and was just bad, with virtually nothing to recommend it.
When Did It Pass Its Peak?
The aforementioned Kong spoof was the nadir of the run, with the handful of issues that followed only slightly better—but there was one issue (Denny’s last, in fact), that I did think was really good. The overall peak of this era was actually the two annuals Denny did in collaboration with Frank Miller, so my most honest answer would be after the annuals, or after the last annual. Since those annual stories exist in their own space and were not a direct part of any ongoing narrative in the regular book, I’m not sure they fit as a proper answer to this question, but it’s the truest response I can offer.
Is He Still Pete/Spidey?
Born in 1939, Denny O’Neil was not a Baby Boomer. Once again: Boomer writers like Conway, Wein, and Wolfman—and later, Roger Stern, Tom DeFalco, and David Michelinie—grew up on Spider-Man and knew him well. Despite not having grown up on Spidey like the Boomers, O’Neil still got the voice right and Pete/Spidey still felt like Pete/Spidey. In fact, when he was at the top of his game, O’Neil may have understood and written the character of Pete/Spidey better than any of those aforementioned writers. If this surprises you to hear, you’re not alone. I was equally (and very pleasantly) surprised to learn this myself when I sat down and took a deep dive back into these comics after so many years.
Dawn of the Denny O’Neil Era
Like the two previous eras (Wein and Wolfman), the O’Neil Era is preceded by a one-issue filler. As discussed in that Wolfman post, Amazing Spider-Man #206 (Jul. 1980), “A Method in His Madness,” was written by Roger Stern and drawn virtually overnight by John Byrne. It resolved a dangling thread Wolfman left in ASM #204 (May 1980) involving Jonas Harrow and J. Jonah Jameson, revealing that Jameson’s mental breakdown was never real and that Harrow’s experimental ray was behind it all along. By story’s end, Spidey has met Harrow in person for the first time and defeated him, while Jameson is back to normal (normal by Jameson standards, anyway).
O’Neil takes over as writer with the following issue, #207 (Aug. 1980), “Mesmero’s Revenge,” with pencils courtesy Jim Mooney. Mesmero, the villain here, is an old X-Men baddie who’s trying to make a living using his powers in a stage show. Pete attends a show with Deb Whitman (ESU science department secretary and the girl Pete appears to be dating regularly at this point), and both agree it’s pretty terrible, as Mesmero humiliates the poor folk who allow themselves to be mesmerized by him. New York theater critics also ravage the show, putting Mesmero in a murderous rage, as the villain uses his powers to make Globe critic Oswald Clum jump off the Brooklyn Bridge. This leads to a rare (at this time) Gwen Stacy reference, as Spidey is reminded of her when Clum falls.
While I appreciate the reference, I think Spidey should have been feeling dread at the mere sight of the Brooklyn Bridge, even before Clum fell. But hey, during these years, I’m grateful for anything that acknowledges Gwen ever existed at all.
Anyway, Clum is so grateful to Spidey that he gifts him a pair of tickets to A Chorus Line. Pete then makes a date to go to the show with Deb Whitman—then inadvertently stands her up when he falls into Mesmero’s trap as Spidey. One other notable event this issue is that Jameson returns to the Bugle, resuming his role as Publisher and Editor-in-Chief.
Amazing Spider-Man #208 (Sept. 1980) has an unusual genesis. Though O’Neil is still the writer listed in the credits, a note at the top of the opening page thanks “Jim Shooter and Mark Gruenwald for plotting—and to the fans at MapleCon in Ottawa for creating Fusion!” Fusion is the issue’s villain, a product of twin brothers fusing together into one being, a talent they acquire after an accident involving a subatomic particle accelerator.
Also notable about the credits: It’s the first time John Romita Jr. is listed as artist for an issue of Amazing Spider-Man. Lance Bannon (Pete’s photojournalist rival) also makes his first appearance this ish, while sleazy journalist Rupert Dockery moves over from the pages of Spider-Woman—issues 26-30 (May-Sept., 1980), to be precise—to become circulation manager for the Daily Globe.
Kraven returns in ASM #209 (Oct. 1980), along with his new paramour, Calypso. Alan Weiss did the pencils, along with a team of inkers, and the results were not very good. I assign Weiss most of the blame for this, as his figures and panel designs were very awkward throughout. I generally enjoyed Weiss’s work elsewhere, so maybe this was a rush job? The multiple inkers might be an additional sign that such was the case.
Madame Web then makes her first appearance in Amazing #210 (Nov. 1980), which thankfully had John Romita Jr. returning on pencils—he was basically the regular penciler at this point, though there would still be some fill-ins in issues to come. (I’m guessing Romita’s concurrent assignment penciling Iron Man was the reason why he couldn’t keep up a full monthly schedule on Amazing at this time.) The plot here involves Rupert Dockery’s attempt to take over the Globe by hiring an unknown actress to portray the reclusive, never-before-seen-in-public publisher, K. J. Clayton, and then bumping her off. Spidey saves the day with some help from help from Madame Web, but the whole experience leads the real K. J. Clayton to retire and the Globe to suspend publication, which puts Peter out of work. Bemoaning this state of affairs to himself at home, Pete gets a call from Madame Web—yep, she’s a legit psychic, because she knows he’s Spider-Man. She congratulates him on catching Dockery and reassures him he’ll find work very soon, saying, “Even as we speak, your name is being mentioned by one who would employ you.” The last panel shows us J. Jonah Jameson at his desk, phone in hand, grousing about the busy signal he’s getting when trying to reach Peter.
The next two issues feature a dust-up with the Sub-Mariner in ASM #211 (Dec. 1980), which leads directly to the creation of Hydro-Man in #212 (Jan. 1981). These were both solid entertainment and solid Spider-Man stories. Issue #211 also saw the introduction of Peter’s noisy neighbor, a country singer named Lonesome Pincus, whose rehearsals at all hours of the night won’t allow Peter to get any sleep.
Spidey Soap Opera
Next up is a three-parter featuring the Sub-Mariner villain Llyra joining up with the Frightful Four in Amazing 213–215 (Feb.-Apr. 1981). In addition to the fun superhero action, O’Neil really got into the soap opera of Pete’s love life in these issues, starting with the introduction of an extraordinarily beautiful new neighbor in Pete’s apartment house.
As pointed out earlier, Denny was a few years older than the Boomer writers and seemed to possess greater adult insight. We can see him put that perspective into action here, as the twenty-something Pete is still at a stage where his hormones are in the driver’s seat, with the mere sight of this woman and just one word (“hello”) from her are enough to make him go absolutely bonkers. As a prepubescent barely in the two digits of age myself, my reaction to this woman was basically the same as Peter’s. Based on this introduction, I was sure she was going to be the next great love of Peter Parker’s life.
Then O’Neil delivers a gut punch in the storyline’s finale.
Again, you can tell this was written by an adult man who had been through the pains of youthful infatuation, bad judgment, romantic failure, and rejection. Bad enough Pete’s seeming dream girl turns out to be an evil villainess, but then she ridicules and humiliates him as well. But this won’t even be the worst of it.
“I thought I was in love . . . with that monster!” Spidey thinks to himself in the final panels of issue 215. “And she rubbed my nose in it! I betrayed everything I am—and in the process, I even dumped on Debbie. Maybe it’s not too late. Maybe I can still make it up to her. Maybe she’ll forgive me.” Issue #216 (May 1981) picks up immediately afterward, with Pete getting out of costume, putting on his civilian duds, and getting on the subway to go see Deb. As he’s riding, we get another Gwen invocation.
This took me by surprise, as I had no memory of this scene. I didn’t remember O’Neil as a great Spider-Man writer, but he sure does nail Spidey’s romantic situation here like no other writer since Stan Lee. Younger fans might be shocked to hear Pete describe his relationship with Mary Jane as a “romance on the rebound” that “couldn’t make me forget Gwen,” but in the context of the characters’ portrayals in the Lee years, this rings absolutely true.
Speaking of Ms. Watson, we last saw MJ in ASM #201 (Feb. 1980). Shortly afterward, MJ moved to Florida with her Aunt Anna, which happened off panel. Readers weren’t even aware of this until the two ladies made a cameo appearance together during a phone call to Aunt May in issue #238 (Mar. 1983). They returned to New York City together in ASM #241 (Jun. 1983). MJ wouldn’t reconnect with Peter until the last page of issue #242 (Jul. 1983) and the two wouldn’t have a proper conversation until issue #243 (Aug. 1983). That’s three and a half years between interactions on a comics page for Pete and MJ—again, younger fans are likely shocked that MJ could disappear from Spidey comics for such a length of time, but in reality, the notion of Pete and MJ being the OTP was never a part of the early comics; this was something that was shoehorned in much later.
Getting back to our regularly scheduled program: So when Pete gets to Deb’s apartment, he and the readers get gut punch #2, as Deb has got this guy there with her: Biff Rifkin, a dim-witted preppy from her past. Seeing he’s intruding, Pete quietly leaves, regretful for not appreciating Deb more when he had the chance. Again, I get the feeling this is a scenario that O’Neil had lived through before himself, perhaps more than once. I said before that the annuals were the peak of the Denny O’Neil Era of Spider-Man. But if we restrict ourselves to just the regular, monthly Amazing Spider-Man title, this would be the peak. Some truly great character work from O’Neil here.
Finishing the Race
The rest of ASM #216 features Spidey trying to prevent an assassination during the New York City Marathon with some help from Madame Web. A pretty good tale. But the next issue, ASM #217 (Jun. 1981), is the beginning of the low point of the run. Sandman shows up and gets into it with Hydro-Man, and by issue’s end, the two villains fall together and somehow merge into this one monstrous being composed of sand and water. This new being then winds up playing the role of King Kong in the following issue, ASM #218 (Jul. 1981). This is no vague Kong homage, this is more like a straight-up swipe of the King Kong screenplay—and it’s not good.
Amazing #219 (Aug. 1981), written by O’Neil with guest pencils by Luke McDonnell, is one of those issues that felt generic to me, like this could have been any superhero story (or even a police TV-drama plot). It features Pete/Spidey breaking in to Ryker’s Island in an attempt to discover how so many supervillains have been escaping lately. Pete then ends up locked up and having to get past Jonas Harrow and the Grey Gargoyle (which felt like a very random coupling) to clear his name. The following issue, ASM #220 (Sept. 1981), is a fill-in by Michael Fleisher and Bob McLeod and has Moon Knight as a guest star. This also felt rather generic to me.
ASM #221 (Oct. 1981), gives us a wrap up of Lonesome Pinky’s background plot. He gets a gig to perform out in Brooklyn and runs afoul of Ramrod, who apparently has aspirations of being a country-music performer himself and was rejected by the bar owner, so he decides to poison everyone at the bar attending Pinky’s show. Yet another weak (as well as convoluted) plot. Didn’t help that John Romita Jr. was M.I.A. again and we got some less-than-pleasing work from fill-in artist Alan Kupperberg.
What followed was another filler, as ASM #222 (Nov. 1981) was written by Bill Mantlo and penciled by Bob Hall with finishes by Jim Mooney. It’s got the Squadron Sinister’s Whizzer getting a makeover into the Speed Demon. This was okay.
Closing out the Denny O’Neil Era is Amazing #223 (Dec. 1981) “Night of the Ape!” As mentioned earlier, I thought this one was really quite good. Plotted by O’Neil with a script by J. M. DeMatteis and art by John Romita Jr., it features Spidey going up against the Red Ghost and his apes. But the best part of the story is the bystander who gets caught between Spidey and his simian foes: Roger Hochberg. Roger was a wonderful literary double for Peter Parker here, and this is what truly makes the story sing for me.
Pete sees much of himself in Roger right away. On the opening page, Spidey spots Roger on his way to the archives of the library annex, to which he was granted his own key, since he spends so many of his hours there. Spidey thinks, “It’s too bad that outside of the confines of academia, no one’ll give the poor guy the key to the men’s room, let alone be his friend!” Recalling Pete’s high school days as a social outcast, longtime readers should pick up on the connection quickly.
After Spidey saves Roger from a fire started in the annex by the Red Ghost’s apes, he next comes across Roger as Pete and decides to reach out. Their exchange starts out awkwardly, but Pete is determined. In the privacy of his own thoughts, he spells out precisely why. “The guy’s a shy, introverted bookworm—a lot like you were until a little radioactive spider crawled into your life. I had the thrills of web-swinging to drag me out of my shell—what’s Roger got? Me—that’s what.” Pete eventually gets Roger to agree to hang out with him at a dorm party later that night.
The party scene starts out well, but things take a turn when the beautiful crowd decides to make Roger the victim of a joke . . . which Peter does not appreciate at all.
Longtime Spider-Man readers can likely feel Pete’s old high school rage erupting in that panel where he breaks the table, scattering the punch and snacks. And if you were a socially awkward and bullied kid yourself (as I was), it was probably cathartic for you, just as it was for Peter, I’m sure.
The Red Ghost and his apes then show up again in an attempt to silence Roger, but Spidey saves the day once more. The action between Spidey and the bad guys here is well done, thanks to some great work by John Romita Jr., and when it’s over, Roger has gained some fame on campus as a result, granting him more social acceptance and goodwill from his peers than he’s likely ever experienced before. This includes the beautiful girl who helped trick him into drinking the vinegar earlier, Mia Carrera. A great issue to serve as Denny’s swan song on Amazing.
When I first started thinking about this entry in my “shark” series, I wasn’t even certain writing about the Denny O’Neil Era would be plausible. First, his run was rather brief—so brief I wasn’t sure if it really qualified as an “era.” And second, I didn’t think much good came out of it. This whole period felt like one long valley with no great peaks of any kind in my memory.
But then I took a look back at the obit I wrote for O’Neil a few years ago and was reminded of those annuals. And immediately, I knew I had my peak(s), as these annuals are not merely good, they are absolutely magnificent; probably the best Spider-Man annuals ever (only the first two Lee-Ditko annuals could even begin to compete, really). While much of this can likely be attributed to Frank Miller, Denny O’Neil was still the credited writer of these two annuals and they came out during his tenure on Amazing, so they are certainly a part of his era.
Frank Miller’s Spider-Man
This would seem the logical point to get into Frank Miller’s connection to Spider-Man. Now every comics aficionado knows Will Eisner was a huge influence on Miller’s art, particularly his sense of design, particularly on Miller’s early Daredevil and Dark Knight Returns. The classic EC guys like Krigstein and Johnny Craig also get mentioned often as influences on Miller, along with Goseki Kojima (of Lone Wolf and Cub fame) and Moebius. But Miller was influenced by other, more mainstream superhero artists too. Take a longer, deeper look and you will likely see a lot of Steve Ditko, Gil Kane, and even Ross Andru in Frank Miller’s work. This would seem to indicate an influence of the Amazing Spider-Man strip more broadly on Miller. Which, in turn, would seem to indicate that Miller grew up a pretty big Spidey fan.
There’s more evidence of this beyond what we can pick up from his art. “Confrontations” from ASM #169 (Jun. 1977) was a story I deeply disliked, but there was one great thing about it that I failed to mention in my post on the Len Wein Era: the issue’s letters page included a letter from a pre-professional Frank Miller. Miller’s letter offered great praise for the then-penciler of ASM, Ross Andru:
It’s high time someone mentioned the fine job Ross Andru has been doing on SPIDER-MAN. Not since Ditko has there been as conscientious a penciler on the strip, nor one as successful in capturing the mood and style that made the strip the most popular of them all. Comic-book fans are rarely as appreciative of honest craftsmanship as of flashy techniques or special effects, so the care and skill Mr. Andru has brought to the strip have gone largely unnoticed.
Sequences like page fourteen of SPIDER-MAN #165 demonstrate what can be done with a simple conversation. The variations in perspective and design and the attention to back-grounds evident in the scene are heartening to the enthusiast, showing that there is a good deal of thought and research behind the strip.
Presently, Mr. Andru’s work is second only to John Buscema’s in the Marvel line. With the right inkers, he can do wonders.
In 1994, The Complete Frank Miller Spider-Man was published, which included his early work from Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man 27-28, the three annuals I’ll be covering in this section (Amazing Spider-Man Annual #14–15 and Marvel Team-Up Annual #4) and Marvel Team-Up #100. In Miller’s introduction to the tome, he wrote:
I can’t recall what issue number it was. I don’t even remember exactly what year it was or where I was when I saw it. But this much is as vivid as memory gets: The first time I saw Spider-Man, he was fighting weird-looking robots on a cover that had two pictures instead of one . . . and he was the strangest-looking super hero I’d ever seen. [Note: This cover would have been ASM #37 (Jun. 1966), “Once Upon a Time, There Was a Robot . . . !”]
Up until then, super heroes had seemed physically interchangeable: lantern-jawed, barrel-chested, identical jocks who needed those chest emblems just so you could tell them apart. They could—and occasionally did—fool even their partners, sidekicks and loved ones just by swapping costumes.
Then along came that cover.
This was back in the ’60s. I was just a little kid, but I’d already decided to spend my life drawing comic books. Convincing the rest of the world to let me do that would have to wait a decade or so. In the meantime, it was a great time to be reading comics. After years of stagnation, along came that cover . . . and Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four and Thor and the Hulk and the X-Men. As Stan Lee reminded us in every square inch of space, the Marvel Age of Comics was upon us. Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and a handful of others blew the doors off the conventions of super hero comics, producing works of energy and personality unlike anything this kid had ever seen. Things would never be the same.
Personality. The Hulk had attitude. Thor was power personified. Reed Richards was skinny, brainy, maybe a little bit of a snob. Johnny Storm was young, impulsive and, yeah, fiery. Sue Storm was demure, soft-spoken, sincere. And Ben Grimm, well, he was a rough, tough, walking cinder block.
I loved them all, but my favorite was Spider-Man.
Personality. Every move Peter Parker made was so distinctive he didn’t really need a costume. Also, for all his powers, he was a bit of a geek. He had trouble getting a date. He screwed up from time to time. Steve Ditko and Stan Lee made Spider-Man my secret pal. I followed his trials and tribulations and cool fights for years on end. I even subscribed, something you had to do back when there were no comic-book shops and you were at the mercy of spotty distribution to drugstores.
Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon, the Vietnam War came to an end. Nixon resigned, A couple more presidents came and went. I got my chance to draw Spider-Man.
And even though I hadn’t seen a Ditko Spider-Man for many years, I didn’t feel any need to so much as crack one open. It was all there, waiting, burned into my memory, ready to go.
Besides, I was lucky enough to work with some of the finest talents in the field. Inkers Frank Springer, Tom Palmer and my longtime partner, Klaus Janson, charmed the rough edges off my pencil work. Writers Bill Mantlo, Chris Claremont and Denny O’Neil taught me by example much of the nuts and bolts of the craft and put up with my love for big, long fight scenes.
To top it off, I also had the distinct pleasure of writing a story for Herb Trimpe. Any budding young comic-book artist would do well to study his deceptively elegant storytelling.
Frank Miller, New York, June 1994
In addition to all this, Miller also imported two of the biggest Spidey villains into Daredevil during his first run on the title. First there was Doctor Octopus, albeit this was just for one issue, Daredevil #165 (Jul. 1980). And then there was the Kingpin, who first popped up in Daredevil #170 (May 1981) and then stuck around for the long haul as DD’s primary antagonist thereafter.
So Miller was a Spider-Man fan and seemed to have a strong connection with the character. This connection led to some great comics; I only wish we could have gotten more of them.
Amazing Spider-Man Annual #14, “Night of the Bend Sinister”
Fun Fact: Amazing Spider-Man Annual #14 (1980) had no proper title when originally published. There was a box on the cover that read, “SPIDEY and DOCTOR STRANGE versus DOCTOR DOOM and the DREAD DORMAMMU. ’nuff said!” And the first page opens on a reading from the Book of the Vishanti without any kind of title. When the story was reprinted in Marvel Tales #200 (Jun. 1987), the text in the cover box was replaced with “Night of the Bend Sinister,” a proper and logical title, so that’s what I’m going with.
The Bend Sinister is a point in time when certain mystical forces align in Marvel’s Earth dimension, coming ’round every 60,000 years. When it happens, “Then shall creatures of evil conspire to wreak gravest harm upon humanity.” Doctor Doom colludes with Dormammu to take advantage of this mystical conjunction through Lucius Dilby, Doom’s nebbish lackey. Dilby starts by taking out Doctor Strange with this robot-type thing he created while under Dormammu’s tutelage in the Dark Dimension.
As mentioned, Miller’s style was clearly influenced by Ditko, but here it feels like Miller’s making a very conscious effort to draw in an even more overt Ditko style. And he succeeds in this marvelously. To be clear, he’s not swiping from Ditko, but still somehow injecting enormous Ditko spirit into the art without swiping. For all the Ditko diehards who never got over his leaving Marvel in 1966 and always prayed for his return to both Spider-Man and Doctor Strange, this annual was as close as you would ever get. I’m also reminded of that Miller run on Doctor Strange that never came to be and could weep.
But I can see other artists inspiring Miller in this tale as well. At one point we’re introduced to these weird creatures who are nothing but torsos and limbs—and personally, I see a lot of Vaughn Bodē in them.
Did this story have artistic flavor or what? Like a chef’s masterpiece, with all of these exotic ingredients coming together to offer us a taste of some banquet made for the gods. And as great as the Strange stuff is, Miller’s Spider-Man somehow manages to reach equal heights.
Beyond beautiful. I should add that Tom Palmer did the inks on this one and, as you can see, his work was superb, as always. I could go on about the art forever, so I’m forcing myself back to the plot now: Dilby captures Doctor Strange, but not before Strange delivered a mystic message to Spidey’s psyche. After paying a visit to Strange’s Sanctum Sanctorum and having a chat with Wong, Spidey learns that Strange is being held captive somewhere around this club in the Bowery—a little slice of musical heaven called CBGBs.
Comics, Punk, and New Wave
. . . These are a few of my fa-vor-ite things!
I’m about as big a music aficionado as I am a comics aficionado. And my favorite musical period is pretty much the same as my favorite comics period: early-to-mid-70s through most of the 80s. My favorite music scene was the New York City punk and new wave scene in the 1970s, the Golden Age of CBGBs, which included acts like the Patti Smith Group, the Ramones, Television, Blondie, Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers, Talking Heads, Richard Hell, Suicide, and Jayne County (known then as Wayne County), to name just a few.
For the culturally deprived who neglected to click on that Wikipedia link or watch the Youtube video, above: CBGBs was a club in New York City’s Bowery neighborhood on Manhattan’s Lower East Side that served as the center of the city’s punk and new wave scene in the 1970’s and 80s. The club first opened in 1973 and was run by its owner and manager, Hilly Kristal. The front awning read “CBGB OMFUG,” with the CBGB part standing for “Country, Bluegrass, and Blues,” while the OMFUG stood for “Other Music For Uplifting (or possibly Undernourished) Gormandizers.” Although a “gormandizer” normally refers to a ravenous food eater, in this context the term refers to a ravenous consumer of music. (Note that the name of the club is CBGB, but back in the day, fans always referred to it conversationally as CBGBs. Sometimes we would even shorten it to just CBs. After all these years, it feels awkward for me to discuss it without the s at the end.)
The greatness of this musical era cannot be overstated. I only wish I was old enough to have experienced it firsthand, at its dawn.
And as all those bands were starting to blow up, Geber, Starlin, Englehart, Brunner, Moench, Gulacy, McGregor, Buckler, Graham, Russell, Wolfman, Colan, the Buscema brothers, and FRANK MILLER were producing some of the greatest-ever comic books—all of which could have been readily purchased at your local newsstand for loose change. This is why I love this era with a degree of adoration that I cannot even begin to capture in words.
In preparation for Marvel Team-Up Annual #14, O’Neil and Miller actually went see a show at CB’s, and the act they caught was a band called Shrapnel. I’m not sure if Miller was already friendly with the band and that’s why they chose to attend the show when they did, or if Miller became friends with them as a result of seeing and meeting them the night they attended, but whichever way it happened, Miller and the band did become friends. (As it happened, the lead singer of Shrapnel, Dave Wyndorf, was a big comics fan.) In addition to putting Shrapnel in the story, Miller (along with inker Joe Rubinstein) also illustrated the following ad for the band in the annual:
“Combat Love” can be heard on YouTube here:
And the B-side, “Hey” can also be heard on YouTube here:
Shrapnel would disband in 1985. Four years later, in 1989, Wyndorf would form a new band called Monster Magnet which led him to greater fame. Their most well-known song is “Space Lord,” released in 1998.
Back in our annual here in 1980, however, Shrapnel was still active and had responsibilities—specifically playing a Pied Piper role for the crowd at CBGBs. All of this was a part of Dilby’s Bend Sinister ritual, which the little dweeb comes dangerously close to completing before Spidey saves the day by freeing Strange. Dilby winds up a souvenir on Dr. Doom’s shelf, courtesy of Dormammu, while Strange is either unable or unwilling to explain the night’s events to Spider-Man, leaving our webhead a tad frustrated.
A great story. With more greatness to come.
Amazing Spider-Man Annual #15, “Spider-Man vs. the Punisher!”
Once again, O’Neil and Miller neglect to give us a proper title for the main story here. Some identify it by the Bugle headline text that begins the first page, “Spider-Man: Threat or Menace.” Others, such as myself, find the cover caption box, “Spider-Man vs. the Punisher,” more apropos. Note that Miller is joined by his regular partner on Daredevil, Klaus Janson, for the inks and finishes here.
It begins with JJJ and Robbie discussing what to do with the next front page of the Daily Bugle. Jameson’s ready to go with another one of his Spider-Man editorials, “Spider-Man: Threat or Menace,” but Robbie warns him that these editorials have not been selling well as of late. When Jameson asks what else they’ve got, Robbie responds, “that thing we sent Urich and Parker to cover.” As the plot rolls along, we’ll discover that this is the spine of the whole story: a day in the life of an old-school, daily newspaper.
The “thing” that Ben Urich and Peter Parker are covering is this charlatan guru claiming to have a “death touch,” when in reality he’s really just got a poison ring on his finger. After using this “death touch” on an innocent girl, he gets shot and murdered by the Punisher in a rather graphic panel that only Miller seemed able to get away with back then. Pete switches to Spidey and goes after the Punisher, but the vigilante killer manages to thwart Spidey with his non-lethal “mercy bullets” and escapes.
Pete’s photo of the guru’s death is the new front page for the Bugle. Meanwhile, the Punisher tries to recover the phony guru’s poison ring from the morgue but is foiled by Dr. Octopus, who absconds with body of the guru. The Punisher winds up getting the blame for this body snatching and the Bugle has a new front page: “Punisher Hits NYC.”
The Punisher then catches up with a poison courier at the pier, which leads him to Doctor Octopus, who has just threatened Mayor Ed Koch over the phone, telling him he plans to “murder five million of your citizens!” For those paying VERY close attention to those Bugle front page mock-ups, you’ll know where Doc Ock came up with the number five million. Punisher tries to ambush Ock but fails, and Ock decides to use him as a guinea pig for testing his poison. Then Spidey shows up in time to drive off Ock and come up with an antidote for the poison, which saves both the Punisher and the young girl who was dosed by our now-dead guru.
Spidey leaves the Punisher webbed up on the pier and calls JJJ to give him the story. Our new front page: “Five Million Wil Die: Doctor Octopus Threatens City with Mass Murder.” And the presses are ready to roll. This leads to what might be the best scene in the whole annual.
Jameson is down in the basement, about to start the presses. He reflects to himself, “In a minute, Harry’ll press that big red button and they’ll begin to roll . . . the presses. Big, greasy, beautiful monsters! They’re our voices. They let us give the news to five million souls—old, young, good, bad, angry, sad and happy—the whole teeming city . . . the folks of New York. They may foul up a hundred times a year . . . but not because they don’t know what’s happening. We tell ’em . . . through our presses. I never get over loving this moment.”
Then he shouts: “Hit it, Harry!”
But before the presses can start, Doctor Octopus arrives to stop them, carrying his poison. His plan is to mix the poison with the ink for the Bugle’s pages, but Spidey arrives to stop him. They fight, with Spidey managing to defeat Ock by trapping his metal arms in the Bugle’s presses.
Back at the pier, Punisher has recovered and freed himself just as the cops arrive. Punisher’s got his gun, but only regular ammo; no mercy bullets left. So his options are shoot his way out and potentially kill cops, or surrender and go to prison. He chooses the latter and exits with one of his greatest Dirty Harry-style lines ever.
Back at the Bugle, Jonah has happily come up with his new, FINAL-final front page: “Publisher Saves City: Poison Ink Menace Halted by Bugle Chief.” But Joe Robertson throws cold water on this, warning that such a story “could put us out of business. People are bound to think our ink is poisoned—or might be. They won’t want to take any chances, and I can’t blame them. Kill it, Jonah.” And, much as it pains him to do so, Jameson kills the story, reverting back to the “Spider-Man: Threat or Menace” front page we started with. We close on a newspaper vendor complaining to Jonah, “Every time you print junk like this, sales go in the sewer. I can’t give the Bugle away today.”
It’s another great one, with great action, wonderful character work, and it does a terrific job of capturing the atmosphere of working at a daily newspaper in those days. (O’Neil once worked for a newspaper in his home state of Missouri before breaking into comics, so I’m sure he drew on this experience when coming up with the plot for this annual.) This was the last time Miller would draw a Spider-Man story, but there was still another Spider-Man annual this year that he would participate in, creatively.
Marvel Team-Up Annual #4, “Pawns of the Purple Man”
Marvel Team-Up Annual #4 (1981), “Pawns of the Purple Man,” was written by Frank Miller and illustrated by Herb Trimpe and Mike Esposito. It was the second Spider-Man annual of 1981 to have Miller’s fingerprints on it and it’s another great ride.
In those classic days of The Comics Journal, R. Fiore’s comic reviews used the “Old Lady Scale.” The highest score Fiore offered was four old ladies, which signified “The Top, the Coliseum, the Louvre Museum. Ranks with Eisner, Kurtzman, Krigstein. Don’t hold your breath.” Next highest score was three and a half old ladies, which signified “Peak form of a superior creator. The Berni Wrightson Swamp Thing, Howard the Duck #5-7, or Frank Miller’s Marvel Team-Up Annual of 1981 (‘Pawns of the Purple Man’) would be examples.”
So this Team-Up Annual served as an example of one of the highest scores the reviewer for the Journal could offer. Coming from The Comics Journal, this is significant praise, let me assure you. The thing is, there’s nothing on the surface of this comic that is likely to knock your socks off (aside from maybe that Miller cover), it’s just a thoroughly entertaining story, with a whole bunch of smaller, subtle touches from Miller that set it apart from everything else on the spinner racks at the time.
First, in honor of this being an annual, we get a bigger cast than the typical, Spidey-plus-one-other-character formula of your standard issue of Marvel Team-Up. Second, that cast includes Spider-Man, Daredevil, Moon Knight, Power Man, and Iron Fist—basically all the street-level heroes of Marvel’s New York City, in one of the most logical gatherings ever to come together under the Team-Up banner.
Killgrave the Purple Man first appeared in Daredevil #4 (Oct. 1964). In the seventeen years between this issue and our Marvel Team-Up Annual, he had never crossed paths with Spidey before. In fact, I don’t think the Purple Man ever tackled anyone but Daredevil in his career prior to this. So this was a fresh match up for all the heroes here, with the exception of DD.
Another thing that makes this story great is the clear fun Miller is having with the Purple Man’s power—and for anyone unaware, his power is that he tells people what to do and they do it. The only person who has ever resisted his will is Daredevil. In the opening sequence, Killgrave’s purple limo gets into a fender bender with another car carrying some of Kingpin’s men, messing up a drug operation. When these men threaten him, Killgrave casually orders them to “punch each other into unconsciousness,” and they casually proceed to do precisely this. Then Spidey gets involved.
It doesn’t take too much imagination to hear Miller giggling to himself as he wrote this. As for where Miller got Elvis Costello from, the answer is Roger Stern. Miller asked what music Pete might listen to, and Stern offered his opinion.
What kind of records would he [Peter Parker] have? He’d have Elvis Costello, sure he would. He’d have some Nick Lowe, a couple of old Chuck Berry. I figure Peter is one of these guys who catches on to stuff a little slow. He says, “Hey, that’s really good,” and someone says, “It came out a year ago!’ “Oh, really? Oh gee!” [Fred G. Hembeck, “The Amazing Roger Stern,” FantaCo’s Chronicles Series No. 5, July 1982, p. 45.]
“Oliver’s Army” is from the Armed Forces album, released in 1979. So Pete wasn’t really that far behind the times with this musical selection in 1981.
The humor of having Killgrave offer these outlandish commands and having people casually respond with “sure” and “okay” will continue throughout the tale. It’s one of those subtle touches I mentioned earlier that add to the proceedings tremendously. This will continue when Killgrave comes face to face with the Kingpin and reveals that his last encounter with Daredevil led him to the realization: “Who needs the grief?” Why bother fighting anyone when all he wants is already his for the asking? Hence his retirement as a supervillain. This is both a humorous moment and one that makes perfect logical sense. In fact, the logic is part of why it’s so funny. You just don’t see characters in a comic book reason this logically very often; it’s kinda breaking the fourth wall.
Such laissez-faire sentiment is offensive to a man like the Kingpin though, who refuses to allow Killgrave to just walk away and let such power as his go to waste. Killgrave responds by ordering Kingpin to “blow his brains out” with his weaponized cane. Kingpin puts the weapon to his head . . . then simply lowers it and says, “no.” Killgrave is shocked, as no one else but Daredevil has ever managed to resist his will before, and even he had never done it “so effortlessly.” However he managed to do it, Kingpin is giving the orders now, and he’s just had an idea for using Killgrave to wipe out all of the superheroes who have gotten in the way of his criminal operations in the city.
And this is what brings all our heroes together. With Daredevil and Spider-Man already on Killgrave’s trail, Kingpin gets some criminal plants to point Moon Knight, Power Man, and Iron Fist in the direction of this big charity event at a convention center, where Killgrave will turn the huge crowd against all of them. (Kingpin will also have his hired gun, Heinrich, there to kill Killgrave after he’s completed his appointed task.)
The crowd does wind up chasing down Spidey, Power Man and Iron Fist, but Daredevil and Moon Knight stay behind, with Daredevil confronting Killgrave while Moon Knight discovers and neutralizes Heinrich. Wondering how he resisted the command to kill the heroes and join the pursuing crowd, Moon Knight discovers Heinrich has high-tech ear plugs. Meanwhile, Daredevil has fallen under Killgrave’s power thanks to the microphone amplifying his voice. Strangling himself at the Purple Man’s direction, it’s up to Moon Knight to save him.
Spoiler alert: Moon Knight does not eat his cape. Instead, he knocks out Killgrave with one punch and then reveals to Daredevil that he’s wearing the ear plugs. Meantime, Spidey and the Heroes for Hire have dumped a full tower of water onto the charging crowd to release them from Killgrave’s spell. Back in his lair, the Kingpin is not happy.
When I first read this in 1981, I interpreted Spidey’s face in the Kingpin’s eye as meaning that Spider-Man was his true archenemy and the one he was most determined to destroy; like if he killed Spidey, that was all the victory he needed. Based on his appearance in ASM #197, this is a reasonable conclusion. But with more hindsight, knowing what Miller would do with Kingpin in Daredevil, Miller probably was just using Spidey to symbolize all the heroes together.
In any case, this would make it three for three. Three absolutely wonderful Spider-Man annuals in two years. This was a time when Miller not only could not only do no wrong, it seemed he couldn’t do anything that was less than great.
This would also seem the appropriate time to mention that Miller did illustrate a number of great Spider-Man covers during this era. Most of them were for Spectacular, but there were also several more for Amazing and Team-Up. I’ll reproduce a few of them here, but for anyone thinking of doing some image searching on their own, he did the covers for Amazing 218 and 219, Marvel Team-Up 95, 99, 100, 102, and 106, along with Spectacular 48, 50, 51, 52, 54, 55, 56, 57, and 60.
Spectacular Spider-Man #43, “Pretty Poison”
Moving on to Spectacular, Roger Stern got off to a strong start with his first issue, Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man #43 (Jun. 1980). “Pretty Poison,” illustrated by Mike Zeck and Steve Mitchell, introduces us to Belladonna, giving us Spidey’s second female antagonist in a year (joining the Black Cat), after having no such antagonists for nearly two decades. And this would turn into a very entertaining storyline. It begins with guys in stocking masks breaking into the ESU science lab and stealing some chemicals. Pete lands a spider-tracer on one of the stocking-masked goons and later follows it to the abode of one Roderick Kingsley. At first glance, through the skylight, Kingsley doesn’t look like much to Spidey. “That character [Kingsley] sure wasn’t one of the goons,” Spidey thinks to himself. “Too skinny! Boy, and they used to call me Puny Parker! Even at my spindliest, this guy would’ve made me look like Hercules!”
Suddenly the stocking-masked goons bust in, followed by a woman they refer to as “Madam Belladonna.” She has a distinct style that feels very film noir, with a large brimmed-hat that partially conceals her face. (And as I mentioned in my last “shark” post, it’s possible her design may have been inspired by Marv Wolfman’s original concept for the Black Cat. As Wolfman described her, she had a “1940s noir-movie look, with a long, dress and large brimmed hat.”) Bella then threatens Kingsley, calling him a “flaming simp” before Spidey crashes in through the skylight. He has no problem with the stocking goons until Belladonna’s gas overwhelms him, in addition to dissolving his webbing. Still, Spidey manages to drive them off, but Kingsley’s not happy, complaining that Spider-Man wrecked his studio. Annoyed, Spidey webs him to the chimney before he makes his exit.
Back at the Daily Globe, Pete does some digging on Kingsley and discovers he’s done dirt to “half the Fashion world,” stealing designs among other shady business tricks. Pete correctly deduces that Belladonna is still out to get Kingsley, so he volunteers for the photo assignment covering Kingsley’s upcoming fashion show. He also comes up with a few ideas for handling Belladonna’s gas.
Sure enough, Belladonna crashes the show and mixes it up with Spider-Man again. The results are largely the same, with Spidey driving them off but failing to capture them. One of the more interesting things here is that Belladonna is quite afraid of Spider-Man, which only makes sense when you stop and think about it. Beneath her disguise, Bella is a normal human, while Spidey is something else—he’s superhuman. And all spidery. This was a nice touch on Stern’s part. It was different and fresh. This was good story that I really liked.
There was just one problem.
An Ugly Summer
The summer of 1980 wound up becoming a PR nightmare for Marvel due to several incidents of apparent gay bashing, starting with Spectacular #43 and its depiction of Kinglsey, who many believed was written and drawn as a gay stereotype. Having Belladonna refer to him as a “flaming simp” at one point might have encouraged this impression. In addition to some of Mike Zeck’s interior art, the way John Byrne depicted Kingsley on the cover also drew criticism from some corners.
Kingsley’s visual depiction may be more on the artists, I couldn’t say. Bella’s “flaming simp” line is all Stern’s, of course, but I’m not sure how to judge this. Firstly, back in 1980, “simp” did not mean what it’s come to mean today. Back then, I’m pretty sure “simp” was just verbal shorthand for “simpleton.” In either instance, the term carries no negative homosexual connotations. Secondly, “flaming” described a gay man who was flamboyant about his sexuality. Depending on the context, it could be insulting (as would seem the case here), but I don’t believe it would qualify as a slur.
Outside of this and (possibly) the cover, there’s really not anything else that seems that bad to me. (And any connotations of homosexuality and gay bashing certainly went over my head completely when I first read it as a kid in 1980. I’ll concede that this might be coloring my present-day judgment.) So by itself, maybe this one issue would have blown over without causing that much noise, but unfortunately, there was more (and MUCH worse) to come.
Next, John Byrne was interviewed in The Comics Journal and made many problematic (to say the least) comments. I should warn everyone that the language ahead is very harsh and I decided against censoring it. When asked about getting his start in comics, Byrne brought up a college art project called Gay-Guy. “Gay-Guy was this little boy who had his lollipop stolen by Ruby the Dyke and grew up hating women. One day he’s sitting there thinking that criminals are a superstitious, cowardly lot, and a butterfly flies in through the window. So he ends up wearing a purple leisure suit with a pink cape and diamond-studded glasses . . . and he becomes the queer avenger of the night, Gay-Guy. His real name was Gaylord LeGuy.” [Mitch Itkowitz and J. Michael Catron, “John Byrne: An X-tra Special, Four-Star, Flag-Waving Talk with the Artist of X-Men and Captain America,” The Comics Journal #57, Summer 1980, p. 59]
Things settle down for a bit, but then around about the middle of the interview, the ugliness returns. When asked about why he dislikes Bob Layton’s inking, Byrne offered, “all his men are queer. They have these bouffant hairdos and heavy eye make-up and an upper lip with a little shadow in the corner which to me says lipstick.” [Ibid., p. 66]
Believe it or not, there’s more. Closer to the end of the interview, when asked about morality, Byrne said, “I’m very Victorian. Very Victorian. I have come into the 20th Century sufficiently that people don’t have to get married [before living together] and that faggot-queer-homos can live together as long as they don’t bother me.” [Ibid., p. 82.]
Right after this, Byrne mentioned a character that Chris Claremont had “soured” him on:
Chris keeps souring me on characters. He soured me on Colleen Wing when he told me that she was a) bisexual, and b) promiscuous. She sleeps with anything because she’s looking for the big O, and I don’t want to know that. I didn’t need to know that to draw her, but I couldn’t draw her properly from then on. It was like, “Who is this weird lady that I’m drawing here?” And every time I put her in any kind of a costume or in danger or any kind of a tied-up situation, I knew that it had a totally different meaning for Chris from that point on. . . . I liked Colleen Wing right up until he laid this brilliant little bit of characterization on me. [Ibid.]
Roger Stern and Terry Austin were both present while this interview was taking place. Each spoke up on several occasions but neither said anything or used any language akin to Byrne. However, neither of them (nor anyone else present) had spoken out against anything Byrne had said either.
Then, in a story written by editor-in-chief Jim Shooter, “A Very Personal Hell,” from the color magazine Hulk! #23 (Oct. 1980), Bruce Banner is threatened with rape by two men while staying at a YMCA in a very uncomfortable scene with some even more uncomfortable dialogue. Throughout the scene, Banner’s would-be attackers call him “soft” and “dearly white” while referring to him as “sweetie” and “sweetums.” Gary Groth began his review of the story in The Comics Journal with, “Don’t homosexuals have enough problems with heterosexual bigotry without being cast as thugs and rapists in the latest issue of the Hulk! magazine?” [Gary Groth, “Capsule Reviews,” The Comics Journal #59, Oct. 1980, pp. 52-53.]
There was a backlash to all this. The wave seemed to crest with the letters page of The Comics Journal #61 (Winter/Dec. 1980), which saw several sharp letters of complaint, along with one rather savage sketch from a Journal caricaturist. Byrne got it the worst, but all of Marvel seemed stained by this controversy to some extent.
None of this had much bearing on Spider-Man comics at the time, but I’m of the opinion that it would have a lot to do with certain creative decisions to be made in Spidey comics in the years to come. We’ll get deeper into this in my next “shark” post.
The Vulture and the Cobra
Marv Wolfman wrote the next issue of Spectacular, #44 (Jul. 1980), the first of a two-parter involving the Vulture that Stern would finish in the issue to follow. Stern did some good stuff with the Vulture here, showing his rage and despair at the death of his nephew Malachai, his “only living relative.” He and Spidey have this great, rock ’em sock ’em brawl that takes them across the city and ends up in Grand Central Station. There, the Vulture injures himself badly when he crashes into an “ultra-hard glass barrier.” Prone on the floor and delirious, he calls out for his nephew. “M-M-Malachai . . . he killed Malachai! Killed my nephew . . . all alone now . . . all . . . alone . . .”
Then we get another (very brief) Gwen invocation, as while Spider-Man is looking down at the Vulture, the caption reveals, “Spider-Man pauses, adrift for a minute in his own memories . . . memories of his Uncle Ben, killed by a gunman’s bullet . . . memories of Gwen Stacy—loving, caring Gwen—dead at the hands of the Green Goblin.”
Some excellent work here, but even greater Vulture stories would be coming from Stern in the future after he makes the jump to the Amazing title. But getting back to Spectacular, Stern would extend the winning streak with issue #46 (Sept. 1980), a story that kicked off the Cobra-Mr. Hyde divorce. Great art job by Mike Zeck here as Spider-Man (briefly) corrals the Cobra after his escape from Ryker’s.
Stern’s winning streak just keeps going with Belladonna’s return in issue #47 (Oct. 1980). I really liked the way this shook out. Spidey had his initial run-in with her four issues earlier and then she disappeared. He fights other villains and deals with different problems for a few issues, now she’s back. Real life rarely moves in a straight line, so the stop-and-go nature of this Belladonna story made it feel more real to me, both then and now.
Not only is Bella back, but she’s got a new henchman—the new Prowler, who’s actually an even older villain than the “old” Prowler, Hobie Brown. He’s the Cat Burglar from Amazing Spider-Man #30 (Nov. 1965), only now in Prowler gear.
I want to add that the lovely art, both here and in the issue to follow, is courtesy Marie Severin and Bruce Patterson.
Stern also gives us a potential candidate for Belladonna’s true identity in Desiree Vaughn-Pope. At least Spidey is pretty sure she’s Belladonna.
But it will turn out it’s Desiree’s sister, Narda Ravanna, that’s really Belladonna. This will lead to some more hijinks with Roderick Kingsley before Spidey finally catches up with her. This was a fun story and a truly great ride while it lasted. Shockingly (to me, at least), they never brought Belladonna back. There would later be a Bella Donna Boudreaux attached to the X-Men, but Spidey’s Belladonna disappeared. It’s a shame, because she had style and a unique flavor to her. Plus, Spidey could use more lady villains in his rogues’ gallery.
The Smuggler, Mysterio, and the White Tiger
Stern follows up his Belladonna storyline introducing another seemingly-new villain who isn’t really that new, as Erik Josten, the former Power Man of Masters of Evil and Lethal Legion fame, becomes the Smuggler. This was an interesting turn of events, with art by Jim Mooney (breakdowns) and Bruce Patterson (finishes). Spidey takes out the Smuggler by the end of the issue, but instead of wrapping up the story there, it will continue into nearly half the following issue (which would be the fiftieth anniversary issue). White Tiger also begins a three-issue run of backup stories in this issue that will lead to some not-so-good things.
After wrapping up the Smuggler business (for now), the second half of the fiftieth issue (which was a standard-length issue, surprisingly, despite being an anniversary issue) brings us to a special dinner for Pete, Deb, Aunt May, and Aunt May’s new fiancée, Nathan Lubensky. (Nathan first appeared in issue #47, but was not named.) This dinner will be interrupted by the aliens Spidey first fought all the way back in Amazing Spider-Man #2 (May 1963). Then, at the very end, Mysterio also shows up.
Picking up the Mysterio/aliens plot in issue #51 (Feb. 1981), Stern begins to reveal some of his strengths and weaknesses as a writer. One strength is his knowledge of Spider-Man lore, as he goes all the way back to Spidey’s first year of existence when he brings in the Tinkerer’s alien allies from just the second issue. One weakness seems to be an overconcern with continuity, as it seems his main reason for bringing the aliens in was to make it clear they were never real aliens, just guys in costumes. He also retcons Mysterio into having been one of these alien performers. Stern is also tying up threads leftover from when Mysterio left Spidey for dead in ASM #199, as he’s still looking for Dutch Mallone’s old stash of wealth.
None of this was bad; in fact, this was a fine story, but it’s always concerning to me when a comics writer becomes too caught up in continuity. As I have said before, continuity can be an excellent tool for writing and storytelling, but it should never be the point of the story, never the sole reason for its writing. Trying to fix something from the second issue of Amazing twenty years after the fact was also a sign that Stern might be susceptible to getting lost in the smaller details. Yes, Spider-Man works better on a smaller scale— fighting off street crooks as opposed to invading aliens—but this was such a tiny piece of Spider-Man’s larger history it could be readily ignored (and, in fact, had been ignored, virtually since it was first published), therefore making a retcon feel rather unnecessary.
Issue #51 also had the White Tiger getting riddled with bullets by Gideon Mace in a cliffhanger for his brief run of backup stories. This would be picked up in the main narrative for issue #52 (Mar. 1981), as Spidey goes after Mace and Mace winds up getting shot by his own men. Meanwhile, Hector Ayala survives this ordeal, but quits his superhero career as the White Tiger. Giving his magical amulets to Blackbyrd, who will return them to the Sons of the Tiger, Hector and his girlfriend, Holly, leave town to try and build a better life for themselves far from New York.
I don’t know Stern’s reasons for getting rid of Hector/White Tiger. He might have figured Spidey was developing too many background characters and he wanted trim the cast. Maybe he just had no interest in the White Tiger character, I don’t know. But this is a decision I don’t like, largely for cultural reasons.
The White Tiger was the first Puerto Rican superhero in American comics. And one of his co-creators, George Pérez, was the greatest comic artist of Puerto Rican descent, ever (and arguably the greatest comic artist of any descent, ever). This should make Hector/the White Tiger somewhat sacred. He should never be de-powered, killed off, or written out of the Marvel Universe, as he’s simply too culturally important. The one saving grace here is that at least Stern didn’t kill off the character altogether.
Variety of Villains
Spectacular #53 (Apr. 1981) was a fill-in by Bill Mantlo, Jim Mooney, and Frank Springer. An inoffensive story with one notable revelation: The Tinkerer’s strongman, Toy, turns out to be a robot.
Then comes Spectacular #54 (May 1981) and the return of the Smuggler. Much like with Belladonna, I liked the way Stern put the character down and then picked him back up again a couple months later. Again, this felt like a reflection of the chaotic nature of real life to me. The Smuggler is ready to make a plea deal and rat out some Maggia figures, but the Maggia captures him from police custody before he can talk and hold him prisoner aboard a floating Japanese restaurant, a very large sampan, anchored in New York Harbor. Spidey frees the Smuggler and the two have to fight their way to freedom together, tangling with some samurais along the way. I really enjoyed this one, and absolutely loved the Frank Miller-Walt Simonson collaboration on the cover.
Spectacular #55 (Jun. 1981) pits Spider-Man against Nitro in an interesting contest. Issues 56–57 (Jul.-Aug. 1981) has Mooney finishing layouts by Jim Shooter of all people, one of the oddest art assignments I’ve ever come across. Spectacular #56 puts Spidey up against Jack O’ Lantern, a Ditko-designed villain from the pages of Machine Man. It was nice getting some fresh Ditko flavor into a Spider-Man comic again after so many years. Spectacular #57 has Killer Shrike and a returning Will-O’-The-Wisp. Stern will pick up Wisp’s story in Amazing after he moves over to that title as writer.
Stern drew on a wide range of villains for these stories, many of whom were facing Spider-Man for the first time. Stern explained his reasoning for this in a 1982 interview:
I like pulling in villains that have never encountered Spider-Man before but who had been around. For instance, we’ve seen this guy fight Captain America or the Hulk or whoever and he fights them this way, but up against Spider-Man, it was something different. Basically, it’s someone different to play off Spider-Man to show what Spider-Man can do. Take Nitro: Here’s a guy who blows himself up; how does Spider-Man handle that? We know how Captain Marvel handled it; how could Spider-Man handle a character like that? Well here, I’ll show you. [Fred G. Hembeck, “The Amazing Roger Stern,” FantaCo’s Chronicles Series No. 5, July 1982, p. 40.]
It should be noted that Denny O’Neil was doing the same thing over in the pages of ASM at this same time, bringing in a number of fresh villains. Willful synergy or coincidence? I’m curious if O’Neil might have formally discussed this with Stern, or if they were just that simpatico over their approach to Spidey.
Pete appears to find a new campus buddy in Spectacular #58 when we’re introduced to a student named Greg Salinger. This is another thread that Stern will pick up later in the pages of Amazing. Tom DeFalco also took over as editor with this issue; in fact he took over all the Spider-Man titles at this time—a move that certainly made sense. In the main plot here, Spidey tackles the Ringer in a matchup that’s more comedic than serious, though it does kick off the build to the double-sized 60th issue.
The build continues in issue #59 before we get to Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man #60 (Nov. 1981), the five-year anniversary issue of the series. The villains are the Beetle, who gets a long-overdue redesign, and the Gibbon. This line-up might sound underwhelming, but Stern really delivers with this one. It’s also features a re-telling of Amazing Fantasy #15, only in seventeen pages—six more than the original eleven-page story, so Stern gets to add more details to the origin. And on top of all this, another great cover by Frank Miller.
Stern would only plot his last issue of Spectacular, #61 (Dec. 1981), “By the Light of the Silvery Moonstone,” as incoming/returning writer Bill Mantlo would do the dialogue. A good story that seemed to suggest fresh romantic possibilities for Pete at the end that ultimately led nowhere, unfortunately.
Two Spectacular annuals also appeared during this era: Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man Annual #2 (1980), featured a new antagonist named the Rapier, a character who only appeared again a few years later for the sole purpose of getting killed off by the Scourge in the pages of Captain America. Then Spectacular Annual #3 (1981) featured John Jameson returning (after a real-time absence of nearly three years) and getting cured of his Man-Wolf affliction.
Marvel Team-Up featured work by a number of different writers and artists during this era, leaving the overall quality of the title very up and down. Among the more notable events that took place was the former Huntress making her first appearance as Mockingbird in Team-Up #95 (Jul. 1980). Written by Steven Grant with art by Jimmy James and Bruce Patterson, all behind a cover by Frank Miller.
MTU #99 (Nov. 1980) teamed up Spidey with Machine Man to go against the Sandman and Baron Brimstone, another fresh, Ditko-designed villain to battle Spidey. Always good to feel Ditko’s presence in a Spider-Man tale, even if he’s not doing the drawing himself.
Next one was the hundredth anniversary issue and it was a doozy. Marvel Team-Up #100 (Dec. 1980) featured Spidey teaming with the Fantastic Four in Chris Claremont’s last story for MTU. The tale introduced Karma, later of the New Mutants, and was illustrated by Frank Miller, at a time when Miller was incapable of anything less than greatness. There was also a fun little team-up of the Black Panther and Storm that ran as a backup tale, written by Claremont and John Byrne and illustrated by Byrne and Bob McLeod.
Team-Up 108–109 (Aug.-Sept. 1981) was an enjoyable two-part storyline that teamed Spider-Man with the Paladin and Dazzler against a villain named Thermo. This two-parter combined the writing talents of Tom DeFalco, David Michelinie, and David Anthony Kraft, with art by Herb Trimpe and Mike Esposito. Like her appearance in ASM in the previous era, I felt like Spidey and Dazzler had some chemistry and Thermo struck me as a compelling antagonist. Your own mileage may vary on this one.
Closing out this era of Marvel Team-Up was a two-parter that ran across issues #111–112 (Nov.-Dec. 1981). Part one features Spider-Man and Devil Slayer, with the rest of the then-Defenders joining in at the end. The villains are a cult descended from the serpent-men of Kull fame. They defeat the serpent-men, but Spidey gets bit by one of them and Dr. Strange has to help come up with a magical remedy or our webhead will die. This was quite entertaining—without any spoilers, let me just say that Spidey’s teaming with Devil Slayer doesn’t begin when you think it does.
The conclusion in issue #112 sees Dr. Strange send Spidey’s spirit back in time to seek the cure for the poison bite. Way, way, waaay back in time. All the way back to when King Kull ruled Valusia. Though a disembodied spirit in this age, Spidey finds he can possess other bodies a la Deadman. This is how we got an issue of Team-Up that allowed Spider-Man to partner up with King Kull. A fun story and nice follow up to the previous issue, with a great cover courtesy of Marie Severin—I only wish her brother John could have inked it, reprising their superb collaboration on Marvel’s original Kull series. In any event, Kull helps Spidey find his cure, at which point Spidey’s spirit is magically swept back up to the present day to rejoin his physical form, which retains no memory of his magical journey across the ages.
Now, as noted before, Spider-Man works best at street level, fighting more real-world menaces than the magical or the alien. But an occasional story like this one is fine. I think the key is that this doesn’t happen too often, and that you keep it hermetically sealed so it doesn’t become a part of Spidey’s regular gimmick, allowing future creators to readily ignore it if they so choose. And this story meets all of these conditions.
Both these issues were written by J. M. DeMatteis with art by Herb Trimpe and Mike Esposito. J. M. DeMatteis’s very first issue of MTU was #101 (Jan. 1981), but issue #111 marked the beginning of his extended run on the title for him as writer. His earliest issues featured art by Trimpe and Esposito, but then Kerry Gammill came aboard as the regular artist and would pair with DeMatteis for a solid run.
It should be noted that in addition to the aforementioned Marvel Team-Up Annual #4 (1981), the previous year’s edition, Marvel Team-Up Annual #3 (1980), also falls into this era. However, since Spidey only makes a cameo appearance there, it’s not very germane to our discussion here. For the record, that annual starred the Hulk, Power Man, Iron Fist, and Machine Man going up against Nightshade.
Spidey Super Stories
Spidey Super Stories only lasted a few more months after the O’Neil Era ended, so I may as well take the opportunity to wrap up the rest of the whole series here. Once again, this series was made for little kids, particularly first-time readers, so there’s nothing all that deep to be found here, and none of it connected back to the main continuity. Having said that, there are still some issues that just might be worth mentioning.
First, Spidey Super Stories #47 (Jul. 1980), contained a number of cringeworthy errors that somehow got through editorial and made it to publication, as I recounted in my 2019 post. So if you’re into train wrecks, you might want to check it out. Issue #48 (Sept. 1980) has a memorable cover (courtesy of Rich Buckler and Bob McLeod) with Spidey fighting the Green Goblin, just in time for Halloween. Issue #50 (Jan. 1981) guest stars She-Hulk in another example of Marvel’s efforts to introduce its youngest readers to their newest characters. The last issue, #57 (Mar., 1982), guest starred the White Tiger.
R.I.P., Spidey Super Stories.
As we can see, there were some good comics made during the Denny O’Neil Era of Spider-Man, along with some that were just so-so. But one of the aspects of Spidey that O’Neil and Stern both absolutely nailed was Peter’s love life. The primary love interest during this brief era was Deb Whitman, though “love interest” feels misleading, as Pete was never really that interested in her. It might be more accurate to describe her as the primary source of romantic drama during this time.
Deb, the secretary to the chair of the science department at ESU, Dr. Sloan, first appeared (briefly) in Amazing Spider-Man #196 (Sept. 1979). Several months later, during a boat ride up the Hudson with some of the ESU staff in Spectacular #42 (May 1980), Deb catches Peter alone and confesses her admiration for him while running down a litany of her own insecurities. While this is going on, Pete spies a message in the sky, seemingly from the Human Torch (actually Electro in disguise), and abruptly ditches Deb to investigate. It’s a literal disappearing act from Pete, just as she’s baring her soul to him. This set the tone for their relationship going forward.
In a 1982 interview with Fred Hembeck, Roger Stern got into the Deb Whitman character:
Fred: How do you see the women in his life, especially Deb Whitman? I saw her described somewhere as the old Peter Parker in drag, with those big glasses and wimp personality.
Roger: This was something that Frank Miller suggested when he did his first Spider-Man annual with Dr. Strange and Dr. Doom. It was a sequence with [Debra] Whitman and he says, “I couldn’t quite get the face until this one panel, when I realized it was a female version of the old Peter Parker” and suddenly it occurred to me that that’s what we were moving towards. She is like the pre-Spider-Man, the female equivalent of Pete Parker, with all those hangups. That was why the two of them were drawn together, but the romance angle wasn’t quite there. [Fred G. Hembeck, “The Amazing Roger Stern,” FantaCo’s Chronicles Series No. 5, July 1982, p. 42.]
Literary doubling again, clearly one of my favorite literary devices, as I seem to bring it up frequently on this blog (as well as elsewhere). I obviously didn’t pick it up myself at the time the comics were originally published, but yes, Deb has a lot of hang ups and is extremely unsure of herself, much like the lonely, bullied, teenaged Peter Parker; and her big glasses evoke the teenaged Peter visually. This really differentiated her from previous love interests.
The relationship with Deb was a nice change of pace from Pete’s usual romantic difficulties. Normally it’s him pursuing a girl he’s really into and then being Spider-Man ruins it, somehow. With Deb, she was more interested in him than vice versa—though the Spidey-ruining-things part was still there. The difference is that this previously made Peter resent his Spider-Man identity. Here, every time he ditches Deb to play Spidey, it’s not resentment he feels, but guilt—guilt for hurting Deb. Because of his high school experiences, Peter Parker knows all too well what it’s like to feel left out, abandoned, and unworthy, so he feels awful every time he makes Deb feel this way. These interactions reveal a great deal about Peter—perhaps even more about him than it does about Deb.
As a grown-up writer/editor looking at the narrative structure of this today, I think this is all frickin’ great. But as a kid at the time, I wanted to get Spidey/Pete together with the girl I thought was the “hottest,” and that certainly wasn’t Deb Whitman. I was rooting for either the Black Cat or for Mary Jane to come back. And if I couldn’t have one of them, I would have still picked Marcy Kane over Deb. My reasons were utterly immature and completely superficial, but in fairness to the young me, Deb was often portrayed as insecure and clingy, two extremely unattractive qualities regardless of one’s age or maturity.
In that same Hembeck interview, Stern said of Marcy Kane:
Marcy Kane is sort of a red herring there for a while, that she’s a romantic interest, but she’s not really. It’s one of those things: Could these two people be romantically involved? They meet and they date. No, not really; we’ve got a lot of things in common, we’re good friends, but it could never be romance. The temperaments are all wrong. [Ibid.]
I suppose my then-preference for Marcy over Deb is at least somewhat telling. Deb is always kind and accommodating to Peter, while Marcy started out belittling him as a coward because he was always running off whenever there was trouble (because he would change to Spidey, of course); then later chiding him for not prioritizing his education. Marcy was difficult and challenging while Deb was not. So of course this made Marcy more attractive. I really wish this wasn’t the case, but it’s a pattern I took to early on and it still kinda persists to this day. It’s a pattern a lot of people fall into. If attraction were a choice, we’d all choose to be attracted to people who are kind and nice to us. But there’s the rub: attraction is not a choice. Attraction is something you feel or don’t feel, and none of us have any say in the matter. And most of us tend to feel a greater attraction to someone who challenges us in some way or other. (I should note that Deb herself was often shown falling into this same trap, as on many occasions she’d be shown thinking to herself that she preferred Peter to Biff, even though Biff treated her better.)
I also liked the fun little subplot of Marcy’s hair. Beginning with Spectacular #46, she starts showing up at school wearing a scarf over her head. Then in issue #54, she shows up in a turban. Prankster Steve Hopkins noted that “For the past month, Marcy Kane’s worn 12 different scarves . . . and now, a turban. I’ve known Marcy since my freshman year, and she never covered her golden locks before! Something’s up!”
In issue #55, Marcy shows up in full Scottish regalia, including a tam o’ shanter on her head. All that was missing was a set of bagpipes.
Hopkins plots a stunt to remove Marcy’s headwear via a ceiling trapeze in Spectacular #56. He succeeds in pulling off her head scarf, but also pulls off a blonde wig with it, revealing a head of brown hair. Humiliated, Marcy runs out, but Peter catches up to her, calms her down, and gets her to open up to him. She reveals that her hair was light when she was a little girl, and that her father used to tell her it was “spun gold.” But it started getting darker as she got older, so she began bleaching it. She had to stop recently because this was damaging her hair to the point where it might start falling out. Pete comforts her and she thinks to herself, “This is the man I’ve been giving a hard time all semester? The one I thought was a self-centered ‘prize’ student?” Then she runs off again and Pete lets her go.
Steve Hopkins gets a mock trial from the staff over his stunt with Marcy in Spectacular #58. Final sentence is a pie in the face from Dr. Sloan, after which Marcy reveals her new brunette hairstyle.
Then, after getting caught in a blast courtesy of Moonstone in Spectacular #61, Marcy needs to be saved by Pete applying mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. When Pete checks up on her in the hospital later, she tells him she wishes “it had been you who’d been zapped by Moonstone instead of me.” This annoys Pete at first, until Marcy informs him it had been a joke. Their relationship has gone from antagonistic to friendly and warm. For a moment, it looks like this may be the start of something.
But it wasn’t. After Bill Mantlo took over as sole writer on the title, Pete makes a very awkward and discomforting move on Marcy in Spectacular #66 (May 1982) and she immediately friend zones him. Then he ditches her to go play Spider-Man and that was that.
. . . And then Mantlo turned Marcy into an alien in the Jack of Hearts miniseries, ignoring all of her previous human character development and effectively throwing it into the trash, leaving Marcy Kane a nonentity in Spider-Man history forever afterward. This is a good example of why I didn’t trust Mantlo as a writer and have never held him in very high regard.
While it only added up to a couple of panels (literally two panels), O’Neil demonstrated tremendous understanding of the Gwen Stacy character and her proper place in the larger Spider-Man mythos. And that place is simple: Gwen Stacy is the one. The soulmate. This fact does not change just because she died. For too long after her death in ASM #121, Gwen just disappeared. If Gwen’s death is the big deal everyone says it is, so groundbreaking and so iconic, then it has to affect Peter forever afterward. We have to see Peter remembering her, missing her, lamenting her passing. And Denny O’Neil is one of the two or three writers that appeared to have a good handle on this, post ASM #121.
I realize a lot of writers after Conway avoided Gwen because her death was messy and sloppy and more than a little ugly. And then the Gwen clone made it all even messier and uglier. I get it. But under Stan Lee, the character was important—too important to be ignored. She needs to maintain some kind of presence in the strip, however small. The one thing that can’t happen is you can’t reduce the character to nothing; you can’t write the strip like she never existed.
Last time I talked about how Peter needs to face setbacks and difficulty in his life, but not all of these setbacks need to be earth shattering. In fact, most of his misery should be of the mundane variety and used more for comedic effect, like Charlie Brown in Peanuts. And once again, Denny O’Neil got this.
In ASM #208, Spidey comes upon a car accident on the 59th Street Bridge that’s holding up traffic. Spidey moves the two cars involved in the accident to clear a space for the other cars to get through and gets an earful from the drivers involved in the accident. They complain that they were waiting for the police to write up an accident report and now they can’t, which will likely keep them from collecting any insurance claims. “When will I learn?” Spidey thinks to himself. “I should leave the good deeds to the boy scouts.”
In Amazing #211, we get a couple more nods in this direction. First, we’re introduced to Pete’s new noisy neighbor, who will make Pete’s life miserable in the months to come with his horrible singing & playing of bad country music at all hours of the night. And later on, Spider-Man gets a barrel of brine smashed over his head—which stinks and makes his costume itch. Two issues later, in ASM #113, Pete tries to clean the costume with a homemade super detergent he mixes in his bathtub. But then he forgets about it and lets it soak in the tub for too long, leaving it pink and powder blue, instead of red and regular blue, and even most of the black web lines have faded. Then the Wizard strikes and Spidey has to actually go out and fight in this costume! He gets a replacement costume quickly . . . but when he loses that costume in issue #219, he’s got to briefly revert to this faded one again. All fun stuff.
The Character of Pete/Spidey
The most important things O’Neil got right during his run was his understanding of what made the Spider-Man strip work and his characterization of Pete/Spidey. O’Neil only ran into trouble when certain stories centered on plot and characterization got pushed aside. This may have been a product of his background with DC in the 1960s, which O’Neil himself said emphasized plot over character, assuming any characterization “was there at all.” So maybe plot emphasis was something of a bad habit he picked up at DC that he brought with him to Marvel when he made the jump.
Clearly, O’Neil understood Pete/Spidey, his world, and his mythos. As mentioned earlier, in just two panels, he demonstrated a firmer grasp of Gwen Stacy and Pete’s romantic challenges after her death than nearly any other writer after Lee. And when O’Neil did properly prioritize characterization, he really hit it out of the park. The best example of this was probably in ASM #216. In the wake of finding himself all alone and miserable yet again after the Llyra debacle, Pete is not exactly in a good place when he discovers that someone is likely to get shot at the New York City Marathon. O’Neil gives us almost a full page of Peter just looking in his bathroom mirror and reminding himself why he does what he does.
“I don’t deserve it. I plotz along, doing my best, trying not to hurt anybody—and life seems to pick on me. Random nasties come from nowhere to rain on my parade. . . . I’m half-crippled, tired, depressed, overworked . . . and I’m also the only man in the world who has the slightest chance of saving him. At least I gotta try. If I ever want to look in this mirror again without cringing.”
Summing Up the Denny O’Neil Era
When I started this post, I wasn’t expecting much (apart from the Frank Miller stuff), as my memories of this era weren’t all that fond. And yes, there was more than a little mediocrity to be found here, but I also knew Denny O’Neil was one of the greatest comic book writers ever, so he certainly should have been capable of great work on Spider-Man. But his very best stuff, for me, was all done as a writer for DC—Batman and the Green Lantern/Green Arrow title, specifically—and I simply didn’t recall him having a good “feel” for Spider-Man.
But here’s the thing: my memories of the Denny O’Neil Era were those of a little kid, one who not only lacked any real understanding of what constituted good writing, but who also lacked any deeper understanding of the Peter Parker/Spider-Man character. I mean, at the time, I had probably only read the first twenty Ditko stories (via Pocket Book reprints), and maybe two dozen or so issues from the Romita Era.
Outside of the Llyra storyline (Amazing 213-215) that I revisited in preparation for my Denny O’Neil obit back in 2020, I hadn’t re-read any of Denny’s issues of Amazing in a long time, possibly not since they were originally published over forty years ago. Reviewing it all now, as a college-educated adult with a background in literature and writing, I’ve got to say the Denny O’Neil Era of Spider-Man is not only a legit era, it’s got quite a lot of good stuff in it that was far better than I had remembered. And while it will never be considered Spidey’s greatest era, its very best moments are on par with nearly any of the other great moments in Spider-Man history.