When Spidey Jumped the Shark, Pt. 7: The Roger Stern Era

The Roger Stern Era of Amazing Spider-Man had a nice little rehearsal space of sorts in the pages of Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man, as touched on last time. Stern had written Spectacular for a year and a half and then just slid right over, one month to the next, to ASM, with his last Spectacular being #61 (Dec. 1981) and his first Amazing being #224 (Jan. 1982). From Stern’s very first Spectacular story, #43 (Jun. 1980), to his very last issue of involvement with Amazing, #252 (May 1984), that’s four straight years of writing Spider-Man comics; a very good span. It was a run that would cast a long shadow over Spider-Man for quite a while afterward, a shadow that may yet persist today, and certainly a favorite run of mine, personally.

And as long as I’m getting personal, let me note that this was the era when I became a full-blown comics geek. I would get my mother to take me to the Livingston Mall every Friday to get my comics from the Superhero Shop/Heroes World. (I would also pick up comics at newsstands, convenience stores, and flea markets irregularly.) I knew what issues were coming out each specific week and had the Superhero Shop put certain titles on reserve for me.

In 1982, the year his run on ASM began, Roger Stern told Fred Hembeck:

Basically, I was trying to get back some of the spideryness in the strip that had been lost over the years. It’s inevitable, when a character has gone through so many different artists and writers, that the new team will tend to spin off what the previous team had done. You can’t help that, but the thing tends to get diluted after a while. You gotta get back to what made this character really great. I remember the old Stan Lee/Steve Ditko and Stan Lee/ John Romita stuff and, wow, he stuck to walls, all sort of weird things like that. I’m trying to get more of that in. I never expected to do Spider-Man in the first place. They said, “Please do this,” and I said, “Wow, OK,” and the first thing that hit me was to have more of that old quality back. [Fred G. Hembeck, “The Amazing Roger Stern,” FantaCo’s Chronicles Series No. 5, July 1982, p. 40.]

When Did It Start to Suck?

Similar to the Marv Wolfman Era, there was nothing here that really sucked—but it would have crossed the line into sucking if Stern had remained on the book and carried out his original plans for resolving the Hobgoblin mystery. (As it turned out, the resolution they ultimately stuck themselves with was at least as bad, probably worse, than what Stern originally had in mind.) But again, also like the Wolfman Era, this never happened (at least not at this time—foreshadowing, people, be patient), so no harm, no foul (for now).

When Did It Pass Its Peak?

There was nothing here that was less than very good. Some stories were better than others, of course, but nothing bad. The peak in terms of a Spider-Man stories was probably the Juggernaut storyline from Amazing Spider-Man 229–230 (Jun.-Jul. 1982). Other goodies were the introduction of the Hobgoblin in ASM 238–239 (Mar.-Apr. 1983) and the development of the Vulture (giving him a proper origin and backstory after more than twenty years) in issues 224 (Jan. 1982) and 240–241 (May-Jun. 1983).

But the best aspect of the original Stern run was his character work. (What do I always say? From a writing standpoint, nothing is more important than characterization. You can have the greatest of plots, but if the characterization is poor, your story will still be mortally wounded.) Along these lines, stories like “The Daydreamers!” from ASM #246 (Nov. 1983) leap to mind. But putting aside any particular issues or storylines, it was Stern’s issue-to-issue character work on Peter Parker, Mary Jane, Harry Osborn, Jameson, Aunt May, and everyone else in the cast that made him one of the best Spider-Man writers of all time.

Is He Still Pete/Spidey?

Roger Stern was a Baby Boomer. And like the other Boomer writers, he grew up on Spider-Man and knew the character well. In fact, I believe he had a better feel for Pete/Spidey than any other writer outside of Stan Lee himself. Pete/Spidey always felt like Pete/Spidey, and character voices remained remarkably consistent, from the supporting cast to the villains. For me, out of all the Boomer writers that took on Amazing Spider-Man, Roger Stern seemed to me to know and write the characters the best.

“Let Fly These Aged Wings!”

Stern gets off to a great start, perhaps the greatest possible start, in Amazing #224 (Jan. 1982), “Let Fly These Aged Wings!” The villain is the Vulture, an antagonist we’ve seen many times before, but he’s made to feel fresh and vital as can be here. In his intro to ASM Masterworks vol. 22, Stern reveals that “Of all of Spider-Man’s many, many enemies, the Vulture was always my favorite,” and this affection for the Vulture really shines through in this tale. [Roger Stern, “Introduction,” Marvel Masterworks: The Amazing Spider-Man, vol. 22, 2019, p. iii.]

The last time Stern had done a Vulture story was in Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man #45 (Aug. 1980), but in that case, he was finishing up a storyline begun by Marv Wolfman in the prior issue. It was good, but finishing off the second half of someone else’s story didn’t leave Stern with a lot of room to stretch his legs, artistically speaking. Here, the story is all his and he can take it in any direction he chooses.

Adrian Toomes (the Vulture’s real name, revealed here for the first time), is going to a hospital for physical therapy after that nasty crash in Spectacular #45. Nathan Lubensky, Aunt May’s new beau, is also getting physical therapy at this same hospital. The two men meet and Toomes is clearly in a state of deep depression. Having seen him walking stiffly and using a cane, Nate inquires about his condition and Toomes responds, “Nothing that death won’t eventually cure, Nate.” Nathan retorts, “Don’t hand me that horse hockey!” and proceeds to school him on the value of simply being alive and how age is a state of mind.

Inspired by this, Toomes tosses aside his cane and takes a look at some new, high-tech PT equipment lying around. By the time the physical therapist returns, Toomes has already jury-rigged a new set of wings for himself out of the equipment, making for quite the dramatic moment.

The Vulture immediately resumes his life of crime to great success, managing to stay one step ahead of Spider-Man the whole time. Then, as fate would have it, Peter finally runs across him at the nursing home where Toomes and Lubensky are both living. A brawl breaks out between Spidey and the Vulture but the Vulture ultimately manages to escape. Great character work from Stern, not only with the Vulture but with Nathan Lubensky as well.

At this point I feel compelled to ask what role continuity played in the inspiration for this story. Was Stern’s primary motive to fill in gaps in the Vulture’s backstory because those gaps bothered him from a continuity standpoint? Or did he just want to write a good story and deepen the Vulture’s character? Now practically speaking, it doesn’t really matter because we ended up with a great story, regardless of motive. But if the genesis of this story did start with continuity concerns, it would be cause (at least in my view) for worry.

The following issue picks up thread from left from Stern’s Spectacular run, as Pete’s new campus buddy, Greg Salinger, turns out to be the Foolkiller of Man-Thing and Omega fame. Yet another fresh antagonist for Spider-Man from Stern, continuing the formula he had used throughout his Spectacular days. It’s a one-issue story (that could have easily been stretched across two or even three issues) that’s mostly plot focused, but even here we get good character moments, particularly the end, when Peter is hoping against hope that the Foolkiller isn’t Greg when he unmasks him.

“But the Cat Came Back . . .”

Next up is the Black Cat in ASM 226–227 (Mar.-Apr. 1982), returning after previously being portrayed as mentally unbalanced in issue #205 (Jun. 1980). Stern immediately reveals that she is perfectly sane and was just pretending otherwise to avoid confinement in a high-security prison. After her escape, Felicia gets right back to burglary and starts wondering what Spider-Man might be up to. This storyline was a more realistic look at the romantic possibilities between Spidey and the Black Cat, with a number of strong character beats. My favorite comes right in the middle of this issue, when we see both Peter and Felicia try their hands at flirtatious interactions with others in a laundry room. Peter is awkward and uncertain while Felicia is confident and secure.

When they finally do meet face to face again, Felicia expresses her romantic interest in him and even offers to go straight. This is followed by a conversation about getting “kicks” as a costumed super-type. Spidey wants her to turn herself in but she refuses and runs off—but she does leave behind a “peace offering” of a valuable (and stolen) painting that she had recently boosted from a maggia crime boss. The issue ends with Spidey and the Cat crashing a party held by this same crime boss and closes on them kissing under the full moon. When I saw the next issue blurb declaring “Goin’ Straight,” my adolescent, Spidey-Cat ’shipping heart bubbled over.

The issue was a fantasy of what a Spidey-Cat relationship could be. The following issue, #227 (Apr. 1982), was like the counterpoint of what the relationship would be. Despite the “Goin’ Straight!” title, we see that going straight is not a viable option for Felicia, and even before this becomes clear, we see Spidey wrestling with doubts. After a conversation with NYPD Captain Jean DeWolff (who had just made her first appearance in Amazing the prior issue, almost six years after her debut in Marvel Team-Up), Spidey observes via inner monologue that, “Maybe she [the Black Cat] doesn’t care for me . . . at least not as much as she claims! She did seem to come on to me pretty strongly!” Then the monologue takes a very surprising (for me, at least) turn.

In all of the Spider-Man discussions in which Roger Stern has participated (that I’ve read, which I’m pretty sure is most, if not all, of them), I do not recall him ever discussing Gwen Stacy, nor did I recall him dropping Gwen’s name in any of his Spider-Man stories. (I’ve heard him mention the Gwen clone once or twice in places, but never the true OG Gwen.) I previously interpreted this silence as meaning that Stern might not like the Gwen Stacy character and/or did not believe she should be treated as a character of much (if any) consequence. Ergo, much as it was with O’Neil, I was very pleasantly surprised to see Gwen get the service she received here.

Getting back to ASM #227, Spidey arrives at Felicia’s place and discovers she’s come up with a plan regarding their future: the theft of a very expensive work of art that would serves as their “nest egg.” Spidey reacts angrily, telling her she’s “crazy” if she thinks he’d let her steal anything ever again. She quickly apologizes and he leaves shortly thereafter. Peter gets through his day rather happily, but when he tries to reconnect with the Cat that night, he discovers she’s out trying to burglarize that work of art from the gangster who currently possesses it. This ends the relationship, and as Spidey’s trying to catch her at story’s end, Black Cat ends up taking a tumble off the pier. Afterward, Jean DeWolff shows up with some paperwork from District Attorney Tower offering the Cat conditional amnesty. After she walks away, a depressed Spidey tosses the papers into the sea.

I first bought and read this right around Christmastime 1981 (along with Daredevil #181). At the time, it broke my heart, but as an adult, I recognize that this was the only way the story could end. Again, Stern’s characterizations were flawless. In a 2004 interview with Tom DeFalco, Stern revealed his vision for the Black Cat:

When I first started writing her [the Black Cat], I was reading a lot of Will Eisner stories. I saw the Black Cat as the closest Peter Parker would ever get to an Eisner babe. I wanted her to become the mysterious, roguish woman in Spider-Man’s past who would occasionally appear to screw up his life and then disappear again. There’d be an attraction between them, but Spider-Man would keep going, “Wait a minute! You can’t go around robbing people! I can’t let you do that!” And she’d go, “Oh, but we could be having so much fun if you weren’t so uptight! How about if I only stole from really bad people?” And he’d go, “NO, you’re missing my point!” [Roger Stern, Comics Creators on Spider-Man, ed. Tom DeFalco, 2004, p. 112.]

One other notable thing about this storyline: In the Cat’s prior appearances, Spidey would sometimes run into some bad luck when pursuing her. Here, Stern made a point of showing that these bad luck incidents were set up by the Black Cat in advance, lest anyone get the idea that she had some kind of superpowers. Stern was trying to keep Felicia a more realistic character, as opposed to a superhuman with mutant or magical powers. Which I can understand in as much as Spider-Man works best in a more real-world setting, but I don’t think this was some huge mistake that required “fixing.” It’s much like the situation with the Tinkerer and the aliens that Stern tried to “fix” back in Spectacular Spider-Man #51 (Feb. 1981). This approach to writing is concerning. You don’t want your story to get caught up in continuity concerns or “fixing” things because you risk compromising story quality if and/or when you take it too far.

And in the case of the Black Cat, specifically, I think this would have been better left alone; allow the Cat to have some mystery to her. Maybe there’s a logical and realistic explanation for these bad luck incidents and maybe there isn’t, but the audience doesn’t have to know one way or the other. Now I don’t think story quality was at all compromised in this case, but such an approach to writing is still worrisome to me.

The follow up to the Black Cat soap opera in ASM #228 (May 1982) was a mediocre (at best) fill-in titled “Murder by Spider!” I blogged about this one back in 2022 and don’t have anything to add to it.

Just a month later however, the quality level would zoom back up to perfect-ten levels.

“Nothing Can Stop the Juggernaut!”

“Nothing Can Stop the Juggernaut!” from Amazing Spider-Man #229 (Jun. 1982) is one of the best stories of this era and one of the best Spider-Man stories ever. Probably one of the best superhero-comic stories ever. The highest compliment I can pay it is that it evokes the classic Ditko tale from Amazing #33 (Feb. 1966), “The Final Chapter!”

It begins with the Juggernaut’s partner in crime, Black Tom Cassidy, deciding that he can make use of the psychic powers of Madame Web, so he directs Juggy to kidnap her. Being a psychic, Madame Web naturally foresees this and puts Spider-Man on notice that she’s going to need his help. Madame Web cannot identify the Juggernaut in her psychic vision, seeing him as just a massive, shadowy monster.

The plot here is compelling as hell—because how is Spider-Man, alone, supposed to stop a foe that is defined by his being unstoppable? Yet the story is more than just plot; we also get plenty of character service here too, not just for Spidey, but for the Juggernaut as well. There are several moments throughout this two-issue storyline where Stern shows us what the world looks like from Juggy’s point of view and it’s fascinating. When he feels like going somewhere, he just starts walking, without having to worry about any obstacles or even the environment. For example, when Juggy finds himself bored waiting for his ship to dock, he just jumps off into the ocean, sinks to the bottom, and starts walking to shore.

After emerging from the sea and entering Battery Park, Juggernaut reflects on his childhood and how different he is now. Emerging from the park he walks right into traffic, tossing aside cars and smashing in trucks, and walking right through building walls like they’re paper. This leaves a pretty easy trail for Spider-Man to follow. When he catches up to him, Spidey makes every reasonable effort to stop him, without success.

Realizing Juggy is far above his weight class, Spider-Man advises Madame Web to contact the Avengers, the Fantastic Four, even the police. The super teams are unavailable and the police prove no more effective than Spidey. When Juggy arrives at Web’s abode, Spidey tries rigging the steel door to give off a huge electric jolt, which proves barely an annoyance to the Juggernaut. Finally, when Juggy lifts Madame Web out of her chair, she collapses, as her chair is essentially her life-support system. Juggy casually leaves while Spidey has to keep Web alive with CPR until the EMTs arrive. He succeeds in this effort, but still feels he failed to protect her.

“The lady asked me for help and I failed her—just like I failed Uncle Ben . . . and Captain Stacy . . . and Gwen! They all died because of me . . . because I screwed up! Maybe it was impossible to save Madame Web . . . but impossible or not, that doesn’t let me off the hook! She may be dying right now and it’s my fault! Well, I’m not going to let Juggernaut get away with this. I’m going to find a way to stop that ‘unstoppable’ human tank—or die trying!”

Also of note in this issue, Betty Brant-Leeds returns to the series for the first time since ASM #197 (Oct. 1979), a gap of more than two and a half years. After showing up at the Bugle offices looking for work, she reveals she’s still with Ned and that they’re working on their marriage through counseling. Welcome back, Betty.

“To Fight the Unbeatable Foe!”

ASM #230 (Jul. 1982) opens with Spidey in hot pursuit of the Juggernaut. When he catches up to him, he uses his webbing to create a giant sling shot to shoot steel girders at him. This doesn’t accomplish much of anything beyond annoying the Juggernaut. Then Juggy follows Spidey into a demolition site where he tears down the building Spidey was standing on. Spidey then throws a three-ton wrecking ball at him which he swats aside. Then another building collapse swallows up both of them. By the time Spidey digs himself out, Juggy is already gone again.

Spidey then catches up to him again, this time running a Roxxon gasoline truck into him, but even this doesn’t stop the Juggernaut. Desperate, Spidey jumps on his back and tries ripping his helmet off in the hopes of this accomplishing something. But Juggy reveals he welded the helmet on with a laser torch. More desperate than ever, Spidey resorts to covering up his eyes so he can’t see. As clear a mismatch as this is, Spider-Man will not stop trying, evoking his sense of “responsibility” once more, which is why this story is so very reminiscent of the classic ASM #33. There is simply no quit in him.

Spidey leaps free as the Juggernaut slowly sinks into the still-wet foundation. Juggy’s fate after sinking would remain unclear until he popped up again in the X-Men comic a couple years later. But for the moment, Spidey can chalk this one up as a victory. He even picks up a win as Peter Parker here, as he discovers his belt camera has been running and now he’s got shots that he can sell to the Bugle. And most importantly, though injured and possibly suffering amnesia and a loss of her psychic powers, Madame Web is still alive.

Great issue; even greater storyline. On the non-superhero side of things, we also got to check in with Betty again this issue, along with Gloria Grant, and were introduced to Lance Bannon’s tempestuous girlfriend, Amy Powell. She’ll play a role in a future subplot a ways down the line.

Fun Fact: Nearly thirty years and about 400 issues later, Roger Stern would give us a Juggernaut sequel with “Something Can Stop the Juggernaut!”, a three-part storyline running from Amazing 627-629 (May-Jul. 2010) that ropes a new version of Captain Universe into the proceedings.

The Brand Corporation

From here, we begin a half-year stretch of issues where we resolve a few old plots while weaving subplots up into main plots. ASM #231 (Aug. 1982) sees the return of the Cobra, with his former partner, Mr. Hyde, showing up in the issue to follow, #232 (Sept. 1982). At the same time, Stern picks up a plot thread involving the Brand Corporation left over from Spectacular Spider-Man #57 (Aug. 1981). A minor thug named Nose Norton will become mixed up in this Brand business, along with a returning Ned Leeds and Marla Madison. Roger Hochberg and other members of the ESU Science Department also make appearances across the Cobra-Hyde issues.

A whopping four-parter kicks off in ASM #233 (Oct. 1982) with the Brand Corporation hiring the Tarantula to knock off Nose Norton. This storyline will eventually involve Will-O’-The-Wisp, along with Bugle reporters Ned Leeds and Ben Urich. This, in turn, eventually leads to learning Will-O’s origin, his history with Brand, the Tarantula being transformed into a giant spider-monster (just before dying), and Brand finally getting taken down (though their parent company, Roxxon Oil, was still around to cause some headaches).

Amazing #237 (Feb. 1983) then offers a good, one-issue story pitting Spidey against the Stilt-Man. Plotted by Stern, scripted by Bill Mantlo, and guest penciled by Bob Hall with finishes by Frank Giacoia, this was another fine story.

All of which brings us to the next big issue of the Roger Stern Era.

“Shadow of Evils Past”

“Shadow of Evils Past” in Amazing Spider-Man #238 (Mar. 1983) features the debut of the Hobgoblin and begins with Peter spending some time with his aunt and her then-new fiancée, Nathan Lubensky. While Peter is out walking with Aunt May and Nathan, his spider-sense saves them from being hit by a speeding car. After a pursuing police car stops to check on them, they learn that the car was full of bank robbers, and Peter is off to change into Spidey. He catches up to the bank robbers and crashes their car near an Osborn warehouse, capturing three of them, but a fourth escapes down a sewer hole. This fourth robber, named George Hill, then stumbles across an old, underground hideout of the Green Goblin, containing a cache of his weapons, tools, and costume, attached to the warehouse.

Later, Hill will show the hideout to a mystery man. Under the direction of this mystery man, Hill loads everything that can be moved from the hideout into a van, after which the mystery man sets fire to the place. After having Hill move everything to a South Bronx location, our mystery man blows him up in his van, leaving no one else in the world who knows who he is, what he’s done, or what he might be up to. The issue ends with the mystery man making adjustments to the Goblin’s old equipment and costume before dramatically emerging as the Hobgoblin.

As if the first appearance of the Hobgoblin wasn’t enough, this issue also has our regular team of Stern and Romita Jr. joined by John Romita Sr. Nearly seventeen years and 199 issues earlier, Romita Sr. had gotten his start on Spider-Man by wrapping up the original Green Goblin mystery. Now, here he was helping kick off a fresh mystery involving another Goblin character. It appears that Junior did the pencil breakdowns and Senior finished and inked them, but the division of labor is difficult to reckon, as father and son are credited together as simply “artists.” I think that Romita Sr., as was his habit when working on Amazing Spider-Man, likely did some modifying and re-drawing here before the finished inks. The results were marvelous (pun intended) and my only complaint would be that father and son didn’t collaborate on Spidey more often. This was a literally perfect art job to my eyes, both then and now.

One thing I didn’t like here that we got right on page one: Aunt May is turning the Parker home into a boarding house for senior citizens. The Parker family was working class, if not downright poor, thus their home had to be a modest-sized, one-family, right? While I never did a formal head count, I believe Aunt May took in about a half-dozen boarders—and there’s no way she could have squeezed so many people into a modest-sized home with herself. Now this isn’t that big a deal because it’s not like the boarding house was ever a major part of the running narrative in any of Spidey’s titles, but it was an annoying little distraction for me, personally.

Also of note, Mary Jane appears for the first time in three years. It’s a minor appearance, mostly in the background while her Aunt Anna talks to Aunt May on the phone, but at the time, it was great to see her again after so long. Even though I was rooting for a romance with the Black Cat at this point, I had previously been a Pete-MJ ’shipper and was still fond of Mary Jane. Modern readers are likely shocked that Mary Jane could ever disappear from Spider-Man comics for such a length of time.

One final, notable bit of minutiae: Back at the Parker home after their near-miss with the car, after Nathan says that May is “worryin’ just to make her head spin,” she thinks to herself, “That’s all well and good for you to say, Nathan Lubensky! You never lost a child like I . . .” This thought is then interrupted by the ringing phone. Stern wouldn’t resolve this dangling thread until 2009, more than a quarter-century later, when we learn that May could not have children of her own after losing a baby she had conceived with Ben early in their marriage.

“Now Strikes the Hobgoblin!”

“Now Strikes the Hobgoblin!” from Amazing #239 (Apr. 1983), opens with the Hobgoblin hitting an Osborn plant in New Jersey, looking for more hidden Goblin equipment. Then we get scenes of the Hobgoblin with his true face obscured by shadow, plotting and planning. Then we cut to Spidey at the hospital at the bedside of Felicia Hardy/The Black Cat, after injuries she suffered over in the pages of Spectacular. After Jean DeWolff shoos him home to get some rest, Spidey decides to check in on Madame Web. She claims to have lost some of her memory and all of her psychic powers, but then Stern drops a hint that this may not truly be the case. We check in on Lance Bannon and Amy Powell, and then Peter gets some much-needed sleep before getting back on the trail on the guy who’s been looting the Green Goblin’s old hideouts. Checking out the Green Goblin’s old lair in the back of that theater from ASM #96 (May, 1971), Spidey crosses paths with the Hobgoblin for the first time.

The two battle, with their conflict eventually spilling out into the streets. Spidey has a pretty good handle on the rookie villain and brings down his glider without too much trouble. Hobgoblin only manages to escape capture by using his sparkle blast on a gas main. This was some fun and exciting stuff and the future, at this point, was looking very bright for The Amazing Spider-Man.

Genesis of the Hobgoblin

The origins of the Hobgoblin can be traced back to the mail Marvel was receiving from its readers at the time. As Stern explained it in 2009:

Most of the mail asked for the return of the Green Goblin, who at the time was dead. There had been other guys who wore the costume, but I called them “fake Goblins.” One was Harry Osborn, who wasn’t really the Green Goblin—he had a psychotic episode and thought he was the Green Goblin.

And the other was Harry’s crazy psychiatrist, Bart Hamilton. These two guys weren’t really the Green Goblin because neither of them was super-strong—how did they avoid horrible groin pulls while they were flying around Manhattan straddling a jet engine?

Hamilton was dead, Norman was dead, Harry I liked—I didn’t want to put him through this crap again. He had grown into a really good friend for Peter. And I was not into bringing dead guys back and it never occurred to me to bring Norman back. I was more interested in bringing in some new characters, particularly a new, really strong villainous character. I decided to meet the fans halfway—I would come up with a new character who had stolen the Goblin’s equipment and part of his schtick, but he would be a very different character.

The one thing that would be similar to the Green Goblin was that no one would know who he was. [“Pro2Pro Roundtable: When Hobby Met Spidey: A History of the Hobgoblin,” Back Issue #35, August 2009, p. 11.]

More than ten years after this, Stern would reveal:

At first, it was a mystery even for me. When I plotted this issue, I hadn’t yet determined who he [the Hobgoblin] was going to be. It wasn’t until I wrote the dialogue for the final pages of the story that I suddenly knew the identity of the man behind the Hobgoblin’s mask. And then . . . I kept it secret. I knew that if I told anyone the Hobgoblin’s true identity, it was bound to leak out. For the next year, I kept completely mum. I didn’t tell my editor. I didn’t tell my artist. I didn’t even tell my wife. And so, the mystery grew. [Roger Stern, “Introduction,” Marvel Masterworks: The Amazing Spider-Man, vol. 23, 2021, p. ii.]

“Wings of Vengeance!”

When I covered Stern’s tenure on Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man in my previous “shark” installment, I mentioned how I enjoyed the way he would start a plot thread and then put it down for a while before picking it back up. I found this felt more organic, more like real life, where not everything proceeds in perfectly straight lines. He returns to this approach here, temporarily putting the Hobgoblin aside and picking up the Vulture again for a two-parter that ran across ASM 240-241 (May-Jun. 1983).

Looking over the out-of-town newspapers at a newsstand somewhere in the Southwest, Adrian Toomes picks up a copy of the Daily Bugle. After taking it home and reading it, he discovers an advertisement for Bestman Electronics, which sets him off. He immediately calls a travel agent to book a flight on the next plane to New York City.

Back at Pete’s pad, he awakes from a vivid nightmare starring the Black Cat and all the supervillains he’s recently faced. Realizing he’s already slept through most of the morning, he decides to clear his head with a little web-swinging out to Queens, where he can check up on Aunt May. While he’s out, Amy Powell stops by his place, keeping that subplot simmering. Meanwhile, Toomes has already landed at Newark Airport, changed into the Vulture, and is flying over New York on his way to a tech expo, where he plans to lay waste to the Bestman exhibit.

After seeing the news of the Vulture at the expo on television, Pete disappears from his aunt’s house, thinking to himself as he changes into his Spidey costume, “I’d nearly put the Vulture out of my mind. He got away from me last time . . . If he harms anyone, it’ll be my fault . . . my responsibility!” Once again, Stern adds character service to Pete/Spidey in almost every issue he writes, in addition to offering some degree of service to nearly every other character in almost every issue as well.

Putting the expo on lockdown to keep the police out, the Vulture demands that Gregory Bestman surrender to him. But Spidey manages to slip inside to confront his old enemy. They tussle, with the Vulture able to keep the webhead at bay with the some of the expo displays (which happen to include some munitions). Eventually, he spies Bestman, swoops down on him, and carries him off. Spidey tries to stop him but winds up taking a bad fall, allowing the Vulture to escape with Bestman in the issue-ending cliffhanger.

We pick up ASM #241 with Spider-Man regaining consciousness shortly after the police bust in. He immediately resumes his pursuit of the Vulture, promising the police that he will bring him in, eventually catching a ride on a police helicopter.

From here, the scene briefly shifts to Penn Station, we see Anna Watson and Mary Jane have just returned to New York City from Florida.

The Vulture, with Bestman in tow, is eventually spotted near the Hudson River, where police copters have caught sight of him. The cops suspect he’s headed for the Jersey side of the river, but the tracer Spidey planted on Vulch earlier tells him otherwise. Our webslinger ditches the copter via web parachute and tracks his quarry to an old silo in a small forested area on Staten Island.

In the silo, which is the Vulture’s original hideout, as first shown in Amazing Spider-Man #7 (Dec. 1963), Vulch ties Bestman to a chair and Spidey arrives just in time to hear the Vulture interrogate him. From his very first appearance in Amazing #2 (May 1963), we have always known that the Vulture’s flying power is tech based, but here, twenty-plus years later, Spidey and the readers finally learn the Vulture’s full backstory and origin.

Turns out Bestman is an old business associate of Adrian Toomes—a partner, actually, that had screwed him over. This happened right around the time Toomes had completed work on an electromagnetic harness that he would later turn into his wings. Toomes would then use those wings to make himself the Vulture and wreck Bestman’s properties, ruining his business. Now, after Bestman has put himself back in business again, it seems the Vulture is ready to put an end to Bestman permanently. Spidey steps in to stop him, but Vulch grabs Bestman, makes a break for it, and then drops Bestman from the sky. Spidey saves him with his webbing, then captures the Vulture as well. The issue ends with Amy Powell finally catching up to Peter and getting him to agree to have coffee with her (and Lance Bannon in the shadows watching them walk off together).

Yet again, it’s all about character. The Vulture had been a fairly-generic villain before Roger Stern came along, but put together this two-parter with issue #224, he’s become a character with real depth. When he’s talking about how Bestman did him dirt when they were partners in B&T Electronics, you really start to sympathize with him. At the same time, after Peter’s “responsibility” monologue, you completely get why Peter is determined to bring him in. You care about both characters. Excellent work by Stern.

Confrontations and Options

I feel it’s well established at this point that Stern, as a writer, liked putting things down and then picking them back up later, be it characters, plots, or subplots. And I liked this approach. But at the same time, you knew he had to get back to the Hobgoblin fairly soon, as this was the hottest thing happening in the title at the time. Nonetheless, Stern’s not getting back to Hobby just yet—instead, he’s going to shift the focus to Peter Parker for a couple of issues.

In “Confrontations!” from ASM #242 (Jul. 1983), Stern juggles Pete’s issues with grad school, his finances, Black Cat’s recovery from her injuries, and now you can add Lance Bannon to the list, as he wants to have a long talk with Pete about Amy Powell. Also, though Pete doesn’t know it, Mary Jane is back in town and looking for him. The Spidey plot is more in the background this ish, but that doesn’t mean there’s any sacrifice in action quality as J.R. Jr. goes full Kirby on the fight sequences with the Mad Thinker’s android:

The issue ends with some of the Pete threads getting woven together as Amy Powell surprisingly shows up at Pete’s apartment and throws herself at him. This revelry is interrupted by the arrival of Mary Jane, who stands in the doorway in the last panel, evoking her original arrival to Spider-Man comics in ASM #42 (Nov. 1966).

“Options!” from ASM #243 (Aug. 1983), picks up right where the previous issue left off, with Amy’s arms over Pete’s shoulders, Pete’s face covered in Amy’s lipstick, and Mary Jane looking on, bemused. Then Lance Bannon shows up and Amy leaves—they’ll sort through their problems later in the issue, but for now, Pete and MJ finally get the chance to catch up. After this, Spidey visits Curt Connors at ESU to get a fragment of the Mad Thinker’s android analyzed. While there, he learns that Peter Parker got an A on his final exam.

The last few pages show Pete doing a lot of ruminating. After checking in at the Bugle and then stopping off at the hospital as Spidey to visit Felicia, he comes to a decision. The following morning, he announces that he’s leaving the graduate program and quitting school. This felt like a major mistake when I first read it as a kid, and maybe it was, but looking back at it now, I think it was Stern’s intention that Pete leaving ESU was just a temporary circumstance; that he’d return to grad school eventually.

The superhero action this ish consists of four pages of Spider-Man disposing of some regular ol’ human terrorists that have taken hostages in a church. Stern had originally planned for the Hobgoblin to return here, but as so often happens with writers, there are times when the characters dictate the story, effectively writing themselves. As Stern described it:

I originally planned for the Hobgoblin to return this issue [#243], but . . . well, remember how I said that plotting these stories was an organic process? Between the personal travails of Peter and Mary Jane, Lance Bannon and Amy Powell, and Spider-Man and the Black Cat, there just wasn’t any room for a super villain in this issue. Any Spider-Man story is, at its heart, a Peter Parker story, and sometimes, Pete’s personal life just takes over. [Roger Stern, “Introduction,” Marvel Masterworks: The Amazing Spider-Man, vol. 23, 2021, p. iii.]

“Any Spider-Man story is, at its heart, a Peter Parker story.” Another Stern quote that should be chiseled onto the tablets of the Spider-Man commandments.

Hello Again, Hobgoblin

So the Hobgoblin return got bumped back to ASM #244 (Sept. 1983) in a story titled “Ordeals!” You may have noticed that many of Stern’s recent titles were just one word, a trend that continues here. Stern would later explain: “Frank [Miller] was just wrapping up his first run on Daredevil. He had used one-word titles for much of that now-legendary run, so I decided to come up with a “punchy” title of my own [for issue #242]. In fact, I wound up giving one-word titles to many of the remaining stories in [my ASM run]. [Roger Stern, “Introduction,” Marvel Masterworks: The Amazing Spider-Man, vol. 23, 2021, p. iii.]

Though the cover makes it clear that the Hobgoblin is returning, the issue starts with more of Pete’s personal dealings. He visits Felicia in the hospital as Spidey before getting back to ESU as Peter to fill out some paperwork. Meanwhile, MJ catches up with Harry and Liz over lunch before the Osborns learn that Osborn Industries has been hit yet again—the Hobgoblin has (sort of) returned. Shortly afterward, he appears to hit another Osborn chemical warehouse, and after Spidey captures some of Hobby’s henchmen, they point the finger at a small-time crook known as Lefty Donovan.

Picking things up in Amazing #245 (Oct. 1983), Spidey thinks he knows the Hobgoblin’s identity now, but readers learn that Lefty Donovan is just a patsy for the real Hobgoblin, whoever he may truly be. In fact, he’s not just a patsy for playing the Hobgoblin, he also serves as a guinea pig in re-creating the original chemical accident that turned Norman Osborn into the Green Goblin, complete with super strength. This re-created accident briefly puts Lefty in the hospital and, upon his escape, he puts on a Hobgoblin costume and challenges Spider-Man to fight him. During this battle, Lefty demonstrates a Green Goblin level of strength, proving the re-created chemical accident was a success. Once Spidey has him beat, however, the real Hobgoblin kills him via remote control of his glider.

On the Pete side of the ledger for this issue, Betty Brant Leeds tries to play matchmaker for Pete and MJ by getting them to go out to lunch with herself and her husband, Ned. Also at this time, Spider-Man would guest star in Avengers 236–237 (Oct.-Nov. 1983). The story (written by Roger Stern, who was the regular Avengers writer at the time) involved Spidey tagging along with the team to Project Pegasus, where the group would wind up fighting the Lava Men, Blackout, Electro, Moonstone, and the Rhino. Not very consequential in Spider-Man terms, but a fun little two-issue ride.

“The Daydreamers!”

“The Daydreamers!” from ASM #246 (Nov. 1983) is Stern’s greatest achievement as far as a characterization-centered tale, as he takes several characters in this one issue and explores them more deeply via their dreams. This kind of plot—one centered on the dreams and fantasies of different characters in a cast—was something of a formula plot for television shows back in the 70s and 80s. (Though no TV program did dream sequences better than David Chase’s The Sopranos in the first decade of the 2000s.) In fact, two of my all-time favorite sitcoms (perhaps number one and number two on my personal top ten list) did this.

The first was Taxi in “Fantasy Borough,” parts 1 & 2, the twenty-third and twenty-fourth episodes of their second season. After Tony picks up Hervé Villechaize (of Fantasy Island fame) as a fare, everyone at the garage is inspired to share their fantasies with each other. Then, a little less than a year later, WKRP in Cincinnati gave us “Daydreams,” the tenth episode of its third season. Here, everyone at the radio station starts daydreaming as they listen to a boring speech from station manager, Arthur Carlson. What makes this plot formula so great is that it’s a wonderful way to explore and deepen characterizations. Stern described the development of the issue thusly:

The idea behind “The Daydreamers!” was several months in the making. I’d long wanted to bring Mary Jane’s past to light, to get to the heart of who she is and what makes her tick. I had reread all of MJ’s past appearances—researching everything known about her—and it had become clear that we really knew very little about her background, other than that she loved to party and never got involved in lasting relationships. Slowly, but surely, in discussions with my wife Carmela, I assembled an outline of what MJ’s early life must have been like. With this issue, J.R. and I started to tell her story.

As I approached this issue, I also had in mind an image of the Black Cat—bored out of her mind—but I wasn’t sure where to go from there. I wanted something more than just the Spider-Man connection to link the two women’s stories together. Then, a thought occurred to me—“What would any of these people daydream about?”—and suddenly, everything just came together. [Roger Stern, “Introduction,” Marvel Masterworks: The Amazing Spider-Man, vol. 23, 2021, p. iii.]

I’m not going to do a full breakdown of the story here because Elving’s Musings has already done a more thorough job than I could ever dream of doing, which you can read for yourself here.

Fun Fact: I had a letter published this issue positing a whole bunch of possibilities for the Hobgoblin’s true identity. Not only was it the first letter that I had published in Amazing Spider-Man, it was the first letter I had published in any comic book, and technically the first time I had my writing published anywhere. In hindsight, I wish I could have written something of a bit more substance for my publishing debut!


Amazing #247, “Interruptions,” starts with Spidey visiting Nose Norton looking for information on the Hobgoblin. Norton knows nothing about the Hobgoblin, but Spidey still plants a tracer in his hat, just to be safe.

Then Pete meets up with his Aunt May and Anna Watson for a meal out and discovers that they too, are playing matchmakers between himself and MJ, who arrives later, pushing Nathan Lubensky in his wheelchair. After they’ve finished eating, in a brief moment to themselves, Aunt May will tell Peter that he and Mary Jane “have more in common than you might think, Peter. You’ve both lost so . . . so very much.”

Roger Stern has always maintained that he thinks Peter Parker works better as a single guy and strongly disagreed with marrying him off to Mary Jane (a sentiment I whole-heartedly agree with, natch). But I’ve got to say, the way he was writing her in this stretch of issues, it certainly feels like he was, at the very least, building toward a romantic reunion for the two characters, if not presenting them as soulmates.

Picking up the trail of Nose Norton as Spidey, our webhead finds him dropping something off to a group of criminals and getting a payoff. He tries to capture these thugs and their leader before they can pull off the armored car robbery they appear to have planned, but then Frog Man—a comedic character introduced by J.M. DeMatteis in the pages of Team-Up—barges in and louses everything up. Spidey later tries catching up to them before they can pull off the armored car job, but the unreliability of the Long Island Railroad gets in his way. By the time Spidey catches up to the gang, their leader has revealed himself as Thunderball of the Wrecking Crew, with the Wrecker’s mystical crowbar in addition to his own ball and chain.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention that this issue features another artistic collaboration between the Romitas and once again, it is just oh-so beautiful. There’s just something so right about this father-and-son team working together on Spider-Man; it fills my heart with absolute joy.

This Thunderball plot would get wrapped up in the opening half of the following issue, when Spidey connects both the crowbar and the ball chain to an electrical substation transformer. This not only KOs the villain, it strips him of his super strength. This doesn’t spare Spidey the wrath of commuters, however, who are enraged at the traffic jam his battle with Thunderball has created.

This was a fun story with another fresh villain for Spidey to face, but the story in the second half of this issue is what this particular comic book is best remembered for.

“The Kid Who Collects Spider-Man”

The second story in Amazing Spider-Man #248 (Jan. 1984) is “The Kid Who Collects Spider-Man” by Roger Stern, Ron Frenz, and Terry Austin. As Stern remembered it:

Several months earlier, I had awoken from a dream about a kid who was Spider-Man’s biggest fan. The story was all there in my head, just waiting to be written. It was so complete that I was afraid that I was half-remembering something that I’d read as a boy, that my subconscious had just substituted Spider-Man for the hero of that story. I spent the next few days quizzing other writers I knew, to see if they remembered it. But none of them did. Somehow, I had plotted the story in my sleep. So, I ran it by Tom for his opinion. I cautioned him that it was a short story—no more than ten or eleven pages, tops. Tom liked it, and decided that we’d fit it in somewhere, possibly in an Annual. [Roger Stern, “Introduction,” Marvel Masterworks: The Amazing Spider-Man, vol. 23, 2021, p. iv.]

Of course, it wasn’t used in an annual, it saw print in this issue as a part of the “Assistant Editors’ Month” event. However, unlike most of the other comics Marvel published this month, this story was not silly or goofy fun, it was quite serious. It shows Spidey visiting a nine-year-old boy named Tim Harrison. Tim is a big Spider-Man fan who has collected almost every news article ever written about Spider-Man, along with other Spidey-related fare. Tim shares it all with Spidey, while Spider-Man shares a shocking amount of information about himself with Tim, including getting his powers from a radioactive spider and taking off his gloves to show him his web shooters. Then the most startling twist of all comes near the end of the story when Tim asks him if he’ll reveal who he really is. And Spider-Man does so, taking off his mask and telling him his name is Peter Parker. On the last page it’s revealed that Tim is in the Slocum Brewer Cancer Clinic with Leukemia and has only weeks left to live.

This could be read as a touching story, and I certainly found it to be such at the time, but my (admittedly cynical) adult self finds the sentiment heavy handed and more of a formulaic cliché today. Its intentions were noble enough, but I wouldn’t call this one of the greatest Spider-Man stories of all time, nor would I consider it the height of this era. The Juggernaut two-parter, the Vulture issues, and “The Daydreamers!” were all superior, in my mind.


“Secrets!” from Amazing Spider-Man #249 (Feb. 1984) features the (real) Hobgoblin’s return to the pages of ASM after successfully gaining Goblin strength in Spectacular #85 (Dec. 1983). The “secrets” the title alludes to are part of the Hobgoblin’s latest scheme: blackmail.

Harry and Liz are having a party to celebrate Liz’s pregnancy when Harry gets a package with no return address. Inside the package are photocopies of pages from Norman Osborn’s secret journals revealing that he was the Green Goblin, along with an invitation to the “Century Club” the following afternoon. Now the text doesn’t come right out and say it, but I’m pretty sure the Century Club is the formal name for what I have referred to as “Jameson’s fancy-schmancy rich boy’s club” from back in the Silver Age.

Harry confesses all of this to Pete when they’re speaking alone, and Pete offers him full support; he even accompanies Harry to the Century Club (though he’s not allowed into the “Booker Room,” where Harry is supposed to meet his blackmailer). Pete is a little shaken by the presence of Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin, but there are even more surprises when Harry learns he’s not the only one being blackmailed. Among his fellow victims waiting in the Booker Room are J. Jonah Jameson and Roderick Kingsley.

Then the Hobgoblin appears, though it’s really just a robot, as revealed when Harry takes a poke at him and his head pops off. This is when the real Hobgoblin crashes through a window, followed by Spider-Man, who had been hiding in a ventilation shaft. Their fight spills out of the Booker Room and into the hall, where Hobby gets the better of Spidey and is about to finish him when the Kingpin intervenes, saving Spidey’s life. He also surreptitiously picks up a tracer that Spider-Man had dropped and tosses it onto Hobgoblin’s glider as he’s making his escape.

When Spidey comes to and questions why the Kingpin would help him, Fisk responds, “This Hobgoblin is a very capable man. In time, he might grow bold enough to interfere in my operations. I prefer to let you apprehend him. It’s simply good business.” This evokes The Godfather: “It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business.” The only thing missing, for me, would be one more thought balloon from the Kingpin adding, “I’m the one who gets to kill you Spider-Man. Not the Hobgoblin; not anyone else.”


With his spider-sense on the fritz thanks to some gas the Hobgoblin used on him the previous ish, Spidey can’t track his tracer as issue #250 (Mar. 1984) opens. So for the nonce, he changes back to Pete and meets up with Harry. While they’re talking, Harry plants the seed that the Hobgoblin could be a club member under that mask, which inspires Spidey to check out some of the members for clues. First, he talks to a financier named George Vandergill, then Roderick Kingsley, and eventually all of the men who were blackmail targets at the meeting. None of them are willing to talk. And the last guy on Spidey’s list is sure to be the most unsociable of all: J. Jonah Jameson.

When he arrives at Jameson’s Bugle office, Spidey discovers Jameson typing out a confession to financing the creation of the Scorpion. “So that’s the dirt Hobgoblin had on you!” Spidey exclaims when he sees the “I Created the Scorpion” headline for Jameson’s “editorial confession.” Spidey takes the paper from Jameson’s typewriter and crumples it, observing (correctly) that JJJ could never work as a newspaper editor again after such a confession. But after Spidey leaves, Jameson puts some fresh paper in the typewriter and resumes typing.

Spidey then digs up his original tracking receiver as we first saw in Amazing Spider-Man #11 (Apr. 1964) and uses it in place of his spider-sense to track down the Hobgoblin. They tussle, with the old Osborn journals apparently destroyed before a big explosion takes place. Meanwhile, Jameson is making arrangements for his confession to be published on page one of the Daily Bugle the next day. The Jameson character was certainly well served here.

This was the last issue with John Romita Jr.’s pencils and the last one Stern would write completely on his own. The two issues to come would feature Stern plots scripted by DeFalco (the new incoming writer) and Ron Frenz (the new incoming penciler) on pencils.


Firemen have arrived in the Warehouse District at the scene of the explosion as Amazing #251 (Apr. 1984) opens. Inside the burning but still-standing building, Hobby recovers from the explosion first and realizes the ceiling is likely to give at any moment, so he whacks Spidey on the melon and jumps into his battle van in an attempt to escape, but Spidey grabs on to the undercarriage. When Spidey climbs out onto the front of the van and cracks the windshield with his fist, Hobgoblin is stunned, as it was made from “a special, re-enforced, jet-age plastic.”

Hobgoblin then crashes through a bar in an attempt to shake Spider-Man loose, and briefly believes he’s succeeded, but then Spidey tears through the roof of the vehicle. As Spidey and Hobby are trading punches, Spidey’s spider-sense fully returns and he begins to get the better of his foe. But as they continue fighting, the van goes off a pier and into the Hudson River. Water begins to enter the van, which short circuits the vehicle’s computer system and begins a self-destruct sequence. The van explodes and only Spider-Man surfaces from the water. After catching his breath on a police boat, he dives back in to search for the Hobgoblin, but finds only an empty Hobgoblin mask floating away from the wreckage.

Spidey then visits Jameson to let him know that the Hobgoblin is out of commission and he no longer has to worry about being blackmailed. Jameson laughs before informing Spider-Man that he’s already published his confession in the latest Bugle and is stepping down as Editor-in-Chief, to be replaced by Joe Robertson. Jameson also reminds Spidey that he is still the owner and publisher of the Daily Bugle, so don’t expect the paper to start treating him with “kid gloves.”

Then Peter meets up with Harry to give him the Hobgoblin news. While Harry should be relieved, he still finds himself shaken by the revelations regarding his father and all of his crimes. Pete reassures him that all he can do from here is “live a good life—and try to make the world a better place.” Harry takes comfort in this and the two friends part company.

From here, Pete’s spider-sense leads him to change into Spidey in order to investigate Sheep’s Meadow in Central Park. There, he finds this giant, alien structure that is like “some sort of futuristic version of Stonehenge.” When he tries to investigate this structure, he is teleported away. When he reappears, he will be on Battleworld to begin the original Secret Wars.

Stern & Romita Have Left the Building

The end of the Roger Stern Era ripped my heart out when it happened. Making it even worse was that John Romita Jr. had also left. Stern and Romita were so great together on Spider-Man, I was distraught that they were gone and could not fathom how Marvel could ever let this happen. Years later, Stern explained how it had all went down.

It had became clear to me that [new ASM editor] Danny [Fingeroth] was traveling to the beat of a different drum as far as Spider-Man was concerned. He was a nice guy, but I could see us driving each other crazy if we continued working together.

Unsure of what to do, I called J.R. to get his advice. In the course of that call, John admitted that the X-Men was claiming more of his time than he’d expected, and he was thinking of leaving Spider-Man to get the mutants on schedule. With that in mind, we decided to leave Amazing together—in keeping with the rock band metaphor, “Nothing lasts forever but the earth and sky.” Of course, not even the earth and sky will last forever, but I digress . . . [Roger Stern, “Introduction,” Marvel Masterworks: The Amazing Spider-Man, Vol. 23, 2021, pp. iv-v.]

Okay, sure, nothing lasts forever, but couldn’t the Stern and Romita collaboration have gone on just a teeny bit longer? Like, how about one more year, twelve more issues and an annual, with Romita Sr. as the regular finisher on the art for every issue? This would have been a dream come true for me at the time.

While that art team will remain a dream forever, when I look back, knowing what I know now, I think maybe it was for the best that Stern left when he did.

Stern’s Hobgoblin Plans

When the storyline started, Stern had not intended for the Hobgoblin’s identity to be a mystery at all. “The original idea was that someone fleeing from a crime would stumble across one of Norman Osborn’s Goblin hideaways. It was [then] decided that it would be more effective to have someone else discover the cache and lead the future Hobgoblin to the spot.” [Steve Ringgenberg, “The Making of Hobgoblin,” Marvel Age #5, Aug. 1983, pp. 14–15.]

Hindsight being 20/20, I think everyone would have been better served going with the original idea, with readers knowing up front who the Hobgoblin was, seeing him discover one of Norman’s old hideouts, and thereby avoid the mystery angle altogether. First, you would further differentiate the Hobgoblin from the Green Goblin with such an approach, and second, a great mystery should begin with a great idea for who the Hobgoblin could be. Trying to come up with a solution for the Hobgoblin’s identity after you’ve already started is dangerous because . . . well, you risk getting what we ended up getting here.

The Hobgoblin mystery was the centerpiece of the Roger Stern Era of Amazing Spider-Man. Naturally, a mystery this big, that goes on this long, demands a satisfying reveal. Unfortunately, the reveal Stern had in mind would not have been remotely satisfying, as Stern’s Hobgoblin was originally intended to be revealed as Roderick Kingsley. Yes, for all those previously unaware, you read that right: Roderick Kingsley.

Prior to this, Roderick Kingsley took up just a little space in the Belladonna storyline in Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man a few years earlier and had done virtually nothing else (and nothing in the twenty years of Spidey comics before, obviously), so no longtime Spidey fan would have ever been satisfied with him being revealed as the Hobgoblin. Yet Roger Stern—the best Spidey writer since Stan Lee and the guy who, in my estimation, understood Spider-Man/Peter Parker better than absolutely anyone outside of Lee—decided Kingsley should be the Hobgoblin. How could Roger Stern, of all people, make such a terrible decision for a Spider-Man story? I can’t offer any definite answer, but I think I’ve got a good guess, and that guess is that Stern’s judgment here had been compromised by outside factors.

As mentioned in my previous “shark” post, there was a segment of comics fans that firmly believed that Roderick Kingsley, as originally portrayed in his earliest appearances, was a hurtful gay stereotype. Stern denied this in a (much) later interview with Tom DeFalco, stating:

When I first created [Kingsley], I described him as a cross between Rex Reed, who was this famous newspaper columnist and television personality at the time, and Jim Backus, who played Thurston Howell III on the old Gilligan’s Island television show. Kingsley was this guy who worked in the fashion industry that Spider-Man would have to rescue, but not want to because he was just so nasty. Mike Zeck read my description of Kingsley and drew him in some very effeminate poses. When the book came out, some readers complained because they thought we were making fun of gays in the fashion industry. Kingsley wasn’t gay; he was just a little effeminate. I knew plenty of guys like that, just like I knew gay men who were not effeminate. The next time I wrote Kingsley, I made it very plain that he wasn’t gay by putting some centerfold type on his arm. Typically, people wrote in complaining that she was only a “beard,” as in a disguise, and I wasn’t fooling anyone. For the last time, Kingsley was fey, but not gay. I’ve written a number of gay characters over the years, but he wasn’t one of them. [Roger Stern, Comics Creators on Spider-Man, ed. Tom DeFalco, New York: Titan Books, 2004, pp. 103-104.]

The scene of Kingsley with the “centerfold type” took place in Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man #57 (Aug. 1981). But as Stern just said, there were still people who saw (and would likely always see) any woman with Kingsley in a scene like this as nothing more than a beard. From his own words and their tone here, it appears clear that this situation bothered Stern—and was still bothering him as late as 2004, more than twenty years after the fact.

Which is why I believe it played a big part in Stern’s decision to make Kingsley the Hobgoblin. Kingsley’s portrayal when he was first introduced was so loudly denounced as an ugly stereotype that I think it quickly became a source of embarrassment and perhaps even shame to Stern. So when the opportunity came along to rehabilitate the character by turning him into a major supervillain, Stern took it.

In a Pro2Pro Roundtable interview in Back Issue in 2009, Stern said that “Kingsley started out as this sort of effete guy in the fashion industry. I beefed him up and made him more of a corporate raider who had taken over a cosmetics company and I established that he had a lot of other corporate holdings.” [“Pro2Pro Roundtable: When Hobby Met Spidey: A History of the Hobgoblin,” Back Issue #35, August 2009, p. 12.]

I have to question how well Kingsley was “beefed up,” as I never got such an impression, myself. The only time we ever even saw him between the Belladonna storyline and the first appearance of the Hobgoblin was the aforementioned scene in Spectacular #57. There was really nothing else done in the way of evolving the character or shaping him into a viable option to become the Hobgoblin.

Now I can’t read minds (just in case anyone out there thought I could). I can’t absolutely know what Roger Stern was thinking or what might have been behind his thought process here. Rehabbing Kingsley may not have even been a conscious thing in Stern’s mind; maybe that original backlash had been something eating at him on a more unconscious level, and this is how it manifested itself. In any case, it’s the only explanation I can even imagine for such a great writer (particularly a great Spider-Man writer; one of the greatest ever) making such an incredibly poor creative decision regarding Spider-Man.

Just think about it: a guy whose prior criminality began with stealing some fashion designs now somehow becomes the Hobgoblin? The same guy Spidey first observed as looking scrawny and weak, someone who would make the old “Puny Parker” look like “Hercules”—this guy becomes the Hobgoblin? Flying around on a rocket glider and throwing literal bombs at people? How ridiculous can you get? In addition to Kingsley’s literal slight stature, his figuratively slight stature in the larger history of the Spider-Man mythos should have easily and immediately eliminated him as a candidate to be the Hobgoblin from the beginning.

I will also point out that since we saw the Hobgoblin improve upon some of Norman’s old weapons and Goblin gimmicks, the Hobgoblin would also have to be someone possessing some degree of scientific brilliance. Roderick Kingsley was not a scientist and not brilliant. He had to steal ideas from other people with actual talent to make it in the fashion business. After all this, how were fans ever supposed to accept this guy as the Hobgoblin? The whole thing felt (and still feels) like madness to me.

Plus, there’s the cheating. In ASM #249, we saw Kingsley and the Hobgoblin appear together at that blackmail meeting in the Century Club, which should have instantly disqualified him as a suspect. But Stern gives Kingsley this one weird little thought balloon the following issue, #250: “Of all times for my brother to be out of town! If I ever needed him—!”

What fans didn’t know was that it was Stern’s intention that the guy who was at that meeting in #249 and having these thoughts in #250 was not the real Roderick Kingsley, but his lookalike brother, Daniel Kingsley. Not even a twin brother, just a brother who bore a strong resemblance to Roderick. Strong enough to fool literally everyone. But they’re not twins. This was also ridiculous, as well as one of the most shameless cheats I’ve ever seen or even heard of.

The craziest part is that this madness was originally stopped by Tom DeFalco, after he took over writing ASM and Stern revealed his plan to him, at which point DeFalco recognized that it was no good, particularly with all the cheating it required to make it work. But instead of getting a better, more viable candidate, we somehow ended up with Ned Leeds—and worse still, this would be revealed postmortem!—as the Hobgoblin. This was even worse than the original Kingsley-and-his-lookalike-brother resolution that Stern had in mind.

And then Stern returned ten years later with the three-issue series Hobgoblin Lives! and just retconned the Hobgoblin into Roderick Kingsley anyway.

This may have worked as far as Stern’s original (conscious or unconscious) goal, in as much as everybody associates Kingsley with the Hobgoblin now and hardly anyone knows or remembers how he was first introduced. But it was still an awful creative decision because Kingsley remained a nothing character of virtually no consequence before being senselessly transformed into the Hobgoblin almost overnight. Properly setting the foundation for making Kingsley into the Hobgoblin would have required a great deal more work and development than what we were given (which was practically nothing).

For those who might say, “maybe Stern would have given us that work and development if he had been able to stay on the book longer,” I would still object. Such work would have needed to be done BEFORE the Hobgoblin’s first appearance. Doing such work afterward is a cheat, and besides, blatantly reworking the Kingsley character after the Hobgoblin shows up likely would have ruined the mystery anyway, which is something you definitely don’t want to do. And on top of all this, such a radical makeover in character would have felt far too contrived and utterly unreal. I’m sorry, but as much as I love Roger Stern, there’s no excusing any of this; it’s just bad. In every way, from every angle, it’s bad.

Of course, none of this alters the fact that the whole thing got off to a very promising start. And Stern’s original plans were never carried out (at the time), so strictly in terms of just this era, the Hobgoblin storyline was great.

Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man

Bill Mantlo returned to write Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man with issue #62 (Jan. 1982), the same month Stern got started on Amazing. Ed Hannigan was supposed to be Mantlo’s penciling partner on the title, but over the course of the next eleven issues, he only penciled seven of them, leaving fill-in artists to draw the other four. I really loved Hannigan’s work and wish he could have kept up with a monthly schedule. With issue #73, Al Milgrom came aboard and penciled Mantlo’s scripts for twelve of seventeen issues.

Not a big Mantlo fan these days, but I certainly liked his work on Spectacular at the time he initially took over from Stern. He really captured my attention (along with the attention of a whole lot of other fans) with the introduction of Cloak and Dagger in issue #64 (Mar. 1982). Hannigan did a GREAT job on the art in this issue and I assume he designed the look of the characters as well. Hannigan also designed a bunch of great covers during this run. Cloak and Dagger proved extremely popular and would return for issues 69–70 (Aug.-Sept. 1982), 81–82 (Aug.-Sept. 1983), and 94–96 (Sept.-Nov. 1984).

The pair were then awarded their own four-issue limited series with Cloak and Dagger 1-4 (Oct. 1983-Jan. 1984), followed by a regular series that ran from issues 1-11 (Jul. 1985-Mar. 1987). They were then placed in a new Strange Tales title that they shared with Doctor Strange. This experiment lasted from issues 1-19 (Apr. 1987-Oct. 1988). Then they were granted their own series again that went from issues 1-19 (Oct. 1988-Aug. 1991).

Other notable issues of Spectacular from this time were issue #71 (Oct. 1982), a serious story about gun control that was somewhat compromised by its goofy, Stan-Lee-styled title, “With This Gun, I Thee Kill!” As we follow Spidey around New York City, we get intermittent panels, most of them highlighted in yellow, of other people dying by gun violence. Near the story’s end, after Spider-Man stops an illegal gun shipment of Saturday night specials coming in to Brooklyn, we get a bunch of panels at the bottom of a two-page spread that shows several gun deaths that will now not happen thanks to Spider-Man. One of Mantlo’s better efforts and the most serious story of his comic-writing career, certainly.

In a somber ending, Spider-Man’s victory is tempered by the fact that a police officer was shot and killed during the capture of the gun shipment. Earlier in the tale, Joe Robertson recited the following then-contemporary gun violence stats: “Handguns were responsible for over 25,000 fatalities in 1980” and “300,000 violent crimes were perpetrated with handguns in that year alone.” He also noted that handguns were the fifth leading cause of death among children. At story’s end Jameson observes that even while the illegal shipment was stopped, “12 more handgun shootings took place in New York City alone.” Reader reaction to the story was so strong that the letters column was expanded to two pages in issue #77 to properly cover the response.

This issue was then somewhat balanced by the light-hearted issue to follow, Spectacular #72 (Nov. 1982), which featured this group of kids that liked to dress up (or cosplay, as it would be termed today) as supervillains. This one kid named Ollie even has working metal arms to go along with his Dr. Octopus get-up. After Ollie gets into an argument with the other kids, he runs away to go join up with the real Dr. Octopus, who has recently escaped prison. This was a fun little excursion, enhanced by the work of Ed Hannigan, who lent a more fun, cartoony style to the way he drew the kids here.

The Owl, the Octopus, and the Cat

PPTSSM #73 (Dec. 1982) kicked off an extended storyline featuring the Owl and Dr. Octopus, and would eventually rope in the Black Cat. The issue also marked the debut of Al Milgrom as the new regular penciler on Spectacular. The “Gang War” between the Owl and Doc Ock would begin here and go on a couple issues before Ock took out the Owl in issue #75. Ock would go on as the main heavy for several more issues afterward.

At the same time, Mantlo would resolve the long-running subplot of Debra Whitman. In Spectacular #68 (Jul. 1982), Deb followed Pete up some stairs to a building rooftop and arrived in time to see Spider-Man swinging away while Pete had seemed to disappear. This led Deb to conclude that Peter was Spider-Man. Deb shared this belief with her therapist, Dr. Bailey Kuklin. He believes this is a delusion, so he approaches Peter and asks him to present himself to Deb in a Spider-Man costume, thereby “showing her the absurdity of her delusions!” Pete scoffs at this at first, calling it a “soap opera” plot (which it was). But when he swings by Deb’s apartment and sees her through the window talking to some stuffed animals, he decides to take Kuklin’s advice and enters as Spider-Man. From here, everything goes as Kuklin predicted: Deb sees the absurdity of Pete being Spider-Man and shakes loose from all of her “delusions.” Deb winds up moving back to the Midwest and out of Peter’s life, basically for good.

There were times when Mantlo lost all grasp of subtlety, and this would be a good example of one of those times. Deb was never this delusional before, never this mentally compromised; she was a nice girl who was just insecure and lacked self-esteem. Mantlo portrayed her as “crazy” for the sake of some cheap melodrama, the work of a poor writer.

The Black Cat Crossing Paths

Deb Whitman left Pete (and Spider-Man comics) on the next-to-last page of Spectacular #74 (Jan. 1983). On the very last page, the Black Cat re-entered Spidey’s life, leaving my adolescent self absolutely thrilled. Bland, boring Deb Whitman was gone at last, and here was the woman I absolutely wanted for Spidey (at the time), ready to move in and take over.

And when I re-read these comics now, I can see why they would be so appealing to an adolescent, as Mantlo writes the characters like they’re two dopey adolescents themselves. Stern had previously written them like they were at least somewhat adult—certainly more mature than the characters we see here. Years later, Stern revealed that he planned to bring the Cat back to Amazing, but Mantlo just beat him to the punch:

I’d originally wanted to bring the Black Cat back to The Amazing Spider-Man in about a year—maybe a year and a half—after her apparent demise in ASM #227. That seemed about right for a friendly adversary who was supposed to have nine lives. But when I finally mentioned that to Tom, he sort of sighed and said, “I wish you’d told me sooner. We’re already bringing her back in Spectacular.[Roger Stern, “Introduction,” Marvel Masterworks: The Amazing Spider-Man, vol. 23, 2021, p. i.]

The picture I’m getting here is that if Stern had shared his Cat plans with DeFalco earlier, DeFalco would have “saved” the character for Stern and not let Mantlo use her. I wish this had happened, because Mantlo’s treatment of the Black Cat and her relationship with Spider-Man practically invalidated nearly all of Stern’s earlier good work.

Black Cat would get injured when she got in the middle of a Spidey-Ock fight, spend some time in the hospital, and then became Spidey’s full-time girlfriend for the rest of Mantlo’s run (and the rest of the Roger Stern Era). Basically, Mantlo domesticated the Cat—turning her into a boring, damsel-in-distress type after she had been one of the most exciting new characters to appear in Spider-Man comics in ages. Stern had previously shown both characters having doubts about getting into a “real” relationship, but Mantlo wrote them like they were deeply-in love soulmates, with all this passionate dialogue of love and devotion between two people who never truly knew each other. Cat didn’t even know Spidey’s real name or seen his full face at this point. It just feels so childish when I read it today.

The low point of all this was probably when Spidey chose to share his secret identity with the Cat in Spectacular #87 (Feb. 1984). Akin to the Deb Whitman storyline, Mantlo betrays a cartoonishly primitive grasp of human psychology here. The idea of the Cat being turned off by the hum-drum, everyday life of Peter Parker is fine, but her reaction at the sight of his unmasked face descends into the hysterical—and that’s just a bridge (or two, or three) too far.

Even as a young teenager at the time, I recognized that this was bad. I’m not exactly sure of the timing, but with Mary Jane back in ASM at this point, I eventually (if not immediately) ditched Felicia and jumped right back onto that MJ ’ship.

The Punisher

Looking back now, I can see this was part of an awful, larger course, because the Punisher would get the crazy treatment from Mantlo as well. Now Frank Castle was severely traumatized and damaged by having to watch his family killed right in front of him—this is what made him the Punisher, after all. But he was never stark-raving mad. When Mantlo brought him into Spectacular, however, he started gunning for every lawbreaker in sight, no matter how minor their transgressions might be. He even tried to gun down people for littering in Spectacular #82 (Sept. 1983).

During this run under Mantlo, every other character in the Spectacular cast seemed to lose their sanity. Even if it made no character sense, as was the case with the Punisher, Mantlo just seemed to like making characters go crazy. As I said, the Punisher had issues, but he was never shown as being detached from reality before. Thankfully, Steven Grant would rectify this in the five-issue Punisher miniseries in 1986, revealing that the Punisher had been drugged during his previous prison stint, and that this was the cause of his outlandish behavior during this Spectacular storyline.

“The Hatred of the Hobgoblin!”

Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man #85 (Dec. 1983) featured a “plot assist” by Roger Stern for a story that credited Bill Mantlo as “writer.” This would be the Hobgoblin’s first appearance in Spectacular and his first appearance anywhere outside the pages of Amazing. After successfully replicating Norman Osborn’s Goblin strength with Lefty Donovan, the Hobgoblin is now ready to undergo the process himself, entering through a “membrane” of a large chemical tank. As we see the shadowy figure in the tank, we are also shown a journal note warning that “prolonged immersion in the fluid can cause possible psychological side effects, leading even to madness.”

Yep, Mantlo is back onboard the crazy train.

Stern made it clear on several occasions that he did not want the Hobgoblin to be crazy because, given the Green Goblin’s mental issues, he did not want his new character to just be a copy of the original villain. While Stern has never made any complaint on the record about this, rumor has it that he was upset by what Mantlo did with the Hobgoblin in this issue.

The “Assistant Editors’ Month” issue of Spectacular, #86 (Jan. 1984), had Fred Hembeck doing the art in his own unique style and was fun to see. Bill Mantlo’s story was less than pleasing, however. Mantlo made changes to the tale’s villain, the Fly, so that he was drawn to garbage and waste like an ordinary fly and even ate garbage. More bad creative from Mantlo.

Mantlo’s last issue was Spectacular #89 (Apr. 1984), which saw the Black Cat looking for a way to gain superpowers so she could be a more effective crime-fighting partner to Spider-Man. More than any other example, this might be the best demonstration of just how diametrically opposed the visions of Mantlo and Stern were. Stern wanted to keep the Black Cat grounded, making a willful effort to show that her previous bad luck incidents were staged gimmicks, while Mantlo straight up gave her bad luck superpowers in this issue.

Marvel Team-Up

Once upon a time, J. M. DeMatteis was one of my favorite comic writers. I greatly enjoyed DeMatteis’s work in Ghost Rider, Defenders, Captain America, and here, in Marvel Team-Up. (Later, when he started writing solo Spidey stories, I would form a very different opinion of his work, particularly in regard to Spider-Man, but during this era, I was still a big fan.)

DeMatteis started out on Team-Up with Herb Trimpe and Mike Esposito, but his primary penciling counterpart during the majority of his MTU run was Kerry Gammill, who was coming off a great run of his own on Power Man and Iron Fist with Jo Duffy. The DeMatteis-Gammill duo would give us some really good, entertaining tales—probably the best collaborative run on Team-Up since Claremont-Byrne.

DeMatteis started out drawing on some of his other Marvel work, teaming Spidey with his Defenders characters, Devil Slayer, Valkyrie, and Gargoyle. X-Men characters were also a guaranteed sales booster back then, so DeMatteis also made use of Wolverine and Professor X in issues 117 (May 1982) and 118 (Jun. 1982), respectively. These mutant issues introduced the villain, Professor Power. Not sure if he’s appeared much in recent years or what may have been done with him, but he was an interesting villain when he first showed up.

The Gargoyle issue, #119 (Jul. 1982), was Gammill’s first as artist, and his arrival seemed to energize the title a bit. MTU #121 (Sept. 1982) had Spidey team with the Human Torch against the Speed Demon, and DeMatteis did a great job of recapturing the vibe of the classic, Silver Age relationship between Spidey and the Torch in this tale. This was also the issue where the comedic hero Frog-Man was introduced.

DeMatteis and Gammill followed this up with the Man-Thing in Team-Up #122 (Oct. 1982). DeMatteis was clearly a big fan of Steve Gerber, which was evident in much of his Defenders work, and it was fun to see Man-Thing in action again as he teamed with Spidey against Ian Fate, a villain DeMatteis had created in the Defenders mag sometime earlier.

There was a sweet Christmas tale teaming Spider-Man with the Watcher in issue #127 (Mar. 1983), before we get to my favorite Team-Up from this era, Marvel Team-Up #128 (Apr. 1983), which teamed Spider-Man with Captain America. Most Team-Up tales don’t have a lot of room for character work because you’ve got to introduce your guest star, set up your villain, and then get your plot moving. But here, in “Sweet Temptation,” both Cap and Spidey are tempted by other women outside of their committed relationships (with Bernadette Rosenthal and the Black Cat, respectively). It’s some interesting character work, plus we get to see that Roger Hochberg and Mia Carrera from Amazing #233 (see the Denny O’Neil Era) are now dating, making the happy ending Roger had gotten previously even happier, which I appreciated.

MTU #129 (May 1983) opens on the Vision feeling this compulsion to leave his home in the middle of the night. This compulsion eventually leads him to the small, seemingly deserted New Hampshire village of Morgan’s Wood, where he finds a small colony of android doubles of some famous minds throughout human history, among them Mark Twain/Samuel Clemens, Confucius, William Shakespeare, Abraham Lincoln, and Socrates. Their creator, the Mad Thinker, abandoned them after the events of Captain America #269 (May 1982), which led them to summon the Vision so that he might aid them in assimilating into human society.

At the same time, Peter Parker and Andy Pauncholito, a Bugle reporter set for forced retirement in just a couple of months, are investigating a serial killer dubbed the New Hampshire Slasher in a nearby town called Rain. The police have captured a suspect, one that doesn’t talk and looks a lot like Fyodor Dostoevsky. He’s an android double, of course, and when he escapes to rejoin the other androids he brings Spider-Man, the local police, and the Vision together, and Spidey has to fight a large android with a wrecking ball for a right hand. (Note that events here will play a part in the previously-discussed plot for Amazing #242, which features the Mad Thinker.)

Sal Buscema fills in on the art for the issue to follow, #130 (Jun. 1983), featuring the Scarlet Witch, as old Defenders baddie Necrodamus tries to hijack the Vision’s android body. Despite everything going on across these two issues, DeMatteis somehow manages to squeeze in some good character work on Pauncholito. And I’m always happy to see the Vision and Scarlet Witch in action together, so I really liked this.

MTU #131 (Jul. 1983) featured the comedic Frog-Man as a full partner to Spidey for this story. The villainess they faced, the White Rabbit, was also rather comedic, though I understand she’s become a more serious Spidey antagonist in recent years. This was fun, as well as a portent of the humorous direction DeMatteis would take in his future with Justice League. The best joke in the story was probably the title: “The Best Things In Life Are Free . . . But Everything Else Costs Money!”

This issue was also Gammill’s last issue as artist. DeMatteis wrote the next two issues, 132–133 (Aug.-Sept. 1983), a two-parter involving the Fantastic Four, with art by Sal Buscema and Mike Esposito, before leaving the title as well.

From this point, a number of writers started rotating in and out of MTU, including Bill Mantlo, David Michelinie, Cary Burkett, and Tom DeFalco. Artists also dropped in and out, but the bulk of the work was done by Ron Frenz and Greg LaRocque.

Spider-Man Annuals

Amazing Spider-Man Annual #16 (1982) introduced the Monica Rambeau version of Captain Marvel. It was also the first time John Romita Sr. did an art job with his son, J.R. Jr. With cameos from both the Avengers and the Fantastic Four, this was enjoyable, but more of a Captain Marvel story than a Spider-Man one.

ASM Annual #17 (1983), sees Pete attend his high school class’s five-year reunion. The main plot deals with one of Pete’s old classmates getting blackmailed with some evidence that could also cause trouble for the Kingpin. This annual also picks up a thread from Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man #85, where it was hinted that Flash Thompson and Sha Shan were having relationship difficulties. Since that issue of Spectacular and this annual both involved Roger Stern and Bill Mantlo in the writing, I’m not sure whose idea this development was, but I would guess Mantlo, since I find it to be a terrible idea and absolutely hate it. If you watched Flash mature from a high school bully that every reader hated into the man everyone could admire as he fell in love with Sha Shan, you’ll likely agree that breaking up Flash and Sha Shan is a terrible waste of some superb character development.

Marvel Team-Up Annual #5 (1982) has Spidey get involved with Doctor Strange, Quasar, the Scarlet Witch, and the Thing as they tackle the menace of the Serpent Crown up at Project Pegasus. The following year gives us Marvel Team-Up Annual #6 (1983), which teams Spidey with the New Mutants and Cloak & Dagger against a street gang and some drug pushers. Note that there were no Spectacular annuals in 1982 or ’83.

Marvel Tales

I’ve made no mention of Marvel Tales in prior posts in this series because it simply wasn’t necessary—Tales was a reprint book and it generally kept pace in reprinting issues of Amazing about five and a half years after they were originally published. This changed with Marvel Tales #137 (Mar. 1982), which reprinted Amazing Fantasy #15 (Sept. 1962), along with Doctor Strange’s origin from Strange Tales #115 (Dec. 1963) to fill out the necessary space. The title would then continue reprinting the first fifty issues of Amazing Spider-Man in order, along with the annuals, for the four-plus years to follow.

I had already caught the first appearance of the Green Goblin in ASM #14 (Jul. 1964) and the first ASM annual (1964) in treasury-edition reprints purchased in the mid-70s. Then I got all three volumes of the Pocket Books reprints originally published in 1979. Each volume covered seven issues, so the first volume gave us Amazing Fantasy #15 and ASM 1–6; the second gave us ASM 7–13; and the third gave us issues 14–20. It was only with Tales #159 (Jan. 1984), reprinting ASM #21 (Feb. 1965), that I began to get stories I had not seen or read before. (Though I had bought Tales 137–158 anyway, just to have the stories in a standard comic-book size that I could store in a long box with my other Spider-Man comics.)

Stern’s Weaknesses

Roger Stern’s biggest weakness as a Spider-Man writer was the apparent blind spot he developed regarding the Hobgoblin and Roderick Kingsley. As I stated earlier, had Stern gone through with his original Hobgoblin plans at the time, I think it definitely would have proven a shark jumper.

Stern had just one other potential weakness, one he shared with a number of Bronze Age writers: a preoccupation with continuity paired with a desire to “fix” things.

Madame Web

Much the same as Stern had done with the White Tiger, he de-powered Madame Web and wrote her out of Spider-Man comics. As Stern would later explain it: “[Madame Web] was a neat looking character with interesting powers, but it bugged me that she knew Peter Parker was Spider-Man, and I’m sure it also bugged Pete. He tries to live a normal life, but he can’t do that if too many people know that he’s Spider-Man.” [Roger Stern, Comics Creators on Spider-Man, ed. Tom DeFalco, New York: Titan Books, 2004, pp. 104–105.]

I agree with Stern’s reasoning completely, but I disagree with actions he took as a result. If you don’t like Madame Web or find her problematic, then don’t use the character. Ignore her. Because there’s always a chance that some other writer in the future might like the Madame Web character and have a good idea for her.

The Tarantula

It was basically the same deal with Tarantula. As Stern put it: “I’ll confess, I had never been that impressed by the Tarantula in his previous appearances. After all, he was just an acrobatic terrorist with gimmicked boots, and didn’t seem powerful enough to give Spider-Man a good fight. With this story [ASM #233], we started to do something about that.” [Roger Stern, “Introduction,” Marvel Masterworks: The Amazing Spider-Man, vol. 22, 2019, p. v.]

As covered in my recap, the “something” that was “started” with the Tarantula was turning him into a spider-monster and then killing him off two issues later. Once more, not that big of a deal (because Tarantula himself wasn’t that big of a deal as a character), but killing off a character just because you don’t like them or see no value in them is not a good thing. As I just said: if you don’t like a character, don’t use them; ignore them. Using them for the purpose of just getting rid of them feels spiteful and immature. With the White Tiger, Madame Web, and now the Tarantula, I think we can safely categorize this as a trend.

The Gwen Clone

For a brief moment of madness early in his ASM run, Stern was struck by a story idea involving Gwen Stacy’s clone.

DeFalco: Shortly after you took over Amazing, you pitched a story about the Gwen Stacy clone to me that I rejected. I told you to forget about clones, a good piece of advice that I didn’t take myself.

Stern: This was during a period where I often ran into fans that wanted to know what happened to the Gwen Stacy clone. I kept getting letters practically demanding her return, and the idea would make my teeth stand on edge. Eventually, I did come up with an idea that showed what happened to the Gwen Stacy clone, one that I didn’t hate. Remember how she grew from a bunch of cells into a fully-grown woman in a matter of months? Well, in the story I pitched, she continued to age. Now she was this elderly woman who had become a nun and was about to die. You told me to forget about the old clone stories. You were right—and yes, you should have taken your own advice. [Roger Stern, Comics Creators on Spider-Man, ed. Tom DeFalco, New York: Titan Books, 2004, p. 104.]

Stern actually first discussed his Gwen clone idea in a Marvel Age article all the way back in 1983. As Stern told it then, there was a “fairly strong consensus around the Bullpen that the Gwen-clone stories—which for all intents and purposes brought Gwen Stacy back from the dead—did not exactly count as Marvel’s finest hour. Bringing back the clone would naturally make a bad mistake even worse.” [Roger Stern, “Stories I’d Rather Not Write,” Marvel Age #3, Jun. 1983, pp. 10.]

Knowing the Gwen clone was a radioactive disaster, why even consider doing a story about her in the first place? Yet again, it appears Stern wanted to “fix” Spider-Man’s clone problem. I very much understand and appreciate this desire, but I still contend that the best way to handle the clone stuff (or any bad stories or stuff you don’t like) is to simply not even go near it, ever. Any attempt at fixing these things could fail; and then all you’ve accomplished is to remind the world that this bad story (or character or whatever) exists. Thankfully, DeFalco put the kibosh on this and Stern himself realized that all of the clone stuff was better left ignored.

Bad Luck

As touched upon a couple of times already, Stern wanted to make it clear that the bad luck experienced by those crossing the path of the Black Cat was a set-up gimmick and not any kind of superpower or magical ability on her part. I much prefer leaving it unexplained, which I feel would lend the Black Cat some mystery and give her an even stronger presence on the comic book page. What Stern did was very much an attempt to fix something that was never broken.

Having said all this, let me reiterate yet again that none of these things ever became a real problem during the original Roger Stern Era, I’m just bringing it up here purely for the sake of speculation. Would this trend have continued if Stern stayed on? Could it have possibly gotten worse? Was it inevitable that Stern would have jumped the shark had he stuck around on Spider-Man? It certainly proved the downfall of other comic writers with similar preoccupations (Steve Englehart leaps to my mind). Some of Stern’s later work on Spider-Man would seem to suggest that a shark jump was indeed unavoidable. Spider-Man: Hobgoblin Lives! was an absolute mess of an attempt at continuity clean-up. Spider-Man: Revenge of the Green Goblin was just relentlessly dark; so much so that I wouldn’t have believed Roger Stern wrote it if I didn’t see his name there in the credits.

But these things came later. Within the parameters of the Roger Stern Era covered by this post, the work Stern gave us on Amazing remains fairly impeccable. But I also feel compelled to add that Mantlo’s work on Spectacular was even worse than I remembered, to the point where it seriously compromised what Stern was doing in ASM. Everything Stern gave us was great, but he could have done even more and even better—particularly with the Black Cat, among other characters—if not for Mantlo.

Roger Stern’s Characterizations

Characterization was Stern’s greatest strength as a writer. Shortly after his ASM run got started, Roger Stern sat down for an interview with Fred Hembeck, an interview that would see print in FantaCo’s Chronicles Series No. 5, or as I call it, “The Spidey Bible.” Now there’s a lot of good Spider-Man stuff in here, but the reason I refer to it as “The Spidey Bible” is because I feel the interview with Stern should be treated like Spider-Man’s creative bible. Anyone who wants to write Spider-Man should be required to read this interview first. (And the whole thing is now up on Tom Brevoort’s blog and linked here.)

Courtesy of the Spidey Bible, here are Roger Stern’s views on some of the key characters in Spider-Man’s cast—wannabe Spider-Man writers, take notes and memorize:

Aunt May

A thing I noticed over the years was that people remember the story in Amazing Spider-Man around #196 when Aunt May supposedly died. It was really a hoax that Mysterio concocted. And we got all these letters saying, ‘Thank God, she’s finally dead! Whenever you talk to people who used to read comics when they were kids and you say “Spider-Man,” they say “Is Aunt May dead yet?” I thought, why does everyone want this poor old lady dead? This is a woman who is Peter’s surrogate mother and people want her dead. Why is that? I looked at the stories and over the past ten years or so, everyone has turned the sweet old lady into an utter nuisance, like an albatross around his neck. Peter loves her . . . [Fred G. Hembeck, “The Amazing Roger Stern,” FantaCo’s Chronicles Series No. 5, July 1982, p. 41.]

J. Jonah Jameson

There’s something not quite right about Jonah having a nervous breakdown. Jonah is too stubborn to have a nervous breakdown. [Ibid., p. 41.]

There’s a beautiful scene that Denny O’Neil did in last year’s annual [Amazing Spider-Man Annual #15 (1981)]—boy, am I jealous. It’s a beautiful Jameson scene; he’s really married to his newspaper. He goes down to watch the presses run. It’s interesting because Jonah Jameson is basically a good guy. He’s maybe a bit conservative, but he’s for the rights of man and all good things, blah, blah. It’s just that he’s got this hangup about Spider-Man. He really doesn’t like him; he goes against his grain. Jameson comes out against vigilantism, which all superheroes are to a certain extent. I think Spider-Man’s wisenheimer attitude and the fact that he started out doing it for money, folks, goes against his grain. “This guy isn’t really in it for the good of mankind, he’s a scofflaw, blah, blah.” It’s become a longstanding animosity. There are lots of good people out there who have dislikes for other people which aren’t rational. That’s Jonah’s one little quirk there and it sets him off. He is cheap and he is a tightwad and he is a curmudgeon, but it doesn’t mean that deep down he’s not a good man. [Ibid., p. 44.]

Betty Brant

Betty Brant has become the old girlfriend. They were very close for a long time, then they were apart. She got married and her marriage is back in solid again after some insecurities there for a while. I think everyone’s encountered an old girlfriend who’s become a best friend now and that’s really what she is. [Ibid., p. 42.]

Mary Jane

Mary Jane is sort of a wild card. There are some stories I want to do with Mary Jane where we can get into why she’s so gun shy of engagements and lasting relationships. Also, some more into her background because we really know very little about it. [Ibid.]

Black Cat/Felicia Hardy

The Black Cat is another matter entirely because it’s a strong physical attraction initially. She’s definitely attracted to Parker in a sort of pie in the sky romantic ideal situation. It’s coming along for Spider-Man at a time when his romantic life is not the best in the world. He’s not quite meshing with Deb; he tries meshing with Marcy and that doesn’t work. He’s thinking, God, am I ever gonna find the right woman for me? The Black Cat is very different because she’s a woman who could almost share Spider-Man’s life, if that’s what he was into. She’s sort of exotic, but at the same time, it’s a little bit uncomfortable. He’s definitely physically attracted to her, but he’s known her for a very short period of time, really only hours if you compile all the times they’ve met. Also, her line of work is something he can’t accept. I mean, she’s a criminal! [Ibid.]

Peter Parker/Spider-Man

We really know very little about [Peter] Parker’s background per se. We know what we’ve seen so far, but what was his childhood like? Being raised by people who were much older and things like that. [Ibid.]

People used to say that [Peter] Parker was sort of a Charlie Brown type of character, so in the photo album [in Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man Annual #3 (1981)], we had a shot of him and Uncle Ben with his kite, with Peter in a red shirt with a zigzag on it. That’s for you, Chuck Schultz; we love you. [Ibid., p. 43.]

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!” [Ibid., p. 45.]

[Peter] Parker is a very ordinary, down-to-earth guy, I mean he has great Spider-Man powers and everything, but if he didn’t become Spider-Man, he’d probably have a wife and the car and a house in Scarsdale. But it’s not in the cards for him the way things keep happening to him because becoming Spider-Man drew him out of his shell. Parker is the classic late bloomer and he probably would have come out of his shell eventually; being Spider-Man just accelerated it for him. But the fact that he is Spider-Man interferes with him having a normal life. At the same time, it’s a release for him because he’s got all the problems; he’s got work, he’s got school, he’s got rent, he’s got to help Aunt May and he’s got family responsibilities. When he can’t take it anymore, he puts on the suit and swings over the city and everything is fine. That’s the release. [Ibid., p. 42.]

Peter Parker, a very brilliant young man who has these amazing powers, gets a real kick out of using them. But at the same time, he’s driven to use them to right wrongs, to stop people from doing terrible things because of guilt. The whole strip is very much a story of passion and guilt, because when Peter Parker got these powers, he thought, wow, this is great, if the kids that put me down only knew I’m incredible; I can do all these things. And he was having so much fun using them, he didn’t do one little thing, the all-important sin of omission, and Uncle Ben buys it. Uncle Ben’s blown away by this burglar that he could have stopped. He’s driven by guilt; that’s the difference between Spider-Man and Batman. . . . Batman is driven by a need for vengeance. Spider-Man is driven by guilt. He enjoys these powers, he revels in them, they are great. But because of him, the man who meant the most to him died and he can never forget that. That’s what drives him on, that’s what makes him go out and put his life on the line. Have you ever noticed that Spider-Man isn’t really afraid to die? He’s put his life on the line so many times, just instinctively, without thinking, because he’s so driven by it. He’s very compulsive. He enjoys the power so much but it can still take him apart. The old great powers and great responsibility number. [Ibid., p. 44.]

Spider-Man is really a very down to earth character. Over the years, we’ve had stories of Spider-Man on the moon, fighting aliens from outer space, other dimensions, and it doesn’t really sound right for Spider-Man to be going off to outer space nations and things like that: “I’ll go into this other time to fight this guy.” Spider-Man should be on the rooftops fighting Dr. Octopus or crawling through the sewers after Potato Salad Man or something. [Ibid., p.43.]

Ranking the Eras of Spider-Man

The Roger Stern Era was the last great era of Spider-Man comics. If you’re looking for the point where Spider-Man comics would never be as great again, this would be the shark-jump era, going by that interpretation of the phrase. And as the last great era of Spider-Man comics, this would seem a good time to look at where we stand at this point overall.

The two best eras of Spider-Man were the Lee Eras. Personally, I put Lee-Romita first, with Lee-Ditko immediately after. If any old school Spidey diehards out there want to flip my rankings and put Ditko first, followed by Romita, I wouldn’t offer much in the way of protest. What’s important is that the Stan Lee eras come first, in whichever order.

Then it’s Stern and Wolfman in the third and fourth positions. Honestly, I feel like it’s a tie for third place. Gun to my head and make me choose, I’d probably put Stern three and Wolfman four, just because Stern’s character work was so great over a longer stretch of time (especially when you factor in his Spectacular run). But again, if anyone wanted to flip flop ’em, I wouldn’t complain.

Fifth and sixth are Wein and O’Neil, probably in that order—though when I think about those annuals with Frank Miller, I could flip these in a New York minute, too.

Seventh is Conway. And this isn’t meant to trash Conway; he did some good things, but he also did bad things, some of which were downright destructive. Destruction on a scale that none of the other writers here can even begin to approach, so I have to put him behind them. Now hypothetically, if I ever got to DeMatteis and Straczynski (which I’m not planning to do, and really can’t do with Straczynski, since I never read most of his stuff, but speaking hypothetically), don’t worry, Conway would likely be ahead of those guys (or maybe right between ’em).

In upcoming posts, I’ll examine where things started to go seriously wrong for our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, including getting to the indisputable shark jumper.

2 thoughts on “When Spidey Jumped the Shark, Pt. 7: The Roger Stern Era”

  1. I really didn’t like how Stern handled Tarantula. I know he wasn’t a very important character in the long run but he kinda grew on me when he kept reappearing in my read throughs. Then he just… mutates into a horrible monster and dies! It was honestly just overkill in my eyes. Why couldn’t he just get thrown in prison or something and never be heard from again? Seems more rational for his crimes.

    I think I ultimately agree with you on the way Hobgoblin’s identity was handled. There was a lot of intrigue about him and it had very little payoff.

    I checked the issue where you sent the letter guessing the Hobgoblin’s identity. I assume the one with the list was yours. I laughed at the suggestion it was Jameson!

  2. I think Stern’s plan for the Hobgoblin’s reveal parallels Ditko’s planned reveal for Green Goblin, which I have read was to be that he was just some anonymous person. It’s been said that Stan Lee objected to that, arguing (rightly, I believe) that after so much buildup, the readers would be disappointed. I think Fingeroth’s intention was to make him at least be a familiar character, and since Ned Leeds hadn’t appeared much in the comics in recent years, it’s likely he didn’t conflict with what had been shown of the Hobgoblin.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.