When Spidey Jumped the Shark, Pt. 8: The Tom DeFalco Era

We have now reached the Tom DeFalco Era of Amazing Spider-Man, which means the end of this series of blogposts is within sight. Personally, I wouldn’t say Spidey definitively jumped the shark in this era (though I’m sure there are some who might contend otherwise), but a number of bad things certainly happened. Not all of these things can be attributed to DeFalco, though; office politics, editorial conflicts, and changing market factors would play a role in many of the problems of this era.

DeFalco himself had a lot of doubts when first offered the job of writing Amazing: “When Danny Fingeroth first asked me to write Amazing Spider-Man, I thought he was crazy. I didn’t think I could do it.” [Tom DeFalco, Comics Creators on Spider-Man, New York: Titan Books, 2004, p. 116.] DeFalco would later add, “Spider-Man needed a certain kind of personality, a witticism that only Roger Stern could capture. I wasn’t sure I could do it. Danny, who really should have been a used-car salesman, convinced me to take a shot at it.” [Dan Johnson, “Pro2Pro: Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz,” Back Issue #12, Oct. 2005, p. 47.]

When Did It Start to Suck?

As noted, the Tom DeFalco Era was a difficult time for Spider-Man. DeFalco and artist Ron Frenz gave us some entertaining stuff, but honestly, I feel the bad outweighed the good during this period. There were times I disagreed with some creative choices, and other times a story simply missed the mark. The two-parter with Firelord in Amazing Spider-Man 269–270 (Oct.-Nov. 1985) would be an example of what I would consider a miss.

If you’re the type of fan that dislikes silly humor in your superhero comics, you’d probably vote for issue #263 (Apr. 1985), “The Spectacular Spider-Kid,” or issue #266 (Jul. 1985), where the Spider-Kid shows up again to team with Frog-Man and the Toad to form the new super-team, “the Misfits.” Of course, if you like silly humor, then these issues might be your peak. (The latter issue, #266, was written by Peter David, just to give him proper credit or blame, depending on where you stand on the matter.)

For me, there was a point around issue #270 where DeFalco began to make some terrible character choices—not for Pete/Spidey, but for some of the supporting characters. This marked the worst part of his run, in my opinion. I’ll delve into this more deeply at the appropriate time.

When Did It Pass Its Peak?

Subjectively speaking, my favorite story from this era, my personal peak, would be the Amazing Spider-Man Annual #18 (1984), “The Scorpion Takes a Bride!” And a big part of why is the Stan Lee scripting over DeFalco’s plot.

Cards on the table: I did not much care for the Tom DeFalco Era when I first read the comics at the time. I felt like the writing was lacking and I didn’t much care for the art of Ron Frenz, either. (Strangely, the biggest critique of Frenz at the time seemed to be that he was trying to imitate Ditko. I thought his style was more Sal Buscema than Ditko.) But in retrospect, the greatest sin of DeFalco and Frenz was that they weren’t Roger Stern and John Romita Jr. I’ve since come to appreciate the talents of DeFalco and Frenz a little more as an adult.

Is He Still Pete/Spidey?

DeFalco’s Pete/Spidey is still Pete/Spidey. The voice sounds right; it feels like the same Pete/Spidey we all grew up with. Some of DeFalco’s other character treatments and developments were terrible, but he got Pete/Spidey right.

Other writers, however, seemed to lose still other characters, even some aspects of Spider-Man himself. This sounded the alarm—the Titanic had struck the iceberg. It may not have sunk in this era, but the ship was on its way down.

The Black Costume/Symbiote

If you’re among those fans that hated the black costume/the symbiote, you might believe that Spidey jumped the shark before the Tom DeFalco had even gotten its full, proper start. There was a two-issue bridge between the Roger Stern Era and the Tom DeFalco Era where DeFalco scripted from Stern plots in Amazing Spider-Man 251–252 (Apr.-May 1984). The first issue, #251, wrapped up the Hobgoblin storyline (temporarily), while the second, #252, saw Spider-Man return from the Secret Wars in his new black costume. As artist Ron Frenz remembered:

I waited all my life, since the age of eight, to draw Spider-Man, and now he’s got a new suit! . . . Everybody looks at the changing of Spider-Man’s costume through the lens of what has happened since, and they think that this was some kind of cynical sales ploy. This was “pre” all of that. This was a case of “we might get lynched for this,” and a “this may not fly at all” type of thing. [Dan Johnson, “Pro2Pro: Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz,” Back Issue #12, Oct. 2005, p. 48.]

Tom DeFalco recalled:

When word of Spider-Man’s new costume came out, we started getting tons and tons of hate mail. So much so, Jim Shooter came to me and said, “The costume is introduced in #252. Get rid of it in #253.” . . . We were hearing that people were going to boycott Spider-Man. Then we heard from the licensing department, and they were all pissed off saying, “We’re licensing the blue-and-red costume! Get rid of the black costume!” [Dan Johnson, “Pro2Pro: Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz,” Back Issue #12, Oct. 2005, p. 49.]

The voices of the haters (and I was certainly among them back then, iconophile that I was and still am) were the loudest when the black costume was first introduced, but then the black costume fans slowly got loud. It proved a great sales stunt, if nothing else, and they wound up bouncing Spidey from costume to costume for a while. Even after separating from the symbiote, Spidey had a normal, cloth version of the black costume that he began wearing. Sometimes he’d wear the red-and-blue or the black depending on which one of the suits might happen to be in the washing machine. Only when Venom came along did Pete go back to the red-and-blue full time. And when this happened, my dislike for the black suit abated—as long as Spidey goes back to his classic Ditko design in the end, I don’t mind experimenting with his costume for a short sprint. Just don’t even think about permanently replacing the classic Ditko design, EVER.

The Tom DeFalco Era Begins

Tom DeFalco begins writing ASM completely on his own with Amazing Spider-Man #253 (Jun. 1984), featuring the debut of the Rose, with art by Rick Leonardi. This was followed by another Leonardi art job in a story featuring Jack O’ Lantern in #254 (Jul. 1984). These were both fine stories with good action and some effective melodrama with Aunt May being upset over Peter quitting grad school. Regarding the Rose, DeFalco recollected:

It was not a plan that he [the Rose] would have a secret identity. But at some point later on, I was reading something about the big mystery of “Who is the Rose?” I didn’t realize there was a mystery! So I realized I’d have to come up with something for the Rose, and I figured I’d use Roderick Kingsley, because we’d already eliminated him as the Hobgoblin but he fit perfectly as the Rose. [“Pro2Pro Roundtable: When Hobby Met Spidey: A History of the Hobgoblin,” Back Issue #35, August 2009, p. 15.]

Most supervillains wear masks of some kind or other. Usually, readers will not think it signifies any big mystery, but with the ongoing Hobgoblin situation, Spider-Man fans just started speculating like mad. DeFalco may have made a mistake turning this into a thing, particularly when the Hobgoblin mystery had not yet been resolved. Too many mysteries were being juggled at once, in my view.

DeFalco & Frenz

Frenz is back on board as regular artist with ASM #255 (Aug. 1984). The main antagonists are the Red Ghost and his Super-Apes, but the tale also introduces the Black Fox, an aging, gray-haired “master” cat burglar. In the next issue, ASM #256 (Sept. 1984), DeFalco-Frenz would give us the Puma. Regardless of whatever else may have gone wrong during this era, Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz were creating some new characters and trying to make fresh contributions to the Spider-Man mythos, which I find laudable.

The Puma storyline would be continued in Amazing #257 (Oct. 1984), where we got this cliffhanger ending of Mary Jane declaring that she knows Peter is Spider-Man. Not only does she know, but she’s “known . . . for years.” Shortly after the beginning of issue #258 (Nov. 1984), Black Cat pops in the window while Mary Jane is still there, erasing any scintilla of doubt that may have lingered in MJ’s mind.

I don’t know what the thought process was behind this development, but it was ill-conceived. Despite the fact that Pete and MJ dated/were involved for a significant length of real-life time (most of the 1970s, in fact), their relationship in the comics never felt like it got that deep. The idea that she was ever close enough to Peter to figure out he was Spider-Man felt ludicrous. And naturally, none of the previous writers ever wrote the MJ character as if she knew. Moreover, what purpose could it serve to give her this knowledge? Unless you’re building toward Pete and MJ having a deep, serious relationship down the road—which both DeFalco and Frenz later said was not the case—I don’t get it. Bad enough having her know his secret identity at all, let alone having known for a significant time. Certainly a potential shark-jumping creative choice.

ASM #258 would also be the issue that Spidey gets his black costume tested by Reed Richards in the Baxter Building and discovers it’s alive. The symbiote would be confined under the watchful eyes of Reed/the FF for a while hereafter.

Mary Jane & the Hobgoblin

Amazing #259 (Dec. 1984) gave us an extended conversation between Peter and Mary Jane where MJ reveals much of her past, including the messy split between her parents, the equally-messy divorce of her older sister, and the death of her mother. Meanwhile, in the background, the Hobgoblin has returned. When Pete hears about this, he’s back in his classic red and blue and ready to fight.

Based on some cryptic words from Aunt May about how Peter and Mary Jane had both “lost so very much,” plus the “Daydreamers” story in ASM #246 (Nov. 1983), it’s clear Roger Stern had already developed at least some of these details of MJ’s backstory, but he left ASM before getting around to presenting them completely. I think it’s a safe bet that DeFalco drew upon Stern’s notes when putting this issue together. As Stern detailed in the intro to Amazing Spider-Man Masterworks, vol, 23:

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 [ASM #246], J.R. and I started to tell her story. [Roger Stern, “Introduction,” Marvel Masterworks: The Amazing Spider-Man, vol. 23, 2021, p. iii.]

Over the next two issues, 260-261 (Jan.-Feb. 1985), there was solid action as Spidey fought the Hobgoblin with Harry, Liz, and MJ caught in the middle. Liz appears to go into labor at the end of #261, but we will later learn that these were false labor pains induced by the trauma of getting between Spidey and Hobby. The following issue is a fill-in from Bob Layton, who was supposed to be working on a Spider-Man graphic novel a couple years earlier that was never published. I’m guessing much of that graphic novel material ended up being reworked into this single issue of Amazing.

In ASM #263 (Apr. 1985), DeFalco and Frenz are back to give us “The Spectacular Spider-Kid!” Ollie Osnick, the Doc Ock cosplayer from Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man #72 (Nov. 1982), returns here to join his new idol, Spider-Man, to aid in Spidey’s crimefighting as his new partner, Spider-Kid, having turned his metal Ock arms into metal spider legs. As mentioned earlier, individual mileage will vary on this one, depending on your tolerance for goofball humor. On the serious side, Liz does go into real labor in this issue and gives birth to a son. He will eventually be named Norman.

Jim Owsley

Jim Owsley (later known as Christopher Priest) began his tenure as Spider-Editor with Amazing # 264 (May 1985), another fill-in, this time by Craig Anderson with art by Paty Cockrum. Fill-ins would plague the first several months of Owsley’s editorial tenure of not only ASM, but Spectacular and Web of Spider-Man as well. Frenz recalled, “It was immediately rough waters when Owsley took over as editor. It was the opposite of a smooth transition. He came in like an atom bomb.” [“Pro2Pro Roundtable: When Hobby Met Spidey: A History of the Hobgoblin,” Back Issue #35, August 2009, p. 16.]

Amazing #265 (Jun. 1985) saw the return of the Black Fox and the introduction of Silver Sable. Peter also made peace with Aunt May over his quitting school. Then more fill-ins for the next two issues, both written by Peter David. ASM #266 (Jul. 1985) was another humor issue with Spider-Kid, Frog-Man, and Toad, with art by Sal Buscema. This was skippable, but issue #266 (Aug. 1985) was a truly fun tale titled “The Commuter Cometh!” Another humorous story, but not nearly as juvenile as Spider-Kid. Featuring art by Bob McLeod, Spidey has to chase a crook outside the city and into the suburbs. Without any skyscrapers to brachiate between, Spidey’s normal modus operandi is quite disrupted. This was very entertaining and one of my own personal favorites from Peter David.

Firelord

DeFalco and Frenz are back for ASM #268 (Sept. 1985), a Secret Wars II crossover. Then issues 269–270 (Oct.-Nov. 1985) are the Firelord two-parter that many Spidey fans enjoyed, but I did not. This wasn’t an opinion formed later in adulthood, either; I thought and felt this way when I first read it as a young teen, and time has only hardened my position. What was obvious to me then (and even more obvious to me now) was that DeFalco was trying to recreate the Juggernaut story that Stern had written three years earlier.

Firelord is a former herald of Galactus and possesses the power cosmic. He is enormously powerful and way out of Spider-Man’s league. The Juggernaut likewise possesses astonishing power and is way out of Spider-Man’s league, but he has key limitations, specifically his mobility. He is not very fast and is completely earthbound. Spidey temporarily blinding Juggy and getting him to stumble into a still-wet cement foundation and sinking into it is readily believable within the established parameters of the characters and the story.

Here, there’s no tricking Firelord into trapping himself in cement. Even if you could, he’d just blast his way right out. So how does Spidey finally vanquish this cosmically-powered entity? By repeatedly punching him in the face. That’s it. He beats Firelord into unconsciousness with his fists. This was a weak and extremely flawed resolution, and as I said, felt like such a blatant attempt to recreate Stern’s earlier Juggernaut story, pitting Spidey against an unbeatable foe, that even the young teenaged me picked up on it almost immediately. It’s not an offensively bad story or anything; it simply doesn’t work.

Further Missteps

After this, we enter a four-issue stretch of weak stories, a couple of them compromised by being Secret Wars II tie-ins. This is no fault of DeFalco or Frenz, it’s just that we have entered the era where crossovers, tie-ins, and “events” begin to take over the comic book business. One thing you can blame DeFalco for are the bad, soap opera subplots and horrifying mischaracterizations that he would start giving us around this time. One involved Nathan Lubensky and the other involved Flash Thompson & Betty Brant Leeds.

In ASM #271 (Dec. 1985), we see Crusher Hogan for the first time in twenty-three years, which was a bit of fun. The rest of the issue? Not so good. In one subplot, Nathan gets roughed up by some thugs he owes money to. Apparently, he once had (or still has) a gambling problem. Nathan had also become a bigger grouch in general, and more hostile to Peter, specifically, since DeFalco took over. Previously, ol’ Nate had always been portrayed as warm and kind and fun to be around. The change in character here feels rather abrupt.

Also in this issue, Ned Leeds leaves his wife Betty in tears after they have an argument. Two issues later, in ASM #273 (Feb. 1986), we see the couple arguing once again. Betty’s main complaint here is that Ned’s always working and they never see each other. Later this same issue, Ned (along with Lance Bannon) witnesses Betty falling into the arms of Flash Thompson just outside the Daily Bugle building. Ned comes off as downright sinister here, when before, in the Roger Stern Era, he had blossomed into a sweetheart of a guy. Another abrupt character shift.

DeFalco and Frenz did introduce a new villain called Slyde in ASM #272 (Jan. 1986), so once again, give ’em a few points for trying to add something new of their own to the Spidey mythos.

“The Soul of the Spider”

Amazing #274 (Mar. 1986) sees Spidey caught in the middle of a contest between the Beyonder and Mephisto. The Beyonder is ready to destroy the whole multiverse, including the infernal realm of Mephisto, but decides to give it twenty-four more hours of life if Spider-Man can overcome the torturous illusions that Zarathos (the former Ghost Rider) throws at him. Anything that involves the Beyonder and Secret Wars II is going to carry some unpleasant stench to it, at least to my nose, but the nods to Spidey history with art by Romita Sr. are an immense pleasure.

Regarding the art: Ron Frenz did layouts and Tom Morgan and James Fry did the “finished pencils,” while John Romita Sr. did “additional finishes.” Russ Steffens did “background inks” and Jack Fury is credited with an “art assist.” Apart from Romita and Frenz, I don’t think I’ve seen the work of any of those other names before or since. Colors are attributed to “George Roussos & Co.”—so another group effort on the colors, which leads me to believe this whole issue was a rush job. It sure looks like one, with the exception of those spots where Romita contributed, which are beautiful.

Once again, I failed to remember this until I went back and researched for this post. Not only does Gwen appear here, so does her father, Captain Stacy. Now all of these Gwen appearances throughout the early to mid-1980s don’t amount to much—just a panel here and a panel there, a name drop now and then, but it’s still more service than I remembered Gwen getting during this period.

Mischaracterizations

In the Roger Stern Era, there were two comics that suggested Flash and Sha Shan were having problems in their relationship: Spectacular #85 (Dec. 1983) and Amazing Spider-Man Annual #17 (1983). Since Roger Stern and Bill Mantlo both contributed to the writing of the two issues, it’s unclear where this idea started, but since I have far more faith in Stern (particularly as a Spider-Man writer), I tend to believe this was another bad idea from Mantlo. Perhaps lending some credence to this theory is that Al Milgrom, Mantlo’s artist for most of his last Spectacular run, started the affair storyline between Betty and Flash—so I’m thinking maybe this had been Mantlo’s idea and Milgrom just picked it up after Mantlo left. We see this affair develop over the course of Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man 94–100 (Sept. 1984–Mar. 1985). For a more complete rundown of this, check out the Spider-Man Crawlspace site.

This doesn’t let DeFalco off the hook though, as he picked up this subplot in Amazing and made it worse (and it was already mighty terrible to begin with, so this is saying something). After seeing Sha Shan having lunch with Pete in Spectacular #94 (Sept. 1984), Flash assumes the two are having an affair. In ASM #275 (Apr. 1986), when he hears Sha Shan trying to reach Pete by phone, Flash confronts her. “It’s just like I’ve suspected all along! You have been seeing that wimp Parker behind my back!” She shoots back, “No! You’re trying to drag Peter into this to cover your own guilt! It won’t work! I know about you and that tramp, Betty Leeds!”

Then Flash hits her.

Calling Peter a “wimp” drags the Flash character all the way back to 1963, ignoring over two decades of development. And even the 1963 Flash would never stoop to striking a woman, let alone a woman he cared about. Sha Shan referring to Betty as a “tramp” is also wrong. She would never say something like this; not only would it be far beneath her, but I don’t think she would even use such colloquial English. All of this goes so far past wrong, it is utterly horrifying. Just shamelessly awful soap opera. After this, DeFalco leaned hard into the Flash-Betty affair, even making it a part of the Hobgoblin storyline.

Flash and Betty are foundational Spider-Man characters. Flash first appeared in Spidey’s debut in Amazing Fantasy #15 (Aug. 1962). Betty first appeared in Amazing Spider-Man #4 (Sept. 1963) and was Pete’s first girlfriend. Ned Leeds was not as foundational, but still traces his roots back to the Ditko Era, making those roots very deep. DeFalco’s writing of these characters during this period absolutely trashed all three of them. DeFalco’s only saving grace is that none of them had been a BIG part of the running narrative for quite a while, and he was still getting Pete/Spidey right. Even so, this could be considered a shark-jumping development, as the character betrayals and the writing here are just so bad.

End of the Tom DeFalco Era

On the Spidey side, Amazing #275 also sees the Hobgoblin return just as Pete has decided to quit being Spider-Man. One odd thing about Hobby here: His costume’s got this red circle on the right side of the chest. As he explained it, “This new chest plate is actually a trigger– one which unleashes a computerized barrage of high-frequency electrical power discharges!” This was a distracting and awkward costume addition that felt senseless. Readers would later discover that its true purpose was 100% plot related.

Hobgoblin would eventually come across Sha Shan in a bus terminal and grab her as a hostage. This moves Pete to get back into costume and try and rescue her. Their fight would continue into the next issue, #276 (May 1986), where Spidey would defeat and capture the Hobgoblin and finally unmask him as . . . Flash Thompson. “Can it really be true?” Spidey asks himself. “Is Flash guilty?”

Well of course not. Spidey sounds like an idiot for even asking such a question—he knows Flash isn’t Hobgoblin material. This was a frame-up, naturally, and given the behavior of Ned Leeds throughout the build, it appeared obvious that he had to be the real Hobgoblin. In reality, DeFalco probably just wanted to use Ned as a red herring, but he took it too far, and this was a factor in the characters of Flash, Ned, and Betty all getting destroyed. Defalco sacrificed the three of them for plot purposes, a major no-no for any writer trying to produce work of quality. A quality writer always puts character first; you never sacrifice characterization for plot. Especially not when your plot is soap-opera nonsense, or you’re just trying to keep a mystery going that’s already a solid year or two past its sell-by date. As Defalco put it:

I don’t know if I had a plan for when we would do the reveal of the Hobgoblin. I kind of thought that it was interesting while it was running, but as soon as we resolved it, it would no longer be interesting. And as long we could keep coming up with twists and turns, we should keep it going! [“Pro2Pro Roundtable: When Hobby Met Spidey: A History of the Hobgoblin,” Back Issue #35, August 2009, p. 15.]

Hoo boy, do I ever disagree with this. Nothing sinks a storyline like dragging it out too long, and this Hobgoblin story dragged on for far too long.

This ridiculous Flash-is-the-Hobgoblin thing would dominate the next two issues, ASM 277–278 (Jun.-Jul. 1986), though issue #277 also included a back-up story with wonderful art by Charles Vess. In another crossover development, the Scourge, from the pages of Captain America, shows up in issue #278 to kill Flash Thompson, but ends up killing Brian DeWolff (the Wraith) instead. This was after he had already killed off the Fly two issues earlier in ASM #276.

The next issue, ASM #279 (August 1986), was part of the “Where Is Spider-Man?” (also known as “Missing in Action”) event for the August Spidey titles—though Amazing and Spectacular were the only issues where Spidey was actually missing that month. In the case of Amazing, we essentially got a Silver Sable solo story, while Spectacular was a Black Cat solo story. This was an interesting and potentially fun idea from editor Jim Owsley, but something got lost in the execution.

Amazing #280 (Sept. 1986) was the start of a two-parter that put Spidey and Silver Sable up against this new band of villains called the Sinister Syndicate, which included the Beetle, Boomerang, Hydro-Man, Rhino, and Speed Demon. In the background to the action going on in issue #281 (Sept. 1986), Joe Robertson realizes that Flash Thompson’s Hobgoblin costume was missing the big red button on the chest that the real Hobgoblin had been seen wearing earlier, seemingly exonerating Flash. At nearly the same time, Jack O’ Lantern is breaking Flash out of prison.

ASM #282 (Nov. 1986) was a crossover with the then-latest mutant title, X-Factor. In ASM #283 (Dec. 1986), the last issue under the DeFalco-Frenz team, Spider-Man took on Titania and the Absorbing Man. It ends with Flash Thompson still dealing with being a fugitive. And Peter is ready to quit being Spider-Man again . . . just as soon as he finds Flash.

Gang War

Up until now, readers like myself couldn’t really recognize the unrest behind the scenes (which I detailed in my Owsley/Priest post in 2018), but now is when we begin to see it affecting the comics, as it was at this point that DeFalco and Frenz were abruptly fired from Amazing. Not only were DeFalco and Frenz fired, but the guy who fired them, editor Jim Owsley, was also gone almost immediately afterward. You could still find the names of all three—DeFalco, Frenz, and Owsley—in the credits for the next issue though, as the two issues to follow (284–285) would have DeFalco plots scripted by Owsley. This “Gang War” storyline would then be wrapped up across ASM 286–288, with all three issues being written by Owsley alone.

The Spider-Man versus Wolverine one-shot had a cover date of February 1987, which means it was on the stands sometime in November of ’86, which would be around the same time as ASM #285, the second part of “Gang War” storyline. Written by Jim Owsley with pencils by Mark Bright and inks by Al Williamson, the one-shot tells the story of Peter Parker accompanying Ned Leeds to Berlin to dig up info on a Russian spy ring. Their path will eventually intersect that of Wolverine’s, which will eventually lead to a fight between our titular heroes, as well as the murder of Ned Leeds by some anonymous assassins (though circumstances would appear to suggest they were Russian agents).

Back in the pages of ASM, the “Gang War” storyline has all the bad guys fighting with each other for control of New York, trying to fill the shoes of the Kingpin, who’s become distracted by all the stuff going on between he and Daredevil at this time. Let me note that the Arranger starts to play a bigger role in this storyline. The Arranger was like the Kingpin’s accountant, a cheap substitute for the big guy made necessary by the fact that the Daredevil comic had essentially stolen the Kingpin from Spider-Man by this point.

Near the end of this “Gang War” storyline, Spidey and Daredevil are at odds. Daredevil has decided there would be less death and destruction if Kingpin re-established control of crime in New York, but Spidey disagrees. This somehow ends with Daredevil dressing up as the Kingpin in a fat suit and fighting Spidey in ASM #287 (Apr, 1987), another possible shark jumper. (Fat suits will always be potential shark-jumpers.)

While all this is going on, things are heating up on the mystery front(s). Owsley reveals Richard Fisk as the Rose in issue #286 (Mar. 1987). In issue #287, Lance Bannon has a big argument with Roderick Kingsley in his office, has some sinister thought ballons after leaving, and then runs into Mary Jane in the hall and immediately requests she do them “both” a favor and “forget you saw me today! Don’t ever tell anyone I was ever here!”  And finally, after a few isolated incidents of Ned setting off Peter’s spider-sense in earlier issues for no obvious reason, issue #288 (May 1987) seems to make it very clear that Ned Leeds is the Hobgoblin. Even though readers of Spider-Man versus Wolverine know Ned is already dead. Something wasn’t kosher.

“The Hobgoblin Revealed!”

The Spidey-Wolvie one-shot is slotted in here next, as far as the continuity goes. Ned’s body then arrives in NYC near the beginning of Amazing Spider-Man #289 (Jun. 1987). Written by Peter David with pencils by Alan Kupperberg, the cover promises that this is where the Hobgoblin’s identity would at last be revealed. But before this, we learn that he is already (apparently) dead and the man who arranged for his demise is the villain known as the Foreigner. Yet Peter sees the Hobgoblin buzzing around on his glider back at the airport. So what’s going on here?

At the funeral, Betty cracks up, believing Ned is still somehow alive. Kingpin then gets word to Spider-Man that he has info on the Hobgoblin that he wants to share. When Spidey meets up with him, the crime lord gives him a dossier that reveals Ned Leeds was the Hobgoblin. But then who was that Hobgoblin at the airport? The Kingpin goes on to reveal that “His name is Jason Philip Macendale, or, as you know him better, Jack O’ Lantern!” So Jack O’ Lantern is the new Hobgoblin, as well as the guy who hired the Foreigner to kill Ned Leeds.

Spidey is off to find the Foreigner and settle accounts, but the assassin seems to have disappeared. Spidey does cross paths with the new Hobgoblin, however, and the two fight. Flash Thompson shows up in the middle of all this and Spidey manages to save him while the new Hobby figuratively limps away, barely escaping capture. Flash awakens in the hospital to learn the D.A. will no longer be pursuing charges against him. The issue closes on Pete and Felicia (who just had a romantic reunion over in the pages of Spectacular), with Pete deciding to rededicate himself to fighting the bad guys as Spider-Man.

This would seem to tie up everything except . . . do you remember that argument Lance Bannon had with Roderick Kingsley? And then Bannon’s run in with MJ in the hall afterward? Yeah, that never led anywhere. Not only did MJ take Bannon’s advice to “forget you saw me today,” it appears all the writers took this advice, too. My guess would be that DeFalco was trying to use Bannon as another red herring for the Hobgoblin.

This whole thing was awful. Even my teenaged self recognized this at the time. It was clear that someone at Marvel just wanted this Hobgoblin mystery to be over with, and so they ended it in the hastiest of fashions. This was literally one of the worst comic-book stories of all time. Absolute shark-jumping material, no question.

The Hobgoblin Mishegoss

The Northern New Jersey neighborhood where I grew up was a big melting pot, and among the biggest ethnic groups in town were the Italian people (my tribe) and the Jewish people. Plus I listened to Howard Stern daily on the radio and regularly read Mad magazine, so my ears were immersed in Yiddish throughout my young life. So immersed that when I first brought up the Hobgoblin in my Owsley/Priest post, the word mishegoss just popped into my head while I was writing. It was the perfect word to describe this whole disaster; one of those words that just sounds exactly like what it means.

As discussed in my previous post in this series, Roger Stern’s plan for the Hobgoblin was to have him be revealed as Roderick Kingsley. As DeFalco remembered it:

When I left as editor, I didn’t know who Roger thought the Hobgoblin was. So when I took over as writer, the first thing I did was I had a discussion with Roger, and he told me. He said Kingsley. And I said, “I’m sorry, he’s been eliminated as a suspect.”

And I explained where he’d been eliminated: issue #249, where he was in the same room as the Hobgoblin. And Roger says, “Oh, no, he has an evil twin.” And I said, “A what?” What I didn’t know was that there was one thought balloon that appeared between my tenure as editor and Danny’s tenure, and in that thought balloon, Kingsley mentions having a brother. I felt it violated one of the rules of writing mysteries, which is that you have to play fair with the readers. If there is a twin, we have to see that twin early on. Otherwise, it’s a cheat. We have to know that there’s a twin going into it, or essentially we’re being unfair to the readers. It just didn’t work for me as a writer. [“Pro2Pro Roundtable: When Hobby Met Spidey: A History of the Hobgoblin,” Back Issue #35, August 2009, p. 14.]

DeFalco should be commended for this, as it was absolutely the right call. Regardless of his tenure as writer on Spider-Man, DeFalco is probably the greatest-ever editor of the Spider-Man line of comics. In a perfect world, DeFalco and Stern would have remained in their respective roles as editor and writer of Amazing and Defalco would have ordered Stern back to the drawing board to come up with another Hobgoblin resolution. Instead, with Stern gone and DeFalco having taken over writing duties, he would have to come up with that resolution himself.

The resolution he landed upon was Richard Fisk. This resolution may not have been the most exciting or dramatic option, but it could have worked. DeFalco also decided to make Roderick Kingsley the Rose. This also likely would have worked well enough. The sour relationship with Owsley, though, would wreck these plans. That “Pro2Pro Roundtable” from a 2009 issue of Back Issue, featuring all the creators involved (which I’ve quoted from several times already), delved into this in greater detail. You can read it yourself via the digital edition available on the TwoMorrows website here. For now, I’ll just give you my Cliff’s Notes version.

So DeFalco landed on Richard Fisk as the Hobgoblin. At a later meeting, after taking the editorial reins from Danny Fingeroth, Owsley demanded to know who DeFalco had in mind to be the Hobgoblin. Not trusting Owsley, DeFalco just blurted out “Ned Leeds.” He said this to appease Owsley while still planning to make Richard Fisk the Hobgoblin, even though the way he was writing Leeds in ASM was starting to make it feel like Leeds was the only viable candidate left. Either DeFalco had changed his mind at some point and decided to go with Leeds, or he had simply gone too far in his efforts to make Ned Leeds the reddest of red herrings. (Probably the latter.)

From here, Owsley writes Spider-Man versus Wolverine, where he kills off Ned Leeds. According to Peter David in that BI piece, Owsley did this to “piss off DeFalco.” DeFalco and Frenz were fired from Amazing right after this, and Peter David put together a resolution to the Hobgoblin mystery that Owsley approved. David’s story would see print in ASM #289. As I already mentioned, this issue was utterly awful.

Ned Leeds as the Hobgoblin never worked. Even as a dopey teen, I had developed enough taste to recognize that this was one of the worst comic book stories I’d ever seen, if not the very worst. When the reveal came, the first thing my brain flashed back to was this scene from ASM #231 (Aug. 1982), where Ned saves the life of stoolie criminal lowlife, Nose Norton.

The Hobgoblin would debut seven months later in ASM #238 (Mar. 1983). Now you’re telling me that in just seven months, this sweet, noble soul that risked his own neck to save a criminal informer would turn into the evil mastermind who blows up George Hill in his van and then becomes the Hobgoblin? GTFO. To say nothing of the fact that Ned Leeds did not have the scientific or mechanical acumen to work with the Green Goblin’s equipment as the Hobgoblin was shown doing. The whole thing was just so painfully stupid and wrong.

The Once and Future Hobgoblin

Roger Stern had an out. All he had to do was simply walk away, not look back, and his hands could have remained clean. But he became possessed by this idea (a very, very, very BAD idea) that he could clean up this Hobgoblin mess and restore his original vision in the process. When Stern approached DeFalco with this idea, DeFalco once again demonstrated flawless editorial instincts:

After I became editor-in-chief [in 1987], Roger came to me and proposed the story. And I said to him, “Roger, I totally agree with you—none of the stuff about Ned being the Hobgoblin made any sense. But I think too much time has passed.” I think you should always move forward and not look back. Don’t try to recreate the past.

My problem with [Stern’s idea] conceptually was that ten years earlier, we knew who the suspects were. But so much time had passed that you had to reintroduce all the suspects because nobody knew who they were anymore. A character like Kingsley hadn’t appeared in the books in about ten years. I just thought it was too late. [“Pro2Pro Roundtable: When Hobby Met Spidey: A History of the Hobgoblin,” Back Issue #35, August 2009, pp. 21–22.]

Yest again, DeFalco was 100% right on this score. This should have been the end of it, but Stern kept on pitching. And eventually, someone at Marvel bit on the pitch. So finally, more than ten years after the Hobgoblin mystery was originally resolved with that awful Ned Leeds reveal, Stern tried to remedy matters with Spider-Man: Hobgoblin Lives 1-3 (Jan., Feb., Apr. 1997), a three-issue series released between late 1996 and very early ‘97. I had quit reading Spider-Man at this point but came back for these three issues, naturally curious to see what Stern had in mind.

And what he had in mind was terrible, because he wanted to retcon Roderick Kingsley into the Hobgoblin. The continuity gymnastics required to make this work were ludicrous, including brainwashing Ned Leeds into a completely different person. And all of these gymnastics were done for the purpose of making Roderick Kingsley, a nothing character, into the Hobgoblin. Calling him a “nothing character” might actually be giving him too much credit. He was a nothing character to begin with; by 1996, he was a nothing character who hadn’t appeared or even been referenced in Spider-Man comics for almost a decade. What a colossal waste this was.

As if we needed any more proof, after this three-issue series, the Kingsley Hobgoblin returned for one brief, three-issue storyline (written by Stern) just over a year later, then disappeared for a dozen more years. Everybody stopped caring about the Hobgoblin after that awful reveal in ASM #289 and Hobgoblin Lives did nothing to restore interest in the character.

PROVISO: What follows all comes from research, as I have not read any of these comics firsthand.

Stern returned for the “Goblins at the Gate” storyline, published in Spectacular Spider-Man 259-261 (Jul.-Sept. 1998), featuring the Kingsley Hobgoblin and Norman Osborn. After this, with the exception of one appearance in an alternate-future reality in Spider-Girl, the Kingsley Hobgoblin would not appear again in proper continuity for more than another twelve years, when Dan Slott brought him back in Amazing Spider-Man #649 (Jan. 2011). Here, Roderick appears to be killed by this other, alternate Goblin, whose real name is Phil Urich (nephew of Bugle reporter Ben Urich). Phil Urich then takes the Hobgoblin identity for himself. It will later be revealed that it was Roderick’s lookalike brother, Daniel, that Urich killed.

Eventually, Roderick Kingsley (who had since taken on a new identity as “Devil Spider”) returns to go after this usurper Hobgoblin, but they end up coming to an accord, with Roderick allowing Phil to continue as the Hobgoblin for a cut of what he makes as a super-criminal. This took place in Amazing Spider-Man #695–697 (Dec. 2012-Jan. 2013), again written by Dan Slott. As of this writing, Roderick is apparently still alive in the Marvel continuity, still operating as some kind of financier for supervillains.

If you want to continue following the Hobgoblin from here, I’m afraid you’re on your own. I did some further cursory searching beyond this and found it too much of a mess to follow. It appears the Phil-Hobgoblin then became the Goblin Knight, and then some other stuff happened, and . . . like I said, it became too complicated for me to follow or care about and I gave up. My larger point here is that, much like Humpty Dumpty, once they broke the Hobgoblin with that Ned Leeds reveal, they were never able to put him back together. Nothing they did could make him a viable character again.

Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man

Losing Mantlo from Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man was a step in the right direction, but the work of his replacement, Al Milgrom, who became both writer and penciler, was no great shakes. Over the course of his eleven issues, Milgrom offered us strange, new characters like the Answer, the Hermit, and the Spot. (And while the Spider-Verse movies may have turned the Spot into a multiversal-threat-level badass, back when he first showed up, he was just goofy.) In anniversary issue #100 (Mar. 1985), he broke up Spidey and the Black Cat. And, as mentioned, Milgrom also started the Betty-Flash affair. Aside from axing the ill-conceived Spidey-Cat relationship, it’s not exactly a sparkling résumé.

Owsley pushed Milgrom out almost immediately after taking over as Spider-Editor and replaced him (eventually, after burning off some fill-ins) with newcomer Peter David, whom Owsley had hired out of Marvel’s sales department. This would prove Owsley’s greatest success as an editor, as David would go on to comics stardom in later years.

Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man #101 (Apr. 1985) was a fill-in by Cary Burkett with pencils by Juan Alacantara and inks by Jack Abel. What’s notable about this story is that it’s Gwen Stacy’s birthday, and Pete’s memories of her occupy his thoughts for the entire issue. And for the record, yes, this is a Gwen issue I did remember. (As this was no mere passing mention but a primary theme of the story, it would be hard to forget!)

After another one-off from Burkett for issue #102, Spectacular #103 (Jun. 1985) would be Peter David’s debut as Spectacular writer. A great start for David, “Compulsion!” was likely inspired by the Hitchcock film, Rope, which was itself inspired by the real-life criminal case of Leopold and Loeb. Later on, in the story “Eye Witness!” from Spectacular #121 (Dec. 1986), David would draw inspiration from the Japanese classic, Rashomon.

The Death of Jean DeWolff

But these aren’t the Spectacular stories this David run is best remembered for. The one it’s best remembered for is the four-part “Death of Jean DeWolff” storyline from Spectacular 107–110 (Oct. 1985-Jan. 1986). Owsley’s larger vision for the whole line of Spider-Man titles truly started here. The gist of this vision was that instead of every Spidey book being a general story about Spider-Man, Owsley wanted each title to have a particular flavor to it; an identity of its own. For Spectacular, he wanted gritty stories, like a television crime drama. For Web, he was looking for a mystery/suspense flavor, with the narrative following Peter and reporter Joy Mercado as they went out on assignments for Jameson’s Now magazine, with these assignments often taking them outside of Spidey’s regular NYC environs. Amazing would remain the traditional superhero comic.

And Peter David certainly delivered that grittiness Owsley was looking for with “The Death of Jean DeWolff.” Penciled by Rich Buckler (who would be David’s artistic partner for most of his Spectacular run), it’s well-written and well executed, with a dark, grim atmosphere billowing out of its figurative ears. The only problem I see with it, all these years later, is the actual death of Jean DeWolff. It’s just another waste of a character that had a lot of untapped potential. When you go back for a comprehensive re-reading of Spider-Man comics as I have done with this series of posts, there’s just so much death—so many bodies piling up, it’s emotionally exhausting, to the point of becoming unbearable.

A couple other nitpicks: David tweaked Jean’s backstory, I’m guessing to put some distance between her and her supervillain brother, the Wraith. As usual, I would have preferred David simply ignore this material if he didn’t like it and avoid the retconning. And the other thing was Spidey and Daredevil revealing their secret identities to each other. I liked this development at the time, but I’ve since come to believe that Spidey works better when his identity is kept as secret as possible. The less who know, the better.

David’s run would go on to give us a lot of good stuff, but his big contribution (or at least the one that would take up the most space in his stories) would be a villain named the Foreigner. Technically, his first appearance was as a voice on the phone in a scene from Web of Spider-Man #15 (Jun. 1986), which was written by David Michelinie, but his full first appearance did not come until the following month in Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man #116 (July 1986), by David & Buckler.

The Foreigner ran an assassin’s organization called the 1400 Club. He would eventually become involved with the Black Cat and hatched a scheme to get Spider-Man to work for his organization, but the Cat (after briefly rekindling her romance with Spidey) turned on him and foiled these plans.

Marvel Team-Up/Web of Spider-Man

This era saw the end of our dear, old friend, Marvel Team-Up, to be replaced by the new solo Spidey title, Web of Spider-Man. Most of the last year of MTU came from David Michelinie, Cary Burkett, and Tony Isabella, with pencils by Greg LaRocque. The very last issues, 149–150 (Jan.-Feb. 1985), were written by Louise Simonson (née Jones) and teamed Spidey with some mutants (first Cannonball of the New Mutants, then the X-Men). Simonson and LaRocque would then continue as a team for the first few issues of Web of Spider-Man.

And that first issue of Web (Apr. 1985) is a story you might find familiar, even if you’ve never had the pleasure of reading it yourself before. After breaking out of the Baxter Building in Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man #98 (Jan. 1985), the symbiote suit re-attaches itself to Pete/Spidey, and the only way to get rid of it is through loudly-clanging church bells. This scene has been recreated a number of times in both animated Spidey shows as well as Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3.

From this point, the new series hit a bit of a lull. Then Peter David and Sal Buscema gave us an excellent sorta Hulk team-up in Web #7 (Oct. 1985)—this was more than a year before David’s epic run on Incredible Hulk would get its start with issue #328 (Feb. 1987), so it was a portent of David’s future. And the issue to follow would be David Michelinie’s debut on Web, a two-parter that ran from issues 8–9 (Nov.-Dec. 1985). Peter David and Danny Fingeroth did a few more stories after this before Michelinie was back as the regular writer with Web #14 (May 1986). A young Marc Silvestri came aboard as regular penciler with issue #16 (Jul. 1986), which was also the issue where Owsley’s “mystery” vibe for the title truly got its start. Just check out the cover and you’ll pick up said vibe immediately.

Unfortunately, this vibe never got a proper chance to really get going. Not only was Owsley’s editorial tenure in its final months, but real-world events would shake up the creative plans for Web of Spider-Man. After just getting started, with issues 16–18 kicking off the “Where Is Spider-Man?”/“Missing in Action” event, Web #19 (Oct. 1986) sees Jameson assigning Pete and Joy to cover a speech Margaret Thatcher is giving to Parliament regarding terrorist activities in Northern Ireland. The pair make the trip in the following issue, Web #20 (Nov. 1986), and upon their arrival, find themselves in the middle of a bombing at London’s Heathrow Airport. As the Troubles were still ongoing at this time, this story was both dramatic and timely—too timely, as it turned out. As Michelinie recalled it:

There was a mention of the IRA in the first part of the story and my portrayal must have offended someone because Marvel received a bomb threat shortly after Web #20 went on sale. The entire building had to be cleared out but, luckily, no bomb was found. I was immediately asked to truncate the . . . story and to cut out any mention of the IRA. While censorship offends me as a writer, I didn’t want anybody getting blown up because of a story I had written for a comic book! Marvel put a fill-in in Web #21 and had someone else rewrite #22. I declined to do the rewriting myself. [David Michelinie, Comics Creators on Spider-Man, ed. Tom DeFalco, New York: Titan Books, 2004, pp. 133-134.]

The fill-in for issue #21 (Dec. 1986) came from Larry Lieber and the re-worked conclusion to Pete and Joy’s UK excursion appeared in Web #22 (Jan. 1987), sans interior credits, though Silvestri was clearly the penciler and Jim Shooter and Len Kaminski were later attributed as writers. It’s a shame that things broke this way, as I really would have liked to see what Michelinie originally had in mind for this storyline.

Despite this, during his brief time on Web, Michelinie still managed to add several fun characters like Chance, Humbug, and Solo. Again, I always appreciate it when a writer tries to add something to a well-established strip, as opposed to just using existing characters created by others. On everything that circumstances allowed Michelinie to write on Web without interference, it’s all good work.

This brings us to the larger debate of publishing Spider-Man across multiple titles by multiple creators. From a business standpoint, it clearly makes sense for Marvel to put out as many Spider-Man titles as possible, because Spider-Man sells; his comics make money. From a creative/artistic standpoint, however, there should only be one Spider-Man comic handled by one writer, because different writers working on the same character at the same time will likely compromise the efforts of one another, whether they mean to do so or not. Perhaps Owsley realized this after seeing the effect Bill Mantlo’s work had on Roger Stern’s efforts in the previous era of Spider-Man comics; perhaps not. But however his conclusions were reached, Owsley was absolutely right in trying to differentiate the Spider-Man titles as editor. He also demonstrated excellent judgment in signing up Peter David and Dave Michelinie to write Spider-Man for him.

Spider-Man Annuals

Amazing Spider-Man Annual #18 (1984) is a great favorite of mine, probably the height of this whole era for me, personally. With a plot by DeFalco and script by Stan Lee, “The Scorpion Takes a Bride!” is great fun. While the title is technically true, don’t be misled: the Scorpion is not getting married here. The bride he’s taking is J. Jonah Jameson’s betrothed, Marla Madison. With pencils by Ron Frenz and finishes by Bob Layton and Jackson Guice, the art is a great complement to this fine story.

Great action right from the jump, with Spider-Man catching a falling helicopter. The action got even better once Spidey and the Scorpion started duking it out. And great character work between Jameson and his son, John. But the best part of all, for me, are the words of Stan Lee. It’s got all of his signature warmth, all of his humor. This one panel, with the silliest, most New York City of jokes, is the one I’ll always carry with me: Jameson catching a cab and ordering the hack to follow Spider-Man and the Scorpion as they battle above the streets of Manhattan. The hack absolutely refuses to get in the middle of this melee until JJJ offers a hundred bucks cash, and then it’s “fasten yer seat-belt!”

The story ends with JJJ and Marla tying the knot, and Lee’s words closing it out with: “See? If grouchy old men can find love, there’s hope for all of us!” This might be the last Spider-Man comic to ever make me feel unqualified, uncompromised joy.

ASM Annual #19 (1985), “Fun ‘n’ Games,” presents Alistair Smythe, son of Spencer Smythe, as the new inventor of robotic spider slayers to bedevil Spider-Man, courtesy of Louise Simonson (script) and Mary Wilshire (pencils). Annual #20 (1986) “Man of the Year,” pits Spidey against the Iron Man of 2020 and was reviewed by me back in January of 2020.

Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man Annual #5-6 (1985-1986) featured a character named Ace in both stories, titled “Ace” and “Ace II.” Peter David wrote ’em both and likewise, Mark Beachum and Josef Rubinstein provided the art both years. If you’re a Prince fan, you’ll love Ace. Annual #5 also featured the first appearance of Joy Mercado—technically, a reporter named Joy Mercado made an earlier appearance in Moon Knight #33 (Sept. 1983), but this was clearly (in hindsight) a different character from the one who would team up with Peter Parker here and in the pages of Web of Spider-Man later.

In the last Marvel Team-Up Annual, #7 (1984), Spidey teams with Alpha Flight to take on the Collector, courtesy of Louise Simonson, Paul Neary, and Sam de la Rosa. In the first Web of Spider-Man Annual, #1 (1985), Spider-Man tackles a homemade robot in “Give Me A Hand, Future Max,” by Ann Nocenti with art by Tony Salmons, behind a lovely painted cover by Charles Vess. We’d get another painted cover from Vess in the year to follow for Web of Spider-Man Annual #2 (1986). “Wake Me Up I Gotta Be Dreaming” was written once again by Ann Nocenti with art by Arthur Adams. The story featured the New Mutants with a particular focus on Warlock.

When Characters Are Not Themselves

One of the larger problems with this era were certain portrayals of Pete/Spidey—not by DeFalco, but by others. There are several moments in the “Sins Past” storyline where Pete/Spidey comes off like an immature, petulant child, particularly when he’s juxtaposed with Daredevil. This happens again in the “Gang War” storyline, where Pete/Spidey feels like a child throwing a tantrum while Daredevil is the grown up that has to correct Spidey’s behavior. In the wake of “Gang War,” Kingpin is practically a different character in regard to Spidey. Remember the Wein and Wolfman Eras, when Spider-Man was Kingpin’s biggest obsession, his white whale? Now he’s almost an afterthought for the Kingpin. In a Bob Layton fill-in from Spectacular #130 (Sept. 1987), Kingpin even goes so far as to dismiss Spider-Man as an “amateur.”

I have posed the question, “Is he still Pete/Spidey?” in every post in this series. Well, however I or anyone else might answer that question for this era, I can tell you the Kingpin was certainly no longer the Kingpin by this stage. In fact, he barely resembles that character from those prior eras. That Kingpin hated Spider-Man beyond anyone and anything else. That Kingpin would never consider Spider-Man as some childish “amateur.” Spider-Man was the guy always messing up his plans; the one roadblock between himself and absolute power.

But the worst of all this probably took place in the Spider-Man versus Wolverine one-shot. Over and over, Wolverine shoos Spider-Man away like he’s some troublesome brat, telling him to go home, he’s over his head, he has no idea what’s going on, and that he’s just going to make everything worse. And Pete/Spidey’s behavior in this story would seem to justify such words. This is a bad approach, as it paints Spidey as immature and incompetent, and this is not who Spider-Man is. For all of Peter Parker’s losses, for all of his setbacks as Spidey, in the end, Spider-Man foils the bad guy’s plans 99% of the time. And he knows right from wrong—he doesn’t need lecturing from Daredevil or anyone else to figure this out. And he is always a formidable opponent. No one, neither hero nor villain, should ever look down on Spider-Man as some kind of “amateur.” He’s been at this for a long time, beating bad guys and saving the day almost since the very beginning of the Marvel Universe.

If you asked me who was the better writer between Defalco and Owsley/Priest, my answer would be Owsley/Priest and it wouldn’t even take much thought. But a lot of the bad Spidey characterization I just described came from Owsley/Priest. So if you asked me more specifically which of them had a better handle on the character of Peter Parker/Spider-Man, my answer would be DeFalco and this wouldn’t take much thought, either.

Flash, Betty, and Ned

The three characters DeFalco did get horribly wrong were Flash Thompson, Betty Brant Leeds, and Ned Leeds. Let’s get into the deeper details of just how horrible and how wrong this all was.

A lot of fans might remember Flash as a one-dimensional bully, but this was never truly the case. As early as Amazing Spider-Man #9 (Feb. 1964), one issue after Pete cleaned his clock in a boxing match, we see Flash thinking to himself, “I don’t know—maybe I’ve been too rough on Parker! He’s more of a man than I thought!” In ASM #10 (Mar. 1964), Liz and Flash show up at the hospital to see how Pete’s Aunt May is doing after an operation. “It was Liz’s idea,” Flash grumbles. And Pete thinks to himself, “Poor Flash! He’s so afraid I might find out he’s really got a heart somewhere under that thick skin!” Later in this same issue, Flash expresses concern over Pete running afoul of the Enforcers.

Scenes like this would continue to occur regularly going forward, even as Flash would threaten Pete about “beating” his “time” with Liz. Plus Flash was always Spider-Man’s number one fan, regardless of how he may have felt about Peter Parker on any given day. By the time they got to college, Flash would still ride Peter often, bust his chops and such, but his bullying days were behind him. When Flash returned after his army stint, he was a very different person—a mature adult. By the time we get to the Viet Nam two-parter in Amazing 108–109 (May-Jun. 1972), Flash emerges as a breath-takingly admirable guy.

This was truly one of the greatest character evolution arcs in the history of superhero comics, as readers saw Flash grow up into a man right before their eyes. All of this good work was tossed aside for the sake of a bad, soap opera subplot. And these soap opera shenanigans led to the break-up with Sha Shan, the woman that represented the apex of Flash’s character arc. Their interracial romance was also one of the earliest in comics history and thus rather important. It’s a relationship that should have been preserved. Speaking of Sha Shan, it felt like DeFalco mischaracterized her here as well, but not to the point of complete character betrayal like with Flash.

Then there’s Betty. In one of their earliest interactions, on the last page of Amazing Spider-Man #7 (Dec. 1963), Pete discovers Betty hiding behind her desk after Spidey and the Vulture had a huge brawl in the Bugle offices. When Betty asks him where he was during the brawl, Pete tells her he was hiding in a closet because he’s “not the heroic type.”

“Neither am I!” Betty responds. “Maybe that’s why I like you so much, Peter! At least you don’t pretend to be what you’re not!” In issue #9, she expresses concern over the possibility of Pete enjoying his dangerous photo assignments; a concern she would express again several times over the course of their relationship. So Betty was not interested in thrill seekers or glory hounds, nor was she attracted to juicehead-gorilla jocks; she was attracted to the soft-spoken, gentle, intellectual type, like Peter and like Ned. Her falling for Flash Thompson (particularly after Milgrom and DeFalco devolved him back into a juicehead gorilla) was completely out of character; an obvious contrivance. Moreover, the two had barely interacted on the comics page prior to the start of their affair. It came out of nowhere, with no real foundation.

Ned Leeds first appeared as a romantic rival for Betty’s affection in Amazing Spider-Man #18 (Nov. 1964), and despite the rivalry, Pete and Ned were very respectful of each other. They’d start to butt heads more later on, particularly after Ned proposed to Betty. Then, after getting married and returning to New York in the Marv Wolfman Era, there were a lot of issues between Pete, Betty, and Ned. But Roger Stern resolved all this during his era. Bringing it all back up again in this era just feels repetitive, lazy, and a clear backward step. All of this was simply bad writing.

Such poor writing could easily be considered a shark jumper, but at the absolute least, DeFalco was still getting Pete/Spidey right. Even when other writers were getting the character wrong, DeFalco was still getting him right. This might be the only thing, in my mind, that keeps this era from being the definitive shark-jumping era.

Mishegoss Revisited

Having gone over the Hobgoblin mess in such detail, some may wonder: as bad as this was, how was it not the definitive, all-time shark jumper for Spider-Man? Well, as I went over at the very beginning of this series of posts, there are different definitions for shark jumping, different categories, and different interpretations of the phrase. There’s also a lot of subjectivity in answering these questions and this is a subjective blog, so my own experience colors my viewpoint here, no question. Part of why I don’t consider the Hobgoblin resolution to be the definitive shark-jumper for Spider-Man comics is because I know there’s worse—much worse—to come in the future. The Hobgoblin mishegoss also did not cause me to quit buying Amazing Spider-Man.

Now that resolution in ASM #289 was certainly when the Hobgoblin jumped the shark. But ultimately, this was just one storyline; one villain in Spidey’s very large Rogues’ Gallery. It was a shit ending to a once-promising storyline/villain, but it ended and Spider-Man went on. If they righted the ship and went forward with a strong creative direction, the Hobgoblin might have been left remembered today as just a bump in the road of Spidey history, as opposed to a signal that the ship was starting to take on water.

Summing Up

DeFalco and Frenz did give us some good stuff, with the good, old-fashioned superhero action being the strongest aspect of their tenure. Brawls with the Sinister Syndicate, Puma, and the Hobgoblin were all good fun. And Pete/Spidey generally still felt like our Pete/Spidey, at least under DeFalco. As for nearly every other character, though . . . the rampant mischaracterizations were this era’s greatest weakness, along with dragging out and ultimately wrecking the Hobgoblin mystery. And even though I don’t consider this the era of the definitive shark jump, the Tom DeFalco Era was when I had begun to buy Spider-Man comics largely by rote, and not active desire. Maybe I was finally beginning to grow up, just a little.

2 thoughts on “When Spidey Jumped the Shark, Pt. 8: The Tom DeFalco Era”

  1. I agree with a lot that you have said about this era for Spider-Man. The Hobgoblin mystery had run too long, especially after a few false teases that it would finally be resolved. I also loved Annual 18, and the cab joke works on a couple of levels, because JJJ was known for being a tightwad and his willingness to part with $100 revealed his concern for his loved ones.

  2. I remember reading the hobgoblin stories in this era and finding them a massive mess as well. It all felt so mean spirited and awful.

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