Remember when Spider-Man comics had good stories to tell? Yeah, it's been a while. I haven't picked up any of the core Spider-Man titles for more than ten years now and what with the hoopla of 'One More Day', I doubt I'll be returning anytime soon to the one character that made me decide to seriously collect comics way back in 1984. Did I say, "I doubt"? Well, anything can happen in the future but it is telling that since I returned to reading superhero comics in 2005, albeit in trade collection format, none of the books I bought have been Spider-Man titles other than the Marvel Adventures hardcover, that Mary Jane Loves Spider-Man hardcover and some collections of the good ol' times when he was fun to read (i.e. anything before the Spider-Clone saga). A bitter former Spidey fan, am I? You think?
Which brings me, in a rather roundabout way, to today's blog entry. Marvel Tales Starring Spider-Man #170 was the first comic in 11-year old Khairul H.'s comic collection. It wasn't my first superhero comic. I don't remember what my first superhero comic was but Marvel Tales #170 was the one that, after reading it, made me decide to visit the neighbourhood grocery shop to wait for this title every month and thus became the first comic in my humble comic collection.
I remember picking this comic up and thinking that it featured a brand new story. Hey, I was 11! Cut me some slack here! The cover had the blurb, "Dedicated to YOU, the great new Marvel breed of reader!" That's me, I thought at the time. I'm a new great new Marvel breed of reader. It spoke to ME. It took a second reading to make me realise I was actually reading a reprint of a Spider-Man story first published in 1965 and that Marvel Tales is a title used to showcase classic Marvel comics for a new generation of comic readers. No wonder the characters wore somewhat out of date clothes, I remember thinking. Hey, I may be 11 but I was already quite a hip fashionista, baby. Anyway, the fact I was reading a reprint didn't bother me. I was already hooked.
Issue #170 turned out to be the first part of a three part story (A serendipity. I probably would not have been a loyal reader if I started reading with #171, for example. The back issue boxes? What back issue boxes? I bought the comic from a grocery, for Heaven's sakes!) It opens with Spider-Man attempting to stop a gang of masked crooks from escaping with radioactive materials. How exciting was that? First time reading a comic book and I was already treated to some superhero action on page two. Spidey fails to stop them however and leaves the scene wondering together with the reader what the heck was that all about. In the meantime, Peter Parker gets himself enrolled into college and finds out his Aunt May is dying (gee, nothing new there). Issue #170 ends with Round 2 of Spidey versus masked henchmen of mysterious evildoer. Bad guys escape again and I couldn't wait for issue #171 arrive.
One thing that I noticed while re-reading this issue is the compressed style of writing. Check out this page for example:
In just nine panels on one page, a new reader unfamiliar with the book can do some catch up, at least with the supporting characters. One, the grouchy guy is J. Jonah Jameson. Two, he's the big boss. Three, he's also quite impatient. Four, Foswell is his top reporter. Five, his secretary is called Betty Brant and Peter is her boyfriend. She also doesn't think too much of Jameson. Six, she's torn between two men in her life, Peter and this guy Ned and seven, she suspects that Peter is hiding something from her.
All that on just one page. Back then, Stan Lee and co. wrote comics like their lives depended on it. If this scene was written in today's comics by certain writers, all that information would have been spread across pages.
Issue #171 and Spider-Man is a pissed off superhero. It is revealed that Aunt May who fell ill and was dying in the last issue became that way due to radiation in her bloodstream and it's all Peter's fault. A much needed blood transfusion from nephew to auntie in an earlier issue is now threatening her life. I would have thought that the irradiated blood would give May Parker the proportionate strength of a spider as well but no, Stan Lee chose the 'knocking on Heaven's door' route. Besides, Aunt May in superhero tights? Yikes!
With the help of Doctor Connors (a.k.a The Lizard on his off days), Spider-Man discovers that there's only one kind of serum that has any hope of helping his aunt and wouldn't you know it, it has just been stolen from the hands of the courier who was supposed to deliver it to Doctor Connors. And it was stolen by the same hoods from the previous issue. Damn, if it isn't one thing, it's another. It turns out that they are working for a mysterious bad guy who calls himself the MASTER PLANNER. He's been ordering his men to go and steal radioactive materials and new fangled chemicals which are all part of his dastardly plan to rule the world. And who is this MASTER PLANNER?
Oh, it's him.
Cue fight scene between Spidey and Doctor Octopus that ends with Spidey trapped under what looks like a very heavy piece of machinery and Octopus' secret hideout has a leak in the roof. Oh, didn't I mention his hideout was under the sea? Well, it was. And it had a leaky roof.
And finally, this is it. Spider-Man is trapped under tons of steel, the serum that could cure his aunt just inches away from his grasp and seawater is leaking through the roof. Issue 172 of Marvel Tales was and still is ten kinds of awesome. Just look at that cover. It had no word ballons and just one blurb, "The Final Chapter", to entice the potential buyer. In fact, the cover would have been better without that blurb. Just the image of Spider-Man trapped under all that steel, trapped in that claustrophobic environment with water pouring in, pouring onto his head. To an 11 year old who has been following this story for the past two issues, I couldn't wait to see how he escapes from this trap. And boy, did it deliver. Check out these panels:
Yeah, you can do it, Spidey. You can do it.
That's it! Work those biceps!
Screw the strain! You got a sick aunt who's counting on you!
Yes! Yes! You're almost there! C'mon, Spider-Man!
HELL, YEAH! YOU THE MAN, SPIDEY! YOU THE SPIDER-MAN!
Hot damn! I was never a big fan of Steve Ditko's style (and I'm still not a fan today) but those panels were breathtaking. Twenty three years later today and they can still generate excitement in me. I want Spider-Man to get out and escape so he can help his aunt. I am there rooting for him on every panel and wishing he doesn't slip on the pool of water or lose his grip or anything. Now this was what I used to read comics for. Pure unadulterated suspense, action and good ol' super heroics.
The wall-crawler escapes just in time before the roof collapses and after punching his way through the remaining few of Doctor Octopus' hired help, he hands in the serum to the doctors at the hospital. Aunt May recovers, Peter is happy and I became a new loyal reader of Marvel's in general and Spider-Man in particular that lasted for about ten years before that dang Spider-Clone storyline ended it all.
Good times, gooood times.
These issues, along with the entire Stan Lee/Steve Ditko run on Spider-Man, have been collected in the The Amazing Spider-Man Omnibus volume 1. I highly recommend this huge volume if you're even slightly interested in Spider-Man. As I write this, the Omnibus will be going through a second printing as the first edition sold out mighty quick (well, the third Spider-Man movie was doing its run so that must have helped sales of the book). As mentioned above, I'm not so hot on Steve Ditko's pencils but he was the first Spidey-artist and he did design the look so from the historical perspective, his contribution cannot be denied. And Stan Lee's writing? Well, it's Stan Lee. Verbose where it needed to be and full of action where action was required.