Essential Spider-Man volume 3

By Stan Lee, John Romita & various (Marvel)
ISBN 0-7851-0658-8

The rise and rise of the wondrous web-spinner continued and even increased pace as the 1960s progressed, and by the time of the tales in this third spectacular volume of black and white reprints (collecting the contents of Amazing Spider-Man #44-68) Peter Parker and friends were on the way to being household names as well as the darlings of college campuses and the media intelligentsia.

The Marvel merriment begins with the return of a tragedy-drenched old foe as Stan Lee and John Romita reintroduced biologist Curt Conners in #44’s (Jan 1967) ‘Where Crawls the Lizard!’ The deadly reptilian marauder threatened Humanity itself and it took all of the wall-crawler’s resourcefulness to stop him in the concluding ‘Spidey Smashes Out!’

Issue #46 introduced an all-new menace in the form of seismic super-thief ‘The Sinister Shocker!’ whilst ‘In the Hands of the Hunter!’ brought back a fighting mad Kraven to menace the family of Peter Parker’s friend Harry Osborn. Apparently the obsessive big-game hunter had entered into a contract with Harry’s father (the super-villain Green Goblin until a psychotic break turned him into a traumatised amnesiac) and now he wanted paying off…

Luckily Spider-Man was on hand to dissuade him, but it’s interesting to note that at this time the student life and soap-opera sub-plots became increasingly important to the mix, with glamour girls Mary Jane Watson and Gwen Stacy (superbly delineated by the masterful Romita) as well as former bully Flash Thompson and the Osborns getting as much or more “page-time” as Aunt May or the Daily Bugle staff, who had previously monopolised the non-costumed portions of the ongoing saga.

Amazing Spider-Man #48 introduced Blackie Drago a ruthless thug who shared a prison cell with one of the wall-crawler’s oldest foes. At death’s door the ailing super-villain revealed his technological secrets, enabling Drago to escape and master ‘The Wings of the Vulture!’ Younger, faster, tougher the new Vulture defeated Spider-Man and in #49’s ‘From the Depths of Defeat!’ battled Kraven the Hunter until a reinvigorated arachnid stepped in the thrash them both.

Issue #50 introduced one of Marvel’s greatest villains in the first of a three part yarn that saw the beginnings of romance between Parker and Gwen Stacy and the death of a cast member, re-established Spidey’s war on cheap thugs and common criminals (a key component of the hero’s appeal was that no criminal was too small for him to bother with) and saw a crisis of conscience force him to quit in ‘Spider-Man No More!’ only to return and be trapped ‘In the Clutches of… the Kingpin!’ before tragically triumphing in ‘To Die a Hero!’ This gang-busting triptych saw Romita relinquish the inking of his art to Mike Esposito (moonlighting from DC as Mickey DeMeo).

Another multi-part saga began in #53 with ‘Enter: Dr. Octopus’ as the many-tentacled madman tried to steal a devastating new piece of technology, but after being soundly defeated the madman went into hiding as a lodger at Aunt May’s house in ‘The Tentacles and the Trap!’, regrouped and succeeded in ‘Doc Ock Wins!’ and even convinced a mind-wiped Spider-Man to join him before the astonishing conclusion in ‘Disaster!’

Shell-shocked and amnesiac, Spider-Man was lost in New York in #57 (with lay-outs by Romita, pencils from the reassuring reliable Don Heck and inking by DeMeo) until he clashed with Marvel’s own Tarzan clone in ‘The Coming of Ka-Zar!’ whilst in the follow-up ‘To Kill a Spider-Man!’ vengeance-crazed roboticist Professor Smythe convinced J. Jonah Jameson to finance another mechanical Spider-Slayer…

In Amazing Spider-Man #59 the hero returned his attention to sinister street-crime in ‘The Brand of the Brainwasher!’ as a new mob-mastermind began to take control of the city by mind-controlling city leaders and prominent cops – including Gwen Stacy’s dad. The drama continued as the mastermind was revealed to be one of Spidey’s old foes in ‘O, Bitter Victory!’ before the concluding part ‘What a Tangled Web We Weave…!’ saw our hero save the day but still stagger away more victim than victor…

‘Make Way for …Medusa!’ in #62 is a fresh change-of-pace yarn as the wall-crawler stumbled into combat with the formidable Inhuman due to the machinations of a Madison Avenue ad man, whilst ‘Wings in the Night!’ in #63 saw the old Vulture return to crush his usurper Blackie Drago, and then take on Spidey for dessert. The awesome aerial angst concluded with ‘The Vultures Prey’ which led to another art-change (from Heck and DeMeo to the sumptuous heavy lines of Jim Mooney) in #65 as Spider-Man was arrested and had to engineer ‘The Impossible Escape!’ from a Manhattan prison, foiling as mass jailbreak along the way.

The psychotic special-effects mastermind returned seeking loot and vengeance in #66’s ‘The Madness of Mysterio!’ (by Romita, Heck and DeMeo) which ended in an all-out action-packed brawl (rendered by Romita and Mooney) entitled ‘To Squash a Spider!’ This volume closes with a small tale that acts as a prologue for a greater epic to come. In ‘Crisis on the Campus!’ scripter Lee tapped into the student unrest of the times in a clever tale of fantastic skulduggery. One of Peter Parker’s tutors was deciphering an ancient tablet, unaware that the Kingpin wanted it for the world-shaking secrets it held. And such a ruthless manipulator would have no qualms in fomenting a bloody riot to mask his theft of the artefact…

Spider-Man became a permanent unmissable part of many teenagers’ lives at this time and did so by living a life as close to theirs as social mores and the Comics Code would allow. Blending cultural authenticity with beautiful art, and making a dramatic virtue of the awkwardness, confusion and sense of powerlessness that most of the readership experienced daily, resulted in an irresistibly intoxicating read, delivered in addictive soap-opera instalments, but none of that would be relevant if the stories weren’t so compellingly entertaining. This book is Stan Lee’s Marvel and Spider-Man at their peak.

© 1967, 1968, 1969, 1998, 2009 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.