The Spider’s Syndicate of Crime

By Ted Cowan, Jerry Siegel & Reg Bunn (Rebellion)
ISBN 978-1-78108-905-7 (TPB)

I find myself in a genuine quandary here. When you set up to review something you need to always keep a weather eye on your critical criteria. The biggest danger when looking at certain comic collections is to make sure to remove the nostalgia-tinted spectacles of the excitable, uncritical scruffy little kid who adored and devoured the source material every week in the long ago and long-missed.

However, after thoroughly scrutinising myself – no pleasant task, I assure you – I can honestly say that not only are the adventures of the macabre and malevolent Spider as engrossing and enjoyable as I remember but also will provide the newest and most contemporary reader with a huge hit of superb artwork, compelling, caper-style cops ‘n’ robbers fantasy and thrill-a-minute adventure. After all, the strip usually ran two (later three) pages per episode, so a lot had to happen in pretty short order.

Part of Rebellion’s Treasury of British Comics strand and available in paperback and digital editions, The Spider’s Syndicate of Crime is the opening salvo of what I hope is many welcome returnees. It gathers material from peerless weekly anthology Lion spanning June 26th 1965 to June 18th 1966 and that year’s Lion Annual which for laborious reasons is designated 1967.

What’s it all about? The Spider is a mysterious super-scientist whose goal is to be the greatest criminal of all time. As conceived by writer/editor Ted Cowan – who among many other venerable triumphs, also scripted Ginger Nutt, Paddy Payne, Adam Eterno, and created the much-revered Robot Archie strip – the flamboyantly wicked narcissist begins his public career by recruiting a crime specialists safecracker Roy Ordini and evil inventor Professor Pelham before attempting a massive gem-theft from a thinly veiled New York’s World Fair. It also introduces Gilmore and Trask, the two crack detectives cursed with the task of capturing the arachnid arch-villain.

A major factor in the eerily eccentric strip’s success and reason for the reverence with which it is held is the captivating – not to say downright creepy – artwork of William Reginald Bunn. His intensely hatched line-work is perfect for the towering establishing shots and chases, and nobody ever drew moodier webbing or more believable weird weapons and monsters.

Bunn was an absolute master of his field art whose work in comics – spanning 1949 to his death in 1971 – such as Robin Hood, Buck Jones, Black Hood, Captain Kid and Clip McCord – was much beloved. Once the industry found him, he was never without work. He died on the job and is still much missed.

Also scripted by Cowan, second adventure ‘The Return of the Spider’ sets the tone for the rest of the strip’s run as the unbelievably colossal vanity of the Spider is assaulted by a pretender to his title. The Mirror Man is a swaggering arrogant super-criminal who uses incredible optical illusions to carry out his crimes, and the Spider must crush him to keep the number one most wanted spot – and to satisfy his own vanity.

The pitifully outmatched Gilmore and Trask return to chase the Spider but must settle for his defeated rival after weeks of devious plotting, bold banditry and spectacular serialized thrills and chills.

“Dr. Mysterioso” is the first adventure by Jerry Siegel, who was forced to look elsewhere for work after an infamous falling out with DC Comics over the rights to the Man of Steel.

The aforementioned criminal scientist of the title here is another contender for the Spider’s crown and their extended battle – broken on repeated occasions by a crafty subplot wherein the mastermind’s treacherous, newly-expanded gang of thugs seek to abscond with his stockpiled loot whenever he appears to have been killed – is a retro/camp masterpiece of arcane dialogue, insane devices and rollercoaster antics.

By the time of the final serialised saga herein contained – ‘The Spider v. The Android Emperor’ – the page count was up to 4: packed with fabulous fantasy and increasingly surreal exploits as the Arachnid Archvillain battles the super science of a monster-making maniac who might have survived the sinking of Atlantis but somehow gets his fun from baiting and tormenting the self-styled king of crime. Big mistake…

The book concludes with a short yarn from the 1967 Lion Annual. ‘Cobra Island’ gives the artist a chance to show off his skills with brushes and washes as the piece was originally printed in the double-tone format (in this case black and red on white) which was a hallmark of British annuals.

It finds the mighty Spider and Pelham drawn to an exotic island where plantation workers are falling under the spell of a demonic lizard being… but all is not as it seems and the very real danger is more prosaic than paranormal…

Also offering an introduction from Paul Grist and full creator biographies, this initial collection confirms that the King is back at last and should find a home in every kid’s heart and mind, no matter how young they might be, or threaten to remain.

Bizarre, baroque and often simply bonkers, The Spider proves that although crime does not pay, it always provides a huge amount of white-knuckle fun…
© 1965, 1966, 1967 & 2021 Rebellion Publishing IP Ltd. All Rights Reserved.