BHOC: MARVEL TALES #81

Another Marvel reprint title that came out of a 3-Bag. I seem to recall getting this particular issue at the Two Guys discount store, where they carried 3-Bags and to which my family would regularly go when we needed household goods. On this particular day there were a few 3-Bags in the batch on that shelf that had been broken open, and so I was able to flip through a copy of this book before deciding to purchase the 3-Bag that it was in (I wasn’t courageous enough to try to buy just the single book itself–I was too concerned that the register clerk would know that these were intended to be sold only in 3-Bags and then I would be blamed for having torn the other bags open. I carried a decent amount of anxiety around with me when i was a kid.)

I bought this issue in 1978, and it was published in 1977. And the story it reprinted first came out in 1971, so only seven years earlier. That seemed like an eternity to me as a child, of course, but now I’m surprised how recent it was–the equivalent of me reprinting a story we put out in 2013 this month. This was one of the relatively few Spider-Man stories written by Roy Thomas, who honestly wasn’t a great fit for the wall-crawler. Roy is a terrific writer, but he’s got certain things that he likes, and a connection to Spidey’s college world wasn’t one of them. Additionally, his attempts to mimic Stan’s Spidey dialogue always came across as forced to my ear. But Lee had taken a sabbatical from scripting to work on a movie screenplay and Roy was drafted in as the relief pitcher, and so he was going to do what he was supposed to do.

Roy had a proclivity in his work for homaging or referencing other things of which he was a fan, and so this entire story is a riff on King Kong–which makes for very strange source material for a Spider-Man adventure. But you see, J. Jonah Jameson is worried that the Daily Bugle is about to go out of business (how comforted he’d be to know that it’s still going almost 50 years later) thanks to the threat of television broadcast news. As a way of pulling in more paying customers, Jameson has caught wind of a huge monster that a scientist is talking about on the Dick Cavett show and decides that they’ll run a series of articles reporting from the Savage Land where the creature is purported to be. Jonah apparently graduated from the Perry White school of Journalism.

Jonah/Roy also need a Fay Wray, and who better to play that role in a Spidey story than Gwen Stacy? For reasons that don’t make a bit of sense on the page, Jonah offers to bring Gwen along into this remote and dangerous prehistoric land, and she decides to go. Which makes one wonder: doesn’t she have classes to attend? Does Gwen have a job? What does she do all day when she’s not rocking her go-go boots? Anyway, the Bugle expedition to the Savage Land is now complete, and the crew is going to sail down to Antarctica and make their way into the Savage Land–a task which seems surprisingly simple here.

After dodging a flying pterodactyl on the way in, the Bugle team makes landfall in the Savage Land–and Gwen immediately strips down to her bathing suit for a few cheesecake shots. Because sure she does. But playtime is interrupted by the discovery of a huge temple which looks like it came straight out of a Conan story. That’d be a good place to get some more photos of Gwen, right? Oh, you poor, stupid reporters–you’ve seen the movie (you keep making references to King Kong in the dialogue as Roy tries to gild the lily a bit) you know what’s going to happen. But you do it anyway.

And, yeah, the gong is struck, and, yeah, the natives come in response to attack our crew. And unexpectedly, that’s where our story end for this month. Because for some reason, a decision has been made to stretch this two-parter over three issues of MARVEL TALES. Maybe somebody felt they couldn’t cut the necessary number of pages to make it work in the space they had or something. I don’t know. But it does mean that we’re faced with a very oddly-paced cliffhanger here as a Next Issue box is stuffed into a random corner. It also means that the only Spidey you get in this story is on the opening few pages. On the plus side, the art by Gil Kane is pretty strong, inked well by Frank Giacoia.

What fills out the remaining pages of this issue is the thing that interested me enough to want to pick the book up. Back in the 1960s, a decade before the then-current Spider-Man newspaper strip, Stan Lee and John Romita had worked up two or three weeks’ worth of samples in an attempt to convince a newspaper syndicate to run the web-slinger as a seven-day syndicated strip. Publisher-in-training was supposed to use these samples to pitch the project to prospective buyers. But a few years later, when Chip was let go and his office was cleaned out, they discovered the original envelope containing the sample strips buried there among other assorted paperwork, unopened and unsubmitted. A missed opportunity for sure.

So when were these strips produced? Based on the telltale clue of Mary Jane’s short-lived perm hairstyle, I’d have to guess 1968 or so–at around the same time that Marvel was expanding its output and dipping a tentative toe into the waters of magazine publishing with the black and white SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN magazine. The villain here, though he’s not seen terribly clearly, appears to be the same one that John intended to use in the never-completed third issue of that magazine, and whom he eventually reworked (along with some input from his son John Jr.) into the Prowler.

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