So in addition to starting to read AMAZING SPIDER-MAN I also followed protocol and began checking out MARVEL TALES, the ongoing series which reprinted stories from older issues of ASM. Throughout the 1970s, most of the big titles had a sister reprint series that re-presented the earlier adventures from days past. In this way, the history and continuity of the nascent Marvel Universe remained somewhat relevant to a modern audience. Plus, it was also a good way to command a bit more retail space and maybe crowd out some of the competition’s titles. The prevailing wisdom among young fans such as myself was that reprint books like this one were “worthless”; i.e. they were never going to accrue in value, something that we were all very concerned about whether or not we ever really saw ourselves eventually selling our collections. No, these books were just for reading.
Timing is everything, and so my first foray into the reprinted adventures of the web-slinger came at a point in the early 1970s when the book was at a bit of a crossroads. Stan Lee had just retired as regular scripter, replaced by the very young Gerry Conway. In fact, Conway was so young that Stan’s prevailing wisdom was that John Romita, the artist, would plot the strip, and Conway would only do dialogue. In practice, however, Conway swiftly found his footing and demanded the same accord that every other writer got, control over his own series. But this is why on most of these early issues in the run, Romita gets top billing–he was the primary driver at this point.
From a story standpoint, this issue still played like a Stan-era Spider-Man adventure, but already Conway’s scripting was beginning to shift the character a little bit. Conway was around the same age that Spidey himself was supposed to be, and he approached writing the wall-crawler as almost a bit of self-examination, basing Peter Parker and his friends on his own circle of acquaintances. The issue opens up with Spidey dropping off the defeated Gibbon, the hapless dupe of Kraven the Hunter in the preceding issue, off at the hospital, before heading out on a search for his missing Aunt May, who had disappeared previously. In fact, Spidey is so wrapped up in his own problems that when he comes across a kidnapping in progress, he decides to swing on, even after one of the gunmen takes a shot at him. Some super hero. This decision on his part really didn’t make him appealing to me, for all that it’s a very human choice.
Somebody else who isn’t a fan of Spidey’s laizze-faire approach to fighting crime is Daily Bugle publisher J. Jonah Jameson, and so when Peter stops by the Bugle to check in with Robbie Robertson, with whom he’d left his Aunt May’s goodbye note in the hopes that Robertson’s police connections could analyze it for him, he learns that Jameson has ginned up a campaign painting his masked alter ego as a coward. Robbie confirms for Peter that the handwriting on Aunt May’s note is genuine, and so this provides no leads to the sullen youth–who heads out onto the street, where he runs across a couple of kids fighting about whether Spider-Man is yellow or not.
Eventually, it’s Aunt May’s friend Anna Watson, the Aunt of Mary Jane, who accidentally breaks Peter out of his depression. She also confirms that May’s handwriting appears to be genuine, but that doesn’t mean that she wasn’t coerced into writing it. This makes Peter fear the worst–that maybe his Aunt is missing because somebody has penetrated the secret of his dual identity and wants to strike at him. Galvanized into action by this thought, Parker becomes Spider-Man again, determined to get to the bottom of the crime wave that has gripped the city in the hopes that it’s connected to his own problems. But at first, all that he’s able to determine from the hoods that he roughs up is that there’s a gang war going on between two rival crime bosses. However, the identity of either party eludes him.
But the wall-crawler will not give up, and eventually he comes across a gang of hoods breaking into what appears to be an abandoned warehouse but is really an underground gambling facility, evidencing greater-than-usual strength. Spidey gets involved, and while he gives a good accounting of himself, one crook gets off a lucky shot, stunning the web-head. But Spidey does manage to hang onto the strength-amplifying exo-skeleton that the thug had been wearing to boost his muscle power. The gang has all fled, though, by the time Spidey gets his bearings again–and he’s no closer to finding the mastermind behind this gang war than he was at the start.
Fortunately for Spidey, the object of his search has no intention of remaining in the shadows. Having been alerted to the wall-crawler’s interference in his attacks on his rival, the boss of one of the two factions seeks Spider-Man out–and in a glorious final John Romita splash page, he is revealed as none other than Doctor Octopus, the web-slinger’s longtime foe! And that is where the issue is To Be Continued! I will say that while it was entertaining enough, this issue kind of left me cold once again. I still wasn’t quite getting Spider-man on an emotional level. His selfishness and seeming immaturity wasn’t making me relate to him, rather it was making me dislike him. This would really continue to be the case until I got a chance to read some of the earliest Stan Lee/Steve Ditko Spidey stories soon afterwards–but that is a tale for another time.