BHOC: AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #181

The regular INCREDIBLE HULK television series debuted on Friday, March 10, 1978, the week before I would have bought this issue of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN at my regular 7-11 haunt. This was another one of those issues where my younger brother Ken would eventually pick up his own copy as well. He was also a lot more of a fan of the weekly television series than I was, though we both watched it–in those days, the family really only had one sizable television, a black and white model that was in our family room, so the choice of program on any given night could be a hotly contested matter. Being the oldest, I think I tended to prevail more often than not, for good or bad. But I was enough of a Marvel fan by this point that I was going to watch a Marvel show no matter what. (This impulse also caused me to buy a lot of blah comic books, including several movie adaptations of crummy films.)

This issue’s story would prove to be a fill-in, and was almost certainly commissioned by Marv Wolfman even though Marv isn’t credited on the book itself. During the short period when he was Marvel’s Editor, Marv had created an additional comic on Marvel’s production schedule called MARVEL FILL-IN COMICS. This book was written by Bill Mantlo, and it wasn’t a regular release. Rather, the idea was to create stories that could be slotted into a variety of ongoing titles at a moment’s notice should the need for an emergency fill-in arise. This was Marv’s way of combatting the recurring problem of unscheduled reprints being used for this purpose whenever a creative team was slow getting their work completed on time.

ADDITION: Glenn Greenberg points out that Marv is credited as the editor of this story. Stupid me.

This issue was what was then called an “Album Issue”, not so much a story (although there was the conceit of one to frame the narrative) as an extended primer on what has gone before and everything that a reader needed to know to understand the world of the Amazing Spider-Man. In these days before the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, I found such issues invaluable, although I can certainly understand how annoying they must have been to regular readers. Here, the story begins with Spider-Man visiting the gravesite of his Uncle Ben on the anniversary of his death and reminiscing about his life, career and choices.

The artwork on this Album Issue was done by Sal Buscema, who was a good choice for it. Sal was one of the most overlooked craftsmen of the 1970s Marvel era, largely because he did so much work that he was ubiquitous. He was also, for lack of a better term, a craftsman–he wasn’t into flashy visuals or complex rendering like so many of the super-star artists of the era. No, what Sal did was to tell the story in as straightforward and dramatic a manner as possible. As in this instance, he was also often paired up with inkers/finishers who didn’t showcase his work to best effect. Here, that task is taken on by Mike Esposito, who I think doesn’t do enough to make the various illustrations feel fully-realized. The end result is that the art often looks a bit like a coloring book, with vast open areas of color and forms very simply delineated. Spider-Man’s head in particular often looks like a helium-filled balloon. It’s all competent and professional but hardly trend-setting stuff.

This was only my third regularly purchased issue of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, and so while I had already been picking up MARVEL TALES as well, and also perusing recent older issues in the places where they could be found, my knowledge of the Spider-Man canon was still extremely limited. This book helped me to fill in a number of those gaps. I’m pretty certain, for instance, that it was here that I learned about how Gwen Stacy was killed by the Green Goblin, as seminal a moment in comics as had ever been created by 1978. This story also gave me the answer to the return of the Big Man in an earlier MARVEL TEAM-UP story I had read: he was the misguided son of the original, it turned out, according to the recap in this issue. So I walked away learning a lot, and as a result I really enjoyed this release.

I also–despite the modern predilection for not wanting to include them, a situation that I completely understand in a Trade Paperback world–really liked having all of the editorial notes telling me which issues certain events took place in. I used to make lists of these facts, cobbled together from teh different comics I owned, trying to piece together my own map of the Marvel Universe. (The need to do this went out the window once I was eventually able to lay hands on a set of the Olshevsky Indexes to the Marvel Universe in a few years.)

For all that it wasn’t much of a story, this issue did have a bit of a sucker punch ending to it. Returning to the framing sequence after page upon page of flashbacks, Spider-Man places the very microscope his Uncle Ben had bought for him in AMAZING FANTASY #15 back upon his grave, musing that even then, his Uncle believed in him and supported him. And then Spidey web-swings away, never seeing the scene that plays out a moment later, where the watchman of the old cemetery makes his rounds and comes across the microscope. Turns out his own child is interested in science, and he hasn’t had enough spare money to get him a birthday gift. So Uncle Ben’s present will be passed along to another child, another young Peter Parker. Later writers, not being aware of this story, brought that original old microscope back, still in Peter’s hands. But I choose to ignore those moments in my own head-canon.

4 thoughts on “BHOC: AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #181

  1. This issue was special to me for the same reason you mentioned, Tom, I had only been reading comics for three years and being able to read through the whole of Spidey’s continuity (in the pre-OHOTMU days) really helped me become a fan. It didn’t matter there was no big fight scene or a bad guy, this one helped me realize there were more stories out there, and I knew to look for them in Marvel Tales (and eventually in comic shops.) The microscope ending was another nice touch.

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  2. The headcannon is the other way around for me. One of my early comics was ASM 290, featuring Aunt May accidentally giving the microscope to a church raffle and Peter having to spend all the money in his pockets to win it back, so reading this issue decades later, I was shocked by the ending.

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  3. Marv is credited — he’s listed as editor on the most-central tombstone.

    I would bet this wasn’t one of the MARVEL FILL-IN COMICS issues, myself — while Bill wrote most of those, he did more conventional single-issue stories for them, and this one is specifically a flashback “recap of the legend” album issue that Marvel tended to do when they needed to get an issue done in a tearing hurry.

    My guess would be this: This issue happened just after Len Wein unexpectedly (even to him) departed Marvel for DC. As a result, all of his books had schedule-saver stories in them, as Marvel bought some time. FF and AMAZING SPIDER-MAN both had album issues, and this one has a credit to Archie and Len as consultants, which leads me to think they brainstormed the little framing plot and handed the gig off to Bill to write up in a hurry.

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  4. I’m curious about this “I also–despite the modern predilection for not wanting to include them, a situation that I completely understand in a Trade Paperback world–really liked having all of the editorial notes telling me which issues certain events took place in.”

    How do the trades impact this? I loved all those editorial notes as well. As you say, they suggested mysterious and far-off unexplored corners of the universe that I was definitely going to need to explore.

    I don’t understand the relationship to trades though. Certainly, all readers understand that trades are collections of individual comic books.

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