I picked up this issue of MARVEL TALES on my regular weekly run to the 7-11 on Thursday, the day when new comic books would be released, as I’d worked out earlier in my travels. These runs were a regular ritual by this point, something that it took extraordinary circumstances to prevent me from doing. I was now following the Spider-Man titles so this was something of a no-brainer purchase on my part. The cover by John Romita didn’t reproduce quite as well on this reprint as it had on the original issue of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN on which it had first run. John’s experimentation with using greytones on the photograph got muddied a bit, coming from reproduction materials rather than the original. It was still nice, just not as nice as initially conceived.
This story came right at the start of Gerry Conway’s tenure as the chronicler of the wall-crawler’s adventures following the wrap-up of Stan Lee’s writing career. Conway was still young enough and new enough that John Romita was given top billing, something that didn’t often happen in the Marvel titles. But Conway wasn’t content to be the junior partner and allow Romita to chart the course of the series himself, instead he worked hand-in-hand with John and asserted himself until the credit situation was reversed and again matched the style used throughout the line. Conway would also outlast Romita, his work becoming the standard-bearer for Spider-Man’s flavor for most of the 1970s. His Spidey was a little bit hipper, a little bit more overtly angst-ridden, and a little bit more likely to lose his cool or do something untoward. On all of his Marvel assignments, Conway took seriously the need to keep propelling events forward from where Stan had left them–though his efforts were most successful on AMAZING SIDER-MAN of all of the books he wrote.
One of Conway’s innovations, one that was definitely in step with the times, was the fact that Spidey developed an ulcer due to the stress of his double-life. Ulcers were bit in the news during this period, and Conway no doubt thought that a super hero was a likely person to develop the condition. Eventually, after he’d milked a bunch of drama out of it, it simply dropped away. Years later, Roger Stern mentioned in a story that Spidey’s ulcer eventually healed up due to his Spidey powers–as good a fix as anything. In the opening of this issue, Spider-Man has been jumped by his old nemesis Doctor Octopus and is in mid-battle with him when his ulcer flares up for the first time. The crippling, mysterious pain puts the web-slinger off his game badly enough that Ock is able to unmask him–though Spidey is able to web up Ock’s glasses before the villain can see his features–but he also needs to run off to deal with this unexpected malady.
Ock discards Spidey’s mask which he ripped from the wall-crawler’s head, and it is found and eventually makes its way to the Daily Bugle, where Johan Jameson is delighted at the thought that his hated nemesis might actually be dead. Meanwhile, the gang war that’s been tearing up Manhattan continues, with Ock and his guys continuing to contest with a shadowy mob figure identified only as H. Using a patsy, H’s gunmen lure Doc Ock into an ambush at a restuarant that they control, but this pack of ordinary criminals is no match for the power of a super-villain such as Doctor Octopus, and he annihilates them. It’s probably worth mentioning that this storyline was being produced in the shadow of the success of the film the Godfather, and so the influence is pronounced.
Meanwhile, Spidey has slowly managed to crawl back to Peter Parker’s apartment, where he collapses in bed, having nightmares about Doc Ock unmasking him and his Aunt May, who is presently missing, having left in the wake of Gwen Stacy yelling at her about how overprotective she was about Peter. Speaking of Gwen, it’s her arrival that wakes him, and soon his doctor is there as well, giving him an examination (in which Pete needs to doff his Spidey outfit underneath his shirt without being seen) and confirming that the kid is suffering from an ulcer. After a scant bit of rest, Peter decides to check in at the Daily Bugle to see if there’s any word on his Aunt’s whereabouts–he had asked Ned Leeds to try to track her down an issue or two earlier. There, he finds Jameson crowing and displaying his mask like a trophy. Pete needs that mask back if he’s going to go into action as Spider-Man, but there doesn’t seem to be any way to get to it. So instead, after Leeds gives him new information about his Aunt’s possible whereabouts, Parker heads over to a local costume shop and purloins a cellophane Spider-Man mask from a costume being sold there. It’s an inferior model–it doesn’t tuck into his costume properly, has no concealing lenses for his eyes and is tougher to breathe through, but it’ll get the job done of concealing his identity, and that’s all Peter is concerned with right at that moment
. Spidey is surprised to find that the address Ned Leeds gave to him concerning Aunt May’s whereabouts is in the selfsame neighborhood where his last fight with Doctor Octopus took place. But as soon as he makes this connection, Ock appears again, and begins to tear into him. Spidey is still suffering from his ulcer, and he’s gotten no real rest since their last battle, so he’s very much on the ropes and able to put up only token resistance. But Spidey still has his speed, and after being pummeled by Ock for a bit, he makes use of it to escape into the shadows, realizing that there might yet be a way for him to even up the odds. See, when the two had battled earlier, it was just after the wall-crawler had liberated an experimental exo-skeleton harness that Ock was after. The harness fell to the rooftops during their fight, and as it turns out, nobody had been along yet to try to retrieve it, so it’s still there, and just what Spidey needs to boost his failing strength.
Wearing the exo-skeleton, Spider-Man leaps back into the battle, and after some fierce fighting is able to at last knock his foe Octopus unconscious. But his problems are only just beginning, as his spider-sense shrieks and he turns to confront a party of newcomers. This is the gang that’s been contending with Ock’s operation, and they’ve got the web-slinger covered. And the leader of that gang, H, is revealed to be a new villain, Hammerhead, who possesses a flattop that makes his skull resemble his namesake. Hammerhead intends to take over the underworld now that Ock is out of the picture, and that puts Spidey square in his bullseye. To Be Continued!