I had passed up this issue and the one prior to it, also featuring Nightcrawler, in my drugstore’s Big Bin of Slightly Older Comics on several occasions. But eventually, having become more enamored of the new X-Men I went in search of the two. But by that time, whatever copies of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #161 there had been in that wire-bin of treasures had all been sold off or destroyed–so I only managed to walk away with this single issue. To this day, I still don’t own a copy of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #161 (though I’ve read the story many times in assorted reprints since those days.) This story was done very much at the outset of the All-New, All-Different X-Men, back when it seemed as though Nightcrawler or Colossus might be the breakout characters from the series. Things didn’t really work out that way–but having Nightie turn up in two issues of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN was an effective way to promote the newly-revived series. Many of the fuzzy elf’s attributes mirrored those of Spider-Man in the first place.
The issue did double-duty by also featuring the Punisher, a character who had been introduced in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN a couple of years before and who’d been a recurring anti-hero guest star in the title. He’d headlined in try-outs for his own series in the Marvel black and white magazines by this time, but the audience just wasn’t there for the character yet. He’d explode in popularity in the mid-late 1980s, a perfect time for his brand of lone gunman vigilante justice. He was still in a formative stage here, playing nice with the Comics Code by often using mercy bullets and not outright annihilating his enemies in the manner he would eventually become famous for. But he talked a good fight, in a manner that put him often at odds with the more life-affirming wall-crawler, who butted heads with the Punisher to good effect.
This issue opens en media res, picking up from last month. Last time out, a series of murderous assassinations drew the attention of both Spider-Man and Nightcrawler of the X-Men, who encountered one another while investigating the killing spree and naturally assumed that each other was the killer. After a number of pages of punch-’em-up, at which point it was beginning to dawn on the two heroes that they might be on the same side, the pair was ambushed by another figure. Certainly this was the real killer, right? Wrong! It was the Punisher–not that Nighty or Spidey knew that he was innocent. But we readers did, given that his War Journal narration tells us that he had come to the area to track down the killer (he was getting the blame for the killings and so intended to put a stop to them himself) and despite having teamed up with Spidey on multiple prior occasions, assumed that either he or Nightcrawler must be the culprit, and opened fire. So the opening of this issue mirrors the prior one, in that all three of these dunderheads duke it out for a bit, each one only convinced that he himself was innocent but one of the other two must be the bad guy. Artist Ross Andru had a very specific, very distinctive face for the Punisher, one that fell by the wayside over time as other artists began regularly handling the character. It’s ugly, but there is something about it that really appeals to me.
Things come to a head when all three combatants are fired upon by a sniper, causing them to dive for cover. Nightcrawler teleports himself to safety, but the strain of making such a long teleport puts him out of action momentarily, and he’s unable to corral the fleeing sniper. Nor do Spidey or the Punisher, who stay under cover until the danger is passed. They then split up, largely so that Spidey can turn back into Peter Parker and move along some of his personal subplots. But they make a plan to meet up on the following night to continue their hunt for the killer. What the Punisher possibly has to do for the next 24 hours that’s more important than rubbing out this murderer is baffling, but roll with it, it’s the only way we’re going to see MJ and Flash and Harry this month. We also cut away to a momentous moment for one supporting player, J. Jonah Jameson, who seeks out the renowned scientist Marla Madison. It’s not revealed in this issue yet, but Jonah wants Marla to build him a new Spider-Slayer robot. But ultimately, the two will become a couple, and eventually wed. Mazel tov, Jonah!
The following evening, Spidey links up with the Punisher, and they head for a block party being held on the east side in support of the local fire department. The Punisher’s intel is that the killer plans to strike there, and given so many soft targets, it could be a bloodbath. The two heroes split up so as to better cover the terrain. But this whole thing is a trap, a set-up–and despite his predictive spider-sense, Spidey walks right into it. (The spider-sense power was still being handled inconsistently at this point, and writer Len Wein had a different idea about how and when it worked than would eventually become standard.) But you’d think the wall-crawler cold handle a pair of ordinary goons. But you’d be wrong, as he’s klonked on the head by a figure from the shadows. Clown. Spidey wakes up in chains, on display in the middle of the street as bait for the real target here, the Punisher. And it turns out that the person behind it will wind up being one of the few recurring enemies that the Punisher has whom he can’t quite seem to ever put into the ground permanently: Jigsaw.
Jigsaw’s been killing random people for days in order to draw the Punisher to him. Some time earlier, he had been a small-time goon that ol’ Punny didn’t even bother to finish off right. (I told you this was an earlier, less lethal Punisher, right?) Instead, he knocked Jigsaw through a plate glass window, which did wonders for his complexion. In the months since, Jigsaw trained himself to become the Punisher’s equal so that he could get his revenge on the grim vigilante. So now it’s time for the showdown–but a spoiler shows up in the form of Nightcrawler, whom Jigsaw didn’t expect. The whole thing becomes a three-way free-for-all between the trio of heroes and Jigsaw and his men. At a key moment, Spidey bursts his chains in a relatively spectacular moment, one that makes one wonder how a pair of gunsels could have knocked him out in the first place–and joins in the fight.
And really, it isn’t much of a fight, more like a massacre (except without the bodies–still playing by Comics Code rules here.) So Jigsaw is captured–and the Punisher doesn’t even insist on putting a bullet in his head before taking off. As does Nightcrawler, who abruptly teleports away as well, leaving Spider-Man with his face hanging out as the issue reaches its close. All in all, an entertaining-if-typical 1970s outing for the web-slinger, but one that would become surprisingly important over time, given that it’s both the first appearance of Jigsaw and Marla Madison. and an early Nightcrawler appearance. As interest in the All-New, All-Different X-Men began to heat up, these two back issues began to demand higher prices as back issues–prices that would ensure that at any given time, I wasn’t interested enough to pony up for the missing #161.