The week this issue of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN came to my spinner rack in the neighborhood 7-11 was a big one for comic book happenings. In addition to the release of a regular slate of comic books, two other things were going on that grabbed my attention.
The first was the launch of DC’s new Newspaper comic strip, WORLD’S GREATEST SUPERHEROES. The ad above had run on the Sunday Daily News comics section at the beginning of the week, and the strip itself rolled out that Monday, April 3rd. I was super-excited about the prospect of getting a new fix of my favorite DC heroes every day (my household took in both the Daily News and Newsday on a daily basis, so I had access to all sorts of strips.) especially since the characters pictured weren’t simply the most well-known Super Friends, but also deeper cuts such as The Flash (always a selling point), Green Lantern, Black Canary, the Elongated Man and Black Lightning.
And I wasn’t disappointed, as the first story arc in the strip featured a running contest between the Justice League of America (mainly represented by Superman, Batman, the Flash, Wonder Woman and Aquaman) and their immortal nemesis Vandal Savage, whom I knew from the comics. The strip was written by Marty Pasko and illustrated by George Tuska, who had some experience working on newspaper strips. I clipped and collected it for several years.
The other thing that happened was that on Wednesday, April 5, 1979, the first regular episode of the AMAZING SPIDER-MAN television show starring Nicholas Hammond aired. After a successful television movie, CBS had finally pulled the trigger and given the wall-crawler a weekly timeslot. Except, that’s not quite how things worked out. For whatever reason, CBS seemed to be a bit embarrassed by the show, and they moved it all over the schedule, making it difficult to find (especially in that era before on-screen channel guides and video recording) The show ran for two seasons, but they were both short, and it only clocked in 13 episodes over its two years (along with the original pilot movie making 14.) I liked the show better than the INCREDIBLE HULK program–my tastes ran more towards costumed super-powered crime-fighters than rampaging monsters–but in that I was in the minority. In part, that’s because it really isn’t a great show at all, and the special effects technology of the time wasn’t up to duplicating even a fraction of what the web-slinger could do on the printed page.
Speaking of the printed page, we should probably get down to business concerning the issue in question. This was the first to be written by Marv Wolfman, who would become a real favorite of mine as the 1970s made way for the 1980s. Here he was joined by the title’s mainstay artist Ross Andru. This is also concurrent with another big shift for Marvel as an organization: while it had happened some months before, this was the first comic book I read in which it was announced that Archie Goodwin had stepped down as Marvel’s Editor in Chief and been replaced in that function by Jim Shooter. I didn’t really pay much attention at all to this switch-over as a reader–it was all behind-the-scenes stuff to me that i wasn’t all that interested in. But Shooter brought about a much needed stability to Marvel at this time, and the effects of his hiring would begin to be felt more and more as time went on.
This issue brought back the Rocket Racer, a bit of a throwaway character that previous writer Len Wein had used in the opening half of an issue ten months earlier. New author Marv clearly thought there might be something to do with him. I will say that it was uncommon to see a black super-villain in these days. Frankly, the number of faces of color to be found in all of comics was relatively few. But that definitely helped to separate out the Racer from the rest of Spidey’s nefarious enemies. The Racer’s shtick was that he had a rocket-propelled skateboard that could cruise right up and down the sides of buildings–the ultimate freestyle skater, in an era before that terminology caught on. The issue opens with Spidey finding the Racer in the middle of a caper, ripping off a suitcase full of evidence of embezzlement on the part of businessman Jackson Weele. Spidey gets involved, but the Rocket Racer leaves him in the dust, and the wall-crawler is forced to take the subway home to his apartment. The goofy gag above is typical of the Spider-Man books of this era, one of the things that made them so memorable and made Spidey feel like a hard-luck ordinary Joe. Nobody uses this much real estate for a comedy bit like this anymore.
While Peter Parker checked in with his civilian life, checking in with his extended cast of characters (and being sought out by a mysterious woman in a beret–who could she be? ) the Racer heads for Weele to get his payoff. But the Racer has had second thoughts–his equipment is pricey and he owes the Tinkerer big bucks for having set him up with his gear, so he holds back on some of the key evidence that could send Weele up the river, telling the distraught businessman that the terms of their arrangement have changed, and that another cash payment will be required. Weele fastens on the Racer’s mention of the Tinkerer, a thought that will lead him next month to becoming one of the most bizarre and ridiculous menaces in marvel history. But we’ll get to that in future days. Meanwhile, Marv takes a few panels for this super-sexist sequence setting up a pair of cops who’ll be involved in a chase sequence with the Racer over the next couple of pages. It’s a bit that hasn’t aged well (and likely was a bit ill-considered even at the time it was written.)
I’m not quite certain why Marv and Ross devote the next two pages to a quick car chase featuring these two police officers–things may have simply worked out that way as Ross drew up the issue (this book would have been produced “Marvel style”, which is to say drawn from a broad plot with the copy added after the artwork was completed.) Anyway, it also finished with a dopey gag, and then it’s about time to get back to our title character. He’s had a conversation in the interim with a hospitalized Aunt May about his future, and that’s got him mulling some things over. But before his introspection can get too heavy or too precise, he spots the figure of the Rocket Racer zipping through traffic below, and it’s action time!
The whole thing is a bust, though, albeit one that Marv has to contrive a little bit in order to prevent the wall-crawler from mopping the floor with his less powerful adversary. The Racer, meanwhile, gives a good accounting of himself–though not so good that you feel as though his eventual escape is really earned. Spider-Man simply isn’t on his game here, falling off of the side of a moving truck because its rusted paneling crumbles when he tries to adhere to it, having his web-line get tangled in a pylon, and so forth. You get the impression that Spidey’s mind isn’t on the pursuit here, that he’s just going through the motions because he feels like he has to, and he cuts for home at the first opportunity. Given what is to come, that’s maybe understandable.
The final page of the story has Peter turning up on the doorstep of his longtime romantic interest Mary Jane Watson. MJ was still depicted as a bit of a flighty party girl at this point, so it’s genuinely a bit surprising when Peter proposes marriage to her here. I can remember this feeling like a big deal: the question of what she would say and whether the pair would be wed felt real to my 11 year old self in a way that it wouldn’t today. For the record, I was against it. MJ the party girl rubbed me the wrong way a lot of the time–I simply didn’t like her much, and so the idea that Peter would get stuck with stuck with her for all time seemed like a pretty lousy turn of events to me back then. Anyway, To Be Continued!
As I mentioned at the top, the Bullpen Bulletins page features Stan walking readers through the editorial changes that were happening. It also mentions both the INCREDIBLE HULK and AMAZING SPIDER-MAN television series that would be starting up, and that TV movies for Dr. Strange and the Sub-Mariner were on the way (only one of which would actually happen.) Of note, Mark Gruenwald’s hiring was mentioned. Mark would go on to be a critical piece of what Marvel would become over the next decade-and-a-half.