A new issue of MARVEL TALES had also appeared on my local spinner rack–new to me, of course, but old hat to readers of only a relatively few years previous who had already read the story contained therein in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN. But as I wasn’t one of those lucky readers, I dutifully bought this issue to experience it for myself. This was a time of transition for ASM. Longtime scripter Stan Lee had set aside his typewriter in favor of a new position in Marvel as publisher, and so the reins of the flagship title fell not to his second-in-command Roy Thomas (who really wasn’t all that interested in writing Spidey) but rather to Gerry Conway, who was extremely young when he took it on–a contemporary of Peter Parker’s. This gave Conway a somewhat more contemporary slant on teh web-slinger’s adventures and caused him to propel events forward in ways that would become quite striking in just a few issues.
At this point, though, Conway was just starting out. And artist John Romita was given first billing in the credits, mainly because it was the expectation of Lee that John would continue to be the lead player when it came to setting the direction of the series, as he’d been doing so for several years at that point. So there’s likely a bit more of John’s influence on this story than there might be in issues to come as he and Conway settled into their working relationship and Gerry asserted himself as the writer more. This issue continued the running plot of the gang war that had kept New York City gripped in a wave of violence. Last issue, Spidey had worked out that one of teh opposing players was his old foe Doctor Octopus, and succeeded in downing Ock thanks to an experimental exo-skeleton. But just at that moment, Ock’s rival and opposite number showed up, gunsels flanking him, intending to murder the helpless Ock and Spidey as well for good measure.
The newcomer is Hammerhead, a villain whose design and conception clearly owes a debt to Dick Tracy and his assorted grotesque enemies, in particular Flattop. Hammerhead has proven to be a surprisingly resilient and recurring menace for the wall-crawler over the years, given how outrageously goofball he is. His only power is that his skull has been reinforced with metal, making it hard as a hammer, and he had the demeanor of an exaggerated Edward G. Robinson 1920s gangster. In other words, he was cartoonish, a bit more so than even the typical Spidey foe. But not a bad first attempt on Conway and Romita’s part. Anyway, as Hammerhead’s men attack, Spidey is on his last legs–it’s only that exo-skeleton that kept him upright in his fight with Ock, so he’s in dire straits even against a bunch of goons with guns that he would usually take apart no sweat. It has to be said that Conway’s interpretation of Spider-Man was a lot less physically powerful than what was to come. This doesn’t seem to be a Spider-Man that can lift ten tons–any ordinary mook with a gimmick is capable of giving him a hard time if conditions are right. This made Spidey more vulnerable but also a bit less dramatic and dynamic, a double-edged sword.
The wall-crawler is about to get ventilated from his armor-domed foe when he is suddenly rescued by Doctor Octopus, who figures that the enemy of his enemy is is friend. But Doc is in no better shape than Spidey is, and so he high-tails it out of there, leaving the web-slinger still at the mercy of Hammerhead. But the mob boss has had a change of heart. He likes the sound of Ock’s plan and decides to co-opt it for himself, taking the unconscious super hero back to his hidden headquarters in order to lean on him and make him throw in with the Hammerhead mob. Oh, in case anybody was wondering, the reason why you can see Spidey’s eyes through his mask in this story is that an issue or so back, Peter lost his regular mask and had to procure a temporary replacement from a costume store–one without his trademark lenses in the eyes. This story also featured the off-handed introduction of one of Conway’s recurring background characters, Dr. Jonas Harrow. Harrow was a disgraced scientist who made his living creating or amping up super-villains. Spidey never encountered him directly or even knew he existed until years later, when writer Denny O’Neil had Harrow committing a robbery alongside the Grey Gargoyle of all people in broad daylight. A weird ending for his story.
And actually, this issue of MARVEL TALES has a problem. Somebody on the editorial side was sloppy in putting the reprint together, as pages wind up running out of order. The sequence in question wasn’t entirely clear even when read in the proper sequence, so this made the whole issue a bit suspect and definitely pulled me out of the comic trying to figure out what was going on. So that’s unfortunate. Anyway, as Hammerhead makes his pitch to Spidey, one of his men rushes in to let the boss know that they managed to trail Doc Ock back to his secret lair, and so they can now head over and wipe him out while he’s still recovering. That’s a more immediate problem for Hammerhead to deal with, so he leaves two of his goons to guard the still-somewhat-addled wall-crawler and heads out on the hit.
Remember that replacement mask we talked about a few paragraphs ago? Well, the gunmen guarding Spidey notice his lack of lenses and are confused by it. This gives the web-slinger the necessary distraction to take them to town and escape. He realizes that he needs to prevent the assassination attempt on Doc Ock if for no other reason than that he believes that his Aunt May might be staying at Ock’s place. (Aunt May and Doc Ock had a weird and long-standing relationship that Conway and Romita were playing on here. Not that any of it made a bit of sense. The whole thing really did make May seem like a doddering old fool.) Anyway, Spidey breaks out of Hammerhead’s lair and is able to race across town swiftly enough to hitch a ride to Ock’s place atop Hammerhead’s own limo. Now, I don’t know, maybe it might have been a better idea to disable the car en route and avoid the complication of Doctor Octopus altogether–but what do I know, I’m not a super hero. So instead, Spidey lets Hammerhead carry him straight to Ock’s domicile.
Spidey is less concerned with either of the two villains than he is with locating his Aunt, who had left without a word a few issues back. He proceeds to sneak into teh compound, only to be felled by a blow to teh back of the head–a blow his early-warning spider-sense didn’t warn him about. And that’s because his assailant is none other than Aunt May herself! And now, Spidey is once again laid out as hammerhead begins his assault on teh base and Doc Ock is summoned by a frantic Aunt May. Now, this reading of how Spider-Man’s spider-sense works wouldn’t hold up today–after many years of different writers having different interpretations as to how it functioned, it eventually settled out as being an indifferent danger sense–anything that is dangerous to Spidey should trigger it, such as Aunt May swinging a vase at his noggin. But back then, the particulars of the Marvel Universe hadn’t all been codified to the degree they eventually would be in the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe and other such tomes. In any event, that’s where things are To Be Continued!