BHOC: MARVEL TALES #78

Now this is a comic that I did purchase deliberately, albeit without this cover and in one of those plastic wrapped bundles of assorted coverless comic books my local drug store had taken to selling. I bought both this issue of MARVEL TALES and the next at the same time, giving me two parts of a three-part story that was something of a milestone in comic book history. For myself, I already understood, even as a relatively new Spider-Man reader, that the Green Goblin was his ultimate enemy, and so whenever he showed up, big things would be happening. I don’t think I was specifically aware of the controversy caused by this story when it was originally printed, though–that’s something that I became aware of later on.

You see, despite that Comics Code seal emblazoned as usual on the upper right hand side of the cover, when this story originally saw print in 1971, the Code refused to bless it. The reason was drugs. Editor Stan Lee had received a letter from the government asking him to do a story that spelled out the dangers of drug use–they realized that Marvel Comics had both a strong outreach into the younger audiences they were trying to reach, and that the messages in the books were often taken to heart by their readers. Lee had wanted to do such a story previously, so this communication was all that he needed to make it a reality. Unfortunately, at that time, the Comics Code stipulated that any depiction of illegal drug use was verboten–and even though the story in question was about drugs being bad, and despite the fact that Marvel had been requested to produce the story by a federal agency, the administrators of the Code would not budge.

So Stan consulted with publisher Martin Goodman–Goodman had sold Marvel a few years earlier but had remained on as publisher to make the transition smoother. Together, they decided to damn the torpedoes and publish the story anyway, without the Comics Code seal. They reasoned, correctly, that doing so would get them some press coverage and possibly even better sales–the days when retailers send non-Code comics back to the distributor bundles unopened were in the distant past. So Marvel got the win–and printing this story led to the Code being revised and updated for the times, the first such revision to ever happen. So that by the time the same story was ready to be reprinted six years later, it passed muster.

The thing is, as an anti-drug story, it’s a pretty toothless piece. As opposed to many of the younger Bullpenners, who even in 1971 were experimenting regularly with recreational substances, Lee didn’t seem to have much of a clue about the drug culture. He has Peter Parker’s roommate Harry Osborn taking unspecified pills, which seems like a very 1950s image of illicit drug use. Still, the drama of the situation was still present, and the message was gotten across, even if any genuine head might have laughed at this depiction. It also helped that the drug storyline was really just a running subplot for these three issues. While it eventually intersects with the ongoing saga of the Green Goblin (Harry’s father Norman Osborn, if you’ll recall) it wasn’t teh prime mover of these issues. That made its message go down a little bit easier, I suspect–it felt less as though Lee was preaching to the choir, and more like just another thing that might happen in the confused life of Spider-Man

Anyway, this issue opens with Spidey under attack by the aforementioned Green Goblin. Last time, the gang had all gone to see Mary Jane perform in a club owned by Osborn, in which he’d set up one of his hidden Goblin lairs. Being there was enough to jog Norman’s memory that he was actually the Green Goblin–in these days, he tended to forget that bit of knowledge in between bouts with teh wall-crawler–and Spidey, suspecting that bad things were happening, trailed him deeper into the bowels of the club–but too late. The Goblin and Spider-Man duke it out for a few pages–and Gil Kane’s actin sequences featuring Spider-Man are amazingly fluid and good. Not a knock against John Romita, long the wall-crawler’s artist in residence, but Kane was able to tap into the speed and zip of Spidey’s co-creator Steve Ditko while maintaining the more slicked-up look that Romita had made a hallmark. His Spider-Man moved!

The fight is a wash, though, as Spidey gets trashed and the Goblin gets away. This is profoundly concerning for the web-slinger because the Goblin knows his true identity, and could strike at him at any time, or attack his loved ones. But with no angle to act on, he rejoins the group and plans his next move. Harry, meanwhile, is having trouble with Mary Jane–who in this story comes across like a real bitch, one of the reasons I never entirely warmed to her. She tells Harry that he was good for a few laughs, but that he was only keeping the seat warm until she could ensnare Peter. Depressed and miserable, Harry seeks out comfort in pills, which are supplied to him by a local pusher, and his relationship with roommate Peter gets rockier–the two fight over Mary Jane and Harry starts experiencing wild mood swings. But Peter doesn’t have much time or patience for Harry’s antics, the Green Goblin is on the loose! Try as he might, though, he can’t seem to catch the trail of his elusive enemy.

Harry, meanwhile, has been chowing down on his assorted nondenominational pills, and he overdoses. Fortunately, Peter gets back to their apartment in time, finding his friend stricken. He of course feels immediately guilty about not having been there to support Harry in his time of need, and moves to call for an ambulance. But before he can, a shrill laugh splits the night–and looking out of the apartment window, Peter sees the circling form of the Green Goblin, ready for the showdown! That’s where this particular installment went To be Continued. As I mentioned at the top of this entry, I did get the next part at the same time. But you’re going to have to wait a week to find out how it all comes out, I’m afraid.

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