There was no question for the first bunch of years after it launched that PETER PARKER, THE SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN was, at best, a secondary title. While it contained adventures of the popular wall-crawler, it wasn’t the book that was driving the character’s narrative. At best, it was operating around the fringes, and at worst it read like a bunch of disconnected and rather weak single issue stories. This wasn’t necessarily the fault of the talent working on the series, although it had a bunch of turn-over at the get-go, but was more a byproduct of what the series was: a second ongoing Spider-Man title. Nothing like that had as yet existed within the Marvel framework, and so the weight of the continuing soap opera of the character’s life was still squarely maintained by AMAZING SPIDER-MAN. A number of people would attempt to change that over the years, with varying degrees of success. One of the first to take the assignment this seriously was writer Bill Mantlo.
Mantlo wasn’t the most polished or accomplished writer when he started out at Marvel, but he was hungry and fast–he would write literally anything that anybody handed to him, under any conditions. But after toiling in teh back pages and secondary features for a few years, you can almost sense his delight at being given the keys to SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN. He had to work within a straitjacket to a certain degree–AMAZING was always going to have the right-of-way when it came to the classic Spidey villains and developments in the web-slinger’s overall personal life. But that was just another condition for Mantlo. He grabbed for whatever Spidey stuff he could get, attempted to build up his own cast of characters around Peter Parker at Empire State U, and brought in creations of his own such as the White Tiger. SPEC SPIDEY also never really got the hottest artist–it was more often than not penciled by Sal Buscema, a workhorse. And Sal was only doing breakdowns, which Mike Esposito tended to finish in a very open style. It’s not the best combination that Sal ever had, by far, but it was consistent, which meant it was used an awful lot.
This issue picks up where the previous outing had left off–and I ought to mention that Ernie Chan’s cover is really quite attractive and well done. Chan was hit-or-miss for me as a super hero cover artist, with more misses during that period when he was drawing virtually every DC super hero cover in the line. But this piece is sharp, with a bit of a Ditko flavor in the harsh contrast lighting. It even helps to make Lightmaster, one of Gerry Conway’s last villainous creations and a bit of a turkey, come across as halfway formidable. Lightmaster was another one of Mantlo’s reclamation projects–as I said, he’d pick up anybody he could get his hands on, and the luminescent villain had debuted in SPEC SPIDEY, meaning that it was considered his “home series” and so Mantlo could develop him in ways he maybe couldn’t with the other Spider-Man big gun foes.
So, last time, in a bit of sitcom plotting, Lightmaster had engaged the Enforcers to lure Spider-Man out into the open, to better determine the wall-crawler’s true identity. Spidey did show up to the hostage situation to take care of business, but in the way it all played out, it looked to Lightmaster like Hector Ayala, secretly the White Tiger, was actually Spider-Man. We pick up this time out with the clean-up from last month’s adventure, with the cops questioning the Enforcers but learning nothing about their benefactor. Thereafter, Pete swings back to his apartment, only to have the plaster of his roof collapse under his weight. This leads to a testy exchange with his landlady Mrs Muggins–the Spidey books used to have a wide variety of recurring incidental characters like here, which gave the strip a bit more texture. It’s a factor that I wish we could get back to more, and not just in the Spidey books.
So, anyway, the next day Lightmaster seeks out Hector Ayala on the ESU campus, ambushing and attacking him in front of his friends, including Peter Parker. Lightmaster, it must be said, possesses one of the lamest designs for a villain ever–there just isn’t anything to it, and as finished by Esposito, he just doesn’t look good. But why let that stop him/ Lightmaster blasts Hector, which accidentally causes his White Tiger amulets to come loose, preventing him from becoming his heroic alter ego. And while Pete watches, unable (or, really, unwilling) to do anything to jeopardize his true identity, Lightmaster hauls the unconscious Hector away to an uncertain fate. Pete swiftly suits up in his web-swinging togs and goes after the duo, locating them in a Bill Finger-style company called Light, Inc, which includes a huge lightbulb as a part of its display sign. Hector’s lady Holly passed Pete Hector’s discarded amulets–and Spidey recognized them as belonging to the White Tiger, whom he’d fought beside before. So he’s brought them along, figuring that they might provide him with some back-up.
Lightmaster, though, doesn’t just want to kill Spider-Man, he wants to humiliate him first, by unmasking him on live television. so he’s used his powers and the tech in his Light Inc. lab to break in on the broadcast signals around town. Separated from his amulets, Hector is suffering from what amounts to “super hero withdrawal symptoms”–he’s weak and feverish and a bit of a mess. Spidey finds the lab, though, and is able to quietly lower the amulets to Hector. This surprises Lightmaster completely–as he succeeds in unmasking not Spider-Man but rather the White Tiger–a pretty large status quo shift for a story like this. But then, the Tiger was Mantlo’s creation, so it was only natural that he’d carry the ball on that character.
And then it was action time! The White Tiger holds back at Spider-Man’s request (he also needs to recover a bit from being without his amulets.) Even so, the now juiced-up Lightmaster is more powerful than ever, and gives Spidey a run for his money. At one point, the wall-crawler ducks into what he thinks is an internal duct, but which ends up being the entrance to the huge lightbulb on the rooftop. Lightmaster powers up the bulb, intending to fry the web-slinger with it–and it almost works, But what undoes him is that he’s sucking enough power from the New York energy grid that he causes a citywide blackout, just in time to save Spidey. What’s more, the loss of power zaps Lightmaster himself, whose energy-based form can’t keep his cohesion. He’s apparently dying–though he’d come back again in the years to come. And that’s the issue, bim, bap, bop! It wasn’t particularly consequential (except to the White Tiger, ironically enough) but it was entertaining and well-told, and in particular Mantlo handled the Peter Parker material nicely. PETER PARKER, THE SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN would continue to be a bit up-and-down, but in Mantlo’s hands it was more usually up than down.