Here’s another issue of another title that I got in a 3-Bag distributed through either a department store or a toy store. At the time I would have purchased that bag, the books it contained would have been around 9 months old. Which was handy for catching up with recent issues of assorted Marvel series that I had only started to read, particularly in those days when comic book back issue stores were few and far between. PETER PARKER, THE SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN was clearly the junior Spider-man title, a series mainly created to give new Editor Gerry Conway a Spidey book to scribe (since Len Wein was already parked on Conway’s former homestead, AMAZING SPIDER-MAN). It was also good business to launch the book, given how popular the web-slinger had become. He could easily carry multiple titles (and did–though not yet to the extent that he would in the 1990s and beyond.) Conway departed Marvel after only working on the first couple of issues of PETER PARKER, making it a country without a king. It would take years for the series to shake off its second-class status.
Taking over from Conway was Archie Goodwin, who was not only one of the all-around best writers in comics at that time, but who had also risen to the title of Editor following Conway’s departure. Archie never turned in a bad script, but reading is issues of SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN, one gets the sense that his heart wasn’t really all that into chronicling Peter Parker’s adventures. The stories are all fine, but they feel a bit divorced from everything else going on in the wall-crawler’s life. But they did the job of the book: to give hungry fans a second hit of web-slinging adventure every month. The art was by the underappreciated Sal Buscema and Jim Mooney. Sal was a machine during the 1970s, turning up in three, four, five different titles every month due to his ability to produce easily-inked breakdowns and his command of the Marvel approach to storytelling. But as a result, he wasn’t all that loved by the hardcore fans–his work would vary depending on who finished it, and his speed and reliability were seen among the comic book fan cognoscenti as an indication that he wasn’t invested in the work, that he was simply hacking out pages for a paycheck. It wasn’t in any way a fair assessment, but fans are like that.
The issue opens up with some slam-bang Spidey action as the angered web-slinger breaks into the underworld headquarters of the ganglord Morgan. Morgan was a character who kicked around in assorted Marvel titles all throughout the 1970s, sort of an African-American Kingpin figure (albeit treated a bit less respectfully). It was still rare to see a lot of faces of color in comic books in the mid-1970s, in particular in criminal roles. Morgan was especially useful in going up against Marvel’s growing number of black super heroes, such as the Falcon and Luke Cage. Here, Spidey leans on Morgan, having learned that it was the crimelord who hired the Hitman to bump him off in recent issues of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN–a pretty good piece of cross-title continuity. Spidey beats the crap out of Morgan and his boys (though he leaves them at large, having nothing on them that can be used as evidence of illegal wrongdoing), then heads out to retrieve his civilian clothes, which he’s stashed in a handy vent. Unfortunately, the vent was connected to a delicatessen, and after being in there for a few hours, Pete’s clothes all smell like chopped liver. These sorts of fun “Parker luck” gags seemed to be ubiquitous during this time, and were one of the things that helped make Spider-Man seem so human and relatable.
Elsewhere, after a brief digression looking in on supporting player Flash Thompson, who seems to have spotted his Vietnamese girlfriend Sha Shan in Manhattan (the set-up to a future story) our focus then shifts to the rooftops, where Dr. Michael Morbius appears from nowhere. Apparently, in his last appearance in his own series, Morbius was in some other dimension. Here, he’s returned, against his will, and he’s being haunted by a voice in his head that drives him onward. Catching a glimpse of the image of Spider-Man on a Daily Bugle ad on the side of a bus, Morbius determines that he needs to seek out his old sparring partner. To do so, he heads to the Daily Bugle, bursts in, surprising Glory Grant (another face of color, and a good balance to the depiction of Morgan earlier) carrying her off in an attempt to draw Spider-Man to him.
Pete happens to be approaching the Daily Bugle at just that moment, and so becomes aware of Glory’s distress. Switching out of his smelly clothes, he becomes Spider-Man once more and hurls himself at Morbius. The balance of the issue becomes a combination chase and fight between the two of them, as Spidey attempts to save Glory and stop Morbius, and the Living Vampire plays cat-and-mouse with the pair, not truly of his own volition but clearly at the command of the mysterious voice that guides him. The voice indicates that it feeds on emotions, and the conflict between Morbius and the wall-crawler, with Glory stuck in the middle, is a smorgasbord it isn’t in any hurry to finish with.
This ongoing battle is interrupted for a single page cutaway to more of Pete’s supporting cast; Mary Jane Watson, her Aunt Anna and Aunt May Parker, who are preparing for a protest march on City Hall in support of the Grey Panthers, a real world organization that pushed for rights and respect for senior citizens. The depiction of Aunt May in these years would vary from writer to writer, but while she’d occasionally be shown to have wisdom and heart, she’d more often come across as a baffled and out-of-touch old woman–somebody whose welfare it could be difficult to care about. She was also a lot older than most contemporary takes on the character, especially across other media. Anyway, this page doesn’t really do much of anything apart from reminding the reader that these characters are all a part of the cast. It could have been cut completely and nothing would have been lost–if it did have a point when it was plotted and drawn, that point seems to have vanished by the time it hit the final printed page. It’s the sort of page that I would look to revise or remove when reading a plot.
Anyway, back at the battle, it’s fight, fight, fight for a bunch of inconsequential pages until the issue wraps up. Spidey saves himself and Glory from falling to their deaths, and as they get their second wind, they see Morbius convulsing on a rooftop across the way. The Living Vampire is actually struggling with the creature who is possessing him–a creature that reveals itself as the Empathoid in the issue’s final panel. To Be Continued! So as I said at the top, this was a fun enough romp, but hardly a Spider-Man story that anybody was going to remember forever. It checked all of the necessary boxes without having much of anything to say, apart from a few minutes of mindless diversion. PETER PARKER, THE SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN was filled with stories like this one for a long while, and it’s the reason why the book wasn’t accorded a similar level of respect as AMAZING SPIDER-MAN (despite the fact that it still outsold most of the rest of the Marvel line, given that Spider-Man was such a sales driver in those days.)