BHOC: MARVEL TALES #84

This issue of MARVEL TALES was yet another book that came to me in a 3-Bag bought at either a Toy Store or a Department Store, and like the other books I’ve covered, it would have been about nine months old when I purchased it. It contained a reprint of an issue of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN from right at the end of Stan Lee’s scripting tenure on the series. Stan had taken the prior four issues off so that he could work on a screen play, and they’re a bit weird consequently (the introduction of Morbius and a King Kong riff in the Savage Land with Kraven–very off-model for Spider-Man stories) But now Stan was back, and things began to feel Spidery again.

In some ways, maybe a bit too Spidery, to tell you the truth. I wouldn’t learn about this completely for a while to come, but this adventure is an updated riff on two earlier Spider-man stories, both of which feature Professor Spencer Smythe and his Spider-Slayer robot. The first story was one of the real masterpieces of the early days, and plotted by Ditko, in which J. Jonah Jameson hires out Smythe’s robot to hunt down his wall-crawling nemesis, and almost succeeds.Smythe and his improved robot made a comeback during the Romita years, though at this point he had gone from being an upstanding scientist to a guy deciding to use his innovations for wealth and personal power. A less complicated set-up, to be sure, but also less interesting. On the credits for this splash page, the last humorous aside had been taken out. That’s because it originally stated that the lettering was by Artie (He’s Real Gone) Simek. Given that Simek had passed away only a few years before this reprint, somebody realized that might be interpreted in bad taste.

I’ve spoken at length as to how effective penciler Gil Kane was at bringing some of the Ditko creepiness back into Spider-Man, without losing the attractiveness of the more heroic Romita model, and this issue is another good example of that. Kane’s Spidey moves with acrobatic grace and blinding speed. he gives probably the best sense of leaping and swinging up among the rooftops that anybody had done of the series to this point. The dramatics of his storytelling were always on point as well. Story-wise, Lee was very much trying to plug Spider-Man a bit more into the issues of the time, since that seemed to resonate with the audience. Plus, I suspect, he was beginning to buy into his own hype a little bit, and so had started more actively to include philosophical messages and the like in his stories–whether they were genuinely held or just empty platitudes. On Spider-Man in particular, he emphasized not only the urban setting, but he’d begun to try to address (or at least illustrate) other problems that were in the zeitgeist of 1972.

The issue opens with Peter Parker having returned to Manhattan after his two-issue sojourn in the Savage Land, and eager to get back to his life. As he web-swings across town, he comes across Daily Bugle publisher J. Jonah Jameson getting entangled in a protest being held by the son of Bugle city editor Joe Robertson. Randy Robertson and his fellow students are picketing in support of civil rights, but Jonah won’t hear anything about it–he claims that the Bugle has been in support of Civil Rights for years. The crowd is about to tear Jonah apart when Spidey swings down and extracates him, hanging him atop a nearby lamppost for good measure. Publicly humiliated once again, Jonah sets out to get his revenge by paying a visit to Spencer Smythe, who has the latest iteration of his Spider-Slayer robots ready to roll off the line–this one shaped like a gigantic spider itself.

As in the past, Smythe leases the robot to Jameson for his personal use, and Jonah sets it out across the city in search of Spider-Man. He’s able to quickly track down the web-slinger, so that a typical action sequence can ensue. Spidey is taken completely flat-footed by the Spider-Slayer, and all of his attempts to elude his pursuer come to nothing. Johan, though, is having his own troubles with the controls. It seems as though every time he’s ready to close in for the kill, the robot fails to respond–as though it was playing with the wall-crawler and not yet ready to finish him off. Undaunted, Jonah keeps on mashing buttons until he can get Spidey on the ropes. At one point, the robot goes off-book entirely, thrusting Spider-man into a research laboratory despite receiving no such command from Jonah. But as long as the thing is winning over his hated enemy, Jonah isn’t especially worried about it.

But Jonah might be more concerned if he was aware of what was really going on here. It turns out that Spencer Smythe is still in control of the Spider-Slayer, and is using the cover of the fight to use it to swipe high-tech components that he needs for his greater master scheme. He’s the one who’s been causing the Spider-Slayer to hesitate, so that he could work Spidey into position and make good on his thefts. In addition, Smythe has been put to work as an advisor to New York City on the subject of crime, and has convinced the authorities to allow him to install a series of surveillance cameras all throughout Manhattan, turning the island into his personal surveillance state. The specific bit of tech that Smythe had the Spider-Slayer lift was the master control unit for the cameras–and so now, he and he alone can see what they see.

Smythe decides that he’ll test his network of spy cameras by using them to determine Spider-man’s true identity. He’s able to pick up the web-slinger as he leaves the site of the battle with the Spider-Slayer, and he continues to monitor him until he lands on his rooftop and removes his mask. Now, given that Peter has his spider-sense, this really shouldn’t work at all–he ought to be aware of the dangerous surveillance before he removes his mask. But before the 1980s, the use of the spider-sense was inconsistent at best–many writers forgot to take it into account, including Stan himself. It wasn’t until the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe became a thing that the workings of the spider-sense were definitively outlined under the guidance of Mark Gruenwald. So we’ll give this story a pass for the moment–as it’s To Be Continued anyway. To my younger self, this was a shocking development, and it would be years until I got to read the resolution (which was more than a bit underwhelming, to be honest.)

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