This was another issue of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN that I bought new during one of my weekly trips to my neighborhood 7-11 on the Thursday when new comic books were put out. It’s the first book I encountered where Marvel has restored the cover months to its covers, a change I was in favor of for no real reason at all. It’s a somewhat-noteworthy issue, in that it introduces a villain so absurd that he wasn’t used again for years, and who has now appeared multiple times in multiple places, most often without the writers in question having looked back to discover what he was all about apart from the most obvious surface connotation. I just had him in IRON MAN within the past month, for example. And this character, of course, as the Big Wheel. I don’t think that editor/writer Marv Wolfman was really imagining that the Big Wheel would have any greater life beyond this story. If anything, he seems like a loving tribute to the Blackhawks’ recurring nemesis, the War Wheel. But obviously, you never know what is going to catch on with people.
Marv succeeded his friend Len Wein as the writer of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, and much of what he did initially was to clean up dangling business that Len had set up. (He’d still be at it towards the end of his time on the series as well–Len was the one who first brought back the Burglar who killed Uncle Ben, in a sequence that wasn’t followed up on for close to two years.) But I quite enjoyed Marv’s run, in particular once he got his arms around the assignment and started to move forward with his own stories–around issue #186. That also coincides with when long-running penciler Ross Andru made his departure from the book as well. Ross was a bit of an acquired taste, but like him or not, he defined the look of the web-slinger throughout the 1970s. In this particular issue, he’s inked by Bob McLeod rather than his friend and partner Mike Esposito, and the result is that the artwork looks just a little bit more modern and contemporary. I feel like at least half of the problem with Ross’s work in the eyes of fandom could really be chalked up to Esposito’s finish, which often felt somehow old fashioned.
One of the straggler characters that Len had left set up in earlier issues was the Rocket Racer, a new villain who had one (cover-featured) skirmish with the wall-crawler, but about whom little was known. Marv decided to try to recast the character in a somewhat more sympathetic light–making him a 1970s equivalent of the Prowler. So among other things, we learn in this issue that Robert Farrell has a hospitalized mother, and his crimes are all in the service of paying for her treatment. It’s a little cliche, even in 1978, but it still works. In order to pull off his heists, the Racer had contracted the Tinkerer to build him his rocket-powered skateboard and battle suit, with the aged inventor getting 25% of his take as a result. Last issue, we learned that the Racer had been hired by embezzler Jackson Weele to steal some documents that incriminated him. The Rocket Racer did the job, but he refused to turn over the most sensitive document without a better payday. With no recourse against the villain he had hired, in this issue Weele seeks out the Tinkerer himself, so that he can be outfitted with gear superior to Farrell’s and get his revenge on the extorter.
So after some preliminaries, this issue gets its action going when Peter Parker drops in at the hospital to visit his bed-stricken Aunt May. As it turns out, Robert Farrell is there at the same time, visiting his own mother. And wouldn’t you know it, the two are sharing a hospital room! So it happens that as Peter approaches the door to the room, his spider-sense begins to go off big time. (This isn’t quite a proper use of the spider-sense, by the way, as Farrell doesn’t intend any harm to Peter. But things were still a bit loosey-goosey in that department in 1978.) Pete immediately changes to Spider-man and bursts in–almost causing Aunt May to suffer another heart attack. While he tries to calm his aged relative down, Farrell figures that the web-slinger has tracked him down to the hospital, and he switches into his costumed identity to boot. The running fight between the pair exits the hospital and continues on the streets beyond.
The Rocket Racer’s greatest attribute is his speed, and he’s more looking to elude Spider-Man than to battle him. But the outcome of this skirmish isn’t really in much doubt–Spider-Man is a hell of a lot stronger and more agile. But the odds change with the sudden appearance of Jackson Weele in his new costumed persona as the Big Wheel. This was the taunt the Racer had used to antagonize Weele, and so the Big Wheel sees it as an appropriate name for the Racer’s killer. The Tinkerer has set him up with a massive two-story tall robotic wheel machine, sort of seeming like a Ferris Wheel that had become untethered, and he’s creating destruction and chaos indiscriminately in his desire to turn the Rocket Racer into a grease stain.
For his part, Spider-Man is now forced to change his tactics as well, from trying to punch out the Rocket Racer to attempting to save him, while preventing any bystanders from getting caught in the crossfire. This doesn’t really turn out to be all that much of a problem, though, as Jackson Weele is still a newbie at driving his absurd power rig, and Spidey is easily able to set him up to drive it right off a pier and into the East River. In typical Spider-Man fashion, the wall-crawler dives into the water in an attempt to save Weele (whom he can’t locate among the polluted waters) and the Rocket Racer makes good use of this diversion to make his own escape. So Spidey comes out empty handed at the end of the day.
There is one final bit of business for this issue to wrap up, and it belongs not to Spider-Man but rather Peter Parker. At the very close of the previous issue, Peter had surprised both his girlfriend Mary Jane Watson and the readers by suddenly asking her to marry him. This month, she gives her answer–and it’s very true to the party girl MJ of the 1960s and 1970s: she’s not interested in being married to anybody, so she rejects poor Parker and then largely exits the series. and so Peter is broken-hearted when he gets back to his apartment, only to be stunned by the sudden unexpected reappearance of–but that’s next issue’s story, so for now, we’ll have to keep things To Be Continued.