I bought this issue of MARVEL TALES from my usual spinner rack at the local 7-11. It reprinted, as usual, a story from AMAZING SPIDER-MAN published about six years before. At that time, AMAZING SPIDER-MAN was in the midst of one of its more seismic changes: Stan Lee, having been promoted to publisher of the company, had given up all of his scripting duties, so suddenly the web-slinger’s life was in other hands to guide. Those hands belonged to artist John Romita, who had largely been doing that job unofficially for several years, and a young new writer, Gerry Conway. Conway was, I believe, only 20 when he began writing AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, and so he was the first writer who was approximately the same age as the character he was writing about, a fact which gave him some insight into Peter Parker’s world that the older Lee may not have been aware of.
The idea initially was that, as the “senior partner”, Romita would be doing most of the plotting, with Conway providing only dialogue. But that split began to change almost immediately, as, given the keys to the car, Conway wanted to drive it. That said, he was still a bit of a novice, and so his early issues on the book contain moments and situations that are pretty absurd. By that same token, Conway and Romita also produced ideas that became classic elements of the wall-crawler’s canon. But the point being, Conway was still very much a work in progress at this point, so the story in this issue is maybe a bit shakier and ill-conceived than it would have been only a year or two later.
This issue was the wrap-up to a multi-part adventure. A gang war had broken out across Manhattan in the wake of the Kingpin’s downfall, and both Spidey’s old foe Doctor Octopus and his new foe, the gangster movie-inspired Hammerhead, are battling it out in order to become the new head of the underworld. This wouldn’t be quite so personal for Spidey except that his elderly Aunt May has gone to live with Doc Ock and work as his housekeeper, a reaction on her part to being snapped at by Gwen Stacy, who accused her of attempting to control Peter’s life. Last time out, Spidey had tracked Ock back to his lair, but the Hammerhead mob had made the scene as well. And worse, Spidey was struck senseless by a vase smashed over his head by the selfsame Aunt May. As I explained last time, in these days, the workings of Spider-Man’s spider-sense hadn’t really been codified. Based on how it’s been defined for years, there’s no way that Aunt May should have been able to get the drop on him. But she does here–Conway’s explanation being that she doesn’t pose any threat or mean any harm to Peter, and so it doesn’t go off, even when she’s braining him. At this point, just roll with it.
Spidey’s dealing with a couple of other problems as well: he’s developed an ulcer thanks to the stress of his double life (a very timely idea on the part of Conway and Romita), and he’s also had to replace his costume’s mask with a store-swiped substitute that doesn’t include his white eyepieces. I don’t know if maybe Conway and Romita were toying with getting rid of them and having Spidey’s eyes show through the mask permanently or what, but for this whole story, that’s the way the wall-crawler is depicted. Meanwhile, as Aunt May warns Doctor Octopus about Spider-Man’s presence, Hammerhead and his boys attack, leading to an all-out conflict between the two. Spidey ultimately recovers and joins in the fray, focused mainly on finding his Aunt and making sure that she’s out of danger.
Spidey winds up throwing down with Hammerhead, and while the big man scores an almost crippling blow to the web-slinger’s solar plexus that irritates his ulcer, Spidey sends him running. He then turns his attention towards Doc Ock, who is attempting to flee with Aunt May in tow. It has to be said, the depiction of Aunt May in these stories is not very flattering. She’s a doddering idiot, utterly convinced that Doc Ock is a harmless man of science while still being terrified by Spider-Man. Even when evidence to the contrary plays out right in front of her eyes, she never waivers in her devotion to Doc–which, given matters happening in this country these past couple of months, maybe that depiction is more realistic than I had thought at the time. Either way, Spidey is caught between a rock and a hard place, in that he needs to take Ock down, but not cause his Aunt to suffer another heart attack thanks to fear and stress. Good luck, wall-crawler!
Spidey’s taking Ock moving in on his Aunt personally, and after a short battle, he gets the upper hand and begins to go to town on the tentacled scientist, beating the holy hell out of him. It’s pretty clear that Spider-Man has lost it at this point, and it’s only Aunt May’s cries that bring him to his senses before he accidentally kills Ock. Aunt May’s got a gun, and she actually takes a shot at the web-slinger, who is saved, according to the text, by her being startled by a police siren so that her shot goes wide. This whole scene is absolutely bonkers, but it was also very memorable, and they way if used the heightened emotions of the characters to provoke a response was very much the dopamine hit that AMAZING SPIDER-MAN provided that other comics often did not. Sure, it’s crazy, but it’s crazy in a visceral way. The audience will go along with almost anything if they’re feeling it.’
In the wrap-up, Peter’s supporting cast shows up, he has a chance to change back into his civilian duds, and Aunt May tells him that, despite Ock being arrested, she’s decided to stay on as his housekeeper, even in his absence. Again, this is nuts, but it certainly creates some drama for Peter, as his Aunt will now be living among crooks and criminals, unaware of what is going on around her. I haven’t mentioned it yet, but the reason Ock is so interested in May is the fact that she’s inherited–wait for it–a nuclear reactor. This particular fact hadn’t been revealed yet at this point in the story, and Aunt May’s mysterious inheritance would be a subplot that would wend through several stories for a few years until it was all resolved. Conway’s Spidey carried more angst than Stan’s, was sharper-edged with his humor, and more prone to fits of violence and anger. But there was something very genuine about the portrayal, even as often the story plots were borderline nonsensical, and that’s what carried the day as he gradually figured out how to better his craft.