BHOC: PETER PARKER, SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN #21

It was business as usual back at my 7-11’s spinner rack that Thursday, the day when new comic books would be put out for the week. Having jumped aboard the Spider-Man train, I picked up this issue of PETER PARKER, THE SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN. SPEC SPIDEY was decidedly the second tier Spider-Man title for virtually all of its long run, but the appeal and popularity of the wall-crawler still allowed it to sell well. And at several points, it ran stories as good if not better than what was appearing in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN. I have a certain nostalgic fondness for this issue, for example, which likely has more to do with when I read it than the merits of the work. It was the first story I read that featured the Scorpion, though I knew the character from the 1967 animated Spider-Man cartoon, which was still playing weekdays in syndication.

Bill Mantlo had been writing the title for around a year, and he had tried to build up a supporting cast and subplots entirely separate from what was going on in the main series. In other words, he took the assignment seriously. Another person who did was recently promoted Editor in Chief Jim Shooter, who had his problems with the work Mantlo would do, and who had taken it upon himself to edit Bill on SPEC SPIDEY in an attempt to bring him more into line with what he expected an wanted out of him as a writer. Theirs was a contentious relationship at points, but it’s difficult to paint either man as wrong–they both had their foibles, and there were genuine problems on both sides that needed addressing. Jim Mooney provided the artwork, being one of those old timer greats who wasn’t a big name with the fandom of the time, but which Marvel and Shooter liked to keep employed and active within the line. SPEC SPIDEY would never really get to have better artwork than AMAZING SPIDEY, and often, the pages were provided by whomever needed the work.

On the other hand, Mantlo did also choose to try to reflect what was happening in Peter’s life in AMAZING, which often led to weird scenes like this one above between Peter and Mary Jane. Over in ASM, writer Marv Wolfman had Pete propose to MJ as a precursor to writing her out of the series. Mantlo was stuck with that status quo, but clearly wanted to use MJ more–but was also bound to fit in-between Marv’s raindrops. So you get scenes like this one that don’t really make a whole lot of sense when viewed against the contemporary ASM issues (and which kind of makes Pete look like a jerk for pressuring MJ after she’s already turned down his proposal.) Mantlo had better luck with supporting characters such as his creation Hector Ayala, the White Tiger, who had become a fixture in the series.

The Scorpion, meanwhile, is still suffering from existential angst since his defeat in MS MARVEL #1-2. He’s been living in the sewers, unable to walk around in public due to the Scorpion costume he’d been fused into during his origin. He’d agreed to the experiment that turned him into the Scorpion because he was paid to by J. Jonah Jameson–Jameson was trying to create somebody who would be able to defeat Spider-Man, his nemesis. The Scorpion failed in that regard, and Dr. Stillwell’s process drove him a bit nutty as well. Now, years later, he regrets that decision, and blames Jameson for how his life has disintegrated around him. Pursuing revenge, the Scorpion seeks out Stillwell’s abandoned laboratory and exposes himself to more of the juice that made him the Scorpion in the first place. Now, stronger than ever, he intends to find and kill the man responsible for fusing him into this Scorpion get-up: Jameson.

The preliminaries over, the Scorpion ventures forth to attack the Daily Bugle building, where Jameson is sure to be. But also there is Peter parker, who kind of wishes that Ms. Marvel was also in attendance, since he doesn’t love the notion of having to fight a guy created to destroy him in order to save the guy who financed that creating. What’s more, Spidey’s got a handicap going into this fight, which was something that happened on occasion in the Spidey titles and was always welcome. In this case, he’s completely out of webbing–his shooters are empty, and he’s got no more spare web-cartridges on his belt. So he’s going to need to tackle the even-more-powerful Scorpion without his number one weapon. Spider-Man as the underdog and the hard-luck hero was always an effective note to play with the character.

So the fight is going to wind up being a close-quarters knuckle-duster, with Spidey using his greater speed and agility to remain out of the way of the Scorpion’s crushing tail. True to form, Jameson himself can’t really decide which costumed nutcase to root for–at least until Robbie Robertson points out that if the Scorpion comes out on top, he’s going to massacre Jameson next. The Scorpion has the upper hand for the first portion of the bout, pounding the wall-crawler mercilessly. But Spidey keeps on getting back up, and eventually he seizes his opportunity and just whales on the Scorpion, telling the villain that he’s tired of being the scapegoat for all of the Scorpion’s life-choices and problems.

And here, we get to the punch line of the issue, as Spidey removes the Scorpion’s mask, indicating that the notion that he was forever trapped within his costume was all in his mind. Now, there’s a reading of this story where it’s that second exposure to Stillwell’s machinery that undoes the bond between Scorpion and costume–that’s certainly the way I see it looking at it now–but Mantlo doesn’t indicate anything of the kind, so we’ll have to take Spidey’s word for it: the Scorpion was simply delusional about the whole thing.

7 thoughts on “BHOC: PETER PARKER, SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN #21

  1. Scorpion was my favourite Spidey villain as a kid in the 90s and looking back at older issues I’ve always been amused by how long it took for someone to finally redesign Scorpion’s tail to actually LOOK like a scorpion’s tail.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Could be that Bill plotted it as the second exposure undoing the bond, and Jim had him script it as just a psychological delusion. It’s the kind of thing Jim liked — for him, “man versus himself” was an inherently better conflict than “man vs. man” or “man vs. nature.”

    I could never remember who got stuck in the suit, the Scorpion or the Rhino. Over time, both got played that way, but I think one of them had been contradicted by earlier stories…

    Like

  3. This is a very nostalgic one for me, and maybe a lot of British readers of a certain age – this, and the Lightmaster story from the previous issue, were collected in the Spider-Man annual 1980, which I had some time around then, probably second-hand (I was four years old when it came out) and still have now. Very probably my first Spider-Man stories, and first exposure to the wonders of Bill Mantlo’s writing!

    So I’m probably biased when I say it, but this Scorpion story has so much in it that feels like the definitively right way to write a Spider-Man story – Peter struggling with his personal life on multiple fronts but still forcing himself to his limits just to do the right thing, and the wonderful psychological insight into the bad guy. I love it.

    Like

    1. Thanks, Zoomy. I knew I’d read this issue, but had no recollection of ever buying the comic. Of course, it was the annual! I’d have had it for Christmas ’79 (the annual being dated for the following year) along with Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” on cassette. I was seventeen at the time, but, like you, still have the annual (along with a load of other ones going back to the early seventies). Unfortunately, the cassette was long ago chewed up by a car stereo!

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s