BHOC: MARVEL TALES #85

Continuing with more comics that I bought in plastic 3-Bags from either a local department store or else a toy store in the area. This issue of MARVEL TALES, reprinting an issue of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN from only a few years earlier, was one such book. I had read the first part of this story the previous month, and so I was interested in seeing what happened next, even though it was clear (since Spider-Man was still a going concern in the new stories that were being published) that Peter Parker’s secret was going to remain in the bag, despite the cliffhanger events we had been left with.

This issue was back in the artistic hands of John Romita, whereas the prior installment had been handled by Gil Kane. So I suspect it’s John who pointed out the same complaint that I had upon reading that cliffhanger: if Spidey is being monitored by one of those spy-camera that have been placed all across the city, then his spider-sense should warn him before he does something dangerous like taking off his mask and revealing his true face to them. That hadn’t happened, so here, Romita immediately course-corrects to indicate that of course Spidey got a tingle–but it was too little, too late.

After a few issues where Roy Thomas subbed in for him–and crafted such off-brand style Spidey adventures as the debut of Morbius and Spidey journeying to the Savage Land to play out a King Kong riff, Stan Lee was back in the scripter’s chair with this issue. But as with FANTASTIC FOUR, Stan’s work after he’d come back from that short sabbatical was pretty lifeless, going through the motions with well-honed material. The creative spark that had made Marvel so interesting had largely dissipated by this point, and it was clear that Lee’s interests lied elsewhere. The writing here isn’t bad, but it lacks a commitment to the drama, is too ready to indicate that it really isn’t taking any of these events seriously. Consequently, the stakes don’t feel legitimate. And it has to be said that this is one of the stupider stories in the Marvel canon, for exactly how Lee and Peter get out of the quandary they’re in.

Realizing that whoever is behind the camera spy-eye has doubtless seen him unmasked, Spidey hoofs it to the laboratory of his good friend Curt Connors, and asks Curt for the use of his equipment. There, he crafts a rubber mask of his own Peter Parker face, then puts it on over his Spidey mask and heads back out. Locating another one of the cameras, Spidey pulls off the Peter Parker mask, indicating that he’d only been pretending to unmask earlier, and that the face the bad guys saw isn’t actually his own. The villain, Spencer Smythe, and his gang leader guests fall for this transparent ruse completely, never bothering to wonder why Spider-Man would have done such an elaborate thing in the first place, and to what end. It just means that the portion of the story dealing with Spidey’s identity having been exposed is now over.

With his secret identity problems off his back, Spidey now sets out to locate the mastermind behind the stolen control unit to the new surveillance system. Along the way, he passed by the Daily Bugle building, and scripter Lee makes an interesting choice. Looking at just the artwork, it’s clear here that a crowd has shown up to protest the cameras, getting in Jonah Jameson’s face for his support of the program. But Lee scripts things so that Jonah is actually the ringleader of the protest, that he’s on the right side of this issue for once. It’s an interesting reversal, and one that provides some shading to JJJ’s typically nefarious character–this was part of an ongoing program to rehabilitate Jameson to some extent, to turn him into a more well-rounded quasi-good guy rather than the sensationalist, muckraking, greedy publisher he had started out as under Steve Ditko. Though in this story, it’s tough to reconcile this picture of Jonah with the guy who only a few pages earlie was still paying Spencer Smythe for a Spider-Slayer robot with which to seek out and kill Spider-Man.

Anyway, the web-slinger isn’t having any luck in picking up Smythe’s trail, so he decides to change back into Peter Parker for a couple of pages of supporting cast interaction and subplot development. After checking in with his still-recovering roommate Harry Osborn, Peter heads out to hook up with his girl Gwen Stacy. But Gwen wants them to go look in on their mutual friend Flash Thompson, who hasn’t been himself since he returned from service in Vietnam. Peter is troubled by this, as he sees Flash as a rival for Gwen’s affections, but he really has no excuse that can get him out of coming along with Gwen. (Plus, he doesn’t want to leave the two of them alone either.) Flash is definitely acting strangely, but that’s all set-up for the storyline after this one, so it doesn’t amount to too much here. Peter and Gwen, at least, get to have a nice night out.

But then it’s web-spinning time again as we race to the climax. Suiting up in his costume once more, Spidey sets out to find his foe once again. But he’s suddenly ensnared in webbing similar to his own, and turns to see Smythe’s latest, largest Spider-Slayer coming right at him. How large is this latest killer robot? Large enough that it has a cockpit in which Smythe himself can ride, rather than directing the machine remotely as he’s done up to this point. This seems to me to be a weakness rather than a strength, leaving Smythe more vulnerable to the wall-crawler’s attack (especially given that his cockpit sure seems to be open-air) but what do I know? Both Spider-Man and Smythe himself seem to think that he holds all the cards. And this is where the story is To Be Continued.

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