One more comic book that came to me in a plastic 3-Bag bought at either a toy store or a department store. It has a very typical cover for the era, one in which all of the characters have word or thought balloons explaining everything that is going on, and on which the hero is fatalistic about his chances of survival. Almost every cover of the era when Len Wein was operating as Marvel’s editor followed this format. It’s a very story-centric format, and one that defined the look of the Marvel line in this era. Some people really love this approach, some people really hate it, but it’s definitely fallen out of favor in general in recent decades. But especially when pitching to a young impulse-buy audience, it was absolutely effective. What kid wouldn’t want to pick up this book to see how the web-slinger gets himself and Jonah Jameson out of this situation? And fortunately, this was one of the semi-rare instances of this phenomenon where this cover image isn’t the cliffhanger of the issue and is actually resolved in this story.
This was another issue that guest-starred the Punisher, who hadn’t quite reached the levels of popularity that he would by the end of the 1980s. He’d been inspired by men’s paperback series such as Don Pendleton’s The Executioner, though softened so as to be acceptable as a quasi-good guy under the Comics Code. So the Punisher still used rubber “mercy bullets” and wasn’t quite as overtly lethal although he certainly talked a good game. He wasn’t a character that I particular felt any connection to, at least in this era, and when later writers had him go a little bit coo-coo and get sent to prison, I didn’t really mind it. That said, I never had anything against him, and the version of the character who was running around in the 1970s had a slightly different personality. He hadn’t yet crystalized into what he would become.
Not all that much was known about the Punisher’s past at this point–his origin had been depicted, but that was really about it. So this tale fleshes him out a little bit, putting Spidey and the Punisher up against Hitman, an assassin hired to abduct J. Jonah Jameson (a bit outside of his job description, but hey, Comics Code) who was sort of a dark mirror of the Punisher himself. What’s more, the man who became Hitman had saved Frank Castle’s life during the Vietnam War, so a question hangs over this story: despite his very simple black-and-white code, will the Punisher hesitate to shoot a villain to whom he is so indebted?
This issue also moves Len’s ongoing Green Goblin plot along, with a one-page subplot page in which Harry Osborn is having a session with his psychiatrist Bart Hamilton. Harry had gone nuts years earlier and taken on his father’s mantle as the Green Goblin, and this page is set up in such a way as to try to make readers think that the same thing was happening again. Unfortunately, the real tell in this page is the fact that Len and Ross keep the figure who stands up after Harry and Hamilton fight completely in shadow. If this was just Harry, there would be no reason to keep this a secret, as Len attempts to keep under wraps for another four issues. And maybe this worked for some readers. (And in fairness, I already knew the truth when I read this issue for the first time, having come in on the series with the second-to-last chapter of the Goblin epic) but it seems so obvious to me that I can’t imagine that most people were fooled. So it’s either commendable or foolish for Len to have continued to play this set-up so straight.
Anyway, this issue opens with the Punisher and Spider-Man having failed to prevent Hitman from making off with J. Jonah Jameson. He’s been hired by a bigwig from the People’s Liberation Front, a terrorist organization who wants payback for a series of scathing editorials that Jonah had written. They’re planning to blow up the Statue of Liberty, and they intend to have Jonah go up with it as the cherry on top. Spidey manages to stick one of his patented Spider-Tracers on Hitman’s mini-chopper, and so the pair is able to give chase–but only after they’ve first knocked their way past a bevy of cops who have also shown up and who figure (not really incorrectly) that he Punisher and Spider-Man are just as much criminals as Hitman is.
The involvement of the PLF means that there’s plenty of cannon fodder in this story for the Punisher to mow down–though, as mentioned earlier, Spider-man is quick to point out that he’s convinced the Punisher to use non-lethal “mercy bullets” as another sop to the Comics Code. Having heroes behave in such a lethal manner was still something that was outside of most people’s comfort zone, for all that such anti-heroes had become a staple of pop culture just about everywhere else. So it’s not surprising that things were moving in this direction, but it would really take the rise of the Direct Sales marketplace to truly allow these sorts of heroes to flourish among older audiences.
At a certain point, Hitman figures that this isn’t his fight, and decides to cut out–cutting down his former employer with the PLF when he objects. As Hitman takes off in his mini-copter, Spidey attempts to stop him–and through a series of quick action events, we wind up with the cover scene, though with Hitman also hanging from the Statue. Which, frankly, isn’t quite so difficult a choice for the Punisher to make. (And which seems a bit absurd, given that Spider-Man’s primary power is sticking to walls and stuff.) And of course, he helps out Spidey and Jameson despite his indebtedness to Hitman, who winds up falling to his death as a result. The end! It’s a pretty solid entry all around, though it feels a bit more focused on the Punisher than on Spider-Man, to be honest, for all that there’s plenty of space devoted to the wall-crawler’s supporting cast along the way.