Wednesday, January 16, 2013

BAB Classic: The Comics Code Authority: Revised to Relax, Part 7

The Spectacular Spider-Man #2 (November 1968)
Stan Lee-John Romita

NOTE:  This post was originally published on September 18, 2009.

Doug: I think it's important to take a look at one more Spider-Man story before we head into the so-called "drug issues" that were released in Amazing Spider-Man #'s 96-98 from May-July, 1971. Once Marvel got out from under the terrible distribution deal that Martin Goodman had negotiated with National Periodical, that allowed Marvel to only release a small number of books each month, the company was able to aggressively target market shelf space not only for comics, but for magazines as well.

Doug: In 1968 a magazine-sized comic entitled The Spectacular Spider-Man was released. The first issue was written by Stan Lee with pencils/inks/wash by John Romita and featured Spidey against a corrupt politician who had built a giant monster to crush his foes. From the website:

Spectacular Spider-Man #1 is a rock solid, 64-page extravaganza, including a painted cover and 53-page feature story done in black and white tones by ace artist John Romita! The story pitted Spider-Man against a wicked candidate for high office, Richard Raleigh, who would stop at nothing to get total power! Normally, this would mean stuffing the ballot box or recruiting dead people to vote for you, but in Raleigh's case, it meant employing a mad scientist to create a giant, lumbering Frankenstein-like monster to destroy all his foes! (And if you think that Raleigh's foes will eventually include Spider-Man, no need to renew that MMMS membership card!!!).

This magazine, in particular, is a wonderful showcase of a different side of Jazzy John's repertoire. The black and white tones really add a sense of depth and moodiness that is rarely seen in the more sunny, bright color comics. His girls are still as gorgeous as ever, though, with some tremendous panels of Gwen and MJ included in the mix. This story was later refashioned into the regular continuity of Spider-Man in 1973's Amazing Spider-Man #116-118, with John's art colored for the first time and some story elements adapted by writer Gerry Conway. (Look for this story arc to show up in Spider-Man Masterworks 12-13 or thereabouts!).

Spectacular Spider-Man #2 was an even more amped up tale, and this time in full-color! An out-and-out classic, it is a pinnacle moment in the long history between Peter Parker, Norman Osborn and their super-powered alter egos! Many grace notes from the first Spider-Man movie have their origin in this story, including the time that Norman Osborn invites Peter and his friends over for dinner - not sure what the kids dined on that night, but Norman sure did serve up some weird suspense for desert! This issue is adorned with another gorgeous painted cover, and the comic concludes with a neat little bit of trivia: a next issue advertisement for a next issue that never came! (Above, from the review for Marvel Masterworks: Amazing Spider-Man, Volume 7).

Doug: The Spectacular Spider-Man experiment, although a sales figure failure at the time (it's funny how the 35c price tag now seems so small -- but at nearly three times the normal cost of a comic book I suppose it was outrageously expensive!), is significant more for the story that was told in the second issue. Why? Because of the use of psychedelic drugs.

Doug: The story kicks off with several familiar cast members at the New York Executive Club watching a slideshow conducted by Captain George Stacy (The Spectacular Spider-Man #2 takes place at the same time as the ASM #'s 66-67 Mysterio story that was in the spinner racks in Nov-Dec 1968). Stacy relates that the Goblin's identity, despite his apparent death at the hands of Spider-Man, remains a mystery. Norman Osborn, in attendance with his son Harry, begins to perspire, eventually bolting from the room in a frenzy. At this point in the story, Stan and Jazzy Johnny provide a lengthy recap of the events of ASM #'s 39-40. For those of you who have not seen this magazine (or who didn't even know it existed!), keep in mind that the Goblin didn't appear in ASM between that 40th issue and the "drug issues" that began with #96.

Karen: I read this from the reprint in Amazing Spider-Man Annual 9. Despite the fact that Spectacular Spider-Man 2 was published in color, I'd swear that the inking on this was done with the intent of it being published in black and white. The inks are heavy and there seems to be an emphasis on contrast not typically seen in color books. Maybe I'm just seeing things though!

Doug: Harry is obviously distraught, and Peter is concerned -- of course not only for Harry, but for what he now fears is inevitable: a renewed clash with the Green Goblin, who knows Peter is Spider-Man! After more recapping of ASM #40, we see Osborn in a hospital bed with visions of the Goblin and Spidey swirling about his head. Then suddenly, he sits bolt upright and exclaims, "I AM THE GOBLIN!" Osborn dresses himself and bursts past the portable screen around his bed, knocking Harry off a chair and brushing past his doctor. As he stalks out of the hospital, he mutters that his mind is clear, and he knows what he must do.

Doug: Osborn makes his way to one of his many hideouts around the city and once again dons the costume of the Green Goblin -- revenge, he says, is what Spider-Man can now look forward to!

Doug: The story then cuts away to Peter and his friends, notably the ever-beautiful Gwen Stacy. I'll tell you -- when I read Spider-Man stories from this era, I just feel good. While I recognize that what Stan Lee was doing with Jack Kirby over in the Fantastic Four is the pinnacle of Silver Age comics, the collaboration between Stan and John Romita within the Spidey-universe of characters and villains isn't far behind. Just to revisit this comic, which due to its condition I haven't had out of the bag in years (I would grade my copy as G-VG -- it was well-loved before I ever laid hands on it), is a treat. At any rate, obviously Gwen and her dad are still alive, and Mary Jane was still the happy-go-lucky party girl. Great times. Anyway, Peter is dismayed when Harry tells him that Mr. Osborn would like to have Harry and MJ and Gwen and Peter to a little dinner party at the Osborn residence, to celebrate Norman's "release" from the hospital. Uh oh...

Karen: I sort of see ASM in this time period as the flip side to the Lee/Kirby FF. The FF dealt with things on a cosmic scale, their identities were public knowledge (in fact they were celebrities) and with a couple of exceptions, they had plenty of money. Then we have Peter, whose problems are all very much centered around himself -even his enemies in many cases are more of a threat to him than the public at large. In this story he is terrified that Osborn will use his knowledge of Peter's secret identity to bring harm to him or his loved ones. It's not about the Goblin going on a rampage - it's about the Goblin ruining his life!

Doug: Pete swings by Gwen's place to pick her up and has a little conversation with Captain Stacy. I don't know how many people were shocked at the conclusion of ASM #90 when Stacy called Spidey "Peter", but Stan had certainly planted those seeds along the way. After leaving the Stacys', Pete and Gwen head over to the Osborns', where Harry greets them at the door. Romita gives us a great-looking MJ, although sans her long hair. The teens move into the dining room where Norman Osborn greets them. It's pretty much downhill from here for Peter! By the way, it was mentioned above that this scene was used in the first Spider-Man film -- compare for yourself!

Karen: Boy this scene - heck, much of this story - really was incorporated into the first Spider-Man film. Of course, director Sam Raimi is a big fan of the Spidey comics from this era.

Doug: The tension begins to build as Osborn can't contain his madness. Pete excuses himself from the room and tosses a web ball into the fireplace, creating a smoky diversion. As everyone exits the house, Peter changes to Spider-Man and Osborn races to one of his hide-outs. As he leaves, Osborn calls back to Peter that he won't have to look for him -- he'll meet him at his aunt's house! Of course Spidey makes a bee-line out to Forest Hills and engages the Goblin -- who has a new gadget on his glider! They battle furiously (how did this not wake the neighbors??) until Spidey unseats the Goblin from his glider. When he has the opportunity to finish him, of course Peter pulls back. He flees instead, hoping to draw the Goblin after him.

Doug: Osborn follows Spidey, but this time he doesn't attack physically -- instead he launches a pumpkin bomb. He exclaims, "But, just to make certain that you don't accidentally evade me... My harmless-looking Psychedelic Pumpkin will root you to the spot!" And then the gas dispels, leaving Spidey indeed paralyzed and now subject to his worst nightmares.

Karen: The use of the 'psychedelic' bomb was probably the least interesting thing in this story to me, as it reminded me too much of the kind of tricks Mysterio had played on Spidey. But of course I'm reading this many years later - it was probably more novel at the time.

Doug: Spider-Man's spider-strength allows him to regain his sanity. But knowing that despite Osborn's increased strength he doesn't also possess Peter's amazing recuperative powers, he is able to jerk the Goblin again off the glider, pummel hm for a few minutes, lurch for the bag of tricks, and then unleash another psychedelic bomb right in Osborn's face. The hope was that Osborn would face his worst fears and that his mind would close to those ideas (including Peter's secret identity). Spidey's gamble pays off, and Osborn is subdued into a wimpering mass of mental instability.

Doug: After defeating Osborn, Spider-Man changes back to Peter Parker and assists Osborn to the hospital. He phones Aunt May, and alludes to the fact that he's out of danger. Of course, that terrifies her to think that Peter had been anywhere near danger; Pete is able to side-step the potential disaster, and he eventually meets up with Harry, MJ, and Gwen. Trouble averted, and a happy ending as Pete and the girls walk off into the sunset!

Doug: While this is a great story, how does it fit into our discussion of the Code, and how does it fit into the time that it saw publication -- 1968 -- fully three years before the revision of the Comics Code Authority? I think the main issue here is not only the drug use, but that Spider-Man intentionally chooses to subject another person to the mind-altering powers of psychedelic drugs. This is not drug use by a person acting as a free agent -- as we'll see from Harry Osborn, or as Roy Harper was shown to do in the pages of Green Lantern. No, to me this is different. There's no way Peter knew what the outcome of his actions would be. I wonder how much research Stan had done into LSD before writing this story? And what's the message here? Surely that drugs can mess a person up. But, in the whole scheme of things, are the issues raised here much different than Zatanna's mind-wiping of Dr. Light, as revealed in the DC mini-series Identity Crisis?

Karen: You know, I doubt that Stan even gave it a second thought. Sure, we can look at it objectively and say that Peter is committing an ethically troubling act. But if you put yourself in Peter's shoes - which I am sure Stan did -then what other options does he have? He doesn't want to kill Osborn, but on the other hand, the man is too much of a threat to let him go unchecked in some manner. I suppose it was the best option available to Peter, though as you say, he had no way of knowing what the gas would actually do to Osborn. I don't think there's any real message here - the gas was just a convenient way for Stan to put the Goblin in hibernate mode, as it were!


david_b said...

This was my FIRST Spiderman comic (well, the 1973 Summer Reprint.., I chose it over the FF Wedding reprint that summer..) and it started my lifetime love of Comics. Certainly of Spidey as well.

What a fantastic issue to start with, then soon after the death of Norman Osborne. Right at arguably the most pivotal time in Parker's history.

david_b said...

Wow, that was probably one of my earliest posts here.

This still stands (arguably) as my favorite comic ever. The art on the original magazine is iconic. I bought this original in so-so condition about 5yrs ago to matte/frame the cover, then another VF copy to store away.

The centerpoint of controversy is obviously the hero's use of hallucingenics purposely as a weapon. From the Bullpen standpoint, the story idea probably seemed like an innocent way to turn the tables on Norman's stability, based on the urban legends of the day. As Karen mentioned, it wasn't a very interesting tactic, but visually, it was stunning. It was a stunning ending, much like the Mysterio adventures, or anything where Doc Strange is mixed in. If they were aiming for a larger than life finale in this 'deluxe format', it delivered the goods.

As Doug mentioned, ultimately this isn't much different than Zantanna's power, but obviously we're looking at a different, more volatile time for drug mention, AND the Comics Authority was preventing kids from trying this with acid, y'know, those who don't have super-powers like Zantanna.

My favorite panel will always be the unmasked Peter swinging to the hospital with Norman in his arm at the end. I loved how Romita drew his innocent, yet worried and determined look.

One of the greatest comics ever.

Bruce said...

That's some fantastic art right there. John Romita Sr. and Spider-Man go together like peanut butter and jelly.

Quick question - has this story been reprinted anywhere? I honestly don't think I've ever read this story, and I've read the regular Lee-Romita issues many times. Think I need to track this one down!

Anonymous said...

Wow! What memories. I also remember buying the reprint in '73 around the same time as the Gwen-Goblin death issues in ASM. And I can relate to Karen's comment about the FF being more cosmic and Spidey being more personal. I think that's why I liked Spidey better.


Doug said...

Bruce --

To my knowledge, this has been reprinted three times -- the above-mentioned 1973 Annual, and in the Masterworks and Essentials.

It's definitely worth tracking down!


Bruce said...

Thanks, Doug!

I have the Amazing Spider-Man CD-Rom that came out a few years back, so I don't have the Essentials for this title. But I definitely am going to track this down, even if it means also buying some stories I already have.

Doug said...

Bruce --

You should have this story already -- those discs contained all of the annuals, so the 1973 annual is already in your possession.


david_b said...

As for the covers in regards to the '73 reprint, I love 'em both equally.

Both have great qualities, the original more striking and classically drawn, the reprint cover being more electric and vibrant. The Goblins word balloons subtract nothing from it's impact, perhaps even hightening it.

I love how the brightness of Gobby's sting (and constrasting shadows..) is depicted on Spidey's mask and costume, reflecting far more imagination and realism than you typically see.

Decidedly, if I was to only have one comic on an island, it would be this one.

Doug said...

It's interesting on the reprint (Annual #9, by the way) that Spidey's foot is shown tight-roping a web line, rather than having him suspended in mid-air.


Edo Bosnar said...

That cover illustration is indeed one of the most iconic Spider-man images ever. I first saw it as the cover to the third volume of those Spider-man pocket book reprints (the illustration from the Spider-man Annual was used).
I also find it interesting that the 1968 magazine and the 1973 annual have the same cover price.
By the way, after looking at those panel scans you posted here, I have to I agree with Karen's observation about the inking, i.e., I'm pretty sure that initially this story was planned for a black & white publication.

Inkstained Wretch said...

Is is just me or is Romita really aping Ditko a lot in this? Obviously they needed some sense of continuity with the original art but the panels BAB has up make it seem like they deliberately tried to re-emphasize that here.

Or is just that the storyline's tension, psychological aspects, and psychedelic aspects just naturally recall themes Ditko used a lot?

Or am I just seeing things that aren't there?

Anonymous said...

Regarding the ethics of Peter's actions, I do think it is substantially different than the Identity Crisis analogy. In the issue, at the time, Peter is fighting for his life against someone who isn't just sitting there threatening his family (like in Identity Crisis) but is actively trying to kill him. From a morality perspective, grabbing what you can to win a fight is different than (essentially) lobotomizing someone who is not fighting you.

Jack Alberti said...

This is a beauty of a comic. Arguably, the greatest single shot ever! The story weaves Peter's world in an accessible fashion for any reader. The drama of the plot is what Spider-Man is all about. Romita was at his best here! As stated above, if I can only have one comic on a desert island (or anywhere), this one is it!

Fred W. Hill said...

I got both the Spidey & FF 73 King-Size summer reprints, rather timely chosen by Marvel, after the deaths of Gwen & Norman and the separation of Reed & Sue in the regular titles. Of course, the "hallucinogenic drug" aspect of the story went well over my then 11 year old self (and at 9 I'd read the last part of the more famous Gobby & drugs story). Peter's use of the Goblin's own weapon against him was fitting and not too out of the ordinary for the era, although in retrospect very much a precursor of the Bronze Age soon to come. Overall, this was just a great done-in-one (albeit extra-length) issue, the best of the Lee & Romita era, with a truly, ahem, spectacular cover!

Bruce said...

Much appeciated, Doug! You are correct - the Spider-Man CD-Rom does have that story. You saved me the trouble and expense of tracking down a copy, so thanks!

I read the story last night, and it is as good as you say it is. One thing about Stan Lee - he had an uncanny knack of creating compelling no-win scenarios for the heroes. The fun is in seeing how the good guys overcome these seemingly hopeless situations.

Even though I knew how the story would end from reading this post yesterday, I still found myself thinking, "How is Spidey going to get out of this jam?" That's the mark of great storytelling.

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