Friday, April 1, 2016

Guest Review -- The Spectacular Spider-Man (1976) 1

The Spectacular Spider-Man #1 (December 1976)
"Twice Stings the Tarantula!"
Gerry Conway-Sal Buscema/Mike Esposito

Doug: We received this review via email from Thomas F. Thomas had some thoughts on his mind regarding this first issue of a mag I've always simply called "Peter Parker"; the official name (according to various databases), as you see above, is The Spectacular Spider-Man. Whatever... I can guarantee anyone reading this that when I saw this mag on the spinner rack way back in the autumn after my 10th birthday, I couldn't say "Take my money!" fast enough. We'll see if Thomas feels the same way. Thanks, Thomas!

Thomas F.: Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man was Marvel’s third monthly Spider-Man title after The Amazing Spider-Man, which debuted in 1963, and Marvel Team-Up, which was launched in 1972. (A fourth Spider-Man title, Marvel Tales, was a reprint book that reproduced classic stories taken from The Amazing Spider-Man for newer readers who had missed the early issues of the 1960s the first time around.).

Some readers may have felt that a third monthly Spider-Man book was excessive, but bear in mind that Spider-Man was Marvel’s flagship character, and most fans couldn’t get enough of ol’ Spidey. Plus, other popular Marvel characters including the Hulk and Captain America were appearing in more than one regular monthly book. Hulk appeared in The Defenders and a reprint book of his own, Marvel Super Heroes; and Captain America appeared in The Avengers and the reprint books Marvel Super Action and Marvel Double Feature. This, of course, was in addition to their own individual books.

Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man is a rather long title, in my opinion. It’s definitely a mouthful. Later on (as of issue #134) the title was truncated, omitting the first two words and modifying the title font so as to resemble that of The Amazing Spider-Man.

The first issue was scripted by Gerry Conway, responsible for a number of notable Spider-Man storylines in the 1970s, including the death of Gwen Stacy, the introduction of the Punisher, and the original Clone Saga.

Many people didn’t like the Clone Saga, perhaps because it seemed to stray too far into the realm of science fiction for a Spider-Man book, but as a sci-fi aficionado myself, I thought it was intriguing and entertaining. For such a young fellow (as Gerry Conway was in the 1970s—he started writing The Amazing Spider-Man in 1972 when he was only nineteen), his scripts are surprisingly good.

Interestingly, in a note midway through issue #1, Gerry Conway explained that characters and subplots in Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man would be coordinated and “overlap” with the events and situations occurring over in The Amazing Spider-Man, so that the two books would mesh together “in a carefully structured ballet.” Not a bad idea, and over the next two decades, this worked fairly well.

PPTSS #1 was drawn by Sal Buscema, who had a long tenure at Marvel. Sal had a very distinctive style, and as the decades went by, his style became even more pronounced—overly so, in my opinion. On a positive note, he was good at conveying characters’ emotions through their facial expressions. But personally, I find his pencils somewhat rough-looking. Compared to his older brother John, a first-rate penciler, Sal’s artwork is weak, and I consider him a mediocre artist (at worst) and average (at best). He’s no John Romita, Sr., a definitive Spider-Man artist.

That being said, Sal’s 1970s work, at least, was decent, particularly his early work on The Incredible Hulk, The Defenders (1972-1976 run), and Captain America (1972-1975 run). I would even venture to say that some of it is classic material. But this quality did not last, in my view.

Sal Buscema returned to The Spectacular Spider-Man for a nearly unbroken decade-long run from 1988 to 1998. Unfortunately, by the early 1990s the characters drawn by Sal looked as if they had immense jowls, and the characters’ stances looked stiff and unnatural, like pasted cutouts. Characters’ faces looked pretty much identical, and characters—particularily men—could really only be differentiated from one another by their unique hairstyles and clothing. Oh well, we can’t all be Jim Steranko or Neal Adams.

Just to throw it in there, why do Sal Buscema’s characters have mouths that look like trapezoids? Many examples of this are found throughout PPTSS #1 itself. Just a few samples:

And now, to get on with the synopsis: the story opens on a Monday morning outside the Administration Building of Empire State University, with Spider-Man dangling from a gargoyle above a crowd of students who are listening to a speech by the university’s vice-chancellor, Edward Lansky. Lansky, standing resolute at a lectern, reiterates the importance of quality university education and urges that regardless of the city’s “financial crisis,” the city’s commitment to funding the university must be upheld. In the audience are two familiar supporting characters, Flash Thompson and Mary Jane—both students at Empire State and friends of science student Peter Parker.

Meanwhile, Spider-Man takes photos of Lansky, hoping to earn some extra money for his pix later from J. Jonah Jameson, publisher of the Daily Bugle. We learn that the Tarantula and several of his masked thugs are also attending the pep rally, although they are partially hidden by leafage and they are as yet unseen by the public.

The Tarantula is a terrorist from Delvadia, a fictional republic in South America, and he was physically trained to be his nation’s equivalent of Captain America. Clearly Marvel didn’t want to besmirch a genuine South American nation by associating it with a rogue like the Tarantula, although they obviously had no qualms about villains being from Soviet Russia or Red China, or if set during World War II, Nazi Germany.

Before long, the Tarantula betrayed his country’s fascist/authoritarian government and turned to crime in America, which proved to be more lucrative. One of his characteristics is that the Tarantula occasionally speaks in Spanish, particularly when agitated.

As far as I’m concerned, from among Spider-Man’s rogues gallery, the Tarantula is a colorful B-villain at best. Probably a C-villain. I found that he simply didn’t seem to pose as great a danger to Spider-Man as, say, A-list villains like the Green Goblin or Dr. Octopus—he’s not as cunning—although he certainly exhibits much wanton cruelty and ruthlessness.The Tarantula had last appeared in The Amazing Spider-Man #135, where the treacherous bandit had a run-in with Spider-Man and the Punisher aboard a cruiser.

Suddenly the Tarantula and his cohorts burst onto the scene. They accost Vice-Chancellor Lansky and announce their intention to kidnap him. Shocked, Spider-Man jumps down from his perch and into action. The webslinger manages to avoid the Tarantula’s deadly kicks (the razor-sharp tips of his pointy boots are spiked with lethal poison) and manages to stun the Tarantula with a shot of his webbing. The Tarantula reels off balance, disoriented. Meanwhile, the Tarantula’s cronies are forcing Lansky into a getaway car. Flash Thompson, Peter Parker’s athletic friend, joins the fray. He charges the Tarantula’s henchmen, ignoring Mary Jane’s shrill cry not to interfere, but a muscular henchman knocks him to the ground with a brutal roundhouse punch.

As the Tarantula lays sprawled, Spider-Man approaches him. But as Spider-Man gets near, the Tarantula, who was shamming all along, fiercely kicks Spider-Man in the gut, knocking the wind out of him. Why didn’t his trusty old spider-sense warn him? By rights, it should have. In any case, this gives the Tarantula the chance to escape, and he leaps on top of his getaway car, digging in with his toe spikes while his underlings speed away.

With the fight over, the angry students jump to the conclusion that Spider-Man might have been in cahoots with the Tarantula and his gang. They try to apprehend him, but Spider-Man easily swings away, annoyed that the students, who are usually on his side, decided to turn on him. Spider-Man chides himself for allowing the thugs to escape with Lansky. The irrationality and danger of enraged mobs who seek a malefactor to punish, often an innocent one, has been well-documented throughout history, and Sal Buscema conveys the ugliness of the hostile crowd effectively enough.

When Spider-Man retrieves his camera, which he had left suspended from a strip of webbing from a nearby rooftop, he discovers to his chagrin that his webbing had snapped and his camera had fallen to the pavement, shattering on impact, unsalvageable. Dismayed, Spider-Man realizes that he won’t earn any extra cash for photos this time, and he angrily punches the stone wall, cutting his right hand. Ol’ Spidey should exercise some more self-control!

Less than an hour later, Peter Parker arrives home at his modest apartment in Chelsea. He’s wondering who will pay Lansky’s ransom when his attractive neighbor, Gloria Grant, chats him up. She notices that Peter has an injury on his hand, and offers to bandage it. As she dresses the wound, she tells Peter that she’s looking for a steady nine-to-five job, as the “modeling biz” hasn’t been going very well lately. As for me, I’m left wondering whether this is because there aren’t many modeling opportunities available, or whether the modeling gigs themselves just don’t pay enough—Gloria didn’t specify which it was.
Mary Jane then spontaneously shows up at Peter’s door—which seems rather contrived to me—and there is clearly some tension between them. Peter is irked that Mary Jane has been seeing a great deal of Flash, and when he mentions it, Mary Jane airily tells him he’s just “imagining things.” The trio sets off for the Daily Bugle, and as they pass City Hall, Peter’s spider-sense tingles. He notices the Tarantula’s escape vehicle in the street, a limousine, shrewdly identifying it by the hastily-concealed puncture marks on its roof. Making an excuse, Peter begs off and in a restroom quickly changes into Spider-Man. It seems as if Peter Parker is always making sudden excuses to withdraw for one reason or another. You’d think that his friends would eventually have grown suspicious of his spontaneous comings and goings and perhaps put two and two together.

In the parking garage beneath City Hall, the Tarantula and his crew are receiving instructions from an unknown man in a car. Who is this mystery man? That won’t be revealed until issue #3, and this subplot helps add suspense and establish that there is a behind-the-scenes conspiracy. A talented writer, Gerry Conway was good at piquing his readers’ interest and making them want to find out more.

The criminals are to kill the mayor and make it appear to be an accident—a kidnapping gone wrong. The Tarantula and two of his cronies make their way into the building, and the Tarantula kicks a policeman in the back. This time the chemical on the tips of the Tarantula’s boots is only a knockout drug, not the usual fatal poison. I don’t see why the Tarantula bothered to change the lethal poison on his toe spikes to a soporific. It’s obvious that the Tarantula has no regard for human life; it would be more in character for the Tarantula to kill a police officer without scruple.
Probably the editor didn’t want a Marvel comic book—Spider-Man, no less—to actually portray a villain openly killing a policeman. Such a thing might convey the wrong message to young readers.The criminals are making their way down a corridor when they come across Spider-Man standing upside down from the ceiling, obviously anticipating them. The Tarantula and his accomplices are utterly surprised. Spider-Man renders one of the Tarantula’s men unconscious with a quick blow, and the other one seizes him from behind. A well-placed punch knocks out the other thug, and Spider-Man pursues the Tarantula. Unfortunately the Tarantula has taken the mayor’s personal elevator up to the mayor’s floor, and the door is three inches of solid steel and accessible only by key—which so happens to be in the Tarantula’s possession. Digging in with his fingers, Spider-Man uses every ounce of his spider-strength to tear out the reinforced elevator door and climbs up the elevator shaft to the mayor’s floor.To me, this didn’t make much sense. Why didn’t Spider-Man spare himself all this effort and just access the mayor’s office through a window from outside the building? That kind of dramatic entrance is one of the wallcrawler’s signature moves.

Meanwhile, in the mayor’s office, the mayor and his aide Ogilve are quibbling over monetary matters—the city budget—when the Tarantula brazenly enters. The mayor mistakenly thinks that the Tarantula intends to hold him for ransom, and informs him he won’t get “a red cent,” but the Tarantula contemptuously retorts that he isn’t after money, but the mayor himself.

In a full page spread, suddenly Spider-Man leaps into the room, tackling the red-garbed Tarantula from behind. This kind of page-sized action scene is remniscent (to me, anyways) of the full page action shots in Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1, where Spider-Man is portrayed in combat six times, each time with a different member of the Sinister Six—classic Steve Ditko.


A battle between the two combatants ensues, with Tarantula kicking ferociously and Spider-Man nimbly dodging the attacks. Incensed by the Tarantula’s endless prattling, Spider-Man tackles him again and they crash through the window, plummeting downward.
Unfortunately, just before the pair broke through the window, the Tarantula had managed to grab the front of the mayor’s suit and pull him out as well.

Spider-Man has a choice: either capture the Tarantula, or save the mayor, and obviously he chooses the latter.

The Tarantula saves himself and makes good his escape—for the second time. Spider-Man catches the mayor, and using his webbing, descends carefully to the street with the mayor in his grasp. The mayor is concerned that the Tarantula will return; Spider-Man tells him that if the Tarantula comes back, he will be ready and waiting. The mayor doesn’t find this very comforting at all. Spider-Man bids farewell to the mayor and swings away, having left Gloria Grant and Mary Jane waiting for him outside City Hall.

Overall I enjoyed this suspenseful story and looked forward to its continuation. At the bottom of the final page, it was revealed that the main antagonist of issue #2 would be Kraven the Hunter, and I was curious to see whether Kraven the Hunter and the Tarantula would be able to work together. Both of them are alpha males with large egos, and it seemed likely to me that there would inevitably be friction between the two of them, even if they were both taking orders from the same mysterious, unknown figure.


Redartz said...

Great review, Thomas F! I enjoyed your overview of PPTSM; the title enjoyed a long life with numerous notable runs (my favorites being Bill Mantlo and Roger Stern). You noted Conway's intention to intertwine the plotlines between this book and Amazing. Looking back, it seems they did indeed to a large degree. At times Amazing seemed the lead title, at others (especially during Denny O'neil's stint writing Amazing) PPTSM felt like the better book...

William said...

Nice review, Thomas. A bit on the long side, but I enjoyed it. However, I'm not so sure I agree with your assessment about Sal Buscema being a "mediocre and/or average artist". His work on titles like Captain America and The Hulk are pretty much legendary. In fact, he may be my favorite artist ever to work on either of those characters. (Long term anyway).

That said, I do agree that the quality of his work did indeed decline sharply in those later years of "Spectacular Spider-Man".

But back to the book at hand "PPT Spectacular Spider-Man #1" - Loved it!! I remember buying it when it came out, and thought it was awesome. Spider-Man has pretty much always been my favorite character, so back then I was in the "there can't be too much Spider-Man" camp.

Over the years though 'Spectacular' kind of became the red-headed step-child of the Spider-books. I found it was especially lackluster when Al Milgrom was handling the penciling chores. It was a tough read during that time. (For me anyway).

But the first few years of the title produced some of the most memorable, offbeat and original Spider-Man stories ever written, (anyone remember Razorback?) and I am absolutely shocked that the early series has yet to get the full-color TPB reprint treatment. Hopefully it's only a matter of time before that happens.

Anonymous said...

Back in the early '80s the boss of British Rail was called Peter Parker - of course, that meant nothing to the general public but it made Marvel fans chuckle (well, me anyway).

J.A. Morris said...

Nice review Thomas, makes me want to get my copies of 1-3 of this series (a decent little arc) out to read again. I agree with William's take, the early years of this series were enjoyable, and Stern's work on this series was excellent.

If memory serves me, 'Peter Parker' (that's what I called it too) or PPTSSM if you prefer, was set up to be the "Peter goes to college" series and would emphasize his life at Empire State University. So we got more scenes of Peter meeting with Dr. Sloan and Phillip Chang instead of Parker visiting JJJ and Robbie at the Bugle. Of course such lines got blurred over the years.

Edo Bosnar said...

Don't even come close to agreeing with your assessments of Sal, but we'll just leave it at that.
Otherwise, interesting review; I only started reading PPSSM with issue #10, the second part of the White Tiger story, and picked it up sporadically until it hit its 20s and the Carrion saga. At that point, I read it regular for quite some time, and like William and also J.A. noted, there was some great Spidey stories in there, especially during the extended runs by Bill Mantlo and then Roger Stern as the main writers.
I share William's dismay that, outside of some black & white Essentials volumes, there's been no systematic reprints of this series. I think an Epic line, starting with issue #1, would be warranted.

By the way, just a small correction: Pete's neighbor, later also JJJ's secretary, is named Glory, and not Gloria, Grant.

Anonymous said...

Cool review, THT! I haven't read this issue in years. I tend to agree about Sal Buscema, he was never a favourite of mine; actually, I don't mind his 70s stuff so much, but I really don't like his later (late 80s/90s) stuff at all.

Mike Wilson

Martinex1 said...

Welcome Thomas. Thanks for the review. Like others here I am a huge fan of Sal Buscema for many reasons, not the least of which was his solid storytelling. Re: PPSSM, I would intermittently read the book and sometimes it seemed like filler stock stories and other times it was great. I liked the Cloak and Dagger intro, the White Tiger, and the supporting cast. And I liked how the artists played with the logo on the covers; I think this book had the most frequent interaction and modification or destruction of the logo. One random thought...I never liked the corner box on PPSSM, with Peter pulling his mask on. I don't know why that turned me off; maybe it was too pedestrian?!??

I agree with you on the Tarantula, he was not a top tier villain and the pointy boots seem so awkward and unmanageable. His boots would have been a good target for our faux pas discussion yesterday.

Humanbelly said...

Hooo-- one of those busy days where I've been unable to surrender to the post, so sorry!

Thomas-- nice job on joining the contributorial ranks, partner. Along with it being a thorough review of PPTSSM (how I've always thought of it, too), it clearly afforded you the opportunity to air a nice body of your more general Spidey-thoughts and Spidey-opinions-- 'way to seize the day, pal! We're here for ya-!

But I'll go ahead and echo a disagreement in taste on the Sal B front. You do describe the look of Sal's later work fairly aptly-- but it wasn't due to his skills diminishing, quite the opposite. It marked the second point in his career where he made a conscious, studied effort to change his visual style-- to grow as an artist and story-teller, and to expand his visual range. The tone of the stories in Spectacular took on a much grittier tone once Milgrom and. . . Saviuk, I think?. . . left the book, and Sal worked at adjusting his work to capture that tone visually. And I think he was quite successful, except that the overall effect was seriously hindered by a) the horrific coloring-process experiments that the book was clearly an extended lab-rat for, and b) a lot of the time the inking didn't seem to capture the same mood (or if Sal was inking his own work, he wasn't his own best visual editor).

Ha! Trapezoidal mouths, though? Yeah-- that's a Sal B trademark for sure! Every character sort of has Susan Dey's mouth (from the Partridge Family). Gonna stand up for his face work in general, though. Sal's an artist who could create different, distinctive noses, and have them still look like they belong on real people. "Give me a man's nose, and I can give you his soul. . . "-- or something like that.

I. . . passed on this issue #1, and it blasted near killed me. But a fella only had so much money at that age. And it seemed like a shameless sales-grab. And for corn's sake-- the Tarantula// One of my least favorite lame Spidey foes of all time. And least legitimate. This is a guy that any SHIELD foot-soldier could'a taken out, unarmed.


Unknown said...

Hi, thanks for welcoming me as a contributor! It's true that Glory Grant, a neighbour of Peter Parker's who later worked as J. Jonah Jameson's secretary after Betty Brant's departure, was casually known as "Glory," however, her full name is indeed Gloria. Incidentally, she was created by writer Gerry Conway and first appeared in The Amazing Spider-Man #140, for you trivia lovers!


Anonymous said...

Didn't Tarantula appear in ASM 147-148 between ASM 135 and PPTSS 1? Great review! Can remember buying this one off the spinner rack, one of my first comics!

Unknown said...


Good memory! Tarantula definitely did appear briefly toward the end of Gerry Conway's Clone Saga, though he was largely overshadowed in that storyline by the main baddie, the Jackal. I recall they bound Spider-Man in chains and tried dropping him off the Brooklyn Bridge.

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