The other comic book that my Uncle Jerry Blazer gave to me that summer Saturday was this issue of MARVEL TALES, reprinting a classic Stan Lee and John Romita issue of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN from the pinnacle of their run. This was the real stuff, and so surely this was the comic book that finally changed my ways and made me an avowed Marvel lover at long last, right?
Sorry, no, not so much, I’m afraid.
The thing of it is, my impressions of Spider-man and Peter Parker coming out of the SUPERMAN VS THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN Treasury Edition were just reinforced here. For all of his troubles, Peter Parker seemed much cooler, much more plugged-in than I was or could ever hope to be. He was kind of intimidating in a way–and so I never quite bonded with him (and really wouldn’t until I read the original Steve Ditko-era stories.) On top of this, Spider-Man was wanted by the law, which wasn’t a status quo I was covetous of. At this age, I wanted my heroes to be recognized for their deeds and actions, not hunted and hounded. The Kingpin, this particular issue’s heavy, also didn’t come across as a super-villain so much as just a big, strong criminal–he was less colorful than the Rogues that I was used to and loved.
The story opens with the Kingpin in prison, railing about his capture and the fact that not only is Spider-Man still at large, but the wall-crawler had possession of the priceless stone tablet that the Kingpin covets, a tablet whose ancient writings contain a secret of enormous value. But the clever Kingpin has already convinced the authorities that Spider-Man was his partner in the theft, who had broken bad with him. And so, the entire New York police force is hunting for the web-slinger. Spidey himself is sick of being the fall guy and is contemplating keeping the tablet for himself–if he can figure out what to do with it.
This momentary lapse, as human as it is, made me root for Spider-Man even less–surely a super hero shouldn’t be thinking about keeping the loot that his enemies have stolen! And it’s merely a passing moment of frustration. But it made an impact on me. Dodging trigger-happy cops all the way, Spidey makes his way back to Peter Parker’s pad, where he stashes the tablet and gets some much-needed-though-troubled sleep. The next morning he heads out to Empire State University to attend classes, where his girlfriend Gwen Stacy gives him a world of grief for running out on her and Randy Robeton at the protest last night. Gen doesn’t realize that Peter had to become Spidey to prevent the Kingpin’s theft, so she’s understandably pissed, and storms away, calling Peter a coward. I must say, it may simply be down to Romita’s illustrations, but I liked Gwen immediately, and she’s always been Spidey’s one true love to me.
We spend another page or so on catching up with the rest of the cast: J. Jonah Jameson, Joe Robertson and his son, Randy, and Gwen’s dad Captain George Stacy. The protest plotline is wrapped up a little bit too conveniently–the Dean of Students the kids had been protesting was really in their corner the whole time, and just needed to convince the Trustees of the need for low-rent dorms. And so, everything is fine in those quarters. But back at the prison, the Kingpin tears his way out of his cell, and after disciplining some rowdy inmates who earlier had mad disparaging remarks about his wife, heads out into the night to find Spider-Man and the tablet.
Meanwhile, as night falls, Spidey decides to take the table to an expert in order to get its inscription translated. But the cops are waiting for him, and in their run-in, he learns that the Kingpin has broken jail. Spidey figures that the best way to lure the Kingpin to him is to mop up on hoodlums all across the city while carrying the tablet webbed to his back, which is what he proceeds to do. And sure enough, as the hours drag on, what looks to be a regular hijacking is instead a trap for the wall-crawler on the part of the Kingpin.
Spidey and the Kingpin mix it up for a few pages, with he fan man able to withstand all of the punishment that the web-slinger can dish out. But just as matters reach a crescendo, a car pulls up between the two combatants, driven by reporter Ned Leeds and carrying J. Jonah Jameson. The pause in the action provides a moment for another car to race up, this one driven by a shadowy woman–the Kingpin’s wife Vanessa hadn’t been shown yet, and was being played as something of a mystery. The Kingpin piles into her car and the pair roars away, while Jameson rails at poor old Spidey.
And if nothing that had come previously had sealed the deal for me, this was the moment where any appeal that Spider-Man might have had for nine-year-old me disintegrated. Because Spidey snaps, losing his cool, and he grabs up Jonah and scares the hell out of him–so much so that Jameson has a heart attack right on the spot! The issue closes with Jameson either dead or dying and Spider-man racing off into the night, realizing that he may have become just as much a menace as Jameson always said he was. It’s a great moment of high drama–but it also colored my opinion of Spider-Man terribly. This wasn’t what I wanted out of mu super heroes at this age. And so, I remained a confirmed Marvel-hater–though I still kept the issue in my collection. It had been a gift, after all, from my Uncle.
Now, this comic book I know was purchased for my brother Ken, as at this point I was still an avowed Marvel-hater, and even reading SUPERMAN VS THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN had not swayed me. It’s worth noting that this issue still cost a quarter, whereas DC’s books were going for thirty cents at this time. This was a consistent pattern all throughout the 1970s, another way in which Marvel kept up a competitive edge over DC: when a price increase was in the offing, DC inevitably would raise theirs first, and Marvel would hold the line for approximately another three or four months. This gave them a huge window in which prospective buyers were more likely to pick up a Marvel mag, and contributed to the company’s growth throughout this period.
I was familiar with the basics of Spider-Man from the 1967 cartoon, which ran daily on Channel 5 at 4:30, and which I seldom missed. I’d also look for the wall-crawler on episodes of the Electric Company, the PBS series that I was absolutely addicted to at the age of nine. But still, I wasn’t a Spider-Man fan. He seemed entirely too put-together, entirely too with-it to me. He was definitely way cooler than I was, and I simply couldn’t relate. It would take reading the early Stan Lee/Steve Ditko stories for me to “get it” and become a fan. But at this stage of his development, Spider-Man was about as far from that original conception of nebbishy Peter Parker as he ever got.
This is another action-heavy entry in the canon, one that features no Peter Parker moments at all, just the smart-mouthed wall-crawler. It opens, as most Marvel books of this era did, in mid-story, as Spidey and his enemy Doctor Octopus were confronted by a resurrected Hammerhead. I was familiar with Ock from the aforementioned SUPERMAN VS book, and Hammerhead didn’t seem like much of anything to me, a gangster with a steel-hard head. Even by Flash Rogues standards, that was pretty lame.
So Spidey, Ock and Hammerhead get into a three-way skirmish, the end result of which is that all three of them wind up knocked out. Hammerhead’s goons use the opportunity to grab up their leader and take a powder, also taking Spidey’s Aunt May along with them. Waking up, Doc Ock proposes a truce with his web-headed arch-enemy so that they can rescue “that dear old woman”, which Spidey, of course, is all for. From there, we move into subplot land, where a pair of shadowy figures is rebuilding the Spider-Mobile and intend to use it to destroy Spider-Man (which, again, doesn’t seem especially threatening.) From there, we cut back to the Daily Bugle for an out-and-out comedy moment, where J. Jonah Jameson drives another of Betty Brant’s replacements as his secretary to quit through his abuse. This is the sort of fun moment that doesn’t contribute to the plot but is all about the characters and fun that you don’t really see anymore.
Back at the ranch, Spidey and Ock follow Hammerhead back to his warehouse headquarters, and begin an infiltration–again, played with a certain amount of comedy as much as drama. This is an old base from a previous story, not that I was aware of it, and the entire inner chamber revolves–so when Spidey and Ock burst in on Hammerhead and his captive Octogenarian, he summons an army of gunsels into the room and sets it to spinning, creating some action pandemonium.
Spidey and Ock beat the hell out of the goons, but Hammerhead takes advantage of the chaos to escape–and Ock deserts Spider-Man to go after Hammerhead, obsessed with revenge. Spidey eventually disables the equipment that is spinning the room–but when he does so, the window exit that Ock and Hammerhead went through is facing a blank wall, so he cannot follow. Perhaps that’s just as well, as by the time Ock gets to the roof, Hammerhead is making his getaway in a helicopter. Undaunted, Ock picks up a bunch of garbage cans with his tentacles and hurls them at the escaping copter, one of them disables the flying rotors, and the whole mess crashes down into the Hudson River.
By this point, Spidey’s been able to get himself and the unconscious Aunt May out of their spun-room prison, but he can’t pursue Ock as he needs to get her to medical attention. Which he does, closing the issue by swinging off into the night. I can see why this didn’t work for me at the time–there’s nothing to grab onto. Spidey is Spidey 100% of the time, and nothing in this story makes me care a whit for Aunt May and her fate. Plus, frankly, for all that he’s clever and sharp, Spidey doesn’t really accomplish much in this episode. He gets knocked out, he fights a bunch of guys, he lets Doc Ock escape and Hammerhead get killed because he misjudged the room-spin. Sure, this could all be in illustration of the idea that Spider-Man is a fallible, human hero, but that’s not really what came across to me. He seemed more like a goon. Combine that wit the fact that the plot for the issue was pretty much just an excuse to string some fight scenes together, and none of this made me want to give the Marvel books another go–not yet. That was still to come. This was, it must be said, not the finest period in Spidey’s long publishing history.
The issue also had a Marvel Bullpen Bulletins page, but rather than interesting me or exciting me about stuff that might have been coming up, it did the opposite–it made me feel like an outsider. Whoever wrote this particular page (apart from Stan’s Soapbox, which would have been by him) filled it with in-jokes and references, and spoke as though the readership knew who all of these characters and creators were. I certainly didn’t, and so I was lost. And the tone was so aggressively hype-filled, it was like an assault on my senses. The one bit I can remember enjoying was Stan’s gag about the third ORIGINS paperback being titled MOTHER-IN-LAW OF MARVEL ORIGINS. Even there, though, he’d provided enough context for the joke by listing the two previous titles first. Stan knew what he was doing.
Person who doesn't know much about comics but still thinks Marvel is better:
but... why do u read DC,,, they don't have the representation marvel have like womyn and minority race,, DC all about Superman and not smart plot,,,, why
DC comics fan who actually reads them:
um, have you even read DC? there are plenty of racially diverse characters, LGBT characters, and female characters. Are you aware of the characters and plots? A lot of them can be similar to marvel, I just prefer DC. No hard feelings.
Person who doesn't read comics but defends Marvel:
ur a bigot
Uncle: Okay Un. You wanted to read this issue, Challengers of the Fantastic! Any particular reason?
@ununnilium: So, over the years, Marvel and DC have had different relationships; sometimes cordial, sometimes bitter rivals, sometimes outright antagonistic. 1996 was one of the cordial periods, largely through necessity - the collector bubble had just popped, sending the industry into freefall, and people realized they needed to hang together or they’d hang apart. So, the two companies teamed up for a big Marvel vs. DC event. This wasn’t new; Superman vs. Spider-Man had actually come out twenty years before. What was new was the Amalgam event - where the characters of the two companies didn’t just meet; they were FUSED INTO ONE. Spider-Boy! Super-Soldier! Dark Claw! Thorion and the New Asgods! It was marvelous (and DC-ulous) and I loved it (when I read it after falling out of comics and getting back in years later, shhhh).
Challengers of the Fantastic is from the follow-up 1997 event, Return to the Amalgam Age of Comics. It’s specifically a mashup of Fantastic Four and Challengers of the Unknown. The former team needs no introduction, especially to readers of this blog; the latter is a team of adventurers that’s often referred to as a precursor to the FF. Jack Kirby created them, and they consist of a smart one, a tough one, a hothead… and a generic hero figure. (Well, that’s why they call them first drafts.) They survive an accident in an experimental plane and decide to become adventurers together - all that good stuff. <3
So, basically, I wanted to do this issue because I love Amalgam and they’re all good and why not look at it through the FF-ish critical lens we’re already familiar with here? :D Let’s go!