The first instalment of our new column: Flea Market Fantasy!
Superfriend Mike Dell takes a look back at classic comics from the Bronze Age!
FLEA MARKET FANTASY
I’ve got a lot of comics, the kind of yellowed, musty comics you’d dream of finding at a flea market. Each cherished issue is a little time capsule packed with sunshine and whenever I get the chance to, I like to pull a random issue from the collection and relive the glory. Join me, won’t you?
The Amazing Spider-Man 145
Writer: Gerry Conway
Penciler: Ross Andru
Cover Artist: Gil Kane
Inkers: Frank Giacoia. Dave Hunt
Colorist: Petra Goldberg
Letterer: Art Simek
Editor: Len Wein
Editor-in-chief: Marv Wolfman
When the book opens, Peter Parker is suffering from a severe panic attack. He has just encountered his dead love, Gwen Stacy. Is she a ghost? Hallucination? Really fancy, custom-order prostitute? Nope. Turns out the lovely young lady in the go-go boots is Gwen Stacy’s clone. (Yes, sir, the clone nonsense actually started way back in 1975. Some ideas never improve with age. Seriously, if you’re a comic book writer planning a clone story, feel free to punch yourself in the jeans.)
Peter (who won’t find out about the clone stuff for another issue or two), thinks someone is playing a cruel practical joke on him and lashes out at the fake Gwen, shoving her to the ground and then storming off to the hospital to visit his Aunt May. (Was May ever not in the hospital? That dizzy old bat’s abuse of emergency medical treatment is why Americans still don’t have national healthcare.)
Meanwhile, our pal Mac Gargan (better known as the Scorpion), gets released from prison where he was a model prisoner, so much that the authorities let him waltz back into freedom carrying a suitcase containing his Scorpion armour. (That’s probably a bad idea, right? I mean, you may want to confiscate and destroy those super-villain costumes. Returning them to the super-villain is like copying all your emails to the NSA. At least make the criminals work.)
Turns out Aunt May rallies but Peter’s happiness is cut short when he hears the Scorpion is on a crime spree, (told you) but never fear, here comes Spider-Man! The two engage in a lengthy slugfest at a construction yard, ending only when Spidey falls through a broken railing and into a cement mixer. He narrowly escapes death but can’t prevent Scorpion’s escape.
Upon returning to the hospital, Peter discovers a group of friends, including Daily Bugle co-workers Robbie Robertson and Ned Leeds, the foxy Mary Jane, and… Gwen Stacy! Peter launches into another verbal assault on the Gwen imposter only to have Leeds inform him he ran her fingerprints and she really is Gwen Stacy. What the what?!
Issue 145 is near the tail end of Gerry Conway’s remarkable run on The Amazing Spider-Man. Conway scripted issues #111 to #149, a roughly three-year span that included the death of Gwen Stacy (#121, #122) and the introduction of the Punisher (#129). That right there would be enough to make Conway legendary, but to truly appreciate his accomplishments, check his birth certificate.
Conway was 19 when he became the writer on The Amazing Spider-Man. (How is that even possible? When I was 19, I could barely cross the street by myself.) Oh, and he also followed Stan Lee. Yeah, that had to be easy.
Sadly, Conway’s age can be seen on every page. He’s heavy on narration, repeatedly breaking the fourth-wall to talk directly to the reader and coming off like a bad Stan Lee impersonation -er. The script is endearing and embarrassing all at once. Spider-Man’s jokes are brutal, and he mentions vegetables three different times. (Three!)
In the issue’s final panel, Leeds tells Peter: “We checked Gwen’s grave — and her body hasn’t been touched. I don’t know how — or why — but there are two Gwen Stacys, identical in every way! One is dead — the other one is alive.”
I like the implication if only her grave had been disturbed, this would all make perfect sense. But two Gwen Stacys? Ridiculous.
“That’s a real tough question, Scorpy old bean.” — Spider-Man
“I don’t care beans about the Scorpion’s rep…” — Peter Parker
“It makes me wonder if I like being disliked. And that’s a can of peas I’d rather not open.” — Spider-Man
First, the Gil Kane cover is spectacular. That’s how you draw a comic book cover, kids. The hero in the foreground (and in serious danger); the villain looming above him, in complete control. We also get cover blurbs and dialogue balloons (one featuring the Scorpion making a terrible joke–brings a tear to the eye).
Kane had been the regular penciler on Spider-Man three different times. Not only did he draw the Gwen Stacy death issue, he also teamed with Stan Lee to defy the Comics Code, crafting a legendary three-issue arc (#96-#98) that tackled drug use (Fight the power!). Kane’s final issue of Spider-Man was 124, but he continued to contribute the occasional cover (and I am glad he did).
The interiors were handled by Ross Andru. Andru had a lengthy run on Spider-Man, drawing all but four issues from #125 to #186. He broke in during the 1950s and made his reputation with DC thanks to a nine-year gig on Wonder Woman (1958-1967) and a subsequent stint with The Flash (1967-1970). Andru made the jump to Marvel in the early 1970s and took over Spider-Man in 1973.
Andru’s pencils, like Conway’s script, are fairly pedestrian. He does a fine job telling the story, but there aren’t many praiseworthy panels. The best is a full-page action shot when Scorpion first ambushes Spider-Man. Not much else to get excited about (but dig Peter’s crazy sideburns and Huxtable sweater. Swank).
Peter’s struggling with two personal demons. Sure, he’s got the whole fake Gwen thing digging up painful regret, but he also feels guilt over being the likely cause of Aunt May’s most recent hospital trip, as he’s sure the sight of Gwen probably threw her for a loop. But we really don’t get a definitive reason for May’s troubles (I’m guessing malt liquor and angel dust).
Yeah, the Gwen situation definitely counts as external conflict too, but no one’s slapping down 25 cents to watch that nonsense. This is all about the Scorpion.
The Spidey v. Scorpion tussle is the lone donnybrook, and it spans six pages. Scorpion lands four punches and two kicks to Spidey’s three punches and a kick. Spidey gets the early advantage with webbing to the eyes, but Scorpion responds later with his own blinding maneuver, tail-whipping sand into Spidey’s face. Scorpion fails to land the big stinger KO, but he does snare Spidey in his powerful “Scorpion grip,” almost earning the submission victory before the railing gave way. Scorpion wins on all scorecards.
In the middle of page 17, Spider-Man is searching for Scorpion when Conway’s narration and notes from editor Len Wein inform us Spidey just had a run-in with Nighthawk and the Meteor Man. But we don’t see any of it, because the encounter takes place in Marvel Team-Up #33. (Marvel Team-Up was an excuse for pairing Spidey with some lesser heroes in a way to promote other books. In this case, Nighthawk and The Defenders. At least being tired from the Meteor Man fight is an excuse for the Scorpion defeat. Kind of like playing the second of back-to-back road games; Scorpion was rested and ready).
Of the issue’s 32 total pages, there are 12 full-page advertisements, plus the inside of the front cover and both sides of the back cover. And the ads are worth the price of admission. We get the usual tiny classified-style pitches for X-Ray Specs and homemade hovercrafts, not to mention mail-order beards. But the three best ads are for Mego action figures, Hostess Fruit Pies, and Count Dante (don’t forget, “You get a big delight in every bite of Hostess Fruit Pies.”)
But what’s that you say? You don’t remember Count Dante? Well, I’ll have you know he was only the “Deadliest Man Alive” and “the undefeated Supreme Grand Master of the Fighting Arts.” And if you mailed in the attached coupon and 25 cents to cover postage, you could receive a brochure of all Count Dante’s books and merchandise plus a free membership into the Black Dragon Fighting Society (sign me up).
In 1975, you could get 12 issues of your favorite Marvel comic book for $3.50. Then again, you could buy all 12 issues at the newsstand for $3.00, so they were banking heavily on poor math skills. And if you ordered six subscriptions, you got the seventh one free. Or, you know, you could just buy all 84 issues at the newsstand for the same $21 as the six subscriptions, but math is for suckers (Just don’t be looking for Uncanny X-Men. That title was still in cobwebs. Marvel canceled the X-Men in 1970. Giant-Sized X-Men No. 1 relaunched the title in May 1975, which was one month before this Spider-Man yarn. The regular X-Men series resumed with issue #94 in August 1975).
I always enjoy a good letters page, and back in the day the Spider-Man correspondence was called The Spider’s Web. We get three letters and a Marvel Value Stamp featuring Galactus.
The first letter ripped on Conway for introducing the absurd Spidermobile, described Andru’s pencils as “cartoonish”, and lambasted the lack of colour. (Man, Phillip Grant of 456 Cascade Drive, Lebanon, Oregon, was kind of a dick. And, yes, they used to print the full address. Stalkers everywhere had to be downright giddy).
The second letter harped on the use of word balloons on covers, while the third wanted Peter to drop out of college and hit the road.
That third letter ended with this paragraph:
“Oh yeah — and how ’bout letting Petey grow his hair a little bit? You know giving him a little more sex appeal? Making him a little less straight looking?”
That’s right, true believers, Mark Wurzbacher of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, so wanted to bang Peter Parker.
The Amazing Spider-Man #145 is far from an all-time classic, but you could do a lot worse than a six-page brawl featuring a classic Spidey villain. Give it a whirl, old bean.