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Spanning Spectacular: The Coming of Stern

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The Spectacular Spider-Man was the first self contained ongoing “B-Title” featuring everyone’s favorite wall crawling super hero. And while it has always played second fiddle to the original monthly Amazing Spider-Man book, the first volume of Spectacular had plenty of remarkable stories throughout its 22 year run. “Spanning Spectacular” is my attempt to shine a spotlight on those memorable arcs, the creators who crafted them and the history of the book itself.

It may have had a few hiccups in its infancy, but by the time the ‘80s rolled around Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-Man was the best Spider-Man book on the newsstand. Bill Mantlo had taken a struggling title every bit deserving of its B-Title status and shaped it into a compelling narrative focusing on Peter’s life as a teaching assistant and at the same time grooming a whole new cast of supporting characters. By the summer of 1980 though, Marvel decided to mix things up and swapped Mantlo with the writer of the Incredible Hulk. If you thought that the book was a good read before, the results with Roger Stern as scribe were nothing short of spectacular.

kingsleyfirstStern began his career at Marvel in the mid-’70s as an assistant editor and eventually worked his way on to a full time staff writer position. His stint on the Hulk was supposed to have been in a fill-in capacity but he soon found himself taking over the book as head writer for over two years. Changes were in the works though. Mantlo’s “Spider-Lizard” arc that had been brewing for several issues was hastily cut short with Spectacular Spider-Man #40 and two issues later he took over the writing duties on Hulk in replace of Stern. With Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-Man #43, Stern crafted his first Spidey tale and in it introduced a character that would prove both memorable and controversial through the years.

Penciled by the talented Mick Zeck, Stern’s first Spider-Man story focuses on the seedy underbelly of the fashion industry. That’s right; the heart of this story is not about some super-powered megalomaniacal bad guys but rather a couple of vengeful fashion designers. It’s this unorthodox approach to super hero storytelling that immediately won over fans for this up and coming writer. One of the fashion moguls featured in issue #43 was named Roderick Kingsley. In fact it’s Kingsley that Stern’s new villain Belladonna is trying to ruin throughout the issue. Kingsley may seem like an inconsequential character in his first appearance, but he would go on to do much greater things in the Marvel Universe.

If someone were to bring up the name Roger Stern in casual conversation, they would more than likely talk about his memorable run as writer of Amazing Spider-Man (though his run here on Spectacular as well as memorable stories featured in Captain America and the Avengers would certainly be worthy of mention). One would no doubt point out stories like “Nothing Can Stop the Juggernaut,” “The Kid who Collects Spider-Man” and before long they would probably turn to one particular villain that polarized Spider fans during the 1980’s. That villain is obviously the Hobgoblin and though I won’t go into the messy details of the history of Hobgoblin’s secret identity here (Mark Ginnochio already did a great job with that on his Chasing Amazing blog), let’s just say that Stern had always envisioned the identity of his villain being one of the first characters he introduced to the world of Spider-Man, Roderick Kingsley.

kingsleygunIt’s hard to imagine Kingsley being a criminal mastermind after reading PPTSSM #43 though. He’s portrayed here as a stereotypical effeminate fashion designer. His characterization is actually so over the top that it nearly reaches the point of being offensive. When we see Kingsley again a few months later in Spectacular #48, he is shown being more of a cunning business man and less of an emasculate pushover. By the time he graces the pages of an Amazing Spider-Man arc a few years later, it’s not so crazy to think that this man may be controlling the criminal underworld by flying around on a glider and throwing pumpkin bombs.

After Spider-Man saved his life from Belladonna in his first appearance, Kingsley made the transition from victim to villain in PPTSSM #48. Belladonna is revealed to be a jilted fashion designer herself who was ruined by Kingsley’s unethical business practices. Kingsley is clearly made out to be an awful human being with little remorse for the acts he’s committed. Belladonna was wronged so badly by him in the past that she built her entire persona just to exact revenge on him. In a sense, Belladonna gets her revenge too. She tricks Spider-Man into crashing in on Kingsley’s penthouse after she warns her arch-rival that Spider-Man is there to kill him. Instead, Spider-Man throws a full-costumed Spidey mannequin through the skylight and Kingsley reacts by filling the fake web-slinger full of lead.

So, Kinglsey is taken to jail and Spider-Man eventually catches up with Belladonna and has her taken away as well. A trip to the pen didn’t hurt Kingley’s reputation too much though. In Spectacular Spider-Man #57, he’s seen attending a swanky party with a beautiful girl on his arm. We even see a womanizing side of Kingsley when a different flame of his catches him at the party with another woman. This is almost certainly an attempt by Stern to downplay his initial characterization of the character.

The Hobgoblin would debut a few years later in Amazing Spider-Man #238 and Roderick himself would make another appearance in ASM #249 (unless, of course, that was his twin brother Daniel). Sadly, Belladonna would never make another appearance in a Marvel comic book (at least as of 2015). Despite her classic femme fatale look and her interesting use of belladonna poison, no writer ever felt the need to bring her back. That’s saying something since we’ve seen the revival of characters as obscure as the Big Wheel, the Iguana and Hypno-Hustler recently.

belladonnaIn the grand scheme of things, Stern’s first handful of issues on Spectacular Spider-Man may not have been as groundbreaking as his future contributions to the Spider mythos would be. Neither Belladonna nor Roderick Kingsley seemed like lasting characters and the title had trouble nailing down a permanent artist ever since the departure of Sal Buscema in 1978 (don’t worry, he’d be back). Still, Stern’s deft ability to juggle multiple plot lines, his knack to make his characters seem genuinely real and the fact that he undeniably wrote some of the wittiest dialogue ever spoken by Peter Parker was apparent right from the start. His deep knowledge of Spider-Man history was also a huge step in appeasing long time fans. Not only did he dig deep into the rogues gallery throughout his career at Marvel, but he also referenced nearly forgotten plot points rooting back to the Stan Lee era on multiple occasions (as you’ll see on my next installment of “Spanning Spectacular”).

As Amazing Spider-Man transitioned into a new era itself in 1980 with the departure of Marv Wolfman, Stern’s Spectacular run became the mag to read if you were a Spidey fan. With Denny O’Neil taking over ASM and steering the flagship title into one of the worst places it would ever go, PPTSSM suddenly didn’t feel quite like a B-Title anymore.

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