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Spanning Spectacular: Little Green Men from Outer Space

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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.

Everyone knows that Spider-Man debuted in Amazing Fantasy #15, but I think fewer people know just what kind of magazine Amazing Fantasy was before it became the platform for the dramatic debut of one of the most popular characters of the last century. In the months leading up to Spidey’s origin in August of 1962, Amazing Fantasy was actually called Amazing Adult Fantasy and it was by no means a super hero book. Instead, monsters, aliens and other strange creatures were featured in short anthology style stories. After the wild success of Fantastic Four #1 in the Fall of ’61, Marvel began transitioning all of its anthology style sci-fi and fantasy books into super hero comics (thus Amazing Fantasy ended with issue #15 and the new Amazing Spider-Man title took its place).

alienstinkererAt this point, you’re probably wondering what all this has to do with the Spectacular Spider-Man book that launched years later. Don’t worry, we’re getting there. In the early issues of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s run on ASM, it seemed as if neither were entirely sure about what kind of book Spider-Man should be starring in. The first two issues both featured split stories, neither of which were anything like the traditional super hero comics that fans were used to. In some ways, they seemed to have more in common with the monster mags that both Lee and Ditko had been writing in the years prior. No story probably exemplifies this better than the second story in Amazing Spider-Man #2 titled “The Uncanny Threat of the Terrible Tinkerer.”

The story begins with a high school aged Peter Parker making a run to a local electronics repair shop to pick up a radio for his teacher. We soon find that the Tinkerer, who owns the strange little shop, is up to no good. In fact, the Tinkerer is housing a bunch of little green aliens in his basement that are secretly putting spy devices in people’s radios in preparation for a future global takeover. Pete’s spider-sense alerts him of all of this and he eventually thwarts the Tinkerer and the alien’s master plan. In the final panel of the story, Pete holds the human mask of the Tinkerer in his hands. As it turns out, the old man was one of the aliens too!

As the 1980’s approached, comic books suddenly took on an air of grittiness and realism that had never really been seen in the medium before. The work of such visionaries as Frank Miller and Alan Moore helped turn the world of comics into a place where little green men with antennas on their heads just didn’t belong anymore. So, when Len Wein revived the Terrible Tinkerer in Amazing Spider-Man #160, he ret-conned the fact that the old man was actually an alien in disguise. Five years later, in Spectacular Spider-Man #51, Roger Stern went into further detail by explaining that the events in Amazing Spider-Man #2 were certainly not what they seemed.

aliensflashbackI mentioned in my previous installment of Spanning Spectacular that one of Roger Stern’s great strengths during his time at Marvel was his deep knowledge of the history of the Marvel Universe. So, it only makes sense that he would dedicate two full issues to the forgotten backup story in ASM #2. The action begins with Pete and the perpetually tortured Debra Whitman having a nice dinner with Aunt May to celebrate her recent engagement to Nathan Lubensky. As you’d expect, things get crazy when the wait staff rip off their human masks to reveal their green skin and antennaed heads. The aliens have returned!

The first clue as to who these creatures are is given away when they admit that they are after the treasure of Dutch Mallone. Mallone’s treasure was the main plot point in Marv Wolfman’s “Return of the Burglar” arc that ended with the memorable Amazing Spider-Man #200. In that arc, we see Mysterio fake Aunt May’s death in order to get his hands on the storied treasure that was hidden at the old Parker residence. In this story, after Peter is captured by the aliens, we learn that it is again Mysterio that is after the treasure (which actually no longer exists).

After unsuccessfully using mind illusions to try and coax the treasure’s whereabouts from Pete, our hero is sedated and left in a holding room. This gives Pete the chance to change into his Spider duds and hunt down his captors. After sneaking behind the first scaly green alien he comes across, Spidey rips the mask from the unsuspecting alien’s head to reveal a normal man with a bushy mustache. These guys aren’t aliens after all! In fact, they’re only movie extras and stuntmen that were hired by the Tinkerer years ago. The only catch is that one of the “aliens” was so hell bent on getting his revenge on Spider-Man that he took on a whole new persona. That man was Quentin Beck, the original Mysterio.

aliensdebraWith the help of Debra, who had been captured as well and for the first time as a character proved to be more than just a damsel in distress, Spidey eventually takes care of all the fake aliens. And, after withstanding the direct blast of a ray gun, he knocks Beck out with one swift punch. The last scene we see is Peter returning in his civies to comfort a distraught Debra. With that, Roger Stern seamlessly pulls off one of the best and most satisfying ret-cons in Spider-Man history.

On just the two issues mentioned above (Spectacular Spider-Man #50 and #51), three different artists helped bring Stern’s story to life. It had become a recurring theme for the book. No matter how good the stories were (and under Stern they were very good), the book just couldn’t hold down a steady artist. So, in the fall of 1981, when Stern was offered the job of writer for Amazing Spider-Man and the opportunity to work with full time artist John Romita Jr., he jumped at the chance. Stern was quoted as saying that the main reason he switched books was so that he could collaborate with one single artist. The collaboration that was to come was one for the ages. Stern’s work with JRJR in the ’80s is widely considered one of the best periods in Spider-Man comic history.

In Stern’s place, a new and improved Bill Mantlo was about to return for his second stint on Spectacular Spider-Man. With Stern turning Ditko’s little green aliens into run-of-the-mill criminals, the sci-fi and fantasy elements of the early days of Marvel comics were temporarily shelved. Mantlo’s stories were about to get a lot gritter as well. Hard hitting tales about drug dealers, mobsters and gang wars were on the horizon.

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