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Lost Gems: “To Squash a Spider” and the Madness of Mysterio

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Over the next month Mark is going to share his thoughts on what he considers to be some of the “Lost Gems” of the Spider-Man comic book universe. These are some of Mark’s favorite stories that aren’t likely to appear on any “best of” lists.

This entry looks at Amazing Spider-Man #66-67 by Stan Lee and John Romita.

Mysterio Madness 01“To Squash a Spider” is an underrated Silver Age Spider-Man story, but more importantly, it stars a character who I believe to be the most underrated villain in Spider-Man’s vaunted rogue’s gallery, Mysterio!

The first Mysterio (aka, Quentin Beck), rarely gets the notoriety as a top Spider-Man villain — a distinction that more often than not goes to either the Green Goblin/Norman Osborn or Doctor Octopus (or if you’re a child from the 90s, one of the symbiotes like Venom/Eddie Brock or Carnage). But he’s been a key antagonist in a number of historically significant Spider-Man stories like the debut of the Sinister Six in Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1, or the first (fake) death of Aunt May in the run-up to ASM #200 in the late 1970s/early 80s. Beck is also one of Spidey’s more unique rogues, who doesn’t have powers per se, but has been able to wreak havoc on Spider-Man’s life many times over due to his expertise operating special effects equipment as a means to create illusions. 

When paired with the right artist, and “Jazzy” John Romita is probably the best Spider-Man artist of all-time, a Mysterio appearance like in “To Squash a Spider,” is an event — one that pushes the boundaries of perception for the reader in all of the right ways. 

On top of all that, “To Squash the Spider” makes this list for being the quintessential Stan Lee/Romita tale despite the fact that it doesn’t feature any historic first appearances, deaths, etc. Lee’s script is fueled with equal parts super-heroics and teenage hormones. It’s like Archie Meets Punisher, without actually featuring a sociopath who justifies the mass carnage he causes by only targeting those involved with organized crime! But seriously, for people who embraced the softer tone of the Stan/Romita era when compared to the Ayn Rand-laced Lee/Steve Ditko issues, “To Squash the Spider” scratches a certain itch better than most stories — and yet I NEVER see this story pop up on any “best of” lists. I just don’t get it.

Mysterio Madness 02The premise behind this two-part arc is fairly simple: Mysterio is back in town and vows revenge on Spider-Man for obvious reasons. This time around, he takes a model of an amusement park that has been outfitted with a bunch of death traps (and bears a striking resemblance to Arcade’s “Murderworld” which we recently featured in this “Lost Gems” entry). Mysterio then hits Spidey with a dose of hallucinogenic gases/fumes, making the Wall Crawler think he has shrunk in size and needs to survive his amusement park of terror.

The story never gets into the details as to why any kind of drug would make Spider-Man think he’s the size of an ant while walking the ground of an amusement park, especially one that he’s never actually seen before (but, as Mysterio says, because Spidey sees the model before he goes under, the power of suggestions makes him think he’s trapped there). However, expecting a logical explanation for Mysterio’s tricks robs the story of its carny-inspired fun. The important thing is that Lee and Romita are consistent with their premise from start to finish, thereby suspending disbelief long enough to allow the reader to think Spider-Man is in actual peril. 

What also contributes to the drama of this storyline is Peter’s burgeoning relationship with Gwen Stacy. After months of playing Betty or Veronica with Gwen and Mary Jane, Peter (in a previous story) finally makes his intentions known with Gwen just in time for him to be seen accidentally striking Gwen’s father, Captain Stacy, who has been hypnotized by the Kingpin. Gwen vows to never want to speak to Peter again, though that situation is eventually smoothed over when her father explains that he wasn’t in the right frame of mind when the altercation with Peter happened. 

Mysterio Madness 03So in Amazing Spider-Man #66, Peter and Gwen FINALLY get together. They smooch. They share javas at the Coffee Bean while looking at each other like a pair of dorky teenagers. It’s the most beautiful PG-rated comic book love scene this side of Riverdale High! Now let me go see a dentist because this sugary-sweet story is making my teeth ache.

Anyway, the point of this whole rambling diatribe is while Peter is stuck in Mysterio’s amusement park, thinking he’s only a few inches tall, in addition to wanting to survive the whole ordeal, he’s pining for the fact that he can’t go see his girl Gwen. Come on Pete, don’t you think Gwen would love you all the same if you were only six-inches tall? She’s never been portrayed as being that shallow and we all love a good Spider-Man actions figure.

Once Peter figures out this whole deathtrap is all an illusion, Mysterio’s defeat is academic — which probably demonstrates why Beck is rarely considered a top rogue because he can be physically overcome so easily. All the same, how many of Spidey’s villains have the ability to mess with his head quite the way Mysterio does in “To Squash a Spider”? The only thing that could have made Mysterio’s charade a bigger nightmare for Peter was if Beck somehow knew his secret identity a la Osborn (though this story does hint to Norman putting the pieces back together on that front, setting the stage for the excellent Spectacular Spider-Man Magazine #2). 

This is by far my favorite Mysterio story and the best use of the villain I’ve ever seen.

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