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Spanning Spectacular: Of Owls and Octopi

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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.

Dr. Otto Gunther Octavius first appeared in Amazing Spider-Man #3, becoming the third regular villain introduced into the Spider mythos (behind the Chameleon and the Vulture). He would soon become one of the most famous and regularly used villains featured during Stan Lee’s decade long stint on the book. Whether you remember him best as the Master Planner, the man who put together the original Sinister Six or the murderer of Captain Stacy, there’s certainly a reason that many believe Doctor Octopus to be Spider-Man’s greatest villain.

docockditkoBut, by the time 1982 rolled around, Doc Ock was a far cry from the menacing super-villain that he had so famously been portrayed as in the past. One could say that the worst thing he had done in the previous ten years was attempting to marry Aunt May back in ASM #131. All of this changed when Bill Mantlo decided to bring the character back to his ruthless and cunning origins in the heavily lauded “Owl/Octopus War” arc.

Mantlo’s grittier, more street-level tales that he was crafting during his second stint as writer of Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-Man reached a crescendo with what would be his all time best Spider-Man story. Beginning with the offbeat PPTSSM #72, which opens with the headline ‘Doc Ock Escapes’ emblazoned on the front page of the Daily Bugle, and stretching all the way to issue #79, which features a two-tone Al Milgrom drawn cover adorning the words ‘The Final Battle,’ the story of Ock’s return to the world of crime and his subsequent defeat is arguably one of the two or three greatest Doctor Octopus stories ever told.

After escaping from prison, Ock decides to show off his power by betraying his former partner the Owl over a plan to take the city ransom with a nuclear detonator. His actions, which as the story goes on become more and more deranged, end up kicking off a massive city-wide gang war. Eventually, we find that the Black Cat has returned and is heavily involved in the nuclear ambitions of the both Ock and the Owl (her return just so happens to coincide with the departure of Pete’s ex-girlfriend Debra Whitman). After discovering that it is the Black Cat who is in possession of the detonator, Otto ruthlessly attacks the reunited vigilantes. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Peter is still smitten by the mysterious Felicia Hardy; so when Ock captures the Cat it’s more than just a little bit personal for our hero.

spec76

Mantlo’s deft ability to balance both a burgeoning love story, a gang war and Spider-Man’s interference in it all is something that we hadn’t really seen from him much in his previous work on the title. Sure we were given the chance to look in on the life of the White Tiger every now and then, but the depth and layers of storytelling that Mantlo put together on his second run and especially during his “Owl/Octopus” arc was very reminiscent of what Roger Stern had done on his Spectacular run (and continued to do on Amazing Spider-Man). As mentioned in my previous installment of Spanning Spectacular, Mantlo also had the good fortune of being able to collaborate with a couple of steady artists such as veteran editor/artist/inker Al Milgrom who did the bulk of the line work on this arc. Milgrom’s pencils may not have been quite as detailed as Ed Hannigan’s, but the fact that one artist handled almost all of the artistic duties on the “Owl/Octopus War” gave the entire story a more cohesive feel.

The most memorable part of the arc is almost certainly the epic showdown in Owl’s humongous Aerie overlooking the Hudson River. The battle features the Owl’s horde of henchmen against Doc Ock’s entire gang with Spider-Man and the Black Cat caught in the middle. There’s one particular scene, in which the Cat is badly hurt by Ock’s thugs, that may be the most lasting (although it might be Milgrom’s haunting cover for Spec #76 that helps burn the image in my mind). No matter how crazy and annoying the relationship between Spidey and the Cat would become over the next couple of years, you can’t not feel the emotion of a distraught Spider-Man holding the tattered body of the woman he thinks he loves in his arms.

As you might expect, Spider-Man goes on to spoil Doc Ock’s mad plan of destroying New York, and after a buildup in which Peter wishes all of his close friends and family goodbye, we’re treated to “The Final Battle.” In an absolute genius end to the entire story, Spider-Man realizes that his fear of Octavius was unfounded and that just like every time before he is going to get the better of his adversary. After not only defeating his sworn enemy but also saving him from sure death, Spidey warns Doc Ock to not “dare challenge him again,” and for a while he doesn’t. Over the next few years, Doc Octopus is afraid at even the mention of the name Spider-Man.

dococktheendBill Mantlo would end his second run on Spectacular Spider-Man in 1984, handing the book off to Al Milgrom who would both draw and script the book for a short time. This wouldn’t be the last story Mantlo wrote for Spectacular though. Continuing to live up to his title as the “fill-in king,” he contributed a story featuring the Rocket Racer the following year and his last Spider-Man story would be a 1985 one-off tale about a bad landlord. A fitting story considering Mantlo left comics in the late ‘80s after passing the BAR and becoming a public defender.

In 1992, Bill Mantlo was tragically struck by a motor vehicle while rollerblading and as a result suffered a serious brain injury. He has been permanently handicapped and requires around-the-clock care ever since. As I write this feature concentrating on the history of the Spectacular Spider-Man title, it’s hard not to get emotional when thinking about what Mantlo has had to go through and will continue to have go through the remainder of his life. No man or woman has shaped the legacy of this particular book more than Bill Mantlo. Every time I re-read a Mantlo back issue (which I assure you is quite often), I think about Bill’s life and how much his stories mean to me.

Fellow comic book writer Greg Pak published an article on his personal website last year detailing how to donate or write to Bill. If Bill’s stories mean as much to you as they do to me, you can follow this link to do just that.

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