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Spanning Spectacular: Blast from the Past

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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.

After a short lived stint as editor-in-chief at Marvel in 1976, Gerry Conway decided to pack his bags and take his talents to the competition. Being the EIC during that period was no easy task and office politics had become too much to deal with. It wasn’t the first time Conway had left Marvel. He had spent a year with DC Comics earlier in the decade after suddenly quitting as writer of Amazing Spider-Man at the hastily put together end of the first Clone Saga. This time around, Conway’s departure took place just as he had started up the first true Spider-Man B-title Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-Man. When Conway finally came back to the House of Ideas after 11 years at DC, it was as if he had never left. In in the spring of ‘88, Conway again took over as writer of Spectacular Spider-Man teaming up with old friend Sal Buscema. The same creative duo that brought us the first issue of the title 12 years prior.

spec135sineaterDuring Conway’s exile, his former partner in crime never left Marvel. In fact, for many years, Sal Buscema was thought of as a Marvel lifer. He started with the company in 1968 and didn’t work for another publisher until the late ‘90s. Buscema stayed on as Spectacular‘s primary artist after Conway’s departure and penciled 18 of the title’s first 20 issues. His legendary workhorse output only became more evident when he again took over artistic duties on Spectacular during Peter David’s last arc on the book. Buscema would be the main artist on the title for the next 8 years, rarely missing an issue and more than not inking his own work and drawing covers. If there is one artist that is most associated with the Spectacular Spider-Man book, it would have to be Sal Buscema.

Coming on the heels of Peter David’s “Return of the Sin Eater” arc, which was a perfect ending to his groundbreaking stint on the book, Conway and Buscema took it upon themselves to resurrect the villain that was featured way back in PPTSSM #1. During Roger Stern’s run on Amazing Spider-Manthe Tarantula mutated into a giant spider and was eventually killed off. Conway apparently had quite the affinity for the Latin super villain he once created and made it his first course of action upon returning to Marvel to bring Tarantula back in Web of Spider-Man #35. This new Tarantula, though similar in every way, is an entirely different person than the original. La Tarantula, which this new assassin is calling himself, has taken on the villainous persona as he hunts down refugees that have escaped their home country to get away from a new brutal regime. The fact that Captain America (the John Walker version) and a rogue government agent come to the aid of the murderous foreigner to rid the country of these refugees makes Conway’s at-the-time topical tale feel as relevant now as it probably did then.

tombstonerobbieYou can instantly see that Conway’s writing and scripting had improved dramatically since his departure from Marvel over a decade earlier. He’d always known how to write Peter Parker but upon his return his stories became more pertinent and he quickly took on the task of fleshing out characters that had never fully been explored before. Case in point, the introduction of a new villain known as Tombstone and his long and tumultuous relationship with long time cast member Robbie Robertson. Robertson’s long overdue spotlight story, which builds up in the background before becoming the focal point in Spectacular #139, centers around Robertson’s former school-mate and eventual hit man Lonnie Lincoln. Robbie has known about Lincoln’s illegal deeds for years but has always kept quiet out of fear. When Robertson finally builds up the courage and strength to confront Lincoln on a rainy night in Battery Park, Tombstone breaks Robbie’s back. This sets in motion even more interesting story lines such as the trial of Tombstone and the imprisonment of Robertson himself.

Through these winding tales that Conway was crafting, Sal Buscema was churning out (in workmanlike style) what had to have been some of the most out of touch artwork imaginable. To me, Buscema’s art is as comforting as an old friend. I love his trademark faces, his over-the-top punches and fight scenes and the fact that he typically doesn’t over-sexualize the women he draws. Still, there’s no denying that what Buscema was doing in that late ‘80s must have been at odds with what was going on in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man. Within months of Sal Buscema returning to Spectacular, Todd McFarlane had taken over as artist on the web-slinger’s flagship title. The entire game was about to change. McFarlane’s ultra-detailed artwork was worlds away from Buscema’s more traditional and simplistic work. Soon, McFarlane became a sensation and artists that drew in similar styles became all the rage. Buscema, meanwhile, stuck to his old familiar ways (though he would later modernize his style with less than stellar results). With Spectacular anchored by the veteran duo of Conway and Buscema, it became a book that no longer felt groundbreaking (like the David/Buckler run) but rather a refreshing call back to the past. As McFarlane and David Michelini were introducing serial-killing symbiotes in ASMSpectacular was featuring crime stories and well rounded character studies (and eventually werewolves).

The first arc of Conway and Buscema’s return ended with the Tarantula being shipped back to his home country in shame. It in no way had a feeling of finality though. Tombstone was still on the loose and Conway was just months away from introducing the Lobo Brothers, fleshing out more supporting characters from the past and bringing back his most famous creation, the Punisher. His ability to tell these sweeping epics really kicked into high gear when he took over as writer of Web of Spider-Man in ‘89. He now had the ability to push out two issues of his expanding story every month. For the smart comic book consumer the late ‘80s and early ‘90s was more than just McFarlane and company drawing excessively detailed illustrations of contrived plotlines. It was also Gerry Conway putting together the best Spider-Man stories of his entire career.

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