The Spooktacular Spider-Man is a monthly column, written by Paul DeKams, exploring the Spider-Man stories that have taken Peter Parker into the darkest parts of the Marvel Universe and from the fantastic world of superheroes into the horror of the supernatural.
Monster team-ups and battles are a thing of beauty. There’s so much more at play than the average superhero battle (which often stems from a misunderstanding and leads to a team-up). There’s often a power play. A more cunning monster attempting to assert their will over a monster with brute strength. Cast in the role of the cunning strategist, the vampire; and more often than not, a werewolf will play the role of the savage beast.
This dynamic is the basis of Giant-Size Super-Heroes #1 by Gerry Conway and Gil Kane as The Living Vampire, Michael Morbius, seeks the aid of the Man-Wolf, John Jameson. “Seeks the aid” is putting it nicely. Morbius forces the previously cured Jameson back into the form of Man-Wolf, and ensures control via a vampire bite.
But despite his villainous methods, Morbius isn’t acting from a purely evil standpoint. He wants a cure to his curse, and believes that having the Man-Wolf in his thrall will aid him in succeeding.
Spider-Man, who has spent most of the issue in an existential funk about his existence, is drawn into this by chance. The equipment Morbius needs for his cure just happens to be on the college campus where Peter Parker is a student. As Conway and Kane introduce us to the third chapter in this story, “When Strikes The Vampire!,” Morbius and Man-Wolf glide across the page single-mindedly while Peter looks on in shock at the combined powers of his foes.
It’s a great moment that reminds the audience why we root for Peter Parker. He’s fallible. He’s shakeable. But he also possesses the inner strength to move past that and recognize his ability to take on a vampire/werewolf tag team. The creative team takes us through this dilemma in an economical three panel sequence as Peter works through his fears and jumps into battle as Spider-Man.
“Economical” is a word I’ll use yet again to praise Conway and Kane’s storytelling. Spidey defeats Man-Wolf and moves onto the main event of Morbius. They begin to battle across the span of a page, but then in a single panel its over. Spider-Man and Morbius’s faces float, flanking a rough embrace between the two in the center of the panel. It’s really wonderfully done. At first I felt cheated, but it really forced me to slow down, and work back slower through these two pages. The battle is there if you stop and explore the panel. It’s in the intensity of Morbius, and in the way their bodies crash through the limited space of the panel.
Morbius jumps out into the night, denied his cure by Spider-Man. It’s a little curious, as there have been many Spider-Man stories where he’s actively tried to help his enemies find cures, but in this tale, he doesn’t. Instead, he makes Morbius believe the experimental equipment he sought has been destroyed by their battle, sending him out in search of another cure. I found it odd for Spider-Man to lack this compassion, but maybe my perception of The Living Vampire has been colored by his more sympathetic counterpart from the 1990s cartoon.
Where Spider-Man is more compassionate is with J. Jonah Jameson, the father of the Man-Wolf. Spidey comes looking for Man-Wolf, but gives Jonah the benefit of the doubt when he claims that John has been with him all night. Spider-Man leaves Jonah with a warning about the danger he’s living with, but doesn’t barge his way in to bring John into custody. Does he afford compassion to the monster he knows rather than the one he doesn’t? We’re not left with an answer to that, but rather the realization by Peter Parker that “next to some people’s problems (his) life is charmed.”