Before it was a fan favorite cartoon or the possible title of the upcoming Marvel Films produced, full-length feature, 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.
It wasn’t long after Spider-Man’s introduction into the world of Marvel Comics that his popularity exploded to a point where one simple monthly magazine was not going to meet the fanbase’s growing demand for more Spidey. Before Spider-Man saw his first decade, he was everywhere. By 1970, the web-slinger was the most popular character on the Marvel roster. He was featured on countless forms of merchandising and was even starring in a hit Saturday morning cartoon show.
So, in 1972, Marvel launched Spider-Man’s first companion book, Marvel Team-Up. Team-Up was a title that over the years allowed Spidey to meet just about every hero that Marvel ever created throughout the ’60s and ’70s. Though as fun as Marvel Team-Up was, it didn’t quite give Spider-Man fans what they wanted. The Team-Up books were too reliant on building relationships with other super heroes and super hero teams that they almost always ignored the rich cast of characters that made the Amazing Spider-Man book so good.
In 1976, a full 14 years after the character was introduced, Spider-Man received his first official ongoing “B-Title.” That book was titled Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-Man (the “Spectacular” adjective was borrowed from a Stan Lee penned black and white magazine-sized special from 1968). Gerry Conway, the newly dubbed editor-in-chief at Marvel who had just returned after a year long stint at DC Comics, chose to write the book and John Buscema’s little brother Sal was given artistic duties. If there were any doubts about Spider-Man being able to carry three individual titles, the sheer promise of the creative team should have put those doubts to rest.
The problem is that things don’t always work out as planned. Gerry Conway, just a year removed from creating the Spider-Clone and three years removed from killing Gwen Stacy and changing comic books as we knew them, had ambitious plans for this first arc on the brand new Spider title. We see the return of what had to have been one of Conway’s favorite creations from that period, the Tarantula, we get a guest visit from Kraven the Hunter and before it’s all said and done, we’re graced with the presence of a brand new super villain. This wasn’t going to be just a “B-Title.” According to a letter written in Spectacular Spider-Man #1, Conway was going to coordinate with what was going on in Amazing and give Spidey’s cast “room to live, breathe and develop.”
After two issues on Spectacular, and in mid-arc no less, Gerry Conway stepped down as editor-in-chief at Marvel and left the book to focus on other projects (in fact Conway was just months away from leaving Marvel altogether for the second time). Conway’s promised “carefully structured ballet” of coordination between Spider-titles was left largely unfulfilled and for the next couple of years the fledgling book was not only in flux but it lived up to its unflattering B-Title classification.
With that said, the opening arc of Spectacular Spider-Man proved to be a pretty unmemorable tale. There are a few mysteries and plot turns that liven things up, but there’s certainly nothing groundbreaking within the pages of this three issue arc. Considering the earth-shattering stories that Conway was known for during his stint on ASM, it’s disappointing that this new title didn’t start off with a more interesting narrative. It’s especially frustrating that the first issue didn’t feel more special. Sure the fight with Tarantula was fun, but the story itself felt down right mundane for a #1 issue. Keep in mind that this was during a time when Marvel didn’t reboot their titles every couple of years and #1 issues were actually quite special.
Things start to get a little bit more interesting in the second issue. Kraven, who was actually used rather sparingly in the ‘70s and is kind of a treat to see, is hired by a mysterious benefactor after Tarantula failed to kill the mayor in the previous issue. The benefactor’s agenda is unknown, along with his identity, until the big reveal in issue #3. Up to that point, all we know is that he wants the mayor dead and both the Chancellor and vice-chancellor of Empire State University kidnapped.
With Conway leaving the book after the second issue, future Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter stepped in to write the story that Conway had already plotted. Sadly, this issue is where Conway’s plot hits a major snag. As we see just a few pages into the third issue, Tarantula and Kraven’s new boss is in fact a brand new super villain named Lightmaster. In what is certainly not Conway or Sal Buscema’s best character design, Lightmaster is a man in a full-bodied yellow jump suit with angry looking squiggles for eyes and some sunburst stripes on his chest. Worse yet, Lightmaster is vice-chancellor Edward Lansky. The same Edward Lansky that was kidnapped by Tarantula in the first issue. So why become a super villain? Why fake your own kidnapping, capture your boss and try to have the mayor killed? Well, because those fellas weren’t giving proper funding to the city college, that’s why. All of this super villain business was just a big ploy to properly educate the young adults of New York City.
Good intentions or not, Spider-Man eventually does what has to be done and tricks Lightmaster into electrifying himself by having him fire his light beams into a high voltage board. So, as Lansky is carted away in an ambulance, we are left with the unsettling fact that all of the mystery and build up over the first two issues boils down to the grand reveal of one of the worst Bronze-Age villains of all time (and believe me Conway created his fair share of duds through the years). Not only that, but the “rich cast of characters” that were supposed to make this book so much different than Marvel Team-Up are relegated to a handful of generally uninteresting and inconsequential side-plots.
This was certainly an inconspicuous way for a brand new on-going book to start off. The next few issues of Spectacular would be written by incoming Marvel editor-in-chief Archie Goodwin. Goodwin, who obviously had his plate full as the new boss, piecemealed together a few stories before the book finally settled into a bit of a groove with Bill Mantlo as scribe.
It may be hard to believe, but despite its humble beginnings, Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-Man would eventually go on to be every bit the essential read that its precursor the Amazing Spider-Man was. As I’m sure my un-spectacular retrospective of the very first arc of the title shows however, it just took a few years to get past the growing pains.