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.
Bill Mantlo might have been Marvel’s best fill-in writer ever. The self described “fill-in king,” Mantlo had the uncanny ability to write up entertaining one-off stories for titles in which the main writer of the book couldn’t get his scripted plot in on time. I’m sure it was a thankless job. Mantlo is rarely mentioned in the same breath as some of his contemporaries like Chris Claremont and Roger Stern. Still, during his 15 plus years with Marvel comics, Mantlo’s dependability gave him the opportunity to write almost all of Marvel’s most prized characters.
Originally hired by Marvel to be a colorist, Mantlo got his start writing comics when, (what else?) a writer was unable to make a deadline. When it seemed as if then editor of Marvel’s black-and-white comics line, Tony Isabella, was going to have to script a story himself at the eleventh hour, Bill stepped up to take on the challenge. Taking advantage of this fortuitous opportunity, Mantlo would team up with artist George Perez and eventually become the main writer on Sons of the Tiger (which was an ongoing story in the Deadly Hands of Kung Fu magazine). Within a year, Mantlo and Perez would make their first major contribution to the Marvel canon. That creation was a Hispanic kid from the South Bronx who, when powered by a mysterious amulet, became the White Tiger.
Not long after making a name for himself writing black-and-white kung fu stories, Mantlo started what would become a long and fruitful relationship penning Spider-Man comics. First, Mantlo was tapped to write Spider-Man’s very first companion book, Marvel Team-Up. Mantlo’s Team-Up stories were a bit of a mixed bag (like most of the Team-Up book itself tended to be), but he did introduce both the Wraith and Jean DeWolff during his two year run. So, when editor-in-chief Archie Goodwin decided to hand the still fledgling Spectacular Spider-Man book over to a permanent writer, it was Mantlo’s work on Team-Up that proved he could handle Marvel’s most popular character. Thus, in the summer of 1977, Bill Mantlo was given the best writing gig of his young career.
When Mantlo took over Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-Man with issue #9, he was given a book that had certainly not lived up to its potential. Gerry Conway’s stint on the book was ludicrously short and Archie Goodwin only put together two arcs (one of which was actually a sort of adaptation of a previously written Gerry Conway Marvel Team-Up story). With basically a clean slate to work with, Mantlo wasted no time in bringing his creation the White Tiger into the world of Spider-Man with his very first issue on the book.
Featuring a cover drawn by White Tiger co-creator Perez, Spectacular #9 begins with a meeting between the Tiger’s alter ego, college student Hector Ayala, and Peter Parker. Hector, along with a group of other minority students at ESU, is unhappy that the school’s president is planning on shutting down the night school program because of a lack of funding (judging by Spectacular‘s opening arc, a lack of educational funding was apparently a pretty big issue in the ’70s). Hector and a number of other students suggest selling a priceless book that ESU is in ownership of, but the president refuses. So, later on, when a white clad-vigilante sneaks into the library to steal the rare book, it only makes sense that it’s Hector behind the mask. Spoiler alert: it’s not.
When the real White Tiger does appear on the scene in issue #10, he and Spider-Man get caught up in a fight caused by nothing more than a misunderstanding (old habits from Marvel Team-Up die hard). With the power of his amulet, Hector has no problem going toe to toe with his super powered adversary and the entertaining fight stretches from the campus of ESU to the streets of the Bronx. Eventually, as the gathering crowds begin rooting for the Tiger, Spider-Man figures that this guy might not be so bad after all.
Like all good superhero battles, the two combatants realize that they’re fighting for no reason and by the end of the issue they’re making amends and shaking hands. We soon find out that the real culprit behind the stolen manuscripts is a senior professor at the university who thought that he was doing the right thing (ESU sure hired a lot of bad apples through the years). Wrapping a neat bow around the ending of the two-part arc, the university president scolds his professor and vows to find a way to keep the night school open.
Hector was obviously one of Mantlo’s favorite early creations and despite the fact that he was all too often depicted with stereotypical Spanish “double talk” (saying a phrase in Spanish and then in English in the same word bubble) he was also his most important. We were just beginning to see some major diversity in comic books by the mid-’70s and just like Luke Cage and the Black Panther before him, the White Tiger was a giant step forward in that he represented a group of people that had not really been portrayed in the medium before. Many of the next several issues would feature the White Tiger as Spider-Man’s sort of unofficial sidekick. He would fight along side Spider-Man in his battle with Lightmaster in Spectacular #20 and would aid him against the ghoulish Carrion in what would be one of Mantlo’s best tales (we’ll talk more about that arc next month).
Not everyone had great things to say about the White Tiger though. Some found his Spanish “double talk” to be unbearable and others just didn’t care for the character much. It’s true that through the years nobody really did a great job of fleshing out Hector Ayala’s personality. He was constantly portrayed as being proactive involving issues regarding minorities, but eventually he’d be reduced a love sick college kid who is obsessed with an ESU co-ed. Though obviously there’s nothing wrong with making him more of a regular college kid, it feels like with the right touch he could have been a much more memorable character. It’s not until Roger Stern took over writing duties on the book and decided to totally rock Hector’s world did we really see the kind of interesting character the White Tiger could be. Sadly, Stern decided to basically write the Tiger out of the Marvel Universe during his stint on Spectacular.
After this fun two-part story, Mantlo would have a little trouble finding his footing (much like the book itself up to this point). Despite my editor’s affection for the Razorback arc, I found the next handful of issues of Spectacular Spider-Man to be pretty forgettable. Mantlo would amp things up with issue #25 and by the time Stern took over in 1980, PPTSSM would become the web slinger’s best on-going series. Mantlo’s contributions to the title should never be understated. He will always be remembered as having two very successful stints as head writer on the book. During that time he introduced a number of memorable characters and crafted a couple of storylines that are often thought of as some of Spider-Man’s best ever. Pretty impressive for a fill-in writer.