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.
There’s little debating the fact that “Kraven’s Last Hunt” was a game changer. Widely considered one of (if not the) best Spider-Man stories ever written, the 6-part tale was the first multi-title crossover event that took place within the pages of Web of, Amazing and the Spectacular Spider-Man. It was a dark and cerebral story that abandoned many of the conventional comic book storytelling tropes that had been commonplace when the story was published in 1987. If the “Death of Jean DeWolff” allowed Spider-Man comics to go in a grittier direction, then “Kraven’s Last Hunt” opened the door for the webbed one to go in just about any direction.
The story itself was put together by writer J.M. DeMatteis, who at the time was probably best known to Spider-Man fans as the writer of Marvel Team-Up in the early ’80s, and talented artist Mike Zeck, who had penciled sporadic issues of Spectacular throughout the ‘80s. The two had previously worked together on Captain America where they introduced a feral creature named Vermin. Vermin was the product of an experiment done on a normal man by the nefarious Baron Zemo. Vermin would make another appearance during DeMatteis’ time on Team-Up and when J.M. and Zeck got together to do “Kraven’s Last Hunt,” they made the character a central part of the plot.
In 1991, DeMatteis took over the writing duties on Spectacular Spider-Man from Gerry Conway and immediately brought Vermin back into the world of Spider-Man. The very first arc that DeMatteis and artist Sal Buscema crafted together on Spectacular was the universally praised “The Child Within” storyline that started in Spectacular #179. After the events of “Kraven’s Last Hunt,” Vermin is now in the care of criminal psychologist Dr. Ashley Kafka (making her first appearance). Despite making significant progress with Vermin, the creature reverted back to his monstrous persona and escaped from his confinement taking refuge in the sewers. It’s in the depths of the sewers that Vermin is confronted by a young boy who represents the inner child of the raving creature. Vermin follows the child and is forced to reckon with the demons that have plagued him for his entire life.
It’s this theme of confronting one’s deepest and darkest fears and memories that DeMatteis so brilliantly applies to each of the three main characters in “The Child Within” arc. First Vermin, then Harry Osborn and finally Peter Parker. Harry is constantly plagued by the ghost of his father who never ceases to remind him how poor of a dad he is becoming and how despicable it is that he hasn’t avenged his death at the hands of Spider-Man. This ultimately leads to Harry donning the Green Goblin costume once again. Meanwhile, Peter is grappling with the long ago death of his parents which he must deal with after Harry uses a hallucinatory gas on him that digs deep to his most repressed fears.
Deep inside Peter’s hallucinations, he relives the moment that his Uncle Ben told him the news that his parents had died. It’s a moment that triggers something in Peter that makes him lose control. In a panicked child-like state, Pete tosses Harry aside and swings to the office of Dr. Kafka in hopes of getting help for a problem he never even knew he had. Peter blames himself, in a way, for the death of his parents and it is Kafka who tells him that he needs to be a man and nurture the damaged child within.
The fate of all three of the tortured characters finally intertwine at the boyhood home of Vermin. With help from the child version of himself, Vermin has found the house he grew up in and seeks to kill his father for having molested him as a young boy. A now calm and collected Spider-Man hears of Vermin’s whereabouts and stops the creature before he can kill anyone. The two fight on the roof of the house but are stopped by the interloper Harry Osborn dressed in his full Goblin costume and acting as crazed as ever.
After webbing up Vermin and leaving him for the authorities, Pete then confronts Harry and the two battle it out in the woods in the pouring rain. The ensuing brilliantly drawn fight between the two best friends, masks off, is certainly one of the highlights of the entire arc. It doesn’t end with Pete beating up the Goblin and hoping his friend contracts amnesia again. Instead, Peter goads Harry into killing him. This finally forces Harry to confront his demon, the ghost of Norman. Despite the urging of his dead father, Harry can’t kill his best friend no matter how badly he as the Goblin thinks he wants to. Tormented and confused as ever, Harry threatens Peter once more and flies into the distance.
DeMatteis’ first arc as writer of Spectacular is just what you would expect from the writer of “Kraven’s Last Hunt.” In a sense, the story is an extension of the writer’s most famous work. It dug deeper into the psyche of Peter Parker and allowed us to take a look into the unpleasant minds of two other characters as well. “The Child Within” would set up a number of plot lines during DeMatteis’ run on the title. The most noteworthy of which would be Harry and his inner-battles. This would come to a head in what I consider one of the single greatest issues of a Spider-Man comic ever, Spectacular Spider-Man #200. Before Harry’s story came to a touching conclusion, Vermin would also get a nice ending in the “Death of Vermin” story arc starting with Spectacular #194.
After a couple of years of writing Spectacular, DeMatteis would step away from the book in ‘93 and write for the adjective-less Spider-Man title for a few months before taking over for David Michiline on Amazing Spider-Man just in time for the beginning of the infamous “Clone Saga.” That would, for the first time in decades, leave the Spectacular title in a bit flux. Steven Grant, Mike Lackey, Ann Nocenti, Tom Defalco and Tom Dezago would all write for the title before DeMatteis came back to take over full time writing duties on the book in 1996. In the meantime, the stories featured in Spectacular were less than memorable and often times caught up in tiresome “Clone Saga” crossover events. Next up on Spanning Spectacular: clones, clones and more clones.