Ladies and gentlemen, I am officially serving myself a heaping helping of crow.
Way back in my review of the Essential Spectacular Spider-Man #1, I postulated that we wouldn't get to see a seventh Essential Spider-Man until the third movie came out. And why shouldn't I have suspected that? The fifth came out in April 2002 and the sixth in July 2004, obviously to coincide with the first two major motion pictures. But what I failed to realize is that the powers that be (i.e. the publishers) don't always need the glamorous attention of the theater marquees to send a new Essential of a popular character our way. The result: the seventh Essential is on my bookshelf now and principal photography for the third movie hasn't even started yet! I had no idea that crow could taste so good!
1974-1976 was a pretty busy season for Spidey (as if he ever has any slow seasons) so let's get right down to the highlights. An early fight pits Spider-Man against the Grizzly, a revenge-minded pro wrestler in a bear costume (Let's see, what big and ferocious animals haven't we spun into super-villains yet?). Then our hero racks up some frequent-flier miles with trips to South America with the Punisher, Paris to fight a real windbag called Cyclone, and Florida in search of the Man-Thing and the Lizard (Doc Conners turns into the Lizard yet again, this time by clumsily knocking over an open beaker on his workbench which contained his lizard serum. I would have considered storing it in a closed flask in a locked cabinet, but then again he's the doctor and I only have a BS in Chemistry). The story entitled "Whodunit" is a rare comic book murder mystery that actually has an aura of intrigue and a satisfying conclusion (it's not Agatha Christie but it's still not bad). Also of note, in issue #156, Ned Leeds and Betty Brant finally have their wedding (Didn't they get engaged back in #40 or so?) and it gets crashed by the new low-tier villain Mirage (He can project holographic images of himself, so basically he has about a tenth of the power that Mysterio has). In the final issue, a foe who hadn't been seen since the series was in single digits returns and hotwires the ill-conceived Spider-Mobile into hunting down its former master (You know, I considered adding the 1977 James Brolin movie The Car in my film-themed title, but I felt that three references were enough). Finally, the sometimes-cheered, sometimes-jeered Clone Saga begins in earnest as the deranged Jackal unleashes his clone of Spider-Man (later to be known as Ben Reilly, the Scarlet Spider) but not before his mask comes off. When the identity of a recurring masked adversary is revealed in these kinds of stories, usually the answer is no real shocker. Green Goblin: Norman Osborn, obviously. Masked Marauder: it couldn't have been anyone but Frank Farnum, Daredevil's landlord (I think the second time Foggy Nelson said he was glad that Farnum was not a super-villain was what tipped me off). However, if I hadn't already read the Jackal's entry in the Marvel Encyclopedia 4: Spider-Man or saw that follow-up story in Spectacular Spider-Man #30, I honestly don't know if I would have correctly guessed it or not. I hope there's some fan out there who can take it as a surprise.
There are two more stories that I'd like to talk about at length, the first being the return of Hammerhead and Dr. Octopus. When we last left the eight-limbed egotist and the ostensibly Dick Tracy-inspired mobster (what with the pinstriped suit and the nickname based on his bizarre physical characteristic), they were both inside the nuclear power plant that Aunt May inherited when the reactor melted down and reduced the countryside to atoms (Who did she inherit the plant from anyway? Monty Burns?). Well, it turns out that the experience didn't spell death for either combatants, it spelled "Marvel death". Ock was able to locate a lead-lined hidey-hole and sit out the nuclear holocaust, but what about Hammerhead? Get out your notepads fellow comic book scientists, here we go! Ol' Mallet-Mouth was so near to the epicenter of the blast that the pre-meltdown radiation from the uranium rods vibrated his organic molecules until he was "out of phase" with our dimension and shunted him to a nearby coexistent dimension where he would appear to us to be a hazy, incorporeal ghost. So naturally the blast did him no harm. Comic book science rules! Anyway, Hammerhead used his ghostly countenance routine to rattle Ock and trick him into operating another atomic device that un-vibrated his molecules and returned him to the prime material plane (That Ock! He's so gullible!). I used to think that the whole Octopus-marries-Aunt-May-for-her-fission-reactor odyssey was the weirdest Spidey story ever, but it can't even hold a candle to the story that was written to resolve that story. Hoo-boy!
I direct my second introspective to the Spider-Man Annual #10: Spidey vs. the Human Fly. Upon looking at the cover for the first time, I came up with what I still think is a very reasonable question. Why did Len Wein, one of my favorite writers, think that a guy with the proportional powers of a housefly could stand up to Spider-Man? Did Chris Claremont ever dispatch the Human Snowshoe Hare to take down Wolverine? Of course not! Anyway, the story begins with jolly Jonah Jameson placing an order for a new super-being with Dr. Harlan Stillwell, brother to the late Farley Stillwell who Jonah directed into creating the Scorpion. This is a good example of the available wiggle-room involved with a "Marvel death"; if you can't cheat death like Hammerhead and Doc Ock or be raised from the dead like Elektra or Jean Grey, then you can still be replaced by a relative who's, for all intents and purposes, exactly like you. The latter certainly worked for the Ox, Baron Zemo, and Warpath. Anyway, Stillwell's first test subject arrives in the form of irascible kidnapper and murderer Rick Deacon who is successfully turned into a half-fly (And he didn't even need a matter emitter to do it. In your face, Jeff Goldblum!). The transformation drives Deacon slightly crazier so he kills Stillwell and takes Jameson hostage (which is pretty much the same thing that happened with the Scorpion. Fool you twice indeed, Jonah!), and the stage is set for an arachnid-insect imbroglio. Although the plot seems derivative and ludicrous, I felt that Deacon's gritty origin and the meaningful victories that Spider-Man and Peter Parker win in the end made it a worthwhile read. Perhaps in the future we'll see Marlow, the third Stillwell brother, unleash the Human Aphid on the world to Jameson's great chagrin. It'll probably come some day.
It doesn't matter whether you read a Marvel comic that was released last Wednesday or thirty years ago; the time is always right for Spidey. I can't think of any other character that lives in a fantastic world and yet still could easily live in our world and face the same trials and problems that we do. He's a very realistic and relatable figure for someone who jumps around Manhattan in red and blue tights. Sure, some of his adventures are pretty goofy, but they're a fun kind of goofy, and I can't imagine anyone with at least an incidental interest in graphic novels regretting the purchase of the Essential Spider-Man volumes.
P.S. I've made a resolution not to bring up the ubiquitous movie-Essential tie-in issue anymore. The books either come out during a movie premiere or before, never after. I have no reason not to be happy.
P.P.S. If you read #160, the final issue in the collection, and become curious about what's in those photos Jonah receives in the mail, you'll find the answer in the Essential Punisher #1 which features issue #161. Treat yourselves to it, true believers. You deserve it.