Monday, April 4, 2016

Vampire At Large!

Given the bizarre characters that were created as foes for the amazing Spider-Man, perhaps it's not such a stretch to find the book trying to sell us on a character named the Lizard as a viable threat to the wall-crawler--though you had to wonder why the book was headed in such an off-beat direction, as far as the strangeness of Spider-Man's enemies. We had a human goblin, a human scorpion, a human vulture, a human rhino, as well as a crazed scientist whose multiple arm appendages made him resemble a human octopus--and our hero was practically a human spider who crawled on walls. A human lizard, added to Spider-Man's book in only its sixth issue, is certainly indicative of a curious trend, for a book that seems to be trying to distinguish itself as one having a title character with problems and situations that ordinary teenagers could relate to. Maybe in 1963, teenagers were finding the world of Spider-Man struck a balance for them--the ideal outlet for adventure, combined with a somewhat put-upon guy in high school as he tries to manage his everyday life.

If your only exposure to the Lizard has been his appearances in the first Secret Wars series, you've been done a disservice, since the Lizard that appeared in the pages of Spider-Man would have lashed out at the tamed, submissive creature that the Wasp made of him on the Beyonder's world. Also, the Lizard has a rather interesting origin that adds a twist to his character--a Jekyll and Hyde aspect resulting from a serum meant to regenerate living tissue but unfortunately goes much further in a human subject.

It's not really clear why the Lizard becomes sadistic and even villainous as his transformation continues to suppress his identity as Dr. Curt Connors; most lizard species are harmless and quite fascinating. But the Lizard already has a master plan to take him down the road of conquest--spilling his serum into the waters of the Everglades, in order to create a new race of reptile creatures that will grow and eventually overwhelm the human race. This Lizard is definitely not one of the benign species that sun themselves on your fence.

Spider-Man, who has learned of Connors' condition from his wife, is in the difficult position of trying to subdue him without harming him. Complicating matters for him in that respect is the fact that the Lizard is considerably stronger than Spider-Man--and his reptilian hide can withstand Spidey's attacks easily (as well as conventional weaponry that would otherwise kill).

Eventually, high-school science major Peter Parker (I don't recall anyone majoring in anything in high school, or even prep school--maybe Peter was just an over-achiever) develops a formula which changes the Lizard back to normal, which seems to shut the door on the Lizard for good while establishing for Spider-Man a friendship with both Connors and his family, which helps to provide the Lizard with considerably more depth than he would have as just a lab-coated reptile who roams about looking to confront his webbed nemesis.

Through Connors, we would encounter the Lizard several more times in the book, with Connors and his family being moved to New York since Connors had sensibly determined that further research work with reptiles was not in his best interests, and certainly not his family's. But Connors would find that his strange experiment would manifest repeatedly, and that the Lizard would thrive even in a city environment.

Whether done intentionally or not, Connors obviously shares traits with the Hulk in some respects--a scientist who becomes a green monster and clearly has a fondness for purple trousers. Eventually, Connors is never really "cured" of becoming the Lizard, the change instead coming to mimic the Hulk's and resulting from agitation and/or stress. We've already seen Connors in such a state when he was kidnapped by Silvermane and forced to decipher the writings of an ancient tablet--and by the time Connors escaped, the damage was done.

By all indications, the Lizard was now a perpetual fixture in comics, the graphic nature of his transformation being irresistible to invoke, combined with his ruthless personality that finally shifted away from a focus on his "master plan" to a state of unpredictability and, of course, his hatred for Spider-Man. Ironically, the two characters would be linked by Spider-Man's friendship with and reliance on Connors--both coming in handy when Peter's own fumbling with chemistry resulted in a mutation of his condition and provided him with four additional arms. That story's climax ends up taking place in one of Marvel's new (and short-lived) double-sized 25¢ books from 1971, involving the first appearance of Morbius, the Living Vampire--as well as the return of you-know-who.

And no offense to Spidey, but talk about "monsters unleashed"!

To bring you up to speed on how these three characters were brought together, let's do a brief recap of the prior issue, where Peter Parker faces the uphill task of working to reverse the results of his experiment and eliminate his extra four arms--a sight which would no doubt have his Aunt May reaching for the heart medication, assuming she made it to the medicine cabinet. Spider-Man had contacted Connors by telephone, who offered the use of his Southampton getaway (complete with fully-stocked lab, which sadly means that Connors prefers to take working vacations) for Spidey to work out whatever problem he alluded to--the same house that, coincidentally, Morbius had been using to lay low. As dusk arrived, Morbius investigated downstairs, to find Spider-Man hard at work, and instantly attacked the web-spinner. Spider-Man, exhausted from lack of sleep and unpracticed in manipulating his extra arms, finds himself at a disadvantage against the crazed Morbius, and nearly falls victim to his foe's bloodlust. Fortunately, Connors arrives (presumably to offer his help to Spidey regarding his problem)--and the sight of Morbius startles him sufficiently to become the deadly Lizard.

Leaving us with a confrontational page one, where Spider-Man finds himself being fought over, and not in the good way.

My money would have to be on the Lizard in this little dust-up--his hide protects him from any force Morbius can muster (just as it would do likewise with Spider-Man), while his strength and agility easily surpass the vampire's. But let's see how things play out. Morbius could get lucky. We did say this lab was fully stocked; perhaps we also should have mentioned that it was fully equipped, as well.

Morbius is quick to swoop in on his fallen prey--but before he can draw blood, Spider-Man has recovered to the point of being able to intervene, which basically leaves the situation at a standoff. Yet Morbius realizes there are easier victims to be found.

Spider-Man then discovers that Morbius' attack on the Lizard has produced an unexpected reaction in his scaly foe, as both mind and body experience a state of flux between the more human Curt Connors and his monstrous alter-ego. Spider-Man realizes the advantage of Connors' help with his efforts to return the scientist to normal, and perhaps helping himself, as well--but he also realizes the risk involved, since he's working with a ticking time bomb which could turn on him at any moment.

While Spidey and the Lizard/Connors seek out their foe, this 35-page story then pivots and spends a generous amount of story space exploring the circumstances of Morbius' origin--which seems sensible, since neither Connors nor Spider-Man have shown much curiosity about Morbius or why he has attacked them on sight (beyond the obvious connection to his apparent need for blood). Granted, both of these men have more immediate problems to be concerned with; but you'd think each of them encountered vampires every day (er, night). Now they're seeking him out as a necessary component to their formula to stabilize Connors, without the slightest inquisitive thought about who and what they're dealing with.

So it falls to Morbius himself to provide the answers--gained in a flashback of memories that assail him when his will is weakest, as he takes his rest in the city during the day. Michael Morbius, a Nobel prize winner who discovers that he has a fatal blood disease and risks an experiment conducted at sea with his friend and lab assistant, Nikos, to electrically create new blood cells. But while Morbius recovers after the treatment, both men discover that Morbius has been changed for the worse.

With the story's intent for the character, the horror aspect of Morbius demands that he attacks and kills his friend--but strangely enough, by strangulation, not by the taking of his blood. It's this odd balance that writer Roy Thomas seeks to strike with this character--one which casts Morbius as both murderer and victim--which interferes with our ability to feel sympathy for him, particularly in a confusing scene such as this one where Morbius' instinct to kill Nikos seems to boil down to murder and nothing more. It would be one thing if this "living vampire" can't control his bloodlust; but it's quite another to see him leaping for his friend's throat with the intent to strangle him, for no apparent reason other than to end his life. It impacts on any effort of the story to make Morbius a sympathetic character, either in the reader's eyes or in those of Connors and Spider-Man. (And in the latter's case--a man who knows next to nothing about Morbius--Thomas nevertheless makes every effort to do just that.)

Mourning his friend, Morbius leaps overboard in an attempt to drown himself--but his evil nature (again, from whence comes his evil nature?) reasserts itself, and he surfaces, to find his chartered yacht gone--another necessary development for the story, and somewhat forced since Morbius has only been under a few moments, and his yacht was stationary and not underway. Yet it leads to Morbius later encountering and waving down a passing ship, and subsequently slaughtering its entire crew for their blood before reaching New York, and, eventually, Southampton, where this story catches up with him.

In the city, Spider-Man and the Lizard manage to locate and subdue Morbius. Again, there is no Nobel prize winner resisting them here, but a foe who holds them in contempt and has no patience for their pleas of wishing to help him. It's another point that the story fails to account for: Why would Connors and Spider-Man think they can help Morbius? And given what they've seen of his actions, why would they want to? Connors, at least, benefits from the confrontation--but the scene only leads to more questions as the story speeds towards its wrap-up.

So let's try to make sense of this dizzying set of panels:
  • Connors fears that Morbius intends to destroy the serum vial.
  • Morbius, however, intends to drink its contents--which presumably will do for Morbius what it did for Connors, and possibly return Morbius to normal.
  • Connors and Spider-Man at last realize the identity of Morbius, which now gives them the reason they need to try and help him--namely, by trying to replace the enzyme they extracted from him. However:
  • If Morbius downs the contents of the vial--a serum which is mixed with that enzyme--won't that accomplish what they want to do (and maybe even cure the guy at the same time)?
In other words:
  • Wouldn't this frantic scene be rendered moot as soon as Morbius says the words, "Bottoms up"?

Of course, we're overlooking the little matter of Spider-Man being stuck with six arms, the resolution of which is what we're really racing toward here--and so we cut to where Spidey has brought down Morbius while over the river, with the fall separating the two. And Spidey manages to save the day--and the vial--in the nick of time.

The closing panels, packed with reflection, end the story poignantly in the case of Morbius, though perhaps recycling the scene of his earlier plunge into the water to end his life in a moment of weakness--succeeding here due to his being injured by the circumstances of his fall as well as what Spider-Man assumes is undertow current. The final caption cryptically suggests we'll be seeing Morbius again--and in hindsight, that's putting it mildly.

As for the Lizard, it's now formally established (if it wasn't already) that Connors' condition is a perpetual "curse," another term he shares with Bruce Banner; but with his fourth appearance now behind him, it's fair to observe that this is the first story that's made the attempt to feature him without resorting to Spider-Man being handicapped by the fact that he must try to stop the Lizard without hurting him while trying to get a serum down his throat. (You'd think Connors would just carry a vial of serum with him at all times, wouldn't you. That lab coat certainly has the pockets available.) If the Lizard is to continue as a villain, something would have to change. You have only to glance at a Wiki entry for the Lizard to discover the extent of those changes for the character; suffice to say that the word "curse" is more than applicable.

From the prior issue's sensational cover, the debut of Morbius!
(One of my favorite covers, beautifully rendered by artist Gil Kane.)

Amazing Spider-Man #102

Script: Roy Thomas
Pencils: Gil Kane
Inks: Frank Giacoia
Letterer: Art Simek


The Artistic Actuary said...

Gil Kane just couldn't draw a good Lizard, could he? Especially with Frank Giacoia on inks.

Anonymous said...

I would have expected the Lizard to wipe the floor with Morbius, given that the Lizard is maybe slightly stronger than Spider-man, just as fast, and completely savage.
But, maybe not so big in the brains department. Still, I think the Lizard could have given even Ben Grimm, say, a workout for a minute or so. I think he could have clobbered Morbius pretty quickly.
Very wild, weird comic, but the six-armed Spider-man kinda spoils it a bit for me. I'm not surprised Marvel didn't mention that again.
Where did those arms come from? Did Peter just re-absorb them again?
No wonder he was feeling woozy at the end.

p.s.--does Dr. Conners buy his pants at the same store as Bruce Banner? If you're expecting to turn green and angry at some point, color and durability are paramount.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Oops, I just realized he's called The Lizard because he can re-generate his arm as some lizards can re-generate limbs - or maybe they all can, I don't know. I know salamanders can anyway. Sadly I've never seen a lizard, I don't even know if we have any in Britain - maybe it's too cold and rainy in these high northern latitudes. It was pouring down again this morning so any lizard would have a hard time basking in the sun here :D We do have some snakes 'though.

Anonymous said...

About a year ago, Colin, I saw a lizard in the "wild", in it's natural environment, for the first time in my life. In Eastern Nebraska; it was a "Race Runner" I was told.
You wouldn't believe how fast that little guy was!
Very cool. Of course we didn't bother it, just watched it doin' it's lizard thing. But even that was hard to do, the thing was so quick.

Comicsfan said...

Lizards are just about everywhere you look, here in Florida. My yard is pretty flush with shrubbery, so I spot them regularly on limbs or making their way through the grass. They also seem to enjoy house crevices and screening, for whatever reason. I don't know why, but I feel particularly honored when I find one crawling on my shoulder. Really cool creatures.

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