Saturday, August 17, 2013

A Strange Illness Needs A Strange Doctor


Amazing Spider-Man #109 would be the next-to-last issue that Stan Lee would write for the title. Once he concluded his run with "The Birth of... the Gibbon!" in the next issue, he would turn over the writing reins to Gerry Conway, and his long association with Spider-Man would come to an end. Lee would bill the Gibbon as "One of the Greatest New Super Stars in the Mighty Marvel Universe!"--which was either a whopper of a misassumption, or the kind of whopper that was proof positive of Lee's tendency toward over-the-top promotion.

But currently, Lee is in the middle of a two-part tale featuring Flash Thompson, who has concluded a tour of duty in Vietnam but is now marked for death back at home--and, as Flash's friend in his Peter Parker guise, Spider-Man is caught in the middle of it. Peter has only begun to put the pieces of this puzzle together. In Part 1, he's seen and overcome an attempt to abduct Flash in broad daylight, only to later fail to thwart a second attempt by a religious sect that blames Flash for the death of their priest. Peter's main concern is to keep Flash from being killed while trying to figure out a way to prove Flash's innocence; but with the people after him now having him in their custody, Flash's moments may be numbered.

So we find Peter shortly after a blast at a federal building that has caused sufficient disarray for Flash's abductors to succeed. But why isn't he leaping into action and going after Flash as Spider-Man? After all, he's planted a tracer on one of the men holding Flash, so what's the problem? That would be Gwen Stacy, who has pleaded with Peter not to run off as he usually does and thus overcome his seeming cowardice. And since Peter can't compromise his identity as Spider-Man, Gwen has him between a rock and a hard place, since every second he's forced to wait brings Flash that much closer to his death.


And Gwen isn't through making trouble in Peter's life. I mean, opening up on Aunt May!?



But first, Spidey has to get cracking.



In the last issue, Lee used the excuse of Peter not having his costume on him to hamstring Peter's pursuit of Flash's kidnappers. Yet in Part 2, it's precisely because his costume is "on him" that provides Peter with a way to side-step Gwen's insistence that he stay, and swing off after Flash after all:




But while Peter is in pursuit, hoping to pick up a signal from his tracer, he gets a signal of another kind, leading him to Greenwich Village and some unexpected assistance in his search:




I've always liked Lee's handling of Dr. Strange--a mixture of trusted ally along with an aloof bearing that somewhat sets him apart from Marvel's other costumed adventurers. Lee also gives Strange a formal tone that is just a delight to read, as if his every word hinted at hidden dangers that the rest of us remained ignorant of--which is, of course, Strange's stock-in-trade. Artist John Romita also seems familiar with Strange--the character's posture is always indicative of confidence and resolute awareness, and the forces he commands can be dazzling even to the reader. Strange's appearance in the issue is crucial in resolving the story; yet even so, he's a fine choice to add some extra excitement to the story as a limited guest star, and under ideal writer/artist circumstances.

Meanwhile, Flash is learning that he hasn't been targeted for simple revenge, but also to be part of a plan to right a perceived wrong:





Fortunately, Strange's mystic eye has allowed himself and Spider-Man to eavesdrop on this exchange, and Strange believes he has discerned the truth:



But Spider-Man is only interested in directions, which Strange is happy to provide personally:



You can almost read Lee's notes to letterer Artie Simek, can't you? Lee can add extra dimension to a character like Strange or, say, Madam Medusa, simply by enhancing their dialog in size and having it come out boldly, as if the person is making a pronouncement. Heck, even Spider-Man, with his penchant for banter, is rendered speechless.

As Flash waits for the "holy hour" of the ceremony, he gets a visit from a familiar face--Sha Shan, the priest's daughter who helped to welcome him to the temple and who was witness to his attempts to warn them of the shelling:



But if Flash thinks that Sha Shan is his ticket out of this place, she seems to have other ideas:



Yet before we get to the main event, we've got harsh words being exchanged elsewhere, as Gwen has finally had it with Aunt May's overbearing protectiveness of her nephew:



Writer Lee seems to be tying up some more loose ends before he departs: after all this time, finally getting Aunt May to shake off her doting attitude toward Peter, though Gwen nearly gives her a heart attack in the process. You can't help but think that Gwen's outburst is related to the way she chastised Peter earlier about always running off whenever there was trouble, so she probably has a few issues of her own to resolve before she starts firing salvos at frail old aunts.

But now, Flash's time of reckoning has come--with two very different points of view taking issue with one another, as Dr. Strange makes his dramatic entrance:




As for Spidey, it's Round 3 with the hulking chauffeur, with there being no doubt this time as to which one is outmatched:




Strange directs Spider-Man to keep these deadly acolytes from interfering as he directs a spell at the still form of the priest, which brings an end to the fighting in a way almost no one could have imagined:




And finally, Strange has a chance to clarify the events which have just unfolded:



The resolution has the added benefit of letting Flash off the hook, since the priest makes clear to his disciples that Flash was in no way responsible for the deadly shelling. Strange then takes his leave, in typical dramatic fashion:



This story nearly brings to an end over 100 issues of Spider-Man being molded and guided by Lee's direction of the character, and it had most of the Lee touches we've become familiar with. The "aside" captions which interjected a witty editor's comment that had the effect of making the reader feel welcome in being along for the ride; the sense of anticipation the title page provided for the story within; the promise of a "no-prize" for recalling a fact or solving a plot point; complications happening elsewhere; a teaser for the next issue; and a story that took its time in unfolding.  Teamed with the brilliance of Romita's artwork, Lee's skill as a comics writer was evident here.

1972 would find Lee pulling out from writing not only this book but also Fantastic Four; a year earlier he'd also exited from The Mighty Thor and Captain America. It was a little sobering from a reader's standpoint, but particularly so in light of Spider-Man, the hero Lee seemed to have a special affinity for, who never got the breaks or garnered the fame that the others did. It's obvious that I enjoyed this story on several levels--but in hindsight, perhaps one of them was the sad realization that there would be few times I would ever see its like again.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Y'know, you're kinda right about Doc Strange and I never really realized it before, but, yeah, he does represent adulthood, authority and maturity in these comics, as opposed to say, Spidey and the Torch. It must be those grey wings on the sides of his head. Yeah, Dr. Strange, Reed Richards, and Pauley Walnuts from the Sopranos...

Super-Duper ToyBox said...

i love this era of Spidey- been reading some of it lately & really enjoying the characters. The art in this is really great

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