Friday, August 16, 2013

When Strikes The Chauffeur!

Before writer Stan Lee left his run on Amazing Spider-Man for greener pastures, he penned a two-part story that allowed him to head for the exit door on a high note. It featured Peter Parker's regular cast of characters (except for J. Jonah Jameson, who was probably still recovering from the rather nerve-wracking visit he got from Spidey in the prior issue); but what stands out is the very nice treatment the story gives Flash Thompson, just returned from his tour of duty in Vietnam, but with a cloud over his head.

Comics readers are sometimes of mixed opinion when it comes to Stan Lee--but when all is said and done, I think the consensus will be that Lee could write good stories. Entertaining--gripping--dramatic--humorous--you sat down with a Stan Lee story, and you didn't have to wait long before being drawn into a plot that had more aspects to it than you were expecting, with characters who were each given a generous amount of dialog and development, depending on the story's circumstances. Lee himself didn't always meet the standards he'd set for delivering the kind of quality Marvel story which he became so proficient at over the years, and over the span of so many books--but at those times that he did deliver, the amount of material he packed into the story and his attention to detail were always impressive. I could be here all day naming examples.

With Spider-Man, Lee seemed to find his niche, arguably even moreso than with his work on Fantastic Four. With the FF, the team generally interacted with other costumed characters like the Black Panther or the Inhumans or any number of beings they encountered in their adventures--as well as Alicia Masters, Wyatt Wingfoot, or other civilians who would drop in on occasion. But mostly, their primary interaction was really with themselves. (How many visits can you recall Johnny making to his favorite garage? Probably not many. Did Sue have any friends when Lee was writing? Name four.) Yet with Spider-Man, all the characters that Lee developed were a part of Peter Parker's world. Peter had no skyscraper headquarters where he sequestered himself and waited for things to happen--he ran into all of his friends, family, co-workers, fellow students, and assorted characters in the course of living his life. I dare say any writer would thrive with that wealth of resources to draw from--but Lee mined those characters for all they were worth.

In this story, Lee surprised me with centering it around Thompson, who became something of a bit player in the mag once his bullying days had panned out and he was sent off to Vietnam. Like Betty Brant or Randy Robertson, I really didn't think there was more that Lee could do with him, short of the occasional crack about being Spider-Man's number 1 fan--so I couldn't help but be intrigued at Flash Thompson carrying a two-part story. It's also admirable that, before Lee heads out the door, he takes the time to write an involved story that brings Flash full circle and hopefully sets him up for greater things down the road, with other writers. That's a pretty cool tip of the hat from a pro like Lee.

It all starts when Peter spots Flash and Gwen Stacy on the street, and Flash is mysteriously taken into custody:

But as Spidey follows, Lee immediately starts things off with a bang.

(And who can convey a bang or a throom like veteran letterer Artie Simek?)

The car carrying Flash is quickly surrounded by another vehicle, and a group of men quickly move to abduct Flash into their vehicle. Spider-Man doesn't know what's going on, or even who the bad guys are, so his plan is to keep everyone away from Flash until he can find out the score. And while you'd think his spider-sense would give him the advantage in all the smoke, apparently it doesn't react to 7-foot chauffeurs coming up behind him:

Spider-Man then takes matters into his own hands (and by "matters," I mean Flash), in order to get some answers:

And on a secluded rooftop (aren't they all?), Flash tells of how he encountered a hidden temple in Vietnam, whose residents nursed him back to health:

After Flash was well enough to report back to his unit, he discovered that the location of the temple was scheduled to be shelled with artillery soon. Failing to convince his superiors that there were innocent people in the area (it's a hidden temple, after all), Flash races back (in a flash! ... oh come on, you would have said it) to warn them, though his efforts would meet with tragedy:

Flash miraculously survives the attack. But things go downhill for him when he becomes the victim of a misunderstanding:

Once Spider-Man returns Flash to the Feds, he sizes up the situation for us:

So that's quite a lot of story to build on--and while there are no flashy super-villains, Lee has provided us with a deadly sect on a mission of vengeance which already very nearly succeeded in acquiring their target. Yet Lee, through Flash, has already given us the impression that there's more here than meets the eye--and he continues to build momentum to the end of this first part of the mystery, by having Gwen show up at Peter's apartment and frantically tell him basically what he already knows as Spider-Man. He accompanies her to the building where Flash is being held, but is startled when he sees another person in the waiting room--the chauffeur that he encountered in the first attack.

It's probably the only bump in Lee's story--surely done to raise Peter's hackles so that he breaks away to do some snooping, but a ridiculous development for us to be asked to swallow. For one thing, the guy was webbed up with the other attackers before Spider-Man took off with Flash; but for argument's sake, let's say he got away. Unrecognized. If he says he's there waiting to see Flash, a half-dozen armed agents would have taken him down by now. And if not, are the Feds really going to let someone show up in their offices and let them wait without a good reason to wait?

At any rate, snoop Peter does, and the inevitable happens:

At this point, we simply get a feast for the eyes, as artist John Romita--inking his own work--demonstrates not only his skilled hand as one of Spider-Man's top illustrators, but also the fact that as a comics artist he has few if any equals:

It's almost like Romita is giving it 150% for Lee's sendoff, doesn't it?

Anyway, it's not the toss that renders Peter helpless as these guys make off with Flash, so much as the fact that he hears Gwen's voice close by. He can't pursue a speeding car when Gwen might see him without his mask; nor can he do so without his costume, in full view of the city. (Lee is shooting a bit from the hip here--in the next issue, we find that Peter is wearing his costume under his clothes, so that isn't an issue.) So he finds Gwen in the hall and makes his explanations to her. And once the Feds have quickly sorted things out, he's ready to bolt after Flash--which sets us up for "the Dread Decision!" that Peter must make at the end of Part 1 of this story, thanks to his cloying girlfriend:

Tell me, Gwen--just what is to be faced together in that office? The smoke clearing? Broken glass being swept up? What is Peter bravely supposed to face amidst debris?

But all in all, Lee has woven together a lot of pieces to a mystery and given them a healthy dose of action to pique our interest for the story's conclusion in the next issue. And he even throws in a special guest-star.

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