Monday, December 22, 2014

And Death Shall Come!

You wouldn't exactly pin the guy as a bruiser--but from the beginning, Dr. Octopus had apparently been groomed to be Spider-Man's toughest, deadliest foe:

Just look at those captions peppering the cover. "His most powerful foe..." "The power of Doctor Octopus is far greater than yours!" "...the world's most dreaded super-villain!" "Can anything that lives defeat the mighty Doctor Octopus?" Granted, all to help sell this new spider-character with only 2.1 issues under his belt--but throughout Spider-Man's history, "Doc Ock" has lived up to his rep, turning into a villain who not only is one of Spidey's toughest customers, but who almost relishes in beating up on him. Ock's style of brutalizing Spider-Man was taking shape even at their first meeting:

Spidey managed to prevail against Ock in that issue, if barely. And, with perhaps the exception of their battle in the first Spider-Man Annual, it set the pattern for their future encounters, with Spidey mostly fighting defensively and desperately against this aggressive menace who savagely whaled on him.

Octopus is particularly out for blood in a three-part story from late 1970, which begins when the villain escapes from prison and all but hijacks a plane hosting a high-level State Department meeting. Spider-Man manages to avert an incident, and Ock appears to meet his end when the plane is destroyed during his escape attempt--but he shows up again in the following two issues, where he comes after Spider-Man looking for a little payback. Spider-Man, for his part, is barely keeping alive against Ock's offensive, unable to really do anything against his power, particularly when their battles are taking place in the city and endangering civilians. And by the end of the second issue, Ock literally has the upper hand--er, arms:

Which sets up Amazing Spider-Man #90--and a development that becomes a turning point for both Spider-Man and Peter Parker, when a major supporting character meets their end. But first, Spidey had better think about surviving a multi-story plunge to his own death.

After the plane incident, writer Stan Lee has kept up a dizzying pace involving Ock's and Spidey's encounters with each other. Unlike the previous story, where Ock's shrewd mind was at least engaged in the story, there's little to no subtlety or thought in Ock's single-minded pursuit of vengeance against his opponent, even going so far as to attack a power plant in broad daylight in order to draw his victim's attention. These are battle issues, pure and simple, and Lee doesn't even try to give Ock an agenda beyond killing Spider-Man.

This issue, like the last, weaves in the elements of Peter Parker's life when it can, though they mostly take a back seat to the main event. One segment involves Peter trying to devise a way to deal with Ock's artificial arms; the other has him being approached by Captain Stacy, the father of his girlfriend, Gwen, just after Spider-Man has taken a particularly brutal beating from Octopus:

Peter than passes out on the street, and Stacy takes him to his home to recover under Gwen's care. Yet this scene, like others involving Stacy, soon focuses on Peter's suspicions of Stacy getting too close to discovering his secret:

These "brushes" with discovery make for good story material for someone with a secret identity, though sometimes it's a head-scratcher as to why Peter makes such an effort with everyone across the board. Keeping his Aunt May in the dark is mostly done out of fear for her health; but no such concerns apply to either Capt. Stacy or Joe Robertson, both of whom think there's more to Peter vis-à-vis Spider-Man than he's letting on. A former police captain and the editor of a major city newspaper? Why not give that some thought? Peter spends so much time and effort playing down their suspicions, when each could benefit him greatly if he took them into his confidence.

When the time comes for the final confrontation between Ock and Spider-Man, Spidey has homed in on the tracer he'd planted on Ock, only to find that he's been led into a trap:

The tension of the moment where Ock has Spidey pinned can almost be felt from the printed page, given how difficult it's always proven for Spider-Man to break free of Ock's grip and how eager Octopus usually is to pummel him while he's helpless. This story makes clear how fatal it can be to engage this man, especially with Spider-Man's powers still failing to give him any edge over Ock whatsoever--and with Ock now almost obsessed with ending Spider-Man's interference in his affairs, this fight between them would normally shape up to be a classic.

Yet something is missing. Ock is every bit his calculating, dangerous self; but the part he plays in this story is as a means to an end, rather than as a threat in his own right. We see little of the "master planner" we remember; instead, this fight has been one long, no-holds-barred, vicious bout between two long-time foes, where the trading of blows is now all they have left. If Lee had taken that approach, as, say, Gerry Conway might have, it would have been a page-turner, with its ending something to anticipate. But, as we'll see, this story's ending is already spoken for.

And now that Spider-Man is free, the preparations he's made for turning the tables on Ock can be put into effect:

With Ock's arms now effectively nullified, at least as far as his vendetta against Spider-Man is concerned, Octopus gets his just deserts. But it's a solution that the story depends on too easily. If the web chemical's purpose was to jam Ock's mental control of his arms, why are the arms still in attack mode, instead of just flailing harmlessly? And why are they attacking Ock? The answer, unfortunately, can be found in the dictates of the story's climax, where one person will find himself in the wrong place at the wrong time:

It's a tragic end for Captain Stacy, though brought about by a contrivance that need not have been so contrived. The fierce battle between Octopus and Spider-Man could have resulted in the same chain of events that brought that rubble crashing down to the street; and to the onlookers below, who will inexplicably blame Spider-Man for Stacy's death despite seeing him race to the street and free him from the debris, they still would hold him just as responsible. And Spider-Man would be a hunted man in subsequent issues, regardless.

Yet, as Spider-Man races with Stacy to the nearest medical facility, Peter Parker has one more shock coming his way:

The thing that's always been interesting about such developments in Peter's life is that, whatever tragedy befalls others as a result of his life as Spider-Man, that sword cuts both ways, leaving Peter as stricken with the grief and/or regret that will also reach out to others he knows and cares about. And the very fact that he hasn't taken anyone into his confidence makes him unique in bearing the burden of his secret and the consequences of his life alone. It's one of the things that makes Spider-Man stand out from the pack--an isolation that even Daredevil, who during the same time was far more accepted by society, can't relate to.

As for Peter's fear of Gwen learning of his involvement in her father's death, she would meet her own tragic end without ever learning the truth; instead, she would bitterly hold Spider-Man to blame, which tied Peter's hands as far as ever telling her not only the truth of the matter, but also of his identity as the wall-crawler. Octopus, believe it or not, escapes unscathed, his name never coming up while Spider-Man takes the heat, his role in this story as swiftly forgotten as his resolve to crush the web-spinner once and for all. The Doctor Octopus we'd come to know would not only chafe at being so dismissed, but also would likely be livid at being demoted to such token use.

Amazing Spider-Man #90

Script: Stan Lee
Pencils: Gil Kane
Inks: John Romita
Letterer: Sam Rosen


Anonymous said...

I first read this story in Marvel UK's Spidey reprint in 1975 only a few months after I'd discovered Marvel comics and so this was the first time I'd encountered Doctor Octopus. I'd never seen anybody die in a comic before (my pre-Marvel reading was innocent kiddie stuff) and Captain Stacy also knew Peter was Spider-Man, wow - a double shocker. And Captain Stacy never came back so making it all pointless a la Dark Phoenix so my first encounter of a death in comics was that rare thing, a genuine death. Merry Christmas to you, Comicsfan :)

Comicsfan said...

And to you, Colin!