Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Spider-Man and Doc Ock--Partners In Crime!

It was a late 1967/early 1968 four-part story arc in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man that saw the return of the deadly Doctor Octopus, in a daring plan to steal a top-secret missile defense device and sell it to a foreign power in order to raise the capital to establish a new criminal empire.

But while it's unquestionably one of the title's best Silver Age stories (as well as a top-notch "Doc Ock" story), and while it feels almost *ahem* criminal to duck out of it just when it looks like things are getting good (especially for Ock, eh?), let's skip over the tale itself and instead jump ahead five years to its reappearance in the Bronze Age Spider-Man reprint title, Marvel Tales, a mag which helped me to acquire an interest in ASM and where I first read this action-packed story. The 1972 reprints sported brand new covers, which present an opportunity to sample the reinterpretations of original artist John Romita's work by heavy hitters Gil Kane, John Buscema, and Sal Buscema.

Like other '70s reprint titles, Marvel Tales would eventually get around to using the original issues' cover illustrations (for the most part), with adaptations added when needed. In the case of Tales, that would occur directly after this particular arc; but for now, let's take a look at each of the four original covers in sequence, side-by-side with their '70s counterparts.

In Part 1, as we've seen above, Doc Ock makes his move on the "nullifier" device, only to be foiled by Spider-Man--and so Romita need only show the two characters clashing in some fashion. Romita, of course, makes a habit of going beyond "in some fashion" in his work, and so his opening cover for this arc is as much of an attention-getter as you'd expect.

The MT cover, rendered by Sal Buscema, is quite different in design, with the title character downplayed significantly (though technically still "front and center") in favor of the looming presence of Ock. Romita, however, takes advantage of Ock's metal arms to feature Ock as prominently as Spider-Man; even keeping the villain in the background, his deadly arms extend into the foreground to indicate a dangerous threat to Spider-Man. And it may be unintentional on Romita's part, but the point of impact of Ock's hit almost seems geared to tempt the newsstand browser to reach down and turn the page to the story inside.

The MT cover, in contrast, stops short of engaging the characters in action, choosing instead to imply Ock's threat rather than to have him engage in open hostilities--a curious difference, since Ock is openly flaunting his power and his intentions in this part of the story. The newer cover is also the difference between night and day--literally, that is, as Buscema's cover shows Spider-Man being entangled during the night (or at least at dusk), even though Ock attacks in broad daylight in the story. The cover captions are also certainly less flamboyant on the MT cover (just plugging in a story's title still needs more zip to it than what we're seeing here), with one caption even coming out of left field: "The Wildest Wall-Crawler Of Them All!!" Spidey didn't exactly have a lot of competition in the wall-crawling department at the time, did he?

In Part 2, Octopus, now on the run from the law, finds a place to lay low while he plans his next move on the nullifier. A fine time for Peter Parker's doting Aunt May to decide to take in a boarder:

Again the covers for ASM and MT are very different in presentation--although this time the MT cover, drawn by John Buscema, stays true to elements occurring in the story.

To cut to the chase, Spider-Man makes an attempt to lure Ock from the house in order to battle him; but Ock instead summons his henchmen from his time as the Master Planner to engage the web-spinner. It's a heated scuffle, but Spidey puts them out for the count eventually; in the meantime, May has left the house to investigate the commotion with the rest of the neighbors (why isn't my neighborhood ever this exciting?), leaving Spider-Man free to take on Ock directly. Unfortunately, the shock of seeing Spider-Man attacking Ock has May conk out in shock, and Ock abandons the premises.

Given that synopsis, Buscema groups most of the participants on the cover in an accurate depiction of events--with the exception of Aunt May, who's only dealt in courtesy of an after-the-fact caption. As we can see, Romita doesn't even bother with the henchmen, knowing that Ock is the main draw and Ock who's to blame for the state of Aunt May (if indirectly) as well as the Parker home. There's also the important difference that it's only Romita's cover that gives the impression that Ock has triumphed, with a casualty involved and consequences to follow--while Buscema's cover is content with depicting the battle, with no sense of the greater drama within. With Romita's depiction, we already know there's been a heck of a battle.

When we move to Part 3, Ock again attempts a theft of the nullifier, boldly and successfully attacking an armed security detail (headed by Col. John Jameson) that's transporting it. Later, he takes it on a "trial run" to Tony Stark's factory, where he uses it to bring the entire facility to a standstill. Spider-Man, aggressively hunting for Ock for a little payback, engages him there; but Ock uses the nullifier on him, with very unexpected results.

Given their matching bold captions, the ASM and MT covers basically leave us with the same impression of the victor in this part of the story:

It also appears both artists have decided that featuring the nullifier is (forgive me) a non-starter, even though it figures so centrally into the story. Instead, Romita chooses (forgive me again) an eye-grabbing image that comes directly to the point and shows Spider-Man on the verge of being at his mercy; while the MT cover, drawn by Gil Kane, depicts Spider-Man in an apparent state of helplessness, with Ock looking like he's calling the shots. Thanks to the additional captions on Kane's cover, we at least know something of what's going on in the issue; but Romita comes up empty in that respect, especially considering all of the story's developments that are set in motion.

In Part 4, however, Romita hits it out of the park, while Kane perhaps bunts by comparison.

Naturally, Romita takes advantage of the prior story's ending and leads with it--a shocking image of a headline-grabbing development of Spider-Man now a partner in crime with Doc Ock. The story isn't as clear-cut as that, with Spider-Man distrusting Ock from the beginning and questioning his own actions; but a cover with a newspaper backdrop is often a standout on the comics rack, and this occasion certainly qualifies for it.

It's curious how Spider-Man and Ock are pictured off-center, though perhaps Romita felt that the newspaper graphic compensated in that respect. It's also probably no accident that one of Ock's tentacles nicely frames Jameson's front-page story header; though speaking of which, can you think of any circumstances where Jameson, of all people, would have his newspaper naming Spider-Man as a super-hero? In Jameson's eyes, Spider-Man didn't "turn bad"--he was always bad, wasn't he?

Kane's depiction takes a more specific approach, confining itself to Spider-Man's attack on a nearby army post in order to steal an isotope that's necessary for the smooth operation of the nullifier. Due to Spidey's stealth, however, he only has isolated encounters with the soldiers stationed there, before succeeding in his mission.

Fortunately, he subconsciously left behind the map that allows Col. Jameson and his men to track him back to Ock's hideout. Once there, Jameson disables Ock's tentacles by using the nullifier on him; and though Ock then tries to sic his "partner" on the soldiers, Spider-Man stands down in clear uncertainty over his role in all of this, and Ock is taken into custody.

Like John Buscema's interpretation of Part 2, there's a great deal that Kane omits with his tight "snapshot" of a scene within this story (and a slightly misrepresented scene, at that)--whereas Romita needs only a general image to represent the tone of the entire issue, featuring circumstances which are completely absent on the MT cover. Yet that said, we also have to take into account how these covers link to each other. Kane had already, in essence, duplicated Romita's Part 4 image on the MT cover for Part 3; while Romita's Part 3 cover allowed him the leeway to have Part 4's cover spotlight Spider-Man's apparent partnership with Ock. Given the different artists involved in the MT efforts, it's not surprising that they weren't as coordinated in this respect as the cover work done for ASM.

Now that you've gotten a look at this story's excellent covers (thanks to all the fine artists involved), be sure to treat yourself to the entire story from Amazing Spider-Man (rather than Marvel Tales, which like many reprints omits a few scenes) and enjoy its content as well, which features writer Stan Lee's fine run on the title. For a story nearly fifty years old, it still packs quite a punch. (And quite a headline!)

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