Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Reckless Youth

OR: "Be Careful What You Wish For..."

It's probably about time that we found out just what was up with that story arc we've seen in bits and pieces here at the PPC--one which took place in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man, involving an ancient petrified tablet which had New York's crime figures very interested in deciphering the secret of its mysterious inscription. To bring us up to speed, here's a brief rundown of the players involved and where the tablet has landed along the way:

  • The Kingpin has already tried and failed in his own attempt to uncover its secret, having brazenly retrieved it from its display at the E.S.U. college campus only to see it eventually recovered by Spider-Man.
  • From that point, the tablet makes its way to retired police Capt. George Stacy's wall safe (pending its return to ESU), where the Shocker finds and steals it (thanks to the news media blabbering its location--nice going, news hounds!). But the Shocker, merely interested in financial gain, discovers that it's now impossible to fence the object because buyers are fearful of tangling with Spider-Man. The Shocker's plan at that point is simple: deal with Spider-Man, thus making himself more feared than the wall-crawler and thus more likely to find a fence for his heist. You can guess how lousy that turned out for the Shocker.
  • The trail of the tablet then leads to Man-Mountain Marko, a hireling of the Maggia crime syndicate, who discovers the Shocker has stashed the tablet at his girlfriend's apartment for safekeeping and breaks in to steal it. Marko ends up tangling with Spider-Man for his trouble, but manages to escape with the tablet.

Which brings us to this point: What the heck does the Maggia want with this tablet? We discover that Marko is acting under the direct orders of the aged Silvermane, a powerful crime figure of the organization who suspects the tablet's secret but kidnaps scientist Curt Connors (as well as Wilson, the Kingpin's expert on the object) to decipher the inscription. To ensure Connors' cooperation, Silvermane has also captured Connors' wife and son, and stashed them at another location--in the custody of Caesar Cicero ("Big C" to his associates, despite his short height), a Maggia lawyer who has aspirations for Silvermane's position and is impatient for Silvermane to kick the bucket.

Whatever the tablet's secret, Silvermane is prepared to go to great lengths to unlock it--and more, to be the one to benefit from it. Due to his age and deteriorating condition, time is of the essence for Silvermane--an apt way to phrase the situation since, in these final two issues of this story, we'll discover that his plans for survival regard that phrase quite literally.

During these stories, writer Stan Lee makes Silvermane into a figure to be both feared and remembered, placing particular emphasis on his reputation and his position in the Maggia--somewhat different than Lee's treatment of the Kingpin, who at this point in time aspires to be the top figure in organized crime in New York but who hasn't yet become a player on the Maggia's scale. The Kingpin also had no personal enforcer such as Marko, who, while a devoted right-hand man to Silvermane, is still willful and brusque, and requires a firm hand in order to toe the line--and whatever his condition, a firm hand is what Silvermane will always make clear he still wields.

(Both Marko and Silvermane, of course, have no idea of the peril they face with such forceful treatment of Connors--but Lee adds an extra level of tension to the story in that regard by having Connors strive to keep calm and cooperate with these men, so long as his family is in danger.)

As for Cicero, Spider-Man's sources have led the wall-crawler to the mobster's offices. Spider-Man doesn't get the information he needs from Cicero--but Cicero's goons inadvertently provide Spidey with another important lead to go on.

Cicero manages to escape with Connors' family, leaving Spider-Man to be dealt with by an explosive device in a booby-trapped passageway (which doesn't succeed, unknown to Cicero) while Cicero brings his captives to Silvermane--a breach in orders which he's hoping will tax Silvermane's health even further. Unlike Marko, Cicero uses his cutting words like a surgeon--never threatening Silvermane or his authority overtly but succeeding in innuendo where Marko's brutality resulted in the administration of discipline. It's possible that Cicero is allowed a measure of latitude, given that he likely knows "where all the bodies are buried," so to speak--but Silvermane, perhaps on the verge of succeeding with the tablet, can nevertheless give weight to an implied threat. And when he checks on Connors' progress, we see that his perseverance has been rewarded.

Yet in a Spider-Man story, we rarely cut to the chase, since Lee almost seems to feel an obligation to keep the reader apprised of the other facets of Peter Parker's life--Peter himself, of course, including his work for the "Daily Bugle" and his studies at ESU, as well as his Aunt May and/or his circle of friends. With another character, continuing with the plot wouldn't be a problem; but Peter's life aside from his identity as Spider-Man holds elements with which readers identify and which help to make Amazing Spider-Man more than a super-hero comic for them. Consequently, no matter how awkward it might be to the pacing of this story, Lee still makes sure to get Peter out of costume and have him check in with his hectic and often problem-ridden life before getting back on the trail of Silvermane. Perhaps by this point, we've gotten used to Peter putting his friends and family on the back burner--though in all fairness, innocent lives are at stake.

Silvermane, however, has been more diligent in pursuing his goal. And despite the serum which Connors has prepared being the result of an ancient inscription which provides few specifics as to its purpose, Silvermane seems reasonably confident of success, while realistically knowing he has nothing to lose at this point by taking the gamble--one that will either pay off, or prove to be fatal. It's a dramatic moment that the closing scene of this penultimate issue takes full advantage of.

Silvermane indeed seems poised to reclaim in full his position as the head of Maggia operations, to say nothing of being in a position of strength where Cicero is concerned. But, speaking of which, first Silvermane must establish his bona fides beyond all doubt--and Cicero, seeing his own position in jeopardy, knows that Marko is just bull-headed enough to be manipulated into ending Silvermane's gambit while the heat of the moment provides a window to do so.

In a way, the battle between these two Maggia figures holds more interest than one where Spider-Man would be involved, since it's as much a battle of wills and position as it is of raw strength. In terms of the latter, it's Marko who would normally hold the edge--but it's Silvermane who has the higher stake, and certainly the greater drive to win; also, one should never underestimate the power of sheer intimidation.

It's Silvermane's powerful words as much as his skill as a fighter that have Marko conceding and accepting what's happened here. But Marko has also noticed a startling development which Silvermane appears unaware of--and Lee's interruption that announces the entrance of this mag's hero comes at just the right moment to allow Marko's observation to be planted in our minds, but not yet given serious attention to. Lee will see to it that it's the story itself which will allow everything to unfold in due time.

Marko, as we've seen, proves in the end to be no match for Spider-Man once his usefulness to this story comes to an end--which is fine, because it's really Silvermane's moment here, a man who relishes his new lease on life and whose confidence his him even gunning for Spider-Man.

Although Lee is stoking the vitality of Silvermane's newfound youth for all it's worth in order to build anticipation for his clash with Spider-Man, Silvermane, like Marko, is really no match for the wall-crawler; in fact, the circumstances would be the same if Spidey were challenged by, say, Flash Thompson, a match-up that would last all of five seconds, if that. Silvermane's exuberance may have him thinking he's unstoppable--but if your opponent is acting more like an observer than your foe, you're probably on your way to going down for the count.

Cicero's intervention allows us (along with himself) to see Silvermane's condition continue to progress to a startling degree. Eventually, he flees in a mixture of panic and terror--and when Spider-Man finishes off Cicero's men and explores the complex in search of the Connors family, he learns the final fate that the tablet's secret has delivered to Silvermane.

The story effectively ends with Silvermane's end, and the new threat of the Lizard being introduced as a lead-in to the next issue--but it's interesting to speculate on just how Silvermane's death is addressed by the Maggia and how the power vacuum within the organization is handled. You would think that Cicero, despite his state after encountering Silvermane, would quickly seize the opportunity and step in to make a claim for leadership, bringing Marko along for the ride; there's also the problem of what to do with the tablet, since it's no longer necessary to shop it around to universities in order to translate its ancient writing. Who gets custody of it? Surely not a museum; if crime lords are after it, who knows what other unsavory types might be.  All such follow-ups are left unresolved, nor is it really crucial that they need to be addressed.

As for Silvermane, he returns in the '80s to become the head of Hydra--and then later attempt to reclaim his position in the underworld. Things aren't picked up on vis-à-vis Cicero until 1995, where a new story would involve Silvermane returning and summoning Cicero as part of an alliance to take control of the Maggia (a story involving Deathlok--good lord, imagine that). The character would meet his end and resurface in different forms, at different ages, ad nauseam--which perhaps is the mark of any quality comics character, but arguably does a disservice to this initial tale of a very powerful but very obsessed man, who reached for something that was beyond even his ability to take.

Amazing Spider-Man #s 74-75

Script: Stan Lee
Pencils: John Romita
Inks: Jim Mooney
Letterers: Sam Rosen and Artie Simek


dangermash aka The Artistic Actuary said...

The art in these two issues is awesome. Just compare Romita's old, crusty, wrinkled Silvermane to Andru's shiny, botoxed, face-lifted version in the Bart Hamilton Goblin storyline somewhere around ASM #180. No comparison!

Comicsfan said...

I actually think Romita was capable of presenting Silvermane even more vividly, dangermash; IMO, Jim Mooney's inks tended to come on a little too strongly in smoothing out Romita's details. I wasn't particularly fond of Mooney's run on ASM, or on Marvel Team-Up, though I did like some of his work on Thor and other titles.

George Chambers said...

I wonder if it was intentional that Twentysomething Slivermane looks very similar to Peter Parker?