Monday, May 26, 2014

PETER PARKER, THE SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN #44

"THE VENGEANCE GAMBIT"
Writer/Co-Plotter: Marv Wolfman | Layouts/Co-Plotter: Steve Leialoha
Finished Art: Al Gordon | Letterer: Michael Higgins | Colorist: Ben Sean
Editor: Dennis O'Neil | Editor-in-Chief: Jim Shooter

The Plot: As he swings through the city on a cold winter's night, Spider-Man spots a funeral procession. He snaps some pictures and moves on, as the procession arrives at a church. The attendees are all gangsters looking to take over New York's underworld, and have gathered to pay their respects to one of their own, Big Louie. The funeral is presided over by Malachai Toomes, who announces that his uncle has the firmest grasp on the underworld, but he will allow the assembled gangsters to serve him if they will each procure for him a valuable item of his choosing.

The next day, a mobster named Harry Dolenz attempts to steal a jade statue at a Chinese New Year's parade in Chinatown, but is gunned down by men working for his rival, Black Alfred. Peter Parker, covering the parade for the Daily Globe, inadvertently winds up with the killing captured on film. When he realizes this the next day, Peter vows to solve the murder. Later, Black Alfred murders another of his rivals, Mancini, at an elevated train track, while at the same time, Spider-Man shakes down some hoods elsewhere in the city and learns that Dolenz's body was taken to the Taylor Building. The wall-crawler pulls records on the building, learning that it is owned by Malachai Toomes, and that Toomes is the nephew of one of his oldest enemies.

Black Alfred, meanwhile, has stolen the item Toomes sent him for, and heads for the Taylor building with it. Spider-Man arrives first but Toomes gets the better of him, knocking him out with a dose of gas and then placing him, bound, in a coffin on a conveyer belt to a crematorium. As the belt carries Spidey to his death, Toomes' uncle, the Vulture, reveals himself to gloat over his enemy's last minutes.

The Sub-Plots: Peter briefly notes that he still owes Deb Whitman a date, presumably following his promise last issue to take her to dinner, though there is no footnote.

Continuity Notes: The New York mobsters are jockeying for top position following the Kingpin's retirement in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #197, which was also written by Wolfman and published almost a year before this issue. Kingpin's return to New York in the pages of Frank Miller's DAREDEVIL is still more than another year away at this point.

Malachai Toomes,
font of exposition
This issue marks the first appearance of the Vulture's nephew, Malachai Toomes. I believe next issue is his final appearance. It should also be noted that the Vulture did not yet have a real name at this point in his history. It would be established by Stern as Adrian Toomes, but Malachai's last name here is the only hint that the Vulture's last name could possibly be Toomes.

Peter is still working for the Daily Globe, and this story features an appearance by its affable editor, Barney Bushkin. Spider-Man also notes that he "just fought a lady who used gas" as Toomes knocks him out, with a footnote pointing to last issue.

Uncle Rog Speaks: "Writing [the fill-in issue AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #206] put me behind schedule with my regular assignment on SPECTACULAR. Fortunately, we found a solution ... Sitting in a drawer of the Spider-Office was the first part of an unfinished two-part SPIDER-MAN story started by Marv Wolfman and Steve Leialoha. With Denny [O'Neil]'s blessing, I copy edited that story to fit it into the ongoing continuity, and it became SPECTACULAR #44." -- SPIDER-MAN BY ROGER STERN OMNIBUS Introduction, Marvel Comics, 2014

Also On Sale This Month: Roger Stern guest-scripts AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #206, wrapping up some of departing writer Marv Wolfman's dangling plot threads, and in MARVEL TEAM-UP #95, Spidey joins forces with future Avenger Mockingbird.

My Thoughts: Per the above quote, this issue was originally written by Marv Wolfman, presumably as part one of a two-part inventory story, before his unamicable departure from Marvel. It's possible it was meant to be part of Wolfman's serialized run on AMAZING, but the lack of any references to his ongoing storylines -- unless they were written out by Stern -- makes that seem unlikely. At any rate, it's difficult to say precisely what from this story is Wolfman and what is Stern. Certainly the references to recent continuity, in particular Spidey's indirect comment about Belladonna, come from Stern. But some of the dialogue elsewhere in the story reads more like Stern than Wolfman as well.
But regardless of who wrote what, the story itself is nothing special. I like the premise, which at this point had probably not been overdone to death -- gangsters vie to fill the sizable void left by the Kingpin's exit from New York's underworld. But the execution is simplistic and predictable. Mysterious ganglord, check. Gangsters competing to steal McGuffins and/or kill one another, check. Spidey caught up in the middle, check. It's very "paint-by-numbers", and I can't help feeling it could have gone better -- and possibly would have gone better -- if either Wolfman had been able to finish his own story, or if Stern had been able to do the whole thing without retrofitting Wolfman's original plot to lead into his own part two.

The real shame is that there is a kernel of a compelling plot in this story. The idea of Spider-Man accidentally photographing a murder and then attempting to solve it seems like it could be a fun springboard for a full story on its own. But here, that bit is tucked away within a larger, much less interesting tale.
I wonder as well if the Vulture was part of Wolfman's original plot. As we'll see next time, Stern has a great fondness for this particular villain. The fact that the Vulture does not appear in full until the very last page, which could conceivably have been redrawn before publication (and indeed looks far more detailed and better rendered than the rest of the issue), adds a bit of credence to this theory. There are plenty of coy references to the Vulture peppered throughout the script (gangsters referring to him as an "old bird" and threatening to "clip his wings", for example), but if Stern heavily re-wrote the issue as he says, that's not a point against my idea.

The artwork does no favors for this poorly conceived tale, either. Just like Mike Zeck last time, Steve Leialoha is an artist I generally enjoy. He's a bit more stylized than Zeck, but his work is usually quite appealing to me. Here, however, he crams his pages with tiny panels and sketchy, poorly deliniated characters. Perhaps he was uninspired by the script (though that seems unlikely given that he co-plotted the story) or perhaps Al Gordon just isn't a compatible inker for him, but whatever the reason, his work here fails to impress on many levels.
In all, Stern's second issue is a dud. But there's no telling how much of the blame rests with him and how much lies with Wolfman. We can only hope that Stern's affinity for the Vulture, coupled with his writing the next installment solo, will lead to a quick recovery in quality.

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