Monday, November 6, 2017

SPIDER-MAN NEWSPAPER STRIP PART 7

JANUARY 29th, 1979 – MARCH 31st, 1979
APRIL 1st, 1979 – JULY 15th, 1979
By Stan Lee & John Romita

In a first for the Spider-Man strip, the next story arc continues directly from the prior one — not in terms of a simple teaser set up as the prior storyline ended, which we’ve seen before, but in that the Kingpin, who was pulling strings behind the scenes for the entirety of the last arc, now moves into position as the main villain of this one (sort of).

Still behind bars, the Kingpin orchestrates a prison break — but while most of his fellow inmates flee one direction as unwitting decoys, the Kingpin gets one man, an ex acrobat named Nino, out separately. Kingpin himself remains behind to serve his sentence while instructing Nino in his latest plot: the young acrobat dresses up in a Spider-Man costume and begins committing crimes to ruin our hero’s good reputation. When Nino eventually threatens to walk out on the Kingpin’s scheme, the ganglord reveals that he’s holding Nino’s girlfriend, Marie, hostage against the acrobat’s good behavior.


Meanwhile, the Kingpin’s plot has an unexpected effect on Peter Parker, who suddenly wonders if he’s losing his mind and sleepwalking to commit Nino’s crimes. It’s a stretch, but Lee and Romita have already established that this version of Peter has a tenuous grasp on his sanity as he imagined he was going insane in the second Doctor Doom arc not long ago.

Peter’s confusion leads to another first for the strip: continuity with a prior arc. Typically once an arc has wrapped up, it’s never mentioned again. But here, Peter recalls Mysterio impersonating him in Hollywood and telephones director Ellen Day — gratuitously lounging in a skimpy bikini for the duration of their call — to find out if Mysterio is still behind bars. (He is.) Interestingly, where previously Spider-Man and Ellen were on a first name basis, here he addresses her as “Mrs. Harper”. Presumably Stan recalled the name of her ex-husband, Hadley Harper, and assumed that had been Ellen’s name as well, which means this is likely a continuity glitch rather than evidence of a reconciliation between Ellen and Hadley.

(Speaking of misidentified last names, Betty Brant is back to being “Miss Brant” in this arc, rather than “Ms. Leeds” as was the case a few arcs back.)

One last little tidbit regading Peter’s call to Ellen, involving the strip’s timeline: our hero specifically says that Mysterio impersonated him in Hollywood “last year.” I don’t know that Lee and Romita are going for a “real time” approach to the strip at this point, but this specific reference to the passage of a year seems notable nonetheless.


Anyway — at this point things proceed apace as you might expect. Peter eventually realizes he’s not nuts when he mails his costume to himself and sees that the ersatz Spider-Man has committed a crime while the outfit was in the possession of the postal service. Emboldened by the restoration of his fragile sanity, Spider-Man tracks down Nino, learns about his captive girlfriend, storms the Kingpin’s townhouse, and rescues her. Nino goes back to prison, but Marie promises to wait for him (the same thing happened with Robbie’s nephew Jim and his girlfriend a few arcs back, funnily enough), and Peter gets some photos of the aftermath to sell to the Daily Bugle.

After a done-in-one April 1st Sunday strip which see’s Spider-Man playing a practical joke on Jonah Jameson (webbing him to his office chair), we move along to our next storyline, in which the web-slinger battles.. the Cult of Loomis!

This seems to be one of the more famous (or infamous?) storylines from the Spider-Man strip. At the very least, as someone with only a passing familiarity with this stuff, I was well aware of it. It’s also the darkest and most violent of the strips to date, and whether that adds to its reputation, I can’t say – but in any case, for my money this is easily the highest point of the strip thus far.


We begin as an inmate at a psychiatric prison, Herbert Lombard, breaks out by stabbing a guard. He hijacks a car and seeks out a plastic surgeon who alters his face (with Lombard electing to remain awake with no anesthetic through the entire operation!), then Lombard murders the doctor. Meanwhile, Peter is becoming very close with Carole, who, upon learning how much Aunt May likes her for being tame and quiet, unlike the long-gone Mary Jane, decides to vamp things up and out-MJ MJ. Peter is totally into her transformation and the two quickly become a couple, despite Flash’s attempt to move in on Carole (which results in a back-alley fistfight between him and Peter which Carole can’t bring herself to stop since she’s never been fought over before).

This is all set up for the debut of Lombard’s new persona, Loomis. It seems Lombard, insane though he is, has the uncanny ability to win the trust of the masses. He founds an organization called the Loomis Order of Viable Empathy, or L.O.V.E., and begins preaching love and understanding to the willing populace of New York. Carole soon falls in with Loomis’s group, but Peter realizes it’s little more than a cult, with Loomis brainwashing his followers and convincing them to turn over all their money to him.


Joe Robertson is also interested in Loomis, who suddenly appeared one day out of the blue. He blasts the cult in the Daily Bugle, leading its members to ambush and beat him outside of work. Spider-Man intervenes, then works with Robbie to get the bottom of Loomis’s identity. Soon the truth is uncovered, and the web-slinger arrives at Loomis’s place just as he’s about to kill Carole after she sees him murder one of his followers for disobedience.

Incidentally, Loomis’s method of execution is to throw people off the balcony of his high-rise apartment, then claim they slipped. You’d think as the bodies began to pile up down on the street, the cops might get suspicious… But the plus side of this is that Stan Lee gets to show up writer Gerry Conway when Carole is tossed over the edge. Conway’s comic book Spider-Man failed to save the life of Gwen Stacy — and even broke her neck himself — when he shot a webline down to catch her as she plummeted from the George Washington Bridge. Comic strip Spidey, on the other hand, jumps after Carole, matching her speed and trajectory, catches her in his arms, then uses a web to swing them both to safety. Take that, Conway!


Anyway — Loomis’s lawyer shows up and the cult leader goes free, but soon Spider-Man and Robbie conspire to expose him at one of his rallies. Their plan goes off without a hitch, and Loomis is arrested. But that’s not the end of the story! The cult lives on, and plots revenge against those who betrayed Loomis, starting with Carole. Spider-Man does what he can to keep her safe, but she realizes she will never live in peace as long as any of Loomis’s fanatics walk free. Despite her love for Peter, Carole leaves New York to escape.

Like I said, this is easily the best storyline to date. It’s well-written and, for the most part, not as juvenile as some of the stuff we’ve seen thus far. (Though the fact that even the members of Loomis’s cult refer to it as a “cult” is a little weird.) Obviously cults were in the news when Lee wrote this one, with the famous Jonestown incident having occurred some months earlier. Lee has tackled other contemporary matters in prior strips, but they’ve typically been smaller things like muggings and other sorts of street violence. This storyline and the previous “Time of the Terrorist” are the only times — as far as I can tell — that he’s really ripped anything from the headlines. And while “Time of the Terrorist” was decent, the tale of the Loomis Cult is outstanding and downright chilling, with some great plotting, wonderful soap opera stuff, and excellent character development. If you only ever read a single Spider-Man newspaper strip arc, I wholeheartedly recommend this one!

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