Today’s blog post features the concluding chapter in the three-part storyline that first introduced me to Marvel Comics’ friendly neighborhood Spider-Man (in comic books, anyway) . If you missed my posts about the story’s previous installments in issues #59 and #60, feel free to follow the links to get brought up to date. Or, you can just jump right in and trust in writer Stan Lee’s deft way with in-story exposition to keep you afloat. Your call, true believer!
Yep, those first three panels on page 2 tell you all the essential things you need to know about Peter Parker’s current situation — and what you aren’t explicitly told, you can readily infer, such as the fact that Gwen Stacy is obviously quite important to our hero. And speaking of Ms. Stacy…
Retired police captain George Stacy can’t tell his distraught daughter who is actually responsible for his suborned mental state, due to the Kingpin’s brainwashing, but when he announces he has to leave and go into hiding, the loyal Gwen vows to accompany him. The Stacys make a hurried exit from their house; just then, Peter tries to reach them by phone, and when he gets no answer, immediately swings over there as Spider-Man. Upon his arrival, Spidey encounters a set of goons that the Kingpin has sent over to dispose of Captain Stacy, whom the crime boss now considers a security risk since he’s been outed by the Daily Bugle. Our hero makes quick work of the hoods, but as they too have been put through the Kingpin’s brainwashing process, they’re unable to give him any information either about their employer’s plans, or his whereabouts.
Meanwhile, Pete’s roommate and best pal, Harry Osborn, is giving a ride to their mutual friend Mary Jane Watson, so that she can pick up her paycheck for dancing at the Gloom Room A-Go-Go — an establishment which, we readers know (though MJ and Harry do not), has been serving as the headquarters for the Kingpin’s brainwashing operation:
Here we have the most interesting plot development in our storyline since the big reveal of Brainwasher-as-Kingpin at the conclusion of #59, as a new player makes his belated entry onto the stage — none other than Harry Osborn’s dad, Norman — whom no one save Peter Parker (and the comic book’s longtime regular readership) knows used to be the dastardly super-villain called the Green Goblin.
But, more about that in a minute. First, let’s follow Mr. Osborn as he visits his company’s research lab to chew out an employee, Winkler, who’s recently ordered new electronic equipment without authorization. Hmmm… there’s something kind of familiar about this Winkler guy…
Oh, right! Winkler’s the crooked scientist who actually built, and operates, the Kingpin’s brainwashing apparatus:
The Kingpin still wants Capt. Stacy dead, of course, and so sends two more henchmen out after him; this time, the thugs are armed with a tracer that can home in on anyone who’s been subjected to the brainwashing process. Leaving the Osborn plant, the thugs almost bump into Harry Osborn, coming to pay his pop a visit. Proceeding to Norman’s office, Harry finds his father sitting at his desk with his head in his hands, and when he asks what’s wrong…
“Check it out in Spidey #40!” Stan Lee suggested — and my ten-year-old self certainly wanted to, way back in 1968, but had no easy or obvious way to immediately do so.
Eventually, I would indeed add issue #40 to my collection — along with issue #39, of course, which presented the first half of the classic two-part story that featured Spidey’s “final” defeat of the Green Goblin. In fact, I’m almost 100% those two books were the first Spider-Man comics I bought as back issues, and perhaps the first back issues I ever bought, period. The callbacks to this story that Stan Lee and John Romita began in this issue, and continued to build upon throughout the next several months — finally culminating in the pages of August’s The Spectacular Spider-Man #2 — made me fairly desperate to read the comics that told the full tale. But in March, 1968, I could only wonder about the details of the Goblin’s downfall. I didn’t even understand the full significance of the prospect that Norman Osborn might be slowly recovering his memory of being the Goblin — because I wasn’t yet aware that, before the violent incident that gave him amnesia, Osborn had also known that Spider-Man was actually Peter Parker.
The fortunate fans who’d been reading Amazing Spider-Man for a couple of years or longer already knew all about that, of course, having witnessed the climactic moment from issue #40 pictured at left, where Spidey — who, only a few minutes before, had been the Goblin’s unmasked, helpless, and apparently doomed prisoner — discovered that, not only had he managed to beat the odds against him and vanquish his arch-foe in battle, but he’d also been handed a “get out of jail free” card for his secret identity — as a sudden and severe electrical shock had wiped Norman Osborn’s mind clear of anything that had happened to him since before he became the Green Goblin.
Following the conclusion of that tale, Norman Osborn had made only one further appearance in the series, prior to his turning up here in the middle of #61. In issue #47, the villainous Kraven the Hunter, believing that the Green Goblin owed him money, kidnapped Osborn, whom he’d met years earlier when Osborn pretended to be his (i.e., the Goblin’s) “agent”. Spider-Man rescued Osborn before he could come to any harm — though not before Kraven was convinced that Osborn really didn’t know anything at all about the Goblin (meaning that the verdant villain had put one over on the Hunter, somehow), and, concurrent with that, before Spidey himself was reassured that his secret identity remained safe.
And that was the last we’d seen of the former Green Goblin — until his ominous reappearance in this issue. Speaking of which — getting back to our tale, we find that at the same time that the Osborns are having their father-son talk, Peter Parker is at home whipping up a gas filter to wear under his Spider-Man mask in case the Kingpin tries to nail him with his gas-filled diamond tiepin. Then it’s off again to look for the missing Stacys:
This wasn’t the first time my ten-year-old self had met “Jolly” J. Jonah Jameson, publisher of the Daily Bugle — he’d appeared near the end of the previous issue, in the scene where Peter sells him the incriminating photos of Capt. Stacy — but it was the first time I’d seen him doing his “I hate Spider-Man” shtick. (In the comics, that is. I already knew pretty much all I needed to know about J.J.J. from his frequent appearances on the Spider-Man animated series.)
Meanwhile, Gwen and her dad have arrived at the airport…
Not knowing where else to search, Spidey swings over to the Gloom Room-A-Go-Go — which he finds closed down, just as Harry and Mary Jane had earlier. Unlike them, however, Spidey sneaks in, and finds a telltale clue — a label reading “Osborn Laboratories”, on the back of the remains of an electronic device that’s been pulled off the ceiling. Wondering what Harry’s dad’s business could possibly have to do with the Kingpin, our hero heads there next.
In the meantime, the Kingpin’s goons have brought the Stacys to Winkler’s lab at the Osborn plant, where the big man plans to use them as bait to trap the wall-crawler:
Having lost his laser-beam equipped “obliterator cane”, “Tubby” attempts to use his other gimmick-weapon, his gas-filled tiepin — but, as we’ve already seen, Spider-Man has prepared for that eventuality:
Spidey takes advantage of the Kingpin’s surprise, raining multiple blows upon his larger foe, until…
It’s the moment of truth, as we reach the dramatic moment illustrated on the issue’s cover. Will our hero be able to act in time to save Gwen and George Stacy?
The answer, of course is “yes”. This time.
The Kingpin manages to escape via Norman’s chopper, but this one can still definitely be chalked up as a win — even if Spidey himself seems determined to see the cloud obscuring the silver lining, as shown below:
You’d think that Peter would be more hopeful that Gwen will now be more understanding of why he did the hings he did in regards to her dad, but nope. As my ten-year-old self was coming to understand, Pete always tended to take a pessimistic attitude about life (and with good reason, many readers might say).
The conclusion of this issue left my younger self with a lot of sympathy for Norman Osborn. Not having witnessed any of the Green Goblin’s nefarious deeds in previous stories, this issue was all I had to go on, and Mr. Osborn seemed to be a pretty decent guy. Even when his Goblin side “poked through” a bit in this tale — when he took down Winkler in a flying tackle — he seemed to be acting on the side of the good guys.
The idea that Lee seemed to be going with at the time was that Norman, while hardly a moral exemplar prior to the chemical accident that led to him becoming the Goblin — he’d framed his business partner for embezzlement, among other things — didn’t go full-on evil until after that accident, which supposedly caused brain damage. There was an implication, at the very least, that the electric shock he received in issue #40 actually “reversed” that damage, allowing him to make a fresh start with his relationships (such as with son Harry) as well as with his business.
As most of my readers will know, that ultimately didn’t turn out so well. After several missed shots at redemption — and even after being dead for a couple of decades — the Norman Osborn who plagues the Marvel Universe today is an utterly evil villain, whose soul has been so thoroughly blackened by all the wicked deeds he’s committed that one can hardly imagine him ever being redeemed.
But you’ll notice I’m covering my bases by saying “hardly imagine” — because, after all, if Marvel can manage to reform Doctor Doom…
Most of my readers will also have understood my “this time” comment in regards to Spidey’s last-minute save of the Stacys in the climax of Amazing Spider-Man #61. Those readers — as well as anyone who’s seen both the 2012 film The Amazing Spider-Man and its 2014 sequel — are probably already quite aware that all that Peter Parker managed to accomplish for both father and daughter with that heroic act was to borrow them both some time. About two and a half years’ worth for Captain Stacy, in fact; roughly twice that, for Gwen.
Come issue #90 (November, 1970), Capt. Stacy would perish from injuries received while saving a child’s life during a battle between Spider-Man and Doctor Octopus; before his death, however, Stacy poignantly revealed to Spidey that he’d known he was really Peter for some time, and told him, “Be good to her… She loves you — so very much…”
Gwen, for her part, would perish even more shockingly, in issue #121 (June, 1973), after being thrown off the top of a tall building by another of Spider-Man’s foes. Spider-Man was able to stop his beloved’s fall with his webbing, but couldn’t prevent her neck from snapping. The villain responsible for Gwen’s death was, of course, Norman Osborn, the Green Goblin — a fact that seems especially ironic when one considers that, in #61, Osborn actually helped save Gwen with his takedown of Winkler.
Knowing what’s to come for all the characters, it’s difficult to read the conclusion of issue #61 — and to witness the relief of everyone involved following the nick-of-time rescue — and not feel at least a little sad. At least, that’s the way it is for yours truly.
A couple of months back, in my post about Amazing Spider-Man #59, I mentioned that I was recently surprised to discover that the earliest issues of this series that I bought — which I’ve thought of for five decades as being “John Romita comics” — actually have less of Romita’s work in them than I’d previously realized. I think that’s at least partly due to the vagueness in how Stan Lee often defined creators’ roles in his comics’ published credits — for example, the credit box for the very issue we’re discussing, #61, doesn’t distinguish between Lee and Romita’s contributions — rather, it simply lists their names first (Lee’s being the first of the first, of course) and in larger type than the other creators’, while defining their joint role simply as “presenters”. And, of course, the descriptors for the other creators’ roles weren’t terribly helpful to a ten-year-old reader without a lot of knowledge about the comic book production process, either. What did it mean to “delineate” a comic, for heaven’s sake — and how was that different from “embellishing” one?
Even after I’d gained a little more knowledge, however, as well as a few back issues — the aforementioned #39, #40, and #47, for example — I tended to see the obvious stylistic differences between the art in the earlier issues and the ones I was buying “new” as more a matter of stylistic evolution on Romita’s part than of his doing a lesser part of the work. And there probably is something to that — after all, it’s generally accepted knowledge that Romita started his tenure on Spider-Man trying to make his stuff look like Steve Ditko’s, and gradually relaxed into a more natural style — but part of it surely has to be because even with Romita still doing layouts, as of issue #57, Don Heck was penciling the book. And a comic book penciled by Don Heck should look different from one penciled by John Romita.
The thing is — I look at this art today, and I still have trouble seeing Don Heck’s hand in it — at least, not as much as I feel I should. I find it interesting to compare any of the Romita-Heck panels shown above with this splash page from the very first Spider-Man issue Heck ever penciled over Romita layouts — Amazing Spider-Man Annual #3, published in August, 1966:
Now that looks like a Don Heck page. And I don’t think that’s just because it’s full of Avengers (although, obviously, that doesn’t hurt). The rest of the book is much the same
How to account for the difference? It’s not due to there being a different inker (or “embellisher”, if you prefer), since it’s “Mickey Demeo” (aka Mike Esposito) in both cases. Is it simply that Romita started doing tighter layouts when Heck came aboard on the monthly Amazing Spider-Man title? Is it because Heck started ttrying to make his work look more like Romita’s? Something else?
What do you all think?
I’m going to close this post with a special “treat” (if you can really call it that) — the animated adaptation of the story from Amazing Spider-Man #59 – 61, which originally aired as an episode of the Spider-Man television show on April 5, 1970, under the title “The Big Brainwasher”.
I have no memories of having seen this episode when it was first broadcast, even though I was a regular viewer of Spider-Man — or at least I was, when it was part of ABC’s Saturday morning cartoon lineup. Only the first two seasons of the series aired on ABC, however; the third season, from whence this episode comes, was syndicated to local stations, rather than broadcast by one of the three major networks. My best guess is that the third season simply wasn’t carried in the Jackson, MS television market.
Or maybe I did see it way back then, but somehow managed to completely banish it from my memory. If so, that might have been a mercy.
Everything I’ve read about the 1967 – 1970 Spider-Man series indicates that the second and third seasons of the show were produced (by the soon-to-be-famous Ralph Bakshi, no less) on an extremely limited budget, and the quality of the animation in this episode certainly seems to bear that out. On the other hand, I’ve also read that those same budgetary woes prevented Bakshi and company from using virtually any of Spidey’s “rogues gallery” in those latter two seasons — but here’s the Kingpin (looking a little slimmer than the comics version, but still unquestionably the same guy), making his second appearance on the series (the first having come in the season 2 episode “King Pinned” — and in a story adapted right out of the comic books, to boot.
Although, as you’ll see (should you actually deign to watch this thing), only the author of the episode’s script appeasr to have had any exposure to AS-M #59 – 61 at all. With the exception of Peter/Spidey and the Kingpin, none of the characters look anything like their comic book counterparts — including Captain Stacy* (identified here as Mary Jane’s uncle, since Gwen Stacy never appears in the animated series) and Mary Jane (who’s a redhead, at least, but that’s it).
Also amusingly, even though the format requires the cartoon to compress sixty pages of comics storytelling into less than eleven minutes, we still get scenes that aren’t in the source material at all — including one where Spidey is chained in a sealed room that’s then filled with water (because the Kingpin has had such a room built for… reasons?).
To sum up: “The Big Brainwasher” isn’t actually very good. But you may find that you can enjoy it, in spite of (or because of) its badness. On the other hand, if you don’t enjoy it, please don’t come asking me for your 10:49 minutes back. It’s your call, true believer!
*Incidentally, there’s also an appearance by Captain Stacy in the second season episode “To Cage A Spider”, based on Amazing Spider-Man #65’s “The Impossible Escape” — and in this one, he looks much more like the one in the comics. The animators of “The Big Brainwasher” apparently didn’t realize he was supposed to be the same guy as the one in the earlier cartoon. (Or didn’t care. Time is money, after all.)