By Scott Tipton
June 16, 2004
DÉJÀ VU ALL OVER AGAIN
At the recent WIZARD WORLD show in Philadelphia, Marvel Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada teased the crowd with an image from this summer’s “Sins Past” storyline in upcoming issues of J. Michael Straczynski’s AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, which showed Spidey unmasking a woman who looked an awful lot like Peter Parker’s long–dead girlfriend Gwen Stacy.
So it looks like Gwen may be back from the dead.
With the sour aftertaste of the Spider-Clone stories of the 1990s still lingering in many readers’ mouths, it’s easy to forget that the first time Gwen came back from the dead, back in 1974, it was actually a darned good story.
Courtesy of writers Gerry Conway, Len Wein and Archie Goodwin, and artists Ross Andru and Gil Kane, AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #141 through #150 spun a tense, deliberately paced mystery which would push Peter Parker to the brink of emotional collapse (and this was 1970s Peter Parker we’re talking about, who was generally pretty tightly wound to begin with…). It’s a period of SPIDER-MAN comics often overlooked in the shadow of both the Stan Lee/ Steve Ditko run and the Lee/Romita run that followed, and it shouldn’t be, as these are some funny, exciting and occasionally creepy Spider-Man stories whose portrayal of Spidey would symbolize and encapsulate the character for a generation of young readers, present company included. Come along now for a guided tour of Spidey’s troubles with the ultimate in ex-girlfriends who just won’t stay away: Gwen Stacy.
First, a moment of backstory, for those not steeped in Spidey lore: Gwen Stacy was by far the most significant love interest for Peter Parker introduced in the first decade of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN. In comparison to Peter’s first girlfriend Betty Brant, Daily Bugle publisher J. Jonah Jameson’s blubbering victim of a secretary, Gwen was a breath of fresh air, young, vibrant and fun. And of course, as rendered by first Ditko and then Romita, drop-dead gorgeous.
Over time, Peter and Gwen got a little more serious, then a lot: Peter got to know Gwen’s father, police captain George Stacy, who then was killed while Spidey was battling Doc Ock (about whom more in a couple weeks, by the way), causing the major problem in Peter and Gwen’s relationship, as Gwen hated Spider-Man and blamed him for her father’s death. Isn’t that always the way?
Still, Peter and Gwen were managing to make it work. At least until AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #121, which saw Spidey’s longtime foe the Green Goblin hurt him in a way no other villain could: The Goblin (a.k.a. Norman Osborn, the father of Peter’s friend and roommate Harry) and Spidey knew each other’s identities, and Osborn crossed the line, kidnapping Gwen and hurling her from the George Washington Bridge.
Spidey attempts to save her, but his webline attempt may have made matters worse, as the telltale “SNAP!” sound effect by her neck leaves open the question of exactly what killed her: the shock of the fall, or the sudden stop.
Spidey goes after Osborn with a vengeance, and in the end the Goblin pays for his crime, but it’s no consolation. Gwen is still gone. Over time, Peter attempts to move on with his life. (moving on)
Jump ahead two years, to issue #141. In recent months, a new villain called the Jackal had made some recurring appearances in the book, but nothing as creepy as this opening sequence, in which the Jackal makes his intentions toward Spidey clear, and we finally get the first hint of his motivation: revenge. But for what?
Meanwhile, Spidey has begun suffering severe hallucinations, one of which even led to his accidentally driving his Spider-Mobile off a pier.
Yes, Spider-Man briefly had a Spider-Mobile. It’s a long story. The hallucinations are wearing on Peter, as evidenced by his falling asleep in biochem class, prompting Peter’s professor, Miles Warren, to give him a friendly warning.
Pete’s natural first thought is that the visions are the work of Mysterio, until Daily Bugle reporter Ned Leeds informs him that Mysterio has died in prison.
Peter’s hallucinations worsen, involving everything from trucks driving along the sides of walls to a mass attack from all his enemies, prompting Spidey to bash his hands against a brick wall, thinking it’s the Goblin. The worst of these comes as Peter is leaving the offices of the Bugle, when he’s convinced he sees Gwen walking past on a busy street.
In time, Spidey discovers the culprit, a stuntman associate of Mysterio who was using his gimmicks to drive Spidey insane. (Thanks to a contract from J. Jonah Jameson, a fact which Spidey never discovers.) When the ersatz Mysterio threatens to finger Jameson as the money man behind his assault, Jameson flees to Paris, where he promptly gets kidnapped and held for ransom. Man, if it wasn’t for bad luck, JJJ wouldn’t have any luck at all.
Peter chalks up the Gwen sighting to anxiety during the faux-Mysterio affair, and soon he and Bugle city editor Robbie Robertson are heading to France with the ransom money for JJJ. Before he leaves, Peter and Mary Jane Watson, who has been a friend in the wake of Gwen’s death but nothing more, share a kiss that rocks them both, and puts their relationship in a new light.
Spidey’s encounter in Paris with Le Cyclone, a French engineer and extortionist, is fairly routine compared to what’s happening back home in New York, where Peter’s elderly Aunt May is hospitalized after seeing Gwen Stacy alive and well walking down the street. When Peter returns from Paris, he’s met with a most unexpected visitor, and one which he doesn’t take with the greatest of ease.
After collecting himself, Peter naturally assumes Gwen to be an impostor, and brushes her aside, heading to the hospital to check on his aunt.
Later, after an encounter with the Scorpion, Peter meets up with Ned Leeds, who informs him that a fingerprint match confirms that the living Gwen Stacy is the genuine article, while a check of her grave equally confirms that her body has remained untouched. Peter reluctantly accepts Gwen as the real deal, although to her dismay, he’s no longer certain of his feelings for her.
Meanwhile, the Scorpion has accepted an offer from the Jackal to work together to kill Spider-Man. The Jackal sends Scorpion to attack Spidey and tells him precisely where to find him: May Parker’s hospital room.
An enraged Spidey beats down the Scorpion, and in an amusing moment, even forces the beaten supervillain to apologize to Aunt May.
A word about the art here. Ross Andru is probably the most underrated and overlooked artist ever to work on the Spider-Man books. His renditions of Peter Parker, Aunt May, Mary Jane and J. Jonah Jameson are to my mind the watermark for how the characters should look, even to this day. And his villains exude a genuine sense of menace; even characters like the Scorpion, who admittedly has one of the dopier costume designs in comics, come across as genuinely threatening, thanks to his enraged facial gestures and intimidating stance.
And on a villain with a much better, creepier design like the Jackal, Andru really goes to town, giving him an almost unnatural flexibility in his posture and actions that gives the character a feral aspect, which combined with his sickly grin and green furry costume (or was it a costume? For the longest time, it was unclear…), gave the reader an uneasy feeling, matched only by the original Norman Osborn version of the Goblin.
Andru also excelled at panel-to-panel storytelling, such as this sequence of Spidey and the Scorpion fighting on the rooftops of Manhattan, after Spider-Man has forcibly removed Scorpion from the hospital. The two play a game of cat and mouse after a shaken Scorpion tries to elude his fighting-mad adversary, and we see Andru expertly control the pacing as Spidey pursues his foe up the side of the Chrsyler Building. First-rate stuff.
Meanwhile, the Jackal’s recruitment drive continues, this time hooking up with the Tarantula, a South American assassin with – get this – pointy shoes which he uses to stun or drug his enemies by kicking them. He’s actually cooler than he sounds, but not by much. Anyway, after the geniuses at the federal penitentiary let the Tarantula work in the shoe shop, he manages to recreate his pointy shoes, and uses them to stun a prison guard and climb the high prison wall, after which he drops into the passing van of the Jackal, who seemed to be behind the wheel a lot for a supervillain.
While Aunt May counsels Mary Jane not to let the returned Gwen come between her and Peter, Spidey is ambushed on the street by the Tarantula.
As the fight progresses, it makes its way onto a crosstown bus, which, despite the battle between Spidey and the Tarantula, keeps making all the stops. The plot thickens at the next stop, when a hypnotized Gwen Stacy boards the bus. What’s going on here? Maybe someone better ask the driver:
I don’t care how old you are or how jaded you get about comics. That panel was scary when I was four years old, and it’s still scary now. The bus makes its way to the same bridge where the original Gwen died, and an unnerved Spidey tries to follow the Jackal and Gwen, who are heading to the top, but is drugged from behind by the Tarantula’s poison-tipped shoe-pinions.
Spidey comes to, at the top of the bridge, chained from head to toe, while the Jackal makes his motivation plain: revenge for the murder of Gwen Stacy, for which the Jackal blames Spider-Man.
At the Jackal’s command, the Tarantula boots Spidey off the bridge, hurtling to the ocean below. Now that’s a cliffhanger.
Spidey manages to web on to a passing girder as he falls, but the momentum carries him directly into the bridge’s foundation, and he’s left hanging unconscious from the bridge. While the Jackal, the Tarantula and Gwen escape via a jetpack hidden inside Gwen’s coat, the NYPD close in to capture the webslinger. Thanks to an overanxious cop wanting to look good in front of the cameras, the chains are removed and Spidey, by now playing possum, easily escapes the police.
Later, a recovering Peter Parker is met once more by reporter Ned Leeds, and the two deduce that whoever cloned Gwen had to have access to her cell tissue while she was alive, which reminds Peter of Professor Warren’s biology class, in which Warren’s assistant, the sinister-sounding Anthony Serba, collected tissue samples from the entire class for an experiment. Peter and Ned rush to Professor Warren for answers, but he discovers that the samples are missing, and informs them that Serba has disappeared. A check of the registar’s files provides Serba’s last known address, and Pete heads over as Spider-Man to check it out, only to be met once more by the Tarantula. The two mix it up again, this time with better results for Spidey. That is, until he’s ambushed and drugged by the Jackal, who, just before Spidey loses consciousness, unmasks:
Yes, the Jackal was really Spidey’s biology professor Miles Warren. As cheap as that sounds, the creators were playing pretty fair with this one. Professor Warren had been a known supporting character in the book for over a year (although certainly a minor one), and in his previous appearance, Andru had even gone out of his way to render Warren’s facial features in such a way that they somewhat resembled the Jackal, as if both had the same bone structure.
Besides, the Jackal was merely the latest in a long tradition in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN in which nearly everyone in Peter Parker’s life either becomes a villain or is related to a villain in one way or another. Need examples? First girlfriend Betty Brant? She married Ned Leeds, who eventually became the Hobgoblin. Schoolmate Liz Allen? Her brother was the Molten Man. JJJ? His son becomes the Man-Wolf. Peter Parker’s parents? Turns out they were killed by the Red Skull. The list goes on and on (and on). In a world like this, one of Peter’s college professors becoming a supervillain makes perfect sense.
In grand Bond-villain style, the Jackal pummels the drugged Spider-Man, then tells him all: How he had felt a strong attachment to Gwen when she was his student, and how he was crushed at her death, which Spider-Man had allowed to happen. When Warren’s assistant Serba later told him that their cloning experiment had worked on a frog, Warren gives Serba the tissue samples taken from Gwen and Peter’s class, telling him they were rat samples. When the morally horrified Serba discovers the samples are human, Warren snaps and murders him to prevent him from telling anyone or stopping the experiment, then completely disassociates, blaming the murders on another persona, the Jackal.
In the months that the cloned samples grew, Warren created his Jackal costume and trained physically, until the day the Gwen Stacy clone was fully grown.
Utilizing the pseudo-scientific-sounding RNA cells, Warren had even given the clone Gwen’s memories. As the drug begins to burn through Spidey’s system, the Jackal bolts, challenging Spidey to meet him at Shea Stadium at midnight for their final encounter.
Spidey shows up, and once more gets the Jackal’s customary greeting of drugged talons to the back of the neck. (It was explained that the Spider-sense didn’t work on the Jackal because it only warns him of his enemies, and Warren had always been his friend. This, to be generous, is quite a stretch. The Spider-sense warns him of danger, not specific people on an enemies list. By this logic, the Green Goblin should’ve always gone undetected, since Norman Osborn had always treated Peter Parker well.) Spider-Man awakes to find that he’s beside himself: face to face with a clone, who also believes himself to be the real Spider-Man.
As the Jackal explains via megaphone, there’s a bomb set to go off that can only be deactivated by the real Spider-Man. Oh, and Ned Leeds is attached to it. As the two Spider-Men fight it out, the Jackal and a hypnotized Gwen watch, which slowly brings Gwen out of her trance, and turns her against the Jackal, ripping off his mask and calling him a murderer. With this denunciation from the girl he’d loved so intensely that he brought her back to life, the Jackal’s dementia snaps, and his original persona takes control again, releasing Ned Leeds from the bomb just before it goes off, while taking the brunt of the blast himself, killing him instantly.
In the wreckage of the blast, Spider-Man and Gwen find Ned , who’s still alive, and the dead body of the Spider-man clone. Or is it?
But first things first. Peter and Gwen go to the cemetery and leave flowers at the original Gwen’s grave, while Gwen informs Peter that she’s can’t pretend to be the same person that he was in love with, and she’s leaving for good. Peter, meanwhile, returns home to discover Mary Jane in his apartment, and the two reaffirm their feelings for one another.
In time, though, the uncertainty of the situation preys on Peter’s mind, and later that night he pays a visit to his scientist friend Curt Connors (who occasionally transforms into Spidey-foe the Lizard, but not this time) in the hopes of discovering whether or not he’s the genuine article or merely the clone. Connors subjects Spidey to a battery of tests, and while awaiting the results a restless Spidey finds himself attacked by another longtime Spidey-foe, Professor Smythe, creator of the Spider-Slayer robots. As Spidey is about to collapse in the Spider-Slayer’s crushing grip, his last thought is of Mary Jane, which sparks an epiphany: since his emotional bond to Mary Jane is so strong, he must be the real Spider-Man, since the clone would have the memories of the relationship, but not the learned emotional response.
Emboldened by his revelation, Spidey busts out of the Spider-Slayer’s tentacles and puts Smythe away. As for Spidey’s explanation, this sounds like some pretty strong rationalization to me, as it would logically follow that whatever phonied-up scientific process the Jackal used to transfer memories should carry over into the emotions attached to them as well. Hey, if it lets Spidey sleep at night, whatever. Convinced by his own insular logic, Spidey discards Connors’ lab report without reading it, then heads off to the incinerating plant to dispose of the body of his clone.
Looking back, it’s surprising how well these stories stand up. Peter and his supporting cast are portrayed in character with strong and believable motivations, while the Gwen Stacy mystery plays out with suspense and tension, and the revelation of the Jackal’s true identity does not disappoint. In addition, the story provided the real beginning to Peter’s longest-running romance, with the start of his relationship to the woman he’d eventually marry, Mary Jane Watson. As for the art, Ross Andru’s polished draftsmanship is smooth and well conveyed, with Andru showing an equal ability in both action/fight sequences and in expressing the characters’ emotions in quieter moments.
Unfortunately, the storyline is also directly responsible for the rather horrible Spider-Clone debacle of the late ‘90s, which has given it something of a bum rap. The Spider-Clone era resulted in not only the return of Spider-man’s clone, later given the names “Ben Reilly” and the absolutely atrocious “Scarlet Spider,” but also the ill-advised resurrections of both the Jackal and the original Green Goblin Norman Osborn, two classic Spider-villains whose well-told deaths were rendered moot as the ‘90s Spidey editors tried to dig their way out of this hole they’d sunk themselves into. Little from that era is reflected in today’s excellent Spidey comics by J. Michael Straczynski, and for good reason.
Still, don’t let that deter you from tracking down some primo Spidey goodness in these Gerry Conway/Ross Andru gems. The whole shebang was collected back in 1995 under the title CLONE GENESIS, during the height of Marvel’s Clone Fever days, but it’s now sadly out of print. If you see it or the back issues cheap, don’t hesitate to pick ‘em up.
Scott Tipton is still bitter that he doesn’t have a Jackal action figure on the shelf with the rest of Spidey’s rogues’ gallery. Even losers like Madame Web and the Swarm got figures in the ‘90s, but the Jackal? Nothin’. Hey Toy Biz? Where’s the love for the Jackal? If you have questions about Spidey in the swingin’ ‘70s, send them here.
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