The Spectacular Spider-Man was the first self contained ongoing “B-Title” featuring everyone’s favorite wall crawling super hero. And while it has always played second fiddle to the original monthly Amazing Spider-Man book, the first volume of Spectacular had plenty of remarkable stories throughout its 22 year run. “Spanning Spectacular” is my attempt to shine a spotlight on those memorable arcs, the creators who crafted them and the history of the book itself.
“The Death of Jean DeWolff (featured) a cliffhanger so intense, that we briefly considered pulling it,” wrote former Spider-book editor Christopher Priest “It scared the crap out of me, and I was 23. I was imagining soccer moms buying Spectacular for their kids by rote, not realizing that Sin Eater was blowing away Betty Brant Leeds inside.” And so begins the next chapter of the compelling story of the history of the Spectacular Spider-Man title. A chapter written during one of Marvel’s most productive and explosive periods. It’s a chapter that features characters such as Peter David, Jim Shooter and the controversial Jim Owsley.
When Owsley (who has gone by the name Christopher Priest since the early ‘90s) was given the monumental job of editing all three Spider-Man books in 1985, he immediately reshaped the books to make them distinctive from each other. With Web of Spider-Man, which replaced Marvel Team-Up, he eventually hired former Iron Man and Avengers writer David Michelinie to guide the web-slinger through some adventures abroad. With Amazing Spider-Man, he kept the dream team of Tom Defalco and Ron Frenz together but tried to press a more demanding deadline. Finally, with Spectacular, Owsley fired Al Milgrom and hired an inexperienced writer out of Marvel’s sales department named Peter David.
For all that Owsley may have done wrong during his time as editor on the Spider-books, hiring Peter David was certainly not one of them. David’s writing was extraordinary. He had the ability to write genuinely funny scripts and yet at the same time could write stories so dark that Marvel felt they may be too heavy to put on spinner racks. His understanding of the Peter Parker character (his flaws, his sense of humor) was better than most writers before him and almost all writers since. All in all, Owsley hit a home run when he hired David and yet being able to keep him employed was something of a challenge.
Jim Shooter’s time as editor-in-chief at Marvel was infamous to say the least. He’s been called tyrannical and totalitarian and if rumors are correct the entire office once burnt him in effigy. The quality of comics that were being pushed out during his tenure is proof that he was able to whip his team into shape though. Obviously, that kind of hard nosed mentality can rub people the wrong way. Shooter’s accounts on his own blog often contradict what others have said, so often times the true stories are left a bit muddled.
Regardless, all can agree that Shooter was at first apprehensive about hiring David to write Spectacular. Shooter points to a previous employee who worked in both sales and creative and pushed his own book to retailers instead of other Marvel works. Owsley says that Shooter’s unwillingness to give David a fair shake had more to do with who the young writer worked for than anything else. Owsley writes that it was a constant struggle keeping Shooter from giving David the axe. Despite the fact that praise for the duo of David and talented artist Rich Buckler were seemingly coming from all angles, Owsley felt that he had to defend his hire on a near constant basis.
David’s very first story was a rather fun tale that explored the possibility of a few harmless kids dreaming up a fake super villain to terrorize Spider-Man (the story was actually based on the famous trial of Leopold and Loeb). His next story was also a light hearted romp guest starring the Wasp and Paladin. With Spectacular Spider-Man #107 though, things quickly turned dark. In what may be the most famous story featured strictly within the pages of Spectacular Spider-Man, “The Death of Jean DeWolff” is still considered one of the darkest tales to ever star the wall crawler. A murderer is stalking the streets of New York and killing some of its most upstanding citizens. First the stunning death of Captain DeWolff, then the cold blooded murder of a judge and finally a priest is found dead in his church. The man behind these killings is calling himself the Sin Eater and he’s not wearing a flashy super villain costume or wielding a magical weapon, but rather he covers his face with a ski mask and packs a shotgun. For the first time ever, Spider-Man is in a story that sides closer to horror than the Silver and Bronze Age tales which made him famous. The fact that Spidey is wearing only the black costume through the entirety of the story (now made of cloth thanks to Black Cat), only added to the horror/noir feel of the story.
Getting back to my opening quote, Betty Brant Leeds certainly wasn’t blown away by the masked Sin Eater in Spectacular Spider-Man #109. She still had to live through Peter David revealing her husband was the Hobgoblin. Instead, Spider-Man and Daredevil show up just in time to save her life from the crazed murderer who ends up being none other than DeWolff’s former partner.
As expected, our hero gets the bad guy at the end but not before David takes some time to point out that Peter Parker is certainly not sin-free himself. When Pete’s anger boils over to a point where Daredevil has to step in and stop him, a stereotypical fight between Spidey and DD commences and results in a lengthy speech from Matt Murdock extolling the wisdom of not playing judge, jury and executioner. In the closing moments of the arc, it’s revealed that there is more to Sin Eater’s motivations than meets the eye. Stan Carter was in fact a former S.H.I.E.L.D agent that was driven mad by experiments tested on him while in the R&D department. This sets up future stories by David painting the government agency as both reckless and menacing.
You may disagree with me, but I believe that “The Death of Jean DeWolff” changed everything. There had never been a story featuring Marvel’s flagship character that was this mature, this dark. I don’t think we would have ever had “Kraven’s Last Hunt” (which was only two years away) or such famous dark characters such as Venom or Carnage without David having first paved the way. Sure, Peter David didn’t invent the dark super hero story (Frank Miller’s iconic run on Daredevil was already four years old at this point), and he may have gotten some plotting help from Owsley (David admits that the idea of killing DeWolff came from his editor) but in the end he crafted a dark tale with a character that seemed at odds with those kind of stories. After “The Death of Jean DeWolff,” it seemed like Spider-Man could support any type of storytelling that a writer wished to include him in.
David’s stint on Spectacular lasted nearly three years. In that time, he made the Black Cat interesting again, he made the Foreigner a master assassin cool enough to match wits with the Kingpin and he even did a Spidey version of “Roshomon.” After Owsley was fired from his post as Spider-editor, David stayed on Spectacular long enough to finish out the story of the Sin Eater and then moved on to a very long and fruitful career as writer of the Incredible Hulk. He would go on to invent the well-received Spider-Man 2099 character and later would also have a short run as writer of the not so well-received Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man book. Despite his somewhat limited time writing the character, David is still considered by many as one of the all time best Spider scribes. If anything, that shows just how innovative and loved his run on Spectacular was (and how smart a hire he was for Owsley).
It was a bit of soap opera drama that forced Owsley out of his job as Spider-editor and eventually out of Marvel editorial entirely only a year and a half after his promotion (some of that drama was recently explored in Mark Ginocchio’s article about the Spider-Man vs. Wolverine one-shot). Owsley was replaced by Jim Salicrup who had his own vision for all three of the Spider titles. Under Salicrup, all three books were to have strikingly similar title headers on the cover of each issue. He knocked “Peter Parker” from the title of Spectacular, (a header that had adorned the book since it’s inception) and he eventually hired the same man to write both Spec and Web of. That man was a comic book legend who, now more mature, decided to create stories about the character he was once given the keys to at the tender age of 19. Gerry Conway’s grand return to Spider-Man is next.