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.
In Sean Howe’s masterful 2012 novel Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, Al Milgrom is introduced as a “wisecracking, self-described frat boy” who grew up with fellow comic book writer/artist Jim Starlin in Detroit. The book goes on to describe the LSD filled adventures that Milgrom, Starlin, writer Steve Englehart and artist Alan Weiss would partake in while working for Marvel in the 1970’s. It’s these drug-laced escapades that were said to have inspired many of the trippy stories that Englehart and Starlin became so famous for on books such as Doctor Strange and Captain Marvel. Milgrom, on the other hand, was never really given a chance to tell whatever stories may have been brewing in his head at the time. He was primarily an artist and inker and, in time, a dependable editor (at one point in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s he was editing both Spider-Man books and Marvel Team-Up). Finally, in 1984, Al Milgrom was given a chance to write scripts for Marvel’s most popular character. After the departure of Bill Mantlo, Milgrom (who had been steadily drawing the book for over a year) was promoted to both artist and writer of Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-Man.
Although the sub-plots, major characters and general status quo of the title stayed the same with Milgrom handling the stories, things quickly got weird. We may not have quite gotten the trippy drug-induced stories of Starlin and Englehart, but Milgrom still strayed away from the street level grittiness that Mantlo had been cultivating. In it’s wake, Milgrom introduced a flying villain that had the “answer” to everything (at one point when the Kingpin asks how he could possibly know something, he simply states “Am I not, the Answer!?” ), he brought back the bionic Silvermane and turned him into a Frankenstein monster and he even based a story around a tortured Madison Avenue ad-man known as the Hermit. Things really got crazy in Milgrom’s last arc when he created a polka dotted character who could teleport by grabbing “spots” off of his body. Combine all of that with the increasingly grating relationship between Spider-Man and Black Cat and in retrospect you can see why Milgrom’s run is not always remembered so fondly.
I’m inclined to give Milgrom a little slack though. Maybe his less than memorable run had something to do with the cards he had been dealt. Upon his departure, Mantlo left Milgrom with a big loose plot thread to deal with. The Black Cat, feeling helpless after a beating at the hands of Mr. Hyde, decided to do whatever she could to acquire real life super powers. In the process of doing so, she ended up making a deal with the devil (not Mephisto, but the Kingpin). It’s this particular deed that took place in Spectacular Spider-Man #89 that reverberated throughout Milgrom’s 11 issue run. Cat’s “bad luck powers,” that she had bragged about possessing during her initial appearances in the Marv Wolfman run on Amazing Spider-Man were suddenly as real as could be. So, when strange things start to happen to Peter when he’s around Felicia, he brushes it off as a mere curiosity. Soon though, when Felicia and Pete’s relationship starts to become less than harmonious, the bad luck starts to rub off on our hero.
Mantlo may have granted the Black Cat powers to make her a more interesting character on his way out the door, but Milgrom used Felicia’s sneaky tactics in acquiring said powers to eventually end the doomed relationship. After climatic battles with both the newly introduced Spot and the Kingpin, Spider-Man finds out about the ongoing deception and decides to end his love affair with the mysterious and amoral Black Cat (Felicia’s inability to accept Peter without wearing the webs played into the decision as well). When it comes right down to it the though, the decision was more than likely an editorial mandate. The letters published in the issues leading up to Spectacular Spider-Man #100 proved that I’m not the only one that thought the relationship had gone on long enough. Fans were stuffing Marvel’s mailbox with enough letters that the “Spectacular Spider-Mail” letter column was beginning to become redundantly full of readers expressing their disdain with the awkward pairing. Plus, it was clear based on what was going on in Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz’s run on Amazing Spider-Man that a certain red head was about to be love interest #1 for Mr. Parker.
Milgrom’s quirky stories on Spectacular would come to an end with issue #100. A big shakeup was about to bring major changes to all of the Spider-Man books. Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter decided that if there was going to be three books about the adventures of the wall-crawler that each one needed a distinct identity. Shooter assigned a 22-year-old Jim Owsley (today known as Christopher Priest) to replace Danny Fingeroth and preside over each book. He also put an end to the long running Marvel Team-Up title and replaced it with a new book known as Web of Spider-Man. Owsley’s vision as the new editor of Spectacular was far different than the whimsical tales that Milgrom had been crafting. In their place, Owsley orchestrated a tone that was as dark as any in Spider-Man’s history.
Just because Al Milgrom had been removed from Spectacular didn’t mean he just faded away. Though it’s obvious from reading this run that his dialogue writing and storytelling ability just wasn’t quite up to par with most of his peers at the time, he was still a talented and reliable artist and he continued to be just that throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s. He would return to this book in particular to do cover art during the Peter David era and he also did inking during the latter days of the title’s first volume. Milgrom even inked Spectacular Spider-Man #263 in 1998 which, if you’re keeping track at home, is the very last issue of volume 1 and, someday, where “Spanning Spectacular” will come to an end as well.