The Spooktacular Spider-Man is a monthly column, written by Paul DeKams, exploring the Spider-Man stories that have taken Peter Parker into the darkest parts of the Marvel Universe and from the fantastic world of superheroes into the horror of the supernatural.
Some of the creepiest stories, both in reality and in fiction, are the ones with anonymous murderers. The ones that have either never been caught, or that unveil an unbelievably grisly backlog of death and terror once they’ve finally been captured. It’s terrifying to think that the “nice, quiet man down the hall” could be committing unspeakable horrors, and doing so under everyone’s noses.
This is a concept thats been explored successfully in David Fincher’s “Se7en,” Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell, and even in an episode of Dan Harmon’s Community. Creators Jan Strnad and Rick Leonardi toy with the idea in Amazing Spider-Man #228, entitled “Murder By Spider,” but unfortunately their tale suffers from its status as a fill-in story in the middle of Roger Stern and John Romita Jr’s run. Rather than achieving a fully realized done-in-one thriller, the story feels rushed. There’s many excellent moments in this issue, but it never comes together as a cohesive execution.
The issue opens really strongly on a stormy night with Spider-Man inexplicably drawn to a mysterious building that will ultimately become a crime scene in which a reclusive old man is murdered…by spiders! At the exact moment the man is murdered, Spider-Man almost loses control while battling a crew of small-time muggers. The events are tied together by the machinations of an anonymous scientist, an evil version of Hank Pym (AKA Ant-Man), who has chosen to harness his spider-controlling technology to run a murder-for-hire business. It just so happens that Spider-Man is also influenced by this technology, putting the two on a collision course.
We don’t get too much from this scientist. Not even a name. His motivations involve wanting to use this blood money to further his research, followed by a (not-too-well-thought-out) desire to murder Spider-Man in order to keep his murderous business afloat. The creators never spend enough time with him to build him up as an interesting, credible threat, nor do they shroud him in enough mystery to build intrigue.
Ultimately, Spider-Man easily defeats his foe, the evil scientist confesses to everything, and Spidey swings off with an internal narration that reinforces the notion that this comic was just a fill-in of not much consequence. Which is disappointing, as A LOT happened during the course of this comic. At least one person was murdered by spiders, another nearly murdered via spiders, and Spider-Man himself nearly lost control, attacking both criminals and the police. But none of that seems to matter too much, as Spidey swings into the sunset glibly thinking:
It’s a frustrating read. As I said, there are some really wonderful individual moments but overall the entire issue reads as a series of missed opportunities. This scientist could have remained in the shadows, and been set up as a long-term villain. Or he could have simply cut his losses and vanished, remaining unknown to both our hero and the audience. There could have been more made of how Spider-Man felt upon losing control. But none of this has the opportunity to be examined, as these creators were simply doing the best they could do with a limited timeframe.
Strnad’s capable at bringing together the basics of what a Spider-Man story contains within the framework of a murder mystery, and his work is amplified by Leonardi’s creepy atmosphere, but it never lives up to the promise of the cover. Man, that COVER.
It draws you in with a slightly menacing looking Wallcrawler swinging towards a man covered in spiders, and the guarantee of “The Most Shocking Offbeat Mystery Of The Year.” The packaging oversells the interior. “Murder By Spider” simply gets wrapped up too neatly, resulting in an intriguing, but unmemorable Spider-Man story.