Comic Book Review – Amazing Spider-Man Epic Collection: The Goblin Lives

Amazing Spider-Man Epic Collection: The Goblin Lives (2019)
Reprints Amazing Spider-Man #53-67, Spectacular Spider-Man #1-2, Marvel Super-Heroes #14, and Not Brand Echh #6,11
Written by Stan Lee (with Gary Friedrich & Arnold Drake)
Art by John Romita (with Don Heck, Jim Mooney, Ross Andru, Larry Lieber, & Marie Severin)

Once upon a time, superheroes were not the most popular thing in the media. In the 1960s, Stan Lee and his collaborators at Marvel were reinventing the niche genre that had been quite popular since the 1930s. Thirty years after their debuts, the familiar superheroes were quite stale. If you walked over to DC Comics, you would find stories with Superman acting as a father figure, mentoring children. Batman wasn’t much better. 

Meanwhile, Marvel was presenting conflicted characters, people that young readers could relate to. Spider-Man was trying to figure out who he was supposed to be as he went from child to adult. The villains he faced were almost always old men, often representative of institutions. J. Jonah Jameson was the press, blaming the youth for society’s ills. Norman Osborn was a wealthy industrialist, a scion of capitalism driven mad by his ambitions. Doctor Octopus was a reactionary, wronged but unable to understand how he should direct that anger, always choosing the wrong thing. 

In the wake of Spidey’s epic battle with The Kingpin, Jameson gets amnesia and blames the death of Fred Foswell on the web-slinger. Doc Ock raises his tentacles again, this time to steal the Nullifier, a MacGuffin designed to cancel out the targeting systems of enemy missiles. Peter Parker is present when the villain steals the device, attending an exhibition with Gwen Stacy and their teacher Professor Warren. Spidey seems to spoil Doctor Octopus’s plans after blowing his laboratory sky-high, which solves the problem.

Meanwhile, in Parker’s personal life, he’s getting close to Gwen, which brings out some jealousy in Harry. Flash Thompson is back on leave from basic training before he’s shipped to Vietnam. Peter stands toe to toe with his former high school bully, changing the dynamic between the two. Then, of course, Mary Jane is there, an enigma, seemingly unphased by anything in this very fluid group of friends (and lovers?). This wasn’t anything like the Superman/Lois/Lana love triangle DC squeezed everything they could out of. Parker’s friend group dynamics were far more modern for the time. However, Stan Lee still couldn’t help but write his female characters with cattiness, playing into male adolescent fantasy.

The Doc Ock problem continues in a particularly hilarious way in the following issue. He shows up at May Parker’s place seeking to rent her spare room (Peter’s old room). Our hero cannot believe this but must keep his secret identity secret. This was still when Doc Ock had faceless minions working for him, which never worked for me personally. I don’t see him as a Doctor Doom type or someone in league with Hydra. In my book, he was always a pure mad scientist and worked solo or, on rare occasions, as part of the Sinister Six. Aunt May is seriously injured due to Spidey & Ock’s fight in and around the house in Forest Hills, which fuels the hero’s vengeance into the next issue.

Doc Ock strikes out again, attempting to re-steal the Nullifier, which Spidey got back in the last story. Spider-Man shows up as the villain tries to use his weapon again, attacking a Stark Enterprises building. Unfortunately, the hero is hit by the waves of the machine, which causes him to have amnesia. For that matter, Spidey doesn’t remember who he is or Doctor Octopus. What follows is a story where the friendly neighborhood hero becomes a criminal partner with his former foe. Eventually, Spider-Man figures out that Ock is lying to him and defeats the villain, but the story ends with him still unsure of who he is. There’s a great series of panels that cap off this issue where Peter stares into a mirror, mask off talking to himself:

“I’ve got to see my face…! It tells me nothing! It’s like looking at a stranger!”

In 1968, the image of a young man looking into a mirror and not knowing who he was vibrated with significant cultural implications. The Nullifier was essentially a way to have Peter Parker drop acid. He experiences ego-death, the destruction of his sense of self. What remains are core truths, such as his heroic nature, which bubble to the surface despite Ock’s manipulations.

The following two issues would explore a Spider-Man without a defined sense of self, an icon without a connection to humanity, and a chance for Peter Parker to remember who he was & what mattered to him. In these issues, the conflict between J. Jonah Jameson & Captain Stacy becomes a crucial part of the book for the next couple of years. Jameson, of course, cannot see Spider-Man as anything but a villain. On the other hand, Stacy looks at the wall-crawler’s actions and concludes that Spidey is very much a hero. 

At the same time, Lord Kevin Plunder arrives in New York City. To the unfamiliar, Kevin Plunder is better known as Ka-Zar, a blatant Tarzan rip-off. The original Ka-Zar appeared in Marvel comics of the 1930s, but this version was reinvented by Lee & Kirby, placing him in the dinosaur-populated Savage Land in Antarctica. 

Ka-Zar is an international celebrity who arrives in NYC. Jonah convinces the jungle man to capture Spidey, describing him as an awful criminal. Ka-Zar complies but quickly figures out Spider-Man is very confused & a threat to no one. Jonah is peeved and seeks out his old accomplice Alistair Smythe to cook up a new Spider-Slayer for him. This new humanoid robot lacked a face and had a screen where Jonah could project himself and talk. It’s a pretty silly design but a very fitting style at the time. Peter eventually regains his identity and takes out this new Slayer.

The relationship between Peter & Captain Stacy is developed further, with the older man becoming a stand-in for Uncle Ben. Stacy is keenly interested in learning about Peter’s relationship with Spider-Man, a public figure he has become semi-famous for photographing. Stacy reveals he’s spent considerable time studying photographs & films of the hero, realizing Spider-Man is a young person who is “driven by some inner compulsion.” There’s also a subplot where Mary Jane’s dancing at a club is being used to brainwash Captain Stacy without her knowledge. 

It’s eventually revealed that The Kingpin is behind this scheme and wants to tarnish Stacy’s reputation with the public by brainwashing him & getting him to commit a significant crime. Stacy & Peter have a brief tussle, and when Gwen walks in, she interprets it as her new boyfriend assaulting her dad. Not a good look for Peter. Stacy, under mind control, alerts the Kingpin that Peter is onto him, so the crime boss puts a hit on the college kid. Unfortunately, this backs Peter into a corner where he realizes all he can do is photograph Stacy committing a crime (taking pictures of secret data) and get them published in the Daily Bugle.

Gwen sees Peter as betraying her when he’s actually bringing more attention to the fact that something is wrong with Captain Stacy. We also check in with Norman Osborn, whose labs are being used by the Kingpin to pull off this scheme. Unfortunately, Osborn is unaware and gets disturbed by an image of the Green Goblin in the newspaper, trying to understand why he is so upset by the picture. Eventually, Spidey cooks up a plan of his own and topples the Kingpin, restoring Stacy’s honor and Gwen’s trust in Peter. 

In 1976, Spectacular Spider-Man would become a spin-off title from Amazing Spider-Man, yet it was not the first spin-off or book to bear that title. In 1968, Stan Lee was chasing the popularity of new comic trends. One of these was the growing popularity of black-and-white comic magazines. Smaller publisher Warren had pioneered the format, hoping to set itself aside from the competition. They found an audience with horror anthologies Creepy and Eerie. In 1969, they would introduce the world to Vampirella, a horror character in the vein of Barbarella. She was basically an excuse to draw nearly naked women to titillate young men (and I’m sure many young women who were discreet about it). 

Spectacular Spider-Man #1 was an entirely black-and-white comic featuring a “novel-length” Spider-Man story. The cover was painted by men’s adventure magazine artist Harry Rosenbaum. Interiors saw the ever-hardworking John Romita delivering on pencils. Larry Lieber drew a ten-page retelling of Spider-Man’s origins as a backup. It’s not an extremely incredible story, pretty standard Spidey-fare. A crooked politician has teamed with an evil scientist to create a crisis where there is none and push himself to be elected. Spider-Man uncovers it and takes the guy down. We get more development of Peter & Gwen’s romance and the mentorship from Captain Stacy. 

Back in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man, there’s a brief team-up with the Inhumans’ Medusa. I take it as Stan Lee testing out a character’s popularity by featuring them in a book with an avid readership. This won’t be the only time Spider-Man’s comic will serve that purpose. The following issue retcons the death of Adrian Toomes, aka The Vulture, infuriated at the betrayal of his cellmate Blackie Drago who stole Toomes’ spare wings to escape prison. Toomes attacks the prison and “rescues” Drago, letting him suit up in the extra wings again. But this isn’t because he wants a partner; Toomes wants to kick Drago’s ass publicly to prove he is the superior Vulture. 

Toomes does indeed beat Drago, but Spider-Man shows up, and the veteran Vulture engages his old foe in a vicious fight across the city skyline. It ends with The Vulture escaping and Spider-Man falling unconscious, surrounded by the citizens of New York City. Captain Stacy is present and prevents the hero from being unmasked while allowing the police to take Spidey into custody. Stacy visits the ailing Spider-Man at the prison infirmary and is attacked by prisoners who need a hostage to negotiate a release. Spider-Man helps the guards stop the rioting prisoners (what a narc), leading Stacy to let the hero go. Jameson is, of course, infuriated. 

This leads to a Mysterio two-parter where the master illusionist attempts a new scheme to trick Spider-Man. To be honest, I have never liked Mysterio. I get the concept, but as far as Spidey’s rogues’ gallery goes, I do not like Mysterio and wouldn’t be bothered if we never saw him again. Maybe someone can convince me in the comments why he’s a great Spider-Man villain, but damn, do I find him boring as hell. In a plot that Spider-Man: Far From Home clearly borrowed from, Mysterio issues a challenge that Spider-Man needs to meet him in battle, or the villain will blow up bridges around the city. The hero is knocked out, and when he wakes up, he’s been shrunk, and Mysterio looms over him. We all know the villain’s gimmick here; of course, this is an illusion. Eventually, Peter defeats Mysterio after realizing (duh!) it is all an illusion.

Then we get Spectacular Spider-Man #2 where Marvel has already abandoned the black-and-white style opting for full color while presenting it in the larger magazine format. In the pages of Amazing, there had been constant reminders that Norman Osborn’s psyche was cracking, and it is here that the Goblin fully returns. A talk delivered by Captain Stacy about the Goblin triggers something in Norman and sends him running. Norman tries to get his mind off these strange thoughts until he remembers he is the Green Goblin! With his evil persona in control, Norman goes to one of his hideouts, finding a spare costume & equipment waiting for him. He also remembers that Peter Parker is Spider-Man and plans to get revenge for being “tricked” into forgetting who he is by the web-slinger. 

The Thanksgiving meal sequence from Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man appears to have been lifted from this book. Harry says his dad wants to invite everyone to a dinner party to celebrate feeling better. Gwen & Mary Jane (who is dating Harry at this point) attend as Peter & Norman talk around the truth that they know who the other really is. Peter sets a fire in the apartment to get everyone out and both men suit up to go into battle. 

And then a truly spectacular battle begins with Romita penciling his damn heart out. There are splash pages and an incredible two-page spread. This book was meant to be on the next level compared to the monthly title. Romita excelled when it came to these types of fights, and Lee did his best writing when it came to the Spider-Man/Goblin rivalry. You can understand why this conflict has resonated through the comics, cartoons, and Raimi’s films. This is the fight Peter always worries about, facing a foe who knows who he is and is willing to harm the people Peter loves. 

Peter, the consummate humanitarian, manages to break Norman’s psyche so that he goes into a daze like before. The Goblin persona is suppressed once again. Harry is deeply concerned about his dad and stays by his bedside. Meanwhile, Peter walks off into the sunset flanked by Gwen & Mary Jane, his internal monologue revealing that he’s faking being fine. In reality, Peter is profoundly worried if he can keep this up. The Goblin could quickly return again, and what will happen if Spider-Man can’t stop him if he’s forced to kill his best friend’s father? Questions that will be answered at another time…


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