Comic Book Review – Amazing Spider-Man Epic Collection: The Secret of the Petrified Tablet

Amazing Spider-Man Epic Collection: The Secret of the Petrified Tablet (2020)
Reprints Amazing Spider-Man #68-85 & Annual #5
Written by Stan Lee
Art by John Romita & John Buscema (with Larry Lieber & Marie Severin)

One of the things I’ve noticed while reading through these issues of Amazing Spider-Man is how John Romita’s art style is what I think of when I imagine Silver Age art. There’s a cleanness to the linework, a certain way he draws textures, an overall simplicity compared to modern art, as well as development compared to earlier comics and the art happening over at the Distinguished Competition. However, this collection starts with a story illustrated by Larry Lieber, whose style is similar to Romita’s. Lieber served as a man of many talents while at Marvel. He scripted Stan Lee’s plots for Thor, Iron Man, and Ant-Man, with his first superhero work being the first appearance of Thor. Lieber is actually the younger brother of Stan Lee and thus has had a long-running relationship with the company. He illustrated the Spider-Man newspaper strip from 1986 to 2018, retiring at 86. He’s still alive today, having turned 91 in October 2022. 

Lieber illustrated Stan’s story, which finally revealed the fate of Peter Parker’s parents. Peter is putting a trunk in the basement for Aunt May, which his super strength accidentally busts open. Inside are pieces of nostalgia from May’s past, including a newspaper article that reports the death of Richard & Mary Parker, accused by the American government of being spies. They lost their lives in a plane crash over Algeria, where Peter heads to see if this revelation is true. Mr. Fantastic gives Spidey a lift, and the hero scours the Algerian criminal underworld to uncover the truth. 

The big baddie of the story ends up being The Red Skull, who ends up being the man the Parkers were working for. However, Peter learns they were double agents for the United States, and their death had to be reported in the way it was to keep the intelligence-gathering operation into the Red Skull’s organization going. It’s not one of the best Spider-Man stories, but it does fill in some vital backstory about how Peter ended up with Uncle Ben & Aunt May.

Getting back to the main title. Issue 68 begins The Kingpin again (didn’t we just see this guy?), and now he’s intent on stealing an ancient clay tablet which an advisor tells him holds the greatest secrets of all time if it can be translated. How he knows this if the tablet has never been translated is never addressed. The Kingpin tussles shirtless with some of his men, reminding us through dialogue that he is not fat but, in fact, big-boned. 

Peter meets Randy Robertson, the son of the Bugle’s city editor, Robbie Robertson. There’s a protest on the campus of Empire State University over a building turning into a hotel for alumni rather than a low-rent dorm for needy students. Peter laments not being able to get involved with the movement as he already stretches his life too thin. By this point, Romita had solidified his redesign of Gwen Stacy, discarding Ditko’s distinctive look. This is the Gwen Stacy Spider-Man fans will remember. 

The Kingpin uses the chaos being created between the protestors & police clashing to have his men break into the campus building housing the tablet. Peter sees this and swings into action as Spider-Man leading to a fight between him & The Kingpin. Unfortunately, Spidey gets sidetracked protecting civilians, which allows The Kingpin to escape with the tablet. This continues into the next issue, where The Kingpin reveals he set things up so Spider-Man will follow him to his current hideout so he can finish off the wallcrawler. 

There are some interesting bits where J. Jonah Jameson complains about the protestors and wants them punished, while Captain Stacy takes a more even-handed approach of having the university and students sit down and hash out the problem. It’s awkward late 1960s Stan Lee trying to be “with it,” well-intentioned but still a white guy writing Black characters and not seeming entirely comfortable with that. I did find it annoying that the protesting students are portrayed as being unreasonable, which is a very “centrist” liberal position. I wasn’t surprised that someone like Stan Lee would be expressing these ideas. It is standard fare in most mainstream media; a bit disappointing with how weird & experimental this book can be at times. 

There’s a big fight between Spider-Man, The Kingpin, and the Kingpin’s goons, ending with the tablet in the hero’s possession. I do not understand why Lee & Romita loved The Kingpin so much. He’s an okay villain but boring. I imagine they just enjoyed writing his heavily expository dialogue. He’s also clearly based on Sidney Greenstreet, specifically from The Maltese Falcon, so it was a film noir fanfiction for the pair. I was amazed at how often the mob boss showed up during this run. This is his third storyline since Romita joined the book, and a fourth one closes out this collection we will discuss below.

Of course, Jameson positions Spider-Man as a thief when he’s caught on camera holding the tablet. The Kingpin is locked up but is so strong he can bend the bars of his cell. Spidey evades the police who are hunting for him and crashes back at his apartment for the night. The next day he has a fight with Gwen, who is upset that he appeared to chicken out while other students made their voices heard about the issues on campus. The university & students make headway with Captain Stacy as a mediator, and the kids win. Spider-Man & The Kingpin fight again, and the villain gets away. Then Spidey shares what is on his mind with Jameson, who faints when the hero lets him have it. The tablet is returned to the university, and things calm down for now.

After that, we get a couple one-off stories. I found Lee’s editorializing in these issues’ notes quite funny. They must have been getting complaints about storylines that drag on for multiple issues, and he assures readers they will be trying to keep the stories shorter now. Ironically, decompressed storytelling became both a good & bad thing as the medium evolved in the following decades. There’s nothing in these books that comes anywhere close to the way some modern Marvel books (I’m looking in your direction Jason Aaron as you write The Avengers) take one story and make it go on for far too long, to the point you forget what the big picture even was.

Anyways, we get a one-off where Spidey fights Quicksilver, which, funny enough, is the immediate follow-up to the Asteroid M storyline from the original run of The X-Men which I reviewed a few months ago. That’s followed by the second appearance of The Shocker, one of Romita’s few contributions to the Spider-Man rogues that have lasted. I have noted during this run that Romita only creates a few long-lasting villains for the hero. The Kingpin is probably the most prominent one. Ditko’s greatest strength was stacking the deck in those first three years with the faces & names we still associate with the book today. Romita built up the supporting cast more and provided some great action sequences. 

The tablet returns for a three-issue story with Spider-Man face part of the Maggia. The Maggia was the Marvel version of the mafia, a collection of families involved in organized crime and operating together on a series of agreements. The Shocker had been looking for the tablet and attacked Captain Stacy. So Spider-Man goes to find out who the villain is working for, only to find the brute enforcer Man Mountain Marko threatening Shocker’s girlfriend.

The Kingpin’s translator for the tablet gets bailed out of jail by a mysterious man who takes him to his boss, Silvermane. Marko shows up with the tablet, which Shocker had hidden in a safe in his apartment. Spider-Man finds out Dr. Curt Conners is missing (please, Stan, no more Lizard stories, I beg of you). It turns out Slivermane has had Conners kidnapped to help in some way with the tablet when it is translated. Spidey discovers that Conners’s wife & son are being held hostage by the Maggia to get him to comply, and now our hero knows what he has to do. The symbols on the tablet are not words but chemical symbols, and it holds the secret to eternal youth.

Conners synthesizes the formula that Slivermane ingests. He appears to drop dead, which enrages Marko, who threatens Conners. However, the elderly crime boss isn’t dead. He stands back up, aged from his seventies to his thirties. Marko doesn’t believe it’s Slivermane, so his boss has to threaten the dense muscle. Spidey shows up just around this time & fights Marko while Silvermane discovers the reversal process is still going, sending him backward in age until he vanishes. And Curt Conners turns into The Lizard again (dammit). 

I seriously want to know why Stan Lee loved the fucking Lizard so much. As I said in my previous review, the character is the same plot every damn time. John Buscema does a good job illustrating this two-parter which brings in The Human Torch to mix things up a bit more. If you have read one Lizard story, you genuinely have read them all. There’s some brief peril involving Conners’s kid, but it is quickly resolved, and The Lizard persona is suppressed. Will we see him again? (we will in next week’s review, sigh) 

The following two issues are much more interesting as they introduce one of the most slept-on additions to Spider-Man lore, The Prowler. You might know the Prowler as Miles Morales’ uncle if you have seen the first Spider-verse movie. Lee was very conscientious of the civil rights movement at the time and wanted to introduce more Black heroes into Marvel comics. Romita’s son, John Jr. (just 13 years old at the time), had sketched out a costume design that Lee thought had potential. At first, the costume would belong to a new villain called The Stalker, to be introduced in the Spectacular Spider-Man magazine. After that got canceled, the design was repurposed to be the superhero persona of one Hobie Brown. 

Brown is introduced as a window washer and is a peer to Parker. Except he doesn’t go to Empire State. He grew up poor and always had fewer opportunities than Peter, despite being just as intelligent and able to construct similar equipment. Brown tries to sell his boss designs for new safety harnesses on the window washing rigs but is dismissed. A brief argument between Jameson and Brown’s boss leads to the young man being fired. With few options left, Brown decides to use his scientific skills to make a costume and become a superhero. However, he realizes supervillains get to work right away, as a hero, he’d have to wait for a criminal to stop (odd logic, to say the least). 

The Prowler is born and decides to rob the Daily Bugle to get his name out there ASAP. Peter is in the offices at the time and gets thrown out a window by Prowler, who suddenly thinks he killed a bystander. He goes to rescue Peter only to find Spider-Man swinging into action. Very quickly, Peter realizes this is an amateur and someone close to his own age. Because Spidey is seen as a criminal by part of the public. Prowler believes if he can bring that wallcrawler to justice, it will clear his name, and he can be a hero. A staged jewelry store robbery lures Spidey, and a fight ensues. Finally, Spider-Man unmasks the Prowler and realizes their skin colors put them where they are. He lets Prowler go and tells him to stop or be a hero. This is one of Lee’s better attempts at writing about racism because Brown is a really nuanced & exciting character, in my opinion. I’m interested in following the character’s trajectory through Marvel comics to see if some hidden gem stories are out there.

The following few issues go back to done-in-one stories. We are introduced to the Kangaroo (remember what I said about the era of Spider-Man not really delivering on long-running villains?), and Electro finally returns for a fun fight. I want to spotlight Amazing Spider-Man #80 as it was one of the earliest Spider-Man comics I read during my childhood. Our local library had a children’s book about Spider-Man. I have searched all over the internet but cannot find it. This book reprinted Amazing Fantasy #18 and this issue. There were text pieces detailing the history & development of the character up to the early/mid-1980s. This was probably published for the character’s 20th or 25th anniversary. I loved this damn book and checked it out many times. It also included the pin-up pages of Spidey’s villains from the first annual, which I spent a lot of time studying. This book and watching Spider-Man & His Amazing Friends shaped my understanding of the character. 

Issue 80 brings back the Chameleon, who hadn’t shown up in the book since issue one. It also has Peter finally resolving his conflict with Flash Thompson. Flash is back on leave from the Vietnam War and wants to see Peter. His former high school bully has matured into an adult, no longer wishing to antagonize Peter but be his friend if he can. I really love this bit of writing because it showcases the type of growth that Marvel excelled at while DC Comics was still telling far simpler stories for the most part. Flash even lets Peter know he’s happy for him to have Gwen as a girlfriend. Buscema is on art, and he does some incredibly expressive faces. There is a particular panel with Jameson where a cop tells him to buzz off after the newspaperman orders him to shoot Spider-Man that still makes me laugh. 

The collection closes out with another three-part Kingpin story introducing a new mastermind villain, The Schemer. The Schemer is intent on taking over the Kingpin’s territory, but why, the readers ask. I won’t spoil the whole thing, but there’s a connection between the two villains that makes this one of the better early Kingpin stories. This time Spider-Man is a third wheel getting involved in a conflict between these two men. I have to think Chip Zdarsky thought about this along with the Frank Miller/Daredevil stories when he was writing the Kingpin in that title. 

I can’t say this was my favorite collection of this run, but it had some great highlights. I think “The Goblin Lives” has some fantastic stories that can’t be beaten, especially the return of The Green Goblin. That single, “novel-length” tale is so well plotted and illustrated that it made me miss Norman Osborn, who does not appear in this book. One more Epic Collection to go, which means one thing: it’s Morbin’ time!

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