Amazing Spider-Man Epic Collection: The Death of Captain Stacy (2021)
Reprints Amazing Spider-Man #86-104
Written by Stan Lee & Roy Thomas
Art by Gil Kane & John Romita with John Buscema
This was my least favorite of the four Amazing Spider-Man collections I read for this series. The art changes, but it’s not the art that made me dislike it; it is the writing. Stan Lee was clearly running out of steam with his ideas for Spider-Man. It also supports the claims that Lee relied on his artists to handle many plots to which he would add flourishes. I won’t say these are terrible stories, but you definitely get the sense he was reaching for ideas, and a lot of this doesn’t feel as powerfully written as the earlier issues.
We kick things off with a one-off story that pits Spider-Man against Black Widow. The cover refers to her as a female copy of Spider-Man…which is a pretty awful comparison. This happened when Black Widow was reforming herself, having started off as a villain. In the comics, her husband had been the first Red Guardian, and his death had spurred her to become a hero. This is a really odd issue because Spider-Man is clearly the supporting character. It’s made clear at the end of the story by a text box that tells us we can keep following her stories in a featured strip in Amazing Tales. It didn’t work for me when Spider-Man was used for backdoor auditioning other characters’ solo adventures. That was better suited for Marvel Team-Up, where Spider-Man found a new ally each month.
The following story is another issue that reminded me of many “imaginary tales” from the Superman comics a decade or so earlier. In those stories, some incidents would reveal Clark Kent as Superman to his co-workers. Then the story explored how that would change things for the Man of Steel. This is done more cleverly, with the ongoing storyline of Peter’s strange flu-like illness causing him to show up at a party with his Spider-Man mask and reveal it to his friends. Once he comes to his senses, Peter realizes he has to backpedal this fast and seeks out Hobie Brown, aka The Prowler. The Prowler poses as Spider-Man with Peter in the presence of his pals and does say he was just suffering from the flu, which made him say that (technically the truth).
Then we get to the title story, which is, of course, spoiled (Thanks Marvel). Interestingly, the death of Captain Stacy has never taken root in pop culture as much as Uncle Ben & Gwen’s deaths. Captain Stacy was a prominent character throughout the John Romita era, and his death is incredibly impactful. It begins with Doctor Octopus revealing he’s developed telepathic control of his arms which are being presented at a scientific conference while he rots away in prison. Spidey fights the arms, but they get away and liberate their master. Doc Ock’s plot is to start an international incident by attacking a Chinese general who is visiting the States and in talks with the U.S. government. The Doc appears to be killed when the airplane he’s on blows up, but we know better than that.
Issue 89 is where an interesting change happens. Romita takes some time off the title and is replaced by Gil Kane. I don’t really associate Kane with Marvel; instead, I always think of him with D.C. Comics. He was an iconic artist on Green Lantern & The Atom in the 1960s. His Spider-Man is a nice shift from Romita, whose style stayed similar to Steve Ditko. Kane uses more cinematic angles, often very high or low, and isn’t afraid to even include some dutch angles. His penciling style is similar but still unique from Neal Adams; he isn’t quite as daring with his layouts.
Of course, Doc Ock is not dead and plots his next move against Spider-Man. The villain starts demolishing a crucial power plant which gets the wall-crawler’s attention. Lee is leaning into some established iconic moments earlier in his run by having Spider-Man physically overcome a collapsing water tower. This, of course, is a reference to Amazing Spider-Man #33, and I’m going, to be honest, it feels really cheap of Stan Lee to just repeat the same sequence for the third time. It lacks the emotional punch of that first time.
Issue 90 continues the story as Ock tosses Spider-Man from a rooftop. Spidey recovers, but his ongoing fatigue from his strange illness has him run & hide to try and recuperate. Captain Stacy finds Peter as he’s about to pass him out and brings him home. Peter also comes up with a new formulation of his web fluid that he believes will stop the Doctor when he catches up with him, which takes little time. But then tragedy strikes. The battle causes massive chunks of the buildings to come plummeting to the ground. Captain Stacy witnesses the fight and sees a child about to be crushed to death. He pushes the child to safety but ends up being the one buried. Spider-Man breaks away from his fight to check on his father figure, only to find the man is dying. With his dying breath, Captain Stacy tells Spider-Man he knew he was Peter; he’d figured it out long ago. That’s why he always defended the hero to Jameson. Stacy tells Peter to take care of Gwen and then passes away. It’s not lost on our hero that this is much like when Uncle Ben died, and Peter grieves.
The aftermath of this death follows in the next three issues as we open with Captain Stacy’s funeral and Peter comforting Gwen. We’re introduced to Sam Bullit, a politician who plans to use Stacy’s death for his campaign platform against Spider-Man. Jameson has framed Spider-Man as responsible for the Captain’s death, and Gwen believes the stories, making things quite difficult for Peter. Bullit ropes Gwen into his campaign. Meanwhile, Robbie Robertson acts as the voice of reason to Jameson’s sensationalism & reactionary way of thinking. Eventually, we get a fight with Iceman, who apparently believes the rhetoric about Spider-Man. I found that quite odd, as it was already established that there was an unfounded hate campaign against mutants. You would think Iceman would be a bit more open-minded. Bullit is quickly exposed as a fraud, and the story wraps up.
Then there’s a series of one-off stories. The Prowler returns, which is always welcome with me. I really came to enjoy Hobie Brown as I read his few appearances. Gwen leaves for London, where she has family, attempting to put her life back together now that her father has died. We get a decent jumping-on point for new readers with a recap of Spidey’s origin during a story where Aunt May ends up as a hostage for the supervillain, The Beetle. Then we got Spidey in London, which I didn’t care for. The stories suffer whenever Spider-Man is taken outside of New York City. He’s not a globetrotting character and is best in the middle of the city he loves so much.
Then we have a story I have had hyped for me since I was a kid. These three issues became a historical event in that Marvel bucked the Comics Code Authority. In 1954 the CCA was formed as an industry response to the threat of government regulation of the industry. Some narrow-minded conservatives were convinced that comic books were to blame for juvenile delinquency. They weren’t wrong that many horror comics were pretty gruesome at the time, but they went even further, denouncing Batman & Robin as promoting homosexuality and Superman as teaching children incorrect information about science. This is the same small-minded nonsense that led to the creation of the Hays Code for movies earlier and the ESRB for video games. Stan Lee wanted to tell a relevant story about drug use, something the adolescent readers of his comics knew about, and he did so. He wasn’t legally required to include the stamp of approval from the CCA, but not having it hurt the distribution of the books. Today, the CCA is gone, with most companies just indicating on the cover whether the book is suitable for kids.
What I find funny about this story is that there’s nothing controversial by today’s standards. Not once are drugs shown as a good thing; it’s all pretty silly & myopic in its presentation. This is a hair away from the promotional comics that came out in the 1980s with the Teen Titans or Captain America fighting drugs. Very Saturday morning PSA in its presentation of the substances. It also does what annoys me about most anti-drug comics in that it never specifies what drugs the person is doing. I wish they made a distinction that smoking weed isn’t going to have you on a rooftop thinking you can fly and that the most harmful drugs are amphetamines or opioids. I do like that Randy Robertson shows up and can voice his frustration that drugs are often seen as a social ill brought into communities by Black people when it’s the Black community that was suffering some of the greatest harm from these substances, often a way for white authorities to diminish their collective power.
Harry Osborn is the primary drug user in this story, which coincides with his father’s return as The Green Goblin. I was looking forward to more of the Goblin. He really is one of the best villains from this period of Spider-Man. Unfortunately, this story is not one of the better ones. I keep thinking back to Spectacular Spider-Man Magazine #2 and how damn good that Goblin story was, very epic in scope with emotionally substantial stakes. Lee gets some good human moments out of The Goblin/Norman when he realizes his son’s pain, but the fight with Spider-Man doesn’t quite have the same weight as previous battles. Gwen also returns, and she and Peter are happy to be together again.
There’s a one-off story about a prison riot next, which feels like the third time during Stan Lee’s run that we had this story play out. A lot of prison riots are happening in the Marvel Comics universe. Then in issue 100, we get Gil Kane illustrating what is essentially a filler to get to the twist ending. The story touches on all the different people in Spidey’s life. I want to note the ongoing love story of Betty Brant & Ned Leeds happening in the background of the series. Lee emphasized how in love the two were so in thinking about the eventual development in the 1980s where Leeds is framed as the Hobgoblin (though he isn’t, but he is… it’s complicated) that feels much sadder for him and Betty. The main thing here is that Spidey’s flu causes him to hallucinate many of his foes, giving Kane a chance to draw many characters. The big twist at the end, caused by Peter trying an experimental treatment for his illness, is that he grows two more pairs of arms.
The following two issues have Spidey hiding this condition from the people he knows. He gets Curt Conners’s help, who lets him stay at his family’s beach house in South Hampton. This, of course, means we’re getting another Lizard story (fuuuuuuck). But the main event here is the debut of possibly the greatest Spidey villain of all time (/s). Yes, it’s Morbin’ time. Morbius the Living Vampire debuts in a tale paralleling Dracula’s arrival in London, hidden aboard a ship and feeding on the crew. Conners shows up in the middle of the fight between Morbius & Spider-Man and transforms into the god-damn Lizard. Seriously, I need to find somewhere that Stan Lee talked about why he loves this villain so much.
This story is, thankfully, a bit different, forcing Spider-Man and The Lizard to work together. We also get a considerable number of pages devoted to the origin of Morbius, clearly showing that Marvel was interested in spinning him off into solo adventures. Marvel would go all-in on horror books in the 1970s, giving everyone from Dracula to Frankenstein, Werewolf by Night, The Living Mummy, Ghost Rider, and Man-Thing their own books. Morbius is also an attempt to skirt around silly Comics Code regulations about horror, with Stan Lee being precise that Morbius is not dead and he’s never shown feeding on anyone. Conners eventually takes control and concocts a cure for Spider-Man’s many arms while Morbius appears to drown.
The final two issues are a single story with Spider-Man going to the Savage Land, teaming-up with Ka-Zar again, and fighting Kraven. The premise feels very contrived, like a Saturday morning cartoon that slaps together a relatively loose reason to relocate its characters to an exotic setting. The Bugle is struggling financially, and Jameson sees a breaking story about the Savage Land and the creatures that live within it. He sends some of his people, including himself, there for a story. Peter gets Gwen to tag along, which feels even more contrived. The story is dedicated to Carl Denham, the fictional promoter that puts together the trip to Skull Island in King Kong. It’s evident from the story that Lee was writing an homage to this. As I said, stories that take Spider-Man out of NYC don’t work for me.
It has been fascinating finally reading through comics that have influenced the things I’ve read since I was a kid in the 1980s & 90s. I also find that for me, it felt like it was time for Stan to search for his replacement and let someone else have a shot at writing the book. I also never realized how much The Lizard was featured in these books and how modern Lizard stories have yet to find a new angle for the villain. Additionally, I didn’t understand that many classic Spider-Man villains were not showing up as frequently as I thought. It’s similar to Batman, how many of his rogues’ gallery vanished in the 1950s and most of the 60s, being brought back because of their use in the television series. But this won’t be the end of our Spider-Man journey. Later this year, maybe next year, but we will return to see what our friendly neighborhood hero gets into.