The Quest for the Tablet
(Amazing Spider-Man #68-77 -- 1969-1970)
Written by Stan Lee. Illustrated by John Romita, Sr., John Buscema, Jim Mooney.
Okay, part of the point of my "They Ain't Trade Paperback" theme was to draw attention to stories that weren't collected as TPBs...but should be. But with Marvel's Essential books, collecting huge chronlogical runs of series, such a complaint might be irrelevant. Case in point, this saga which has in fact been reprinted...as part of Marvel's Essential Spider-Man series which is on its way collecting the complete run of Spider-Man in black and white (which is why one of my scans is without colour).
AS WELL...a friendly e-mailer drew my attention to the fact that these very issues, 68-77, were collected together in the hardcover Marvel Masterworks: The Amazing Spider-Man, vol. 8 which, like the Essential volumes, collects the the Spider-Man series in sequential volumes. So whether it's just a lucky coincidence, or whether an editor deliberately arranged it so all issues would appear in one volume, I dunno. But it has been collected -- albeit in a very pricey volume.
It's a cleverly structured saga in that it's really a few different stories, all woven about an ancient stone tablet with inscriptions that various villains think hold a key to ancient knowledge. And the result is a pleasing encapsulation of Spider-Man from that period, while still seeming like a single epic adventure.
First up is the Kingpin (who back then was Spidey's foe, not Daredevil's as he is today) who steals the tablet from Empire State University and tussles with Spider-Man over three issues -- but because this is Spider-Man in the Stan Lee soap opera era, there's lots more going on. Kingpin manages to implicate Spidey in the theft...plus some of Spidey (Peter Parker's) school chums were involved in a protest at the time, and therefore also become suspected. Then Quicksilver drops by and, in time honoured super hero fashion, mistakes Spidey for a villain and they tussle, and then the Shocker shows up for an issue trying to capture the tablet. Then some Maggia gangsters (comicbook versions of the Mafia) make a stab for it, for another multi-part story arc that benefits from some nice shading of the mobsters and their infighting and machinations, building to an ironic denouement as the tablet's formula is finally translated. The saga wraps up with a tussle with the Lizard who, as Dr. Connors, had been kidnapped by the gangsters to translate the formula. (And the Human Torch crops up, too).
I'm a fan of this era of Spidey in general, with its emphasis on Spidey as a compassionate, but flawedly human, angst riddled, hard luck hero (despite his quips) and who is often more caught up in his real world concerns about money and his starcrossed romance with Gwen Stacy than in battling villains. Plus there was all the semi-real world stuff reflecting the historical era -- student protests, and race issues (having Joe Robertson and his son, Randy, argue about race politics and "whitey" may seem a bit heavy handed, but was pretty edgy stuff at the time -- heck, even today. Particularly as Lee leaves the issue open -- not entirely condeming the more radical views of the younger characters). What seems to be missing from Spider-Man comics in recent years (that I've read) is this emphasis on a realistic supporting cast of friends and co-workers whose problems are only incidentally affected by the super heroics of the star.
Even the emphasis on the mobsters as opposed to (too many) costumed foes adds an effective realism -- sure, it's a heightened realism, as the Kingpin is super strong with a lazer cain, and Maggia enforcer Man Mountain Marko can bust through walls, but it serves to cement Spidey in an approximation of reality. And even when Spidey tussles with Quicksilver or the Human Torch -- Lee still makes the idea of heroes fighting each other seem almost reasonable, given the contexts.
Part of the realism is also thanks to the beautiful, generally realist art of John Romita (Sr), John Buscema and Jim Mooney (working in various tandem groupings). I know the more cartoony, exaggerated art is popular these days...but to me, there's just something a little more effective -- a little eerier -- about seeing a realistic looking Spider-Man doing unreal things like swinging through the air, or clinging to walls, that a cartoony Spider-Man doesn't have. You can really find yourself thinking -- Hey! That's a man standing on a wall! Cra-azy!
And the action scenes are also kind of effective in their occasional mundanity. Sure Spidey and his foes will fling each other across rooms and smash into walls -- but they'll also punch each other, or grab onto each other's legs to trip each other in a way that seems refreshingly...real. Likewise, Lee keeps up a steady banter while the characters fight, so often even fight scenes seem to have more going on that just mindless action.
Although Lee's tenure on Spidey often had stories blend into each other, I'm not sure if he ever tried anything quite as big as this ten part saga before or after. As I said, it manages to both be a bunch of stories (so it doesn't seem too repetitious or stretched out) while also seeming like a single epic adventure. With great art and, thanks to Lee, a Spider-Man (and supporting cast) you care about, a Spidey carrying the weight of the world -- or at least of those he cares about -- on his shoulders, living in a semi-realistic world where not every scene or conversation revolves around super heroing, while still being a fast-paced and wise-cracking adventure, with action and comedic relief...this is a nice run of what Spider-Man is at his best.
And the story must've impressed some people...because over thirty years later, they did a sequel -- the mini-series Spider-Man: Lifeline.