Comics : Marvel Super Heroes #14

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This story is part of a Lookback Series: Al Observes

This review was first published on: 1996.

Background...

For its first eleven issues, it was Fantasy Masterpieces. From issue #21 on, it was an all-reprint book. But for nine issues in between, Marvel Super-Heroes featured stories introducing new characters like Captain Marvel and the Guardians of the Galaxy and giving solo slots to established characters like Medusa and Dr. Doom. And, oh yes, one Spider-Man story. Marvel Super-Heroes #14 appeared in the same month as Amazing Spider-Man #60. Its cover proclaimed, "A New Artist! An Off-Beat Plot! A Different Locale!".

On the title page, Stan explained, "When Jazzy Johnny (Romita) sprained his wrist, our old pal Ross Andru came to the rescue with this replacement Spidey yarn! But then, Johnny made his deadline after all! Since we can't bear to leave this mixed-up little masterpiece slumbering on the shelf, here it is, Pilgrim -- a once-in-a-lifetime treat for you!"

Inking Ross Andru's first Spider-Man story was Bill Everett, the creator of the Sub-Mariner. (Most likely, the late Bill Everett's only work on Spider-Man. Anybody out there know of any other?)

The Different Locale is New Orleans. The Off-Beat Plot succeeds in spite of (or maybe because of) its lapses in logic and its coincidence-heavy ending.

A mostly-forgotten gem from the late 1960s years of Spidey.

In Detail...

"The Reprehensible Riddle of The Sorcerer"
Marvel Super Heroes #14
May 1968 : SMURF 049.600 : SM Guest
Summary: Full-Length Spider-Man Feature
Editor:  Stan Lee
Writer:  Stan Lee
Pencils:  Ross Andru
Inker:  Bill Everett
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 Reprinted In: Marvel Treasury Edition #1
Articles: Green Goblin II (Harry Osborn), Gwen Stacy, Mary Jane Watson-Parker, Sorcerer II

In an unassuming house, in a middle-class neighborhood, a grim-looking man sits. He is skeletal and pale, mostly bald with just a fringe of long grey hair wreathing his head. An adjacent room is filled with tribal masks, shrunken heads, statues of Kali and Anubis, anhks, and other mystic symbols. A flashlight is fastened to a stand behind the man's chair and its light shines on a photo of Spider-Man. The man focuses his attention on the photograph, "ready to destroy the victim whom I do not even know", through thought alone. "For the effective range of thought is without any limit. Just as the power of sorcery is ever boundless. Wherever he is... whatever he may be doing...a strange malady will now afflict him."

What Spider-Man is doing is preparing to jump through a skylight, intending to surprise three burglars in the building below. Suddenly he is stricken with dizziness and a severe headache. Losing his balance, he tumbles through the skylight into the criminals' midst. Anyone can see there is something seriously wrong with him. He can barely even stand. Being unsporting types, the three hoods decide they will never have a better chance to take out Spider-Man. But even in this state, Spider-Man is tough enough to best the hoods. They flee (with one yelling, "I don't care if somethin's wrong with 'im or not! I ain't tacklin' that cat no more!") right into the hands of the police. Good thing, too. Spider-Man is too ill to follow.

The nameless man, henceforth known as the Sorcerer, somehow knows that his test has been a rousing success and vows that he will doom Spider-Man without even leaving his chair. (Sort of the Nero Wolfe of super-criminals.) He conveniently thinks back to his beginnings for those of us anxious for an origin. He was an expert in psychic research, because he had ESP himself, but he never discovered this ability in any others. He knew he had a talent for exerting his will over others but it was a talent untrained. So, he fled to the Mysterious East, then on to Dahomey, "the capital of sorcery in the Heart of Africa". There he learned Juju, "the art of mentally controlling any enemy" and upon returning to the United States, built his Psycho-intensifier, which puts his mentality in the body of another. Now, his plans continue. He takes a Juju doll, dressed as Spider-Man, puts pressure on its head with his thumb, and Peter Parker, sneaking into the apartment he shares with Harry Osborne, gets the mother of all headaches once again. The Sorcerer sticks a tack in the doll's head to maintain the pressure, then puts it in a box and mails it to Spider-Man, care of General Delivery. Sooner or later, he reasons, after his plans are complete, the police will open the box and know who has defeated Spider-Man. (But he never explains HOW they will know. Did he leave a note?)

The next morning, Peter is still so sick he cannot get out of bed. He asks Harry to call Dr. Bromwell (who hasn't been seen in the series now for years). There is a strange little panel in which it looks like Harry is taking a shower in a stall right next to Pete's bed but this doesn't stop him from making the call to the doctor and it doesn't stop the doctor from making a house call. (Ah, 1968!) Bromwell finds nothing wrong with Peter. Gwen and Mary Jane come over to baby Pete and end up both going out with Harry instead.

At that moment, the Sorcerer dons his psycho-intensifier and uses it to control Spider-Man. Peter feels a sudden compulsion to get out of bed, put on his best suit, pack his suitcase, and take a cab to the airport. He is aware of what he is doing but is powerless to stop. Harry spots him as he climbs into the cab and proclaims, "My gloomy roomie's either sleep-walking or he's nuts!"

Peter uses his savings to buy a ticket to New Orleans. Once Pete arrives, the Sorcerer relaxes the pressure a little bit. He doesn't want to overtax himself and, besides, he has to prepare Spider-Man to meet the Synthetic Man (also called, just once, the Hollow Man).

Now you may ask, why is it that the Sorcerer bothers with the Synthetic Man at all, since he is capable of making Spidey do whatever he wants? Why doesn't he command Spidey to jump in the Mississippi and stay under, for example? For that matter, why send him to New Orleans at all? Can't the Sorcerer afford to ship the Synthetic Man to New York? How did the Synthetic Man get to New Orleans in the first place? How did it get in the warehouse? Do warehouses have windows? And why did the Sorcerer put a return address on that package he sent to Spider-Man care of general delivery? But I'm getting ahead of things here. Back to the action.

In control of his body once more, Peter decides to check into the nearest hotel. Although it is Mardi Gras, the hotel he decides to go to actually has a vacancy! (Fantasy as you like it.) Meanwhile, the Post Office has received the package for Spider-Man and decides to return it to sender. (Which they couldn't have done if the Sorcerer had only not put his return address on...oh, never mind.)

Back in New Orleans, Peter rests in his room until Mardi Gras gets started. Suddenly the strange compulsion comes over him again. He gets into his Spidey duds and joins the festivities but his headache gets worse and he can't resist the urge to walk to the (ahem) "New Orleans Warehouse". Inside, he finds a ten-foot high crate and, breaking out of the crate, a ten-foot high blue-skinned creature. The Synthetic Man.

The battle begins and Spidey quickly learns three things. The Synthetic Man can make his body as pliant as rubber or as hard as rock at will. The diamond mounted on the giant's headband can shoot a destructive ray. The headache is worse than ever.

Spider-Man first tries to fight, then tries to flee and finally manages to flip the Synthetic Man into a stack of barrels, burying the creature. Too weak to escape, nearly blacking out, Spider-Man desperately calls out, "Whoever you are, whoever is doing this to me..show yourself! Do you hear? You crummy coward!" His only answer is the crash of barrels as the Synthetic Man frees himself. He picks up Spider-Man and heaves him through a window onto the street.

The giant closes in for the kill. The Sorcerer smirks, "Nothing can save you now!" But at that very moment, the Postman comes by the Sorcerer's house with the returned package, rings the doorbell, and, I kid you not, well...why not let Stan tell it? "Alas, the puzzled postman has no way of knowing that the shrill ring of the doorbell has changed the mystic pitch of the Sorcerer's psycho-intensifier...changed it just enough to cause a deadly mental feedback...one which no human brain on earth can have the power to withstand!"

Just like that, the Sorcerer is dead. The Synthetic Man, in the act of lifting a fruit cart with the intent of creaming Spider-Man, stops dead in his tracks. Without the Sorcerer to direct his movements, the giant drops the cart and wanders off into the Gulf of Mexico.

Spider-Man's headache disappears. He never learns who he was fighting. "I've fought one of the most desperate battles of my life against a hidden, nameless foe." He heads back to his hotel, preparing to go back to New York.

As far as we know, the Sorcerer's body is never discovered. (It must really smell terrible right about now.) The Synthetic Man still lies at the bottom of the Gulf. It is a little surprising that no enterprising Spider-writer has (literally) dredged the creature up and used him again. A return battle might be rather fun.

Can't get enough of oddball one-shot villains? Neither can I. Marvel Team-Up #31 is next.