Comics : Spectacular Spider-Man (Vol. 1) #43

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This story is part of a Lookback Series: Year of the Woman

This review was first published on: 2003.

Background...

Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man #43 (June1980) has become notable for being Roger Stern's first Spider-Man outing and for being the first appearance of Roderick Kingsley, the man who becomes the original Hobgoblin. But the featured villain was not Kingsley but rather the woman known as Belladonna in her first of only three appearances. She is in this month's "Year of the Woman" spotlight.

In Detail...

"Pretty Poison"
Spectacular Spider-Man (Vol. 1) #43
Jun 1980 : SM Title
Summary: Belladonna, Roderick Kingsley
Editor:  Denny O'Neil
Writer:  Roger Stern
Pencils:  Mike Zeck
Inker:  Steve Mitchell
Cover Art:  John Byrne
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 Reprinted In: Essential Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man #2
Articles: Belladonna, Deborah Whitman, Hobgoblin I (Kingsley)

Journey back with us now to those days when Peter Parker was a graduate student at Empire State University. In fact, here he is in a lab coat conducting an experiment with fellow grad student Steve Hopkins in Lab 104A. Suddenly, a man with a stocking over his head and a gun in his hand shoves the door open. He is followed by two others with stockings and guns (they all have this cute combination blue turtleneck-brown belt-purple pants outfit too so you gotta know that their boss is heavily into fashion). One of the three drags Department Head Secretary and future Peter Parker Girlfriend Deb Whitman into the room, too. These men are stealing chemicals from the stock room and Deb is forced to provide the key to open it. Peter and Steve stand still with their hands in the air. Pete doesn't even consider fighting these goons. Not only would it spell the end of his secret identity but Steve and Deb might get hurt in the process. But he doesn't intend to stand idly by either. While Deb has trouble with "these stubborn keys", trying to open a door marked "Supply Room", Peter nudges a lit Bunsen burner under a beaker of chemicals with his elbow. (The oblivious hood points a gun at Pete and says, "That's it, keep those hands out where I can see 'em!" even as Pete does this.) Deb finally opens the door and one of the crooks loads a dolly with two drums of neo-atropine. "That's all?" Peter wonders, as the crooks prepare their getaway. The goons order Steve, Deb, and Pete into the stock room. Once they are in, however, one of the gunmen realizes that "this room has real thick walls" and decides that he can bump them all off without anyone hearing a thing. Now Peter has no choice. He must spring into action. But before he makes his move, the Bunsen burner heats the chemicals to the point that they explode. The whole lab table catches fire, which sets off the sprinkler system and the alarm. In the confusion, Peter slams the stock room door and braces it shut. He tells Steve to help him hold it closed before the goons "think of grabbing hostages". But that never happens. The hoods pick up the drums of neo- atropine and run for it. "If we blow it now" says one, "the boss'll have our heads!"

With the room clear, Deb, Steve, and Pete come out of the stock room. The sprinklers have put out most of the fire but Steve grabs an extinguisher to finish the job. He tells Pete to "go find campus security" but first Pete plans to run down the bad guys himself. He runs outside in time to see the crooks driving off in a "non-descript van with mud-caked license plates", a vehicle "next to impossible to trace" unless it happens to have a spider-tracer on it. Peter throws one of his spider-shaped devices and it sticks to the shoe of the hood who is just closing the back doors of the van. And he doesn't even notice! Maybe the stocking on his head has messed up his peripheral vision.

Having attached the tracer, Peter plans to follow it right away. He leaps over a stairway railing, already opening his shirt to reveal his Spider-Man costume. But before he can finish changing in an alley, campus security shows up, asking, "What's goin' on here?" Peter quickly closes up his shirt as he reports, "We've had a break-in, sir."

Not long after, two officers and a plainclothes detective from the NYPD show up. Steve tells the detective "It beats me why they'd steal neo-atropine! It's not that rare or expensive!" The detective puffs on a cigarette and puts his hands in his pants pockets. He tells the "kids" they can "clean up and go home now". Peter says he will "clear the mess away" if Steve will see Debra home. (Though I would think that the cops would frown on anyone cleaning up anything at a crime scene.) Steve agrees and tells Pete he will see him in the morning. "Maybe by then" he adds, "this'll all make sense!"

Of course Peter doesn't really intend to do any cleaning of any sort. He is just looking for an excuse to slip away to his locker and change into his Spider-Man outfit. He takes to the webs and begins "criss-crossing the Manhattan skyline as only he can". He knows that the crooks are likely to dump the van they are driving before anyone can track it down. Fortunately, his tracer is on a shoe rather than on the vehicle. As he swings by Macy's he knows that sooner or later his spider-sense will pick up the tracer "assuming of course that they didn't leave the city". It is only a matter of time.

But hours later, Spidey is in midtown and still hasn't picked up his tracer. Then he gets a tingle as he swings over a rooftop skylight. He peers in and sees a man at a drawing table surrounded by dressmaker's dummies. Spidey can't believe that this man was one of the robbery goons because he is too short and too skinny. "Boy, and they used to call me Puny Parker!" he thinks, "Even at my spindliest, this guy would've made me look like Hercules!" A closer look at the man reveals him to have an Elton John haircut and to be wearing a red ascot around his neck, a blue shirt with the top few buttons undone and pleated pants and to be drawing dress designs at his table. All of which conspire to make him quite stereotypically cheerful.

Before Spidey can decide what to do overhead, a whole lot of smoke pours under the room's door. The man sniffs and wonders about the fragrance. "It's nice," he says, "but really! It's so strong, it's almost o-o-overpowering" and the reason he stutters over that last word is because the door topples inward right off of its hinges. The three goons with the stockings on their heads enter. They tell the man in the room, Roderick Kingsley, that their boss "wants a few words with you" and they introduce her as Madam Belladonna.

A woman wearing a purple trench coat, purple hat, blue scarf, and veil, smokes a cigarette with a holder as she enters through the fragrant smoke. She points an accusing finger at Kingsley and tells him that "this is the hour of your descent from the heights of the fashion world" and that "when I get through, all will know how you've stolen your ideas". Stammering, Kingsley tells Belladonna that he doesn't know what she's talking about. Bella grabs Kingsley by the shirt, calls him a "flaming simp", and pulls his dress designs right off the table. "Do you honestly expect me to believe that a no-talent like you could have come up with these fashions?" she asks, "These designs are mine now!"

Spidey watches the whole thing from the skylight. Once Belladonna grabs Kingsley and the designs, he makes his move by jumping through the skylight scattering the glass all about him. (Wouldn't you think, just once, Spidey would open a skylight before jumping through it?) By now, the entire floor is covered in the billowing mist but that doesn't stop Spidey from leaping down and putting the hit on two of the goons with simultaneous punches. Then he flips over and knocks the third one to the ground with a kick. He thinks that's the end of the three hoods and is surprised when the first two get right back up. "The love taps I gave them should have put them out for at least an hour" he thinks but since they clearly did not, he reasons that "It must be this perfumy gas... it's slowing me down." So, back to the grind. He swings a hard left hand and socks one of the goons in the jaw, then another left hand for the second one. Then he turns to face the leader of the gang.

At first, Belladonna appears to be afraid of the web-slinger. She drops Kingsley (who ends up sitting on the ground next to his chair) and yells out, "No! Stay away from me!" She even stutters as she warns Spider-Man to stay out of her affairs. But she manages to get a grip on her fear and, while Spider-Man gets closer, she holds out her arms in a Frankenstein Monster pose and shoots out little streams of gas from her sleeves. The gas goes right into Spidey's face and makes him woozy. He knows he'd "better web her up before she puts me to sleep". Accordingly, he shoots webbing at her while he calls her a "Lauren Bacall lookalike" but the gas from her sleeves dissolves the webbing before it reaches her. Spidey feels the room spinning around him and figures he'd better rush at Bella. But the mist has also dulled his spider-sense so he never even notices the third goon sneaking up behind him and knocking him over the head with his gun butt. Then the four crooks leave. Belladonna declares the night "ruined" and decides, "I'll have to rethink my revenge". One of the goons states, "we don't have to worry about Spider-Man any more" as if a knock over the head is as good as actually whacking him.

The web-slinger is down but not out. He gets to his feet, goes over to a now- unconscious Kingsley, and lifts him up. He now knows why the goons stole the neo-atropine. "It's derived from the belladonna plant," he thinks. Bella "evidently uses it in her gas. Either she didn't have a ready source for the stuff or she was just impatient!" Carrying Kingsley, he leaps up and through the shattered skylight before the gas can put him out. And he can tell how much the gas has already gotten to him because he almost doesn't make the jump!

Out on the roof, in the New York air, Spidey's head begins to clear. But if he thinks he is going to get any thanks from Roderick Kingsley, then he doesn't remember what usually happens when he saves someone. Kingsley sits on the skylight and points a finger at the web-slinger. "You masked ruffian!" he cries, "You're responsible for this!" He tells Spidey that, without his interference, Bella would have "just stolen a few petty designs which I could have traced and been on her way! But now, my studio is a shambles and I was nearly killed! It's just like the Daily Bugle says, you're a menace to society!" Spidey has heard enough. He webs Kingsley up against a chimney and tells him to take the time before the webbing dissolves to "consider subscribing to a more reputable paper". When Kingsley whines that he'll catch his death of cold, the web-slinger replies, "Yeah, yeah! The world should be so lucky!" (And I certainly hope this is all about Spidey's aversion to the Daily Bugle because it sure as heck seems like there may be a little gay- bashing going on here.)

The next day, Peter Parker heads to the Daily Globe building still thinking about his encounter with Belladonna. (Yes, that's right. This story takes place during Pete's time as a photographer for the Globe at about the same time as his encounter with the Black Cat in ASM #205, June 1980.) First, he worries about his webbing, because Belladonna was able to dissolve it with her mist. Then, he worries about the fact that his spider-tracer fell off the goon's foot leaving the gang impossible to track. His only lead is Roderick Kingsley. Pete just happens to get on the elevator at the same time as Sandy Jones "editorial girl Friday", a slim attractive woman with orange hair and glasses. As they ride up to the Globe editorial offices, Peter pumps her on any information about Roderick Kingsley such as, "does Kingsley have any enemies?" Sandy, now seated at her desk, tells Pete that Kingsley's enemies comprise "half the fashion world" since "rumor has it that he steals his designs" not to mention that "just last year he drove a dozen small European cosmetics firms out of business just to start his own line of Kingsley fragrances". In other words, "he's despised". Sandy also tells Pete that Kingsley is having "a big show tonight and none of the fashion photogs want to touch it" since "most of them have had bad dealings with him". This is just the sort of opening that Peter needs. He snatches the assignment sheet off Sandy's desk and tells her that he will gladly take the job. When Sandy tells Pete that "Mr. Bushkin won't want you to waste your time on that", Pete replies that "What he doesn't know won't hurt him. Besides, this just might turn out to be exciting." Giving Sandy a wave, Peter exits with the assignment sheet.

Pete's next stop is the Chem Lab of Empire State University. He tries to come up with a web compound that can resist Belladonna's gas. He decides that he needs a sample of the propellant used in Bella's gas before he can counter it with his web formula but he "can't get a sample if the gas knocks me out". He thinks about buying a gas mask but he can't afford it and payday is still two days away. That does him no good because he is sure that Bella will strike this evening at Kingsley's shindig. Debra Whitman then enters the lab carrying a bag of groceries. She admits that she saw Peter's shopping list on his desk and so she picked up his items at the nearest 7-11. Pete can't believe she has bothered seeing as he snuck out on the intimate conversation they were having a few nights back on the Circle Line ferry (to hook up with the Human Torch and battle the Frightful Four in PPSSM #42, May 1980) so when he takes the bag off her hands he gives her a kiss on the cheek, tells her she's "one in a million" and promises to treat her to dinner next week. As Deb leaves Lab 106, she muses, "I think I like that man... very much!"

Inside the lab, Peter pulls a bottle of vinegar out of the grocery bag and starts drinking it. He knows that vinegar is the antidote for belladonna poisoning and he is hoping that it will be proof against Bella's gas as well. "I'd hate to think that I'm reactivating my ulcer for nothing!" (The return of the ulcer! When did it make its first appearance? Was that ASM #113, October 1972? Roger is pulling out all the stops on this one.)

That evening, Peter Parker stands at the end of the runway in the "penthouse ballroom of a posh Midtown hotel" as Roderick Kingsley stands at a microphone and introduces his first fashion show of the season. Pete has gotten such an aversion to Kingsley that he thinks, "It's a good thing I have a personal stake in this, or I'd be highly tempted to let Belladonna take Roddy-boy here to the cleaners!" (Though I'm not sure just what Pete's "personal stake" is.) Kingsley finishes his intro then cues a guy named Mario to open the curtain. Behind it are a half a dozen dress dummies that are supposed to be wearing Kingsley new fashion creations but they all have torn burlap bags on them instead, which causes the crowd to burst into laughter. (Or is it Kingsley's purple outfit with the huge red Bozo-style bow tie that gets them chuckling? Or the way he puts his hands up to his face like Macauley Culkin in "Home Alone" and yells out "Oh, Ghod" when he sees the burlap that gets them going? Is the whole damn crowd homophobic?)

Just then, Belladonna enters, puffing on a cigarette and pointing her finger accusingly at Kingsley. Her three goons enter behind her with their guns drawn. Bella tells Kingsley that the burlap represents poetic justice for all the years he's been "able to get away with stealing the designs, the works, of your betters". Then she informs the audience that she intends to rob them of their jewelry and money as their penance for patronizing Kingsley's show. Peter, camera in hand, is surprised to hear that Bella has "branch[ed] out into mass robbery".

Predictably, all the high society women in attendance get shocked looks on their faces and freak out over being robbed. In the midst of all the shock, Peter finds it an easy thing to slip backstage to the dressing rooms. There he finds a model passed out at a vanity table. Fragrant smoke fills the room. Belladonna has apparently been here first. Pete begins his change into his Spidey suit but he can already tell that the gas is making him feel "a little fuzzy around the edges". This means that the vinegar he drank "is only going to be partially effective" so he creates a filter out of webbing and covers his mouth and nose, putting his mask on over it. He knows that the webbing will start to "break down" on his face if he has to fight for too long so he figures he'd better wrap things up in a hurry.

Out in the ballroom, everyone has passed out from the gas except for Belladonna, her goons and (surprisingly) Kingsley. The goons have collected all the valuables from the audience. Belladonna grabs Kingsley by the labels of his purple jacket. He pleads with her not to do this. "The insurance claims will break me," he says. Bella is not moved. "You never seemed to worry about the lives you ruined, the careers you destroyed over the years!" she says.

Off to the side, one of the goons is wishing that Bella would shut up with the speeches so that they can get away. And he's got a point because he ends up getting punched right through the curtain next to him. "Guess who?" a voice calls, and then out jumps the Spectacular Spider-Man. He leapfrogs over a table to quickly get to the next gunmen, and then punches him over another table. Then someone turns out the lights.

Of course, it doesn't do any good. Not only does the web-slinger have a spider- sense but "it's not that dark in here!" Spidey has no trouble finding the third goon, jumping over him, and punching him in the back of the head as he goes by. That just leaves Belladonna who is over by a window, still hanging onto Kingsley. It seems brighter over in that part of the room and the webster starts to move in to finish the job but the gas begins to seep through his filter and he starts to feel like he's "moving in a dream sequence". Bella notices his troubles and gloats, "I didn't think you'd be fool enough to cross me again knowing what I can do to you". She pulls out a gas gun. "One concentrated gas overdose from this" she says, "and neither you nor Kingsley will ever bother me again!"

But Bella isn't aware of one thing. "Even slightly slowed-down, a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man beats a lady in a trench coat any day of the week". Spidey uses a table as a pommel horse, somersaults in the air, and comes down behind Bella. He grabs her by the back of her coat. Instantly, Belladonna panics and slips out of her coat in the process (revealing a stylish black dress and purple gloves that stretch up past her elbows). Spidey is surprised to learn that Bella is scared of him... "real shaking-in-your-boots scared". (Which he actually should have realized from their first encounter although, granted, he was busy with other things.) "I spend so much of my time fighting hardened costumed creeps like Doc Ock and Mysterio, I sometimes forget how weird I must appear to basically normal folks," he thinks. He decides he can use this to his advantage since he is "just a wee bit groggy". But by that time, Belladonna has reached the light switch and when she turns it on, Spidey recoils from the brightness. It turns out that the previous brightening of the dark room was an aspect of the gas. "Belladonna has many side effects," Bella tells the blinded web-slinger. By the time Spidey can see again, the fashionable villain is gone. It is only then that Spidey remembers that "some forms of belladonna are used by doctors in eye exams" because "the stuff causes the pupils to dilate... let in more light to the retina". Too late to do anything about it now.

Spider-Man opens a glass sliding door to let the gas out of the room. It looks like he is holding a paper airplane in one hand but I think it is actually Belladonna's dropped gas gun. This gun gives him a sample of the gas so he can adjust his webbing accordingly. He stopped the robbery, saved Kingsley, and (I think) caught the three goons but Belladonna made her escape. Ever the pessimist, Spidey thinks, "I must be the only guy in town who can win and lose at the same time."

Belladonna is back in PPSSM #47-48 (October-November 1980). She allies herself with the new Prowler who turns out to be the cat burglar from way back in Amazing Spider-Man #30 (November 1965) and with three goons named Manny, Moe, and Jack (The Pep Boys!) who probably are the same masked goons from this issue. She is revealed to be Narda Ravanna, former co-owner with her sister Desiree Vaughn-Pope of "one of the largest fashion houses in Europe". Desiree was in charge of business and design while Narda "supervised the labs which produced a whole line of Vaughn-Pope cosmetics". Desiree "inherited the business from her second husband" but it was the two sisters who "built it into a fashion empire". Then Roderick Kingsley stepped in and tried to buy them out. When Desiree refused to sell, Kingsley bought off a former Vaughn-Pope model so that she claimed (while hiding her face from reporters) that the Vaughn-Pope cosmetics "caused severe skin disorders". The case never even got to the courts (where the model would have actually had to show her face, you would think) because the bad publicity ruined the sisters and they were forced to sell. The sisters moved to the U.S. to start over and Narda took on the identity of Belladonna to get her revenge on Kingsley. In the end, she concocts a scheme that is intended to have Kingsley murder Spider-Man and then be arrested for that murder. It doesn't work and she, the Prowler, and the Pep Boys are all left webbed up for the police.

Roderick Kingsley, who already showed himself to be a rotter from this very first appearance goes on to become the Hobgoblin in ASM #238 (March 1983) , though the reader doesn't learn the truth until the Spider-Man: The Hobgoblin Lives Mini-Series (January-April 1997) many years later.

Overall Rating...

Right from the start of his scripting reign, you can see that Roger Stern is an ideal writer for Spider-Man. He understands Peter Parker, he can write the web- slinger's snappy dialogue, he loves continuity (bringing up the ulcer in this issue, bringing back the ASM #30 cat burglar in Belladonna's next appearance), and he makes good use of sub-plots. Belladonna is not an especially original character but she does stand out for three reasons: her focus on the fashion industry, her fear of Spider-Man and her single-minded goal of revenge against Kingsley rather than being another run-of-the-mill crook or would-be dictator. Actually, with Kingsley revealed as the Hobgoblin, I think it's way past time for Belladonna to return to try to further seek her revenge. I suspect only Roger Stern would care enough to follow up this plot thread. Wouldn't it be nice to have Roger back on a Spidey book so he could have the chance to pursue it?

Unfortunately, all of the good stuff in this issue is nullified by the horrible stereotype of Kingsley as a whiny effeminate fashion designer. Roger wisely eases up on this in later Kingsley appearances but, for this first issue, it is a killer, dropping the rating from a possible "four" to "two" webs.