Comics : Spectacular Spider-Man (Vol. 1) #56

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This story is part of a Lookback Series: Al Observes

This review was first published on: 1996.

Background...

Roger Stern is one of the most fondly remembered Spider-Man writers. Ask a Spider-fan to name his or her favorite stories and chances are a Stern tale will show up in there somewhere. Whether it's the two part Juggernaut- Madame Web story or the first appearance of the Hobgoblin or the short tale of the Kid Who Collected Spider-Man, Stern's work stood out. But what many people don't recall is that Roger Stern wrote or plotted 16 issues of Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man before he ever became the regular writer on Amazing Spider-Man.

What made Stern successful on Amazing is also in evidence in his Spectacular scripts. Solid characterization, making use of the whole Spider-Man cast. Attention to detail. A good sense of humor. The use of villains that had mostly been forgotten. (The Gibbon, the Prowler, the Will O'the Wisp.) An interest in tying off loose plot threads. (Specifically, dealing with the Tinkerer's aliens from Amazing #2 in Spectacular #50 and finishing off the saga of the White Tiger in Spectacular #52.)

And, of course, his entertaining use of villains from other series; villains no one else had ever imagined pitting against Spider-Man in the past. Among this group in Stern's run in Spectacular are the Cobra, the Smuggler (formerly the Avengers' villain called Power Man), Nitro, the Ringer, and Moonstone.

There was also a villain who had made his first appearance in Machine Man #19 of all places. This villain eventually became the Hobgoblin, inheriting the paraphenalia after Ned Leeds was killed. (But, then again, Ned Leeds was never REALLY the Hobgoblin, was he, Roger?) Before he was the Hobgoblin, Jason Macendale was the Jack O'Lantern and his first meeting with Spider-Man was Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man #56. It sported a terrific Frank Miller - Bob Wiacek cover on the outside and some unfortunate, sketchy Jim Shooter (yes, I said Jim Shooter) - Jim Mooney artwork on the inside. It was written, of course, by Roger Stern.

In Detail...

"The Peril...And The Pumpkin?"
Spectacular Spider-Man (Vol. 1) #56
Jul 1981 : SM Title
Summary: Jack O'Lantern
Editor:  Denny O'Neil
Writer:  Roger Stern
Pencils:  Jim Shooter
Inker:  Jim Mooney
Cover Art:  Frank Miller
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 Reprinted In: Essential Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man #3
Articles: Aunt May Parker, Deborah Whitman, Hobgoblin IV (Macendale), Jack O'Lantern (Jason Macendale), Jameson, J. Jonah, Nathan Lubensky, Vulture I (Adrian Toomes)

The wail of sirens has brought Spider-Man to Bellevue hospital just in time to see an odd figure being wheeled on a stretcher from the ambulance to the prison ward wing. Clothed in green mesh armor and a carved pumpkin helmet on his head, he looks more than anything like, as Spidey puts it, "a refugee from Oz". He is not Jack Pumpkinhead, however, but rather Jack O'Lantern, international terrorist and mercenary. Spidey suspects that some photos of Jack flat on his back may be of interest to J. Jonah Jameson so he takes a few shots and heads for the Daily Bugle, hoping for immediate compensation.

It appears that Peter may be in luck because talk at the Bugle already centers around the Jack O'Lantern. Our flashback device in this instance is a fellow named Ed Haggerty who is in the process of telling Jonah Jameson and other Bugle staffers of his night at Delmar Insurance's grand opening of their new High-Security Embassy building; the building seized by Jason Macendale and his henchmen, with the intent of holding people for ransom. This plan, Ed tells us, was thwarted by Machine Man who took out the Jack O'Lantern by putting a force field around the villain as Jack tried to throw a concussive grenade. (Machine Man, by the way, was originally called Mr. Machine. A Jack Kirby creation, he first appeared in the comic series of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Quite a ways from Spider-Man, you would think.) This explosion has not only knocked Jack for a loop but has, apparently, thrown him into a coma.

It is the biggest story in days, one worthy of the front page, if only the Bugle had some pictures. JJJ is frothing at the mouth over this sorry state of affairs when Pete walks in. Jonah does his best to keep from immediately paying for the photos ("Don't tell me you don't trust me!" he whines, as Pete thinks in reply, "About as much as I trust the Ayatollah!") but is forced to cave in to save his front page.

The next day, one Dr. Kirtley shows up for his rounds at the hospital prison ward. He chats amiably with a laid-up Vulture and a still nauseous Nitro (both defeated by Spidey in earlier Stern stories), then walks into Jack O'Lantern's room. He is stunned to see Jack still in costume. He is told that no one has been able to figure out how to get the outfit off. As a result, the comatose criminal has not been examined by a doctor. Kirtley insists that actions be immediately taken to remove the armor. He is not going to have a patient die because he "can't administer even the slightest first-aid".

But across the street, one of Jack's henchmen is already planning a break-out.

Meanwhile, at good ol' Empire State University, Teaching Assistant Peter Parker finishes up another frustrating class. "I'd heard that S.A.T. scores were dropping off", he muses, "but I never realized how bad things had become until I started teaching freshmen." (Hey, watch it Roger! Some of my best friends were freshmen in 1981.) "A lot of my students seem totally lost. And the tragedy is that most of them are pretty bright. Somehow they've gotten to college without having picked up the most basic reading skills." (Ah, the more things change...) Editor Denny O'Neil, as if to underline the point, then felt obligated to footnote S.A.T., telling us it stands for Scholastic Aptitude Test. (Thanks, Denny!)

As Peter heads for the Physics Department office, his Spider-sense goes off. He leaps into the room, avoiding danger from above, then has to pretend he tripped when the menace turns out to be fellow TA Steve Hopkins hanging from his knees on a trapeze, preparing to reach down and snatch at his unsuspecting victim's head. He is aided in this scheme by colleague Phil Chang and the point of this whole elaborate business is to strip Marcy Kane of the scarf she has been wearing recently and see what she is hiding. Steve is "betting it's the greasies" but Peter doesn't even have a guess. He thinks the whole plan stinks. He goes over to chat with Debra Whitman about Marcy's right to privacy without any interference from her fellow TAs. (Steve Hopkins, Philip Chang, Marcy Kane, Debbie Whitman. Whatever happened to all these characters, anyway?)

Back at Bellevue, Jack's men have prepared a plan. One (called "Shorty") enters the hospital dressed as a New York Bell phone repairman. The others climb through the utility ducts, waiting for Shorty to let them in. This is mostly unnecessary as Jack comes to in his hospital bed and blows his guard right out of the room, into the hallway. The security back-up is taken out by Jack's men who are surprised to see their boss out of his coma. Macendale explains that the coma was part of his plan. You see, he was only stunned by the grenade but knew that "Machine Man's tricks left me disoriented enough that it was clear I would be apprehended with the others". So, anyway, using a coma-inducing drug he kept in a hollow tooth (never know when you'll need that, right?), he simulated his condition knowing that the cops would take him to a hospital rather than a prison allowing greater ease of escape. (Uh....right.) But Jack O'Lantern does not bother to escape. Instead he decides to hold the hospital hostage.

At E.S.U., Peter falls into a fascinating little discussion with Deb Whitman, in which each reveals glimpses of their own secrets and concerns while ostensibly still talking about Marcy Kane. Peter argues that "people have a right to their secrets" and Deb replies that trust is more important. As they talk, Marcy walks into the office and falls prey to Steve and his contraption. He pulls off her scarf and her blonde hair comes with it! Revealed as a short-haired brunette, Marcy flees in tears. Peter follows and tries to comfort her. She tells Peter that, as a young girl she had lovely light hair. She tellingly refers to it as, "my only good feature" and mentions that "daddy used to say it was like spun gold". But as she got older, her hair darkened and she was forced to bleach it to maintain her self-image. Recently, her doctor warned her that her hair would start falling out if she continued bleaching so she resorted to a wig and a scarf. Pete does his best to reassure her but he is interrupted by Deb who tells him his Aunt May is on the phone. May is upset because her friend Nathan Lubensky is at Bellevue hospital for therapy and word has come out that terrorists have taken over the place.

Aunt May is frightened. She wants Peter home with her while the crisis continues. Debra tells Peter she will accompany him. But Peter has to turn her down. He's not going to Aunt May's room at the nursing home right away. He's going to the hospital as Spider-Man.

The NYPD has surrounded the building, led by Lt. Kris Keating. (In a later story, Peter David revealed that the Foreigner murdered Lt. Keating and assumed his identity. The only problem is Peter never specifically revealed when this took place. So, even though Roger Stern had no way of knowing Peter David would do this to his character, as a reader looking back, it is hard not to wonder...are we supposed to assume this is really Keating in this story or is this the disguised Foreigner?) Keating sees Spider-Man coming and tells him to butt out. He's afraid Spidey's flamboyant arrival will endanger the hostages. But the Web-slinger takes a roundabout route (to put it mildly) by snagging a seaplane with his webbing, using the plane's momentum to slingshot himself high into the air, and creating a web parachute to land silently and unseen on the hospital roof.

The thugs on the roof are all distracted by the police across the way. (There is one idiot named "Al" who wants to take a potshot at Keating. Thanks, Roger!) Meanwhile, Spider-Man sneaks inside relying on his speed, Spider-sense, and wall-crawling abilities to evade the Jack O'Lantern's guards. But he is not fast enough to evade two henchmen, coming from the hostage-filled solarium. He dispatches the thugs quickly but not before Jack O'Lantern is tipped off. In retaliation, Macendale radios to his flunky in the solarium to kill the hostages. Right out front is Nathan Lubensky, feisty as ever, telling the hoodlum, "Go ahead and shoot! You can kill me first!...I'll see you in Hades!" Just then, Spidey breaks through the wall and takes care of the gunman. Spider-Man plans to evacuate the hostages but Nathan convinces him to capture Jack O'Lantern first. By the time Nathan launches into, "Why, when I was your age...", Spidey knows he's licked. He goes in search of Jack.

He doesn't have long to look. Jack O'Lantern kills the lights in the hallway and tries to attack from behind. Well, of course, this doesn't work. In fact, nothing at all works. Spidey easily evades all of Jack's attacks, ridiculing the villain in the process. ("Pogo platform? Sheesh, how cornball can you get??", he says of Jack's "goblin glider wannabee" flying disc.) Finally the Web-slinger tears a triple-enforced steel door off its hinges and flings it at the Pumpkinhead. Jack finally catches on that Spider-Man is toying with him and with that thought comes another... "I've got to get out of here!"

Jack flees the building, flying on his platform. But Spider-Man snags his disc with his webbing and uses a flagpole to sling Jack around and play Crack the Whip. ("And you get to be the whip.") One punch takes Jack O'Lantern out and allows a Firesign Theatre-savvy Spidey to quip, "Aw, you're no fun...you fell right over."

Peter hurries to Aunt May. For once it seems everything is wonderful. He got paid for his photos of Jack O'Lantern. He saved the hostages. He took the super-criminal out with ease. But when he gets to his Aunt's, May is so upset with him, she can hardly enjoy the good news of the hostage rescue. She can't understand why Peter could not join her immediately after her phone call when he knew how much she needed his companionship. She decides, "I'm just a foolish old woman who thought she still meant something to you". (Sure doesn't sound like May knew Pete and Spidey were one and the same yet, does it?)

Peter is crushed. He can't explain his lateness. He wanders off into the streets, alone, thinking "It's better that she thinks that her nephew is a louse than to know he's Spider-Man!"

Jason Macendale went on to bigger and better things, of course. I suppose it's better to be the one Hobgoblin that no one respects than to be the guy in the flaming pumpkin. Still, there is something to be said for the Jack O'Lantern outfit. Too bad no one is currently using it.

Roger Stern went on to bigger and better things too. His stint on Spectacular led to his great run on Amazing, then on to DC, becoming a best-selling novelist with "The Death and Life of Superman". Now, Roger is writing the tale of the TRUE Hobgoblin. I can't wait.

Speaking of true goblins, if it's green ones you're looking for, we got your true goblin right here. Spectacular Spider-Man #2 is next.