Spider-Man (Vol. 1) #15

Story 'The Mutant Factor'

The story opens with a nice shot of Spidey hanging upside-down, illuminated by some light below. He says he's a man on a mission, and that mission is to find Beast.

Cut back to earlier; he and MJ (who's sporting the requisite ample amounts of cleavage) are discussing/arguing the prospect of the two of them having kids. MJ says it's been on her mind, what with Harry and Liz with their own little one downstairs (very weird to be reading a book where Harry is still alive and pre-Goblin). Mary Jane brings up the subject of Pete's radioactive blood. Peter says he tends to overlook that his genes may have been affected. He agrees to lay off and stop pressuring her. He also says that he hates not knowing whether or not his powers would cause a genetic mutation. Luckily, an open newspaper on display shows that Hank McCoy aka Beast is over at Empire State University giving a genetic lecture, so Pete suits up and swings over to ask him (my how convenient!). Upon getting to ESU, Spidey notices a riot has broken out.

Elsewhere--two hospital orderlies are admiring a sleeping baby who arrived mysteriously. That admiration turns to dread as the thing mutates into a giant right in front of them and knocks them both senseless. The mutant child then escapes.

Back at ESU--some scantily-clad, long-haired chick is firing energy blasts at Beast. "Didn't care for the lecture, madame?" he deadpans. She says mutants should be rulers, not slaves, and that they should take down the human race once and for all. Beast says humans grossly outnumber mutants, that they have quite a stockpile of weapons, and "some of 'em are darn cute, besides!". The villainess (later identified as Powerhouse) whacks McCoy a good one, sending him flying backwards (Larsen's art is really over the top here but very cool). Beast realizes she depletes his energy each time she makes contact, and uses that energy against him. Beast lunges at her one more time, giving Spidey an opening to knock her senseless. Spidey grabs Beast and swings off as the police arrive.

High up on a rooftop, Pete runs down his and Mary Jane's baby concerns to Beast. Beast says he'd be lying if there was anything less than an 85% chance of some complication. Beast says those complications could result in a mutant child or even the death of his wife. "Geez, don't restrain yourself---you can give it to me straight." jokes Pete. Beast also goes on to say Peter could be subjecting his family to prejudice and fear, and mentions the expense of raising a special needs child. He says it's unlike Spidey to come looking for advice like this, and is his wife pregnant already? Spidey says no, and to keep her existence a secret. Down below the mutant child who escaped from the hospital is destroying things down in the street below. Spidey and Beast swing into action.

Beast tries to get the creature in a headlock, but the creature slams him headlong into the ground (McCoy hasn't been much of a fighting partner this whole issue). Spidey begins to wail on it, and their fighting breaks up the ground, sending them careening into the sewers. Beast jumps down after them, holding his nose (sighing "I hate sewers" as he goes). Spidey has the creature webbed up and gets overconfident. The thing breaks an arm free and batters Beast once again, knocking him out. The creature then grabs Spidey, and is holding him under water in the sewer. Spidey can't break free and begins to think this might be it--that it doesn't occur to him as often as it should that one day he might not make it home. He thinks of MJ and how she will probably be hounded by the press, and be devastated by his death. He questions is this the life that he's chosen for himself, and his wife? He thinks his parents died risking their lives too, leaving him to grow up different and alone.

Suddenly, a couple comes up behind the creature, asking "Joey, is that you?". The creature shrinks back down to infant size. The man appears homeless and is saying it's mom left the kid at the hospital because she didn't know how to make it better. The mom says the kid shouldn't be down in the muck, that he should be with other little boys and be happy. Beast finally wakes up and says their kid is too powerful to be left alone without guidance. He tells them of a facility called the nursery that deals with super-powered children such as theirs. They agree to go along with Beast if they get to still see their kid when they want to. Beast points out to Spidey that that's what being a parent is all about, loving your child no matter what, mutant or not.

Spidey later drops in the skylight at home. MJ, dressed in a scanty nightie, is crying. She says she doesn't want to sound selfish, but her acting career is starting to take off, and having a child might ruin that. Also, that Peter is out risking his life night after night, and that they're young and they have plenty of time. Pete says after what he's been through this evening, he's fine with them conceiving when they're ready, and if they're ready. And that they'll be the best parents anyone's ever had when they do. MJ embraces him.

General Comments

Wow--I found this issue to really be a knockout. Erik Larsen seemed to always divide people into different camps--those who loved his work on Spidey and those who didn't. Once again, he follows in the wake of Todd McFarlane here (as he did when taking over for Todd over in Amazing). The difference between him and McFarlane is that Larsen can actually write. He nails the characters here effortlessly. The discussion of whether or not to start a family between Peter and MJ is thoughtful and dare I say, handled maturely (this was years before having MJ give birth to Baby May which just ended in tragedy, leading to some very poorly conceived and written storylines).

The MJ / Peter interaction highlights the problem Marvel had with the Spidey books at the time: namely, how can a hero go out and risk his life every day when he's married? How can said hero start a family no less? It's a problem that seemingly bedeviled Spidey editors and writers up to the present day. I personally think it lent story-lines like this a unique kind of tension, like when the mutant child is holding Spidey underwater in the sewer (how's that for a blunt narrative device?)--for the umpteenth time, he's thinking this could be the moment he dies, and his thoughts go directly to Mary Jane. To me, it gives Peter more motivation to come home in one piece. Apparently this is where Marvel and I disagree.

More on Larsen--his art style here is really over the top, and he really pushes the boundaries of the panels especially in the fight scenes. True, he may be prone to one splash page too many (there's about 4 to be seen here, and I assume they were there to help pad the issue out a bit; but they always look great). I always admired his artwork, though. He stands apart from being just another Todd clone and brings his own style to the web-head. I believe he also created Powerhouse for this issue too (though I doubt she's been seen anywhere since). Having Beast giving a genetics lecture right in the area as Peter & MJ are discussing having a mutant baby seems like one of those comic-only coincidences (among many others in this issue). Overall, such coincidences don't detract from this tale too greatly.

Overall Rating

This is top-notch stuff. Larsen has such a handle on writing these characters and making their interaction believable. He also brings creativity and a freewheeling sense of design that just about pops off the page. Too bad Marvel let this guy get away (though he would be back in a penciling capacity on Spidey, many years later). I can't believe I'm doing it, but it's only right: five webs all the way.

Footnote

Larsen soon does a longer stint on the title, the 6-part Revenge Of The Sinister Six, which is also quite nice.