In Comics Creators on Spider-Man, John Romita says of the newspaper strip, “Stan asked me to do it and I thought I was finally going to get a chance to be just like Milton Caniff [creator of “Terry and the Pirates” and “Steve Canyon”]. But Stan didn’t really see the newspaper Spider-Man as an adventure strip. I wanted to bring in all the classic supervillains and guest-star characters like Daredevil and Doctor Strange, but Stan always fought me on it. He wanted to use Spider-Man to write a soap opera strip like Mary Worth. Stan told me a hundred times that newspaper readers didn’t read comic books. They were a different audience and they were more interested in Peter Parker’s personal life. I was convinced the strip would die in two years, but it’s still running after twenty-seven years.”
In the same book, Stan confirms all this, saying, “I always felt that doing a newspaper strip is more prestigious than writing a comic book. I felt there were more readers. In my day, a good comic book sold maybe half a million copies. With a newspaper strip, you’ve got millions of readers from all over the world. I always wanted to do a newspaper strip. The syndicates would often call up and ask me to write a Spider-Man strip, but I turned them down. I didn’t know how to get the feeling of Spider-Man into two or three panels a day. I just couldn’t think of a way to do it. Then one day it hit me: instead of trying to do an adventure strip that was all about Spider-Man, I would pace the strip like a soap opera and focus on Peter Parker. I would include super-villains and give the strip a real Spider-Man feel, but try to pace it like Mary Worth or Rex Morgan.”
So, let’s see if that’s how the strip works in this story as Johnny gets to bring in one of the classic supervillains; perhaps his most enduring villain creation with Stan while they both worked on the comic book. A villain who is no longer considered a Spider-Man villain, except, perhaps, here in the strip-verse. The Kingpin.
You know how things are in the strip-verse; the stories blur into each other. So, even as Spider-Man agonized over the death of the Rattler, a handful of hoods got together in a car and announced that “Everything’s set for Operation: Spider-Man!” But first Spider-Man must remember where he left his clothes. That shouldn’t be too hard to remember because I thought he left them in Reptile World when he snapped the ropes in which the Rattler tied him (June 19) but it looks like he left them on some random rooftop instead. There, he breaks a shoelace as he tries to change into his civvies and must cling to a wall to hide from two cops who break in on him. In the last panel on July 6, he has his mask on but it is gone in the first panel of July 7, when Peter drops his shoes and they are picked up by a derelict in an alley. “Well, maybe that poor guy needs my shoes more than I do,” Peter decides. Then, he gives up changing into his civvies on the rooftop (which was a bad idea to begin with) and web-swings home. There he stabs his finger with a needle as he stitches his costume and angrily declares, “That sinks it! I’m not spending the rest of my life like this – no matter what!”
The next day, Mary Jane runs into Peter on the street and tells him that “Those pix you took of me were the end! (Peter took those photos in the May 15 strip.)They got me a modeling job in Miami! Care to join a gal?” “Hey, lady, I can use a vacation!” Peter replies (July 12). He then goes to the Daily Bugle where J. Jonah Jameson is crying out for some Rattler photos. (Check my review of the Rattler story at Spider-Man Newspaper Strip: 9 May 1977 - 3 Jul 1977 where I discuss whether JJJ should even know about the Rattler.) Peter delivers the photos Jonah wants but JJ confronts him, asking “How does a nowhere kid like you scoop every newsman in town when it comes to shots of Spider-Man’s battles?” Deciding, “I’ve got to sidetrack him,” Peter yells out, “If you’ll shuddup, I’ll tell you! I’m really Spider-Man!” Furious, Jonah kicks him out. “Lucky it’s not hard to confuse a windbag like Jameson,” thinks Peter, “But it’s the others I worry about – those who keep their suspicions to themselves.” And he looks over at Joe “Robbie” Robertson who looks back at him thoughtfully (July 17).
Peter heads over to MJ’s place only to find Flash Thompson there. When Flash tells him that he’s also going with them on the Miami trip, Peter loses it. He declares, “No big-mouth, flea-brained jock is cuttin’ in on my girl!” and he lifts Flash up by the neck with one hand. Realizing that he could “total him” with his spider-strength, he backs off, only to have Flash taunt him with “Next time don’t start something you can’t finish!” (Which is pretty nervy coming from a guy who just got lifted up by the neck with one hand.) Peter leaves, telling MJ, “Skip it, lady! It’s a wrap!” and heads home, blaming his spider-powers for his problems (although I don’t think his spider-powers have anything to do with his blowing up because Flash was going to join them in Miami).
Now, I haven’t mentioned him so far but the Kingpin has shown up off and on, carrying on about his trap for Spider-Man. On July 19, he tells his goons, “Before this day is over, Spider-Man will be mine!” but it takes until July 22 for Peter to see a report on TV about a man dangling from a smokestack. The newsman says, “It’s feared that only Spider-Man can save him now!”
Peter doesn’t want to deal with it. All he wants to do is call MJ and make it up with her. But his sense of responsibility takes over and he web-swings to the scene while MJ, at home, says, “I never thought he wouldn’t call! Okay, Petey boy, if that’s how you want it!” Which means she’s going to go off to Florida with Flash Thompson.
Spidey arrives at the smokestack. There, he finds a man hanging from a grating or something that is attached to the smokestack. The man reaches out to grab him and Spidey notices a “thin tube attached to his hand.” As Spidey grabs the man’s wrist, gas emits from the tube, knocking the web-slinger out (July 28). Moments later, a helicopter appears and takes the man and Spider-Man away. “The Kingpin guessed right, hirin’ a top circus acrobat for this job,” says someone in the chopper.
And so, the Kingpin’s men bring Spider-Man to him. When the web-slinger comes to, he easily breaks the handcuffs the men have put on him. Knowing Spidey would have no trouble with handcuffs, the Kingpin tosses him men around for “wasting” the cuffs on him. He then tells Spidey he has a proposition for him. Just then, Vanessa, the Kingpin’s wife, enters and is surprised to see Spider-Man. Her husband has told her that he’d “put the past behind us” and the Kingpin promises that “After today, you will never see Spider-Man again.” With Vanessa gone, the Kingpin asks Spidey to join him. “Together we can rule this city!” And even as MJ visits Aunt May, saying, “I hate to split for Miami without seeing Petey,” Spidey tells the Kingpin, “That’s like Ahab teaming up with Moby Dick!” But the Kingpin pushes his case. “After years of selfless crime-fighting, seeking to help others, you’re still feared by the public, hounded by the law – a penniless fugitive,” he says, “While I, the Kingpin, who serve only myself, bask in the lap of luxury…With my wealth, my wits, my organization, I can take over this entire city! Help me, and I’ll make you rich! Oppose me and you’ll die!” Spidey thinks, “What if he’s right?” and agrees to think about it. The Kingpin gives him one hour and slaps “an electronic radar device” on his arm “which will allow me to zero in on your location whenever I wish!” The bracelet cannot be removed except with Kingy’s “hidden laser key.” (August 9).
Spidey leaves the Kingpin’s office. He wants to contact Aunt May but he daren’t go visit with the Kingpin able to track him. So, he decides to call her but, being in costume, he has no money on him to use a pay phone. But there is a grate in the sidewalk next to the pay phone and he uses his webbing to fish some change out that people lost there. He calls Aunt May and learns that her doctor has recommended that she go away “to the mountains for a while.” She tells him “it’s out of the question” since they don’t have the money for it. That’s enough for the web-slinger. He decides that “the Kingpin was right” that he is wasting his talents for free. He leaves the phone booth determined to tell the Kingpin that he will join him.
And that’s just what he does. Even so, the Kingpin refuses to remove the radar device until “I need you no longer.” Spidey asks when that will be and the Kingpin tells him, “After the election, when – with your help – I become Mayor of New York (August 16).” (Actually, he is the mayor of New York in the comics these days.) Spidey agrees to help as long as no one gets hurt. But some people have already been hurt. JJJ and Robbie visit a reporter named Turner in the hospital. He was roughed up by the Kingpin’s goons (and he’s got a bandage on that covers his eyes so it appears that they blinded him) because he was investigating the Kingpin. Later, Robbie confirms that “the Kingpin’s going into politics!” Jonah says, “That’s like Arafat joining a Kibbutz!” (Yassar Arafat was the head of the Palestinian Liberation Organization and he appeared in this strip back on January 26.) Meanwhile, the Kingpin tells his men to contact “every major crime lord in the state.” He wants them all there to “tell them the Kingpin has started his greatest caper!”
Stuck in the Kingpin’s guest room, Spidey fumes over the “beeper” attached to his wrist. He gets so angry, he swings it at a bust of the Kingpin (wouldn’t you know that the Kingpin would have a bust of himself in his guest room?) and hits it with a SPTLANNG! But he does no damage to the bust or the beeper. Hearing the noise in the room, Vanessa enters and quickly flees when she sees Spider-Man. She confronts her husband, saying “You promised! You said you were done with intrigue – with danger!” The Kingpin swears that “I’ve never broken my word to you. Just be patient a little while longer – and we’ll be rid of him forever!” (Remember that he already promised her that "After today, you will never see Spider-Man again" but I guess it's still the same day.)
Soon after, “the biggest mobsters in the state” arrive at the Kingpin’s penthouse. He tells them he will be elected mayor by running “on a strong anti-crime platform!” He then reveals his “ace-in-the-hole.” “My new partner, Spider-Man!” One of the mobsters thinks it’s a fake. “That could be any creep in a rented monkey suit!” So, Spidey grabs him, takes him out a window and sticks to the wall while he dangles the mobster at the end of his webbing. The mobster quickly believes he’s the real deal (August 24). Vanessa eavesdrops on the meeting and decides, “He lied to me! He hasn’t given up the old life! He’s drunk with power! How can anyone stop him now?”
At the airport with Flash, five minutes before takeoff (August 26), MJ calls May Parker again to see if she’s heard from Peter. She says she has but that he didn’t tell her why he couldn’t visit. And how could he when he’s stuck in his Spidey suit (how does he go to the bathroom wearing that thing?) because of the “Kingpin’s electronic scanner?”
And so, the Kingpin gives a press conference, attended by JJJ and Robbie. (August 28) In it he announces his candidacy for mayor. He admits his past ties to the underworld but argues that they make him the perfect anti-crime candidate. “It takes power to crush the forces of crime – power such as only I possess!” Jonah is inclined to support him until the Kingpin brings out Spidey. If he’s going to have “that crummy web-head on his side,” Jonah is prepared to declare war on the Kingpin.
“The campaign begins” and posters are going up all over town that say, “Help Spider-Man stamp out crime! Vote for the Kingpin.” The Kingpin’s goons go around town destroying any posters for the Kingpin’s (mystery) opponent. Jonah Jameson comes out against the Kingpin’s candidacy, which the Kingpin calls “an unfortunate decision…for Mr. Jameson.” A big rally is planed “to denounce [Kingy’s] candidacy for mayor.” He sends Spidey to the event to upstage it.
Meanwhile, 8 days after MJ’s plane was going to depart in five minutes, she and Flash are still hanging around the airport (September 3). She still hopes that Peter will show up but Peter is at Madison Square Garden. There the “Stop the Kingpin” rally is about to begin, moderated by Geraldo Rivera. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Bella Abzug are two of the people on the stage. Before Geraldo can introduce any of the “illustrious public figures,” Spider-Man swings in. His appearance causes such a panic that the rally immediately breaks up. Spidey stops the dangerous stampede by doing “all sorts of impossible gymnastics” that attract the crowd’s attention. He then tells them to “walk to the exits.” This is reported on TV by Barbara Walters and Harry Reasoner who were co-anchors on ABC during this time. Spidey heads back to the Kingpin’s place, telling himself “If they’re dumb enough to vote for him, it’s not my fault! For once, I’m comin’ out on top!” (How exactly is he "comin' out on top?" He hasn't earned any money yet.)
But it’s not that simple. J. Jonah Jameson publishes an edition of the Daily Bugle with the headline “Kingpin Tied to Underworld.” This gets Aunt May to call Anna Watson and say, “Jonah Jameson promises to furnish proof that the Kingpin is still the boss of organized crime! I knew it! Especially with that horrible Spider-Man on his side!” And the Kingpin sees the paper and decides “Jameson must be silenced for good!” He sends his goons out to get Jonah and Spidey, entering through the window, overhears. “You promised no one would be hurt if I worked with you!” says Spidey but the Kingpin replies, “I merely promised that you would not have to harm anyone!” Let’s see if he’s right. On August 18 in panel #3, Spidey says, “I’ll back you on one condition…nobody gets hurt!” and the Kingpin replies, “Naturally! The Kingpin abhors violence!” So, no, the Kingpin is not telling the truth when he says he “merely promised that you would not have to harm anyone.”
Spidey tries to quit anyway but the Kingpin tells him “No one defects from the Kingpin!” He pits three goons against the web-slinger but Spidey quickly takes care of them. But then, the Kingpin, using a handheld remote, sends a jolt of electricity through the bracelet that is still locked on Spidey’s wrist and the wall-crawler is down for the count. (September 11) The Kingpin sends his men off to take care of Jameson, through the door that Spidey webbed shut just two strips earlier. (Maybe an hour has gone by since then?) He leaves Spidey in the room and encounters his wife in the hall. She tells him, “You promised you were through with violence…with the use of force!” He tells her, “Unfortunately, sometimes a few must be hurt…for the good of many!” But Vanessa does not agree. So, even as Spidey fails to smash the electronic bracelet off his wrist, Vanessa enters with the laser key. (Did she filch it from her husband as Ingrid Bergman steals a key from Claude Rains in Alfred Hitchcock’s "Notorious?") She tells him to use it to free himself since, “I can’t let the Kingpin become a murderer!” but I’d be surprised if he isn’t a murderer already. In any event, Spidey unlocks the bracelet (September 15) and heads to the Daily Bugle. He gets there just as the three goons drive off with Jameson in their car. At least, so it looks on September 17. On the 18th, Spidey arrives just as the goons are putting Jameson into the car. He webs up their windshield, then rips the driver’s door off. He follows that up by ripping the steering wheel out. At this point, the car is at a standstill and the three goons run for it. Spidey thinks JJJ will thank him for saving him but Jonah accuses him of setting up the whole thing. (And, really, Jameson comes up with some pretty crazy anti-Spider-Man theories but this one is reasonable seeing as, last he knew, Spidey was working with the Kingpin.) Just then, an army of cops show up to arrest him. (“I’ll press enough charges to send him up for life!” says Jonah.) But Spidey leaps away and returns to the Kingpin.
Back at his penthouse, the Kingpin wonders if Spidey got free of the bracelet since he “seems to have been immobile for the past half-hour.” (He could just go into the other room and check.) Just then, his goons return to tell him “the web-slinger’s on the loose!” We get a one-panel switch to Miami (September 21) where MJ is posing for a photographer. “If only Petey could be here!” she thinks, “His photos got me this job!” Then Spidey leaps into the Kingpin’s window. Kingy, his goons, and Vanessa are all in the room.
Spidey confronts the Kingpin but Vanessa steps in, saying, “You promised not to harm my husband!” (But, to be precise, Vanessa said, “Let no harm come to my husband!” back on September 15 and Spidey didn’t say anything in response.) Furious that Spidey “dared to turn [Vanessa] against [him],” the Kingpin fires his blast cane at the web-slinger. Vanessa steps in the way to protect the web-slinger and is shot (September 23).
The Kingpin goes to the fallen Vanessa. His goons figure it’s time to “even the score” with Spidey and the fight begins. A gun falls near the Kingpin and one of his men yells at him to “grab the gun!” He does so, only to crush it in his hand. He has no interest in Spider-Man, only in Vanessa. He picks her up and declares, “Must get her to a doctor! But…there’s no time! She’s sinking fast.” He stops at the phone and tries to call Dr. Borden but the doctor's line is busy. Spidey knows who Borden is and web-swings away to get him. The Kingpin’s men turn on him, thinking he has grown soft but Kingpin knocks them out with one blow. Spidey arrives at Borden’s office where he learns why the line was busy; Borden is on the phone chatting about golf. Spidey snags Borden's medical bag with his web and then scoops up the doctor himself, taking him to the Kingpin.
As Borden treats Vanessa, Spidey tells Kingy that he only has himself to blame. “You can’t trample on others without paying for it somehow.” Kingpin hangs his head. “I almost had it all! The election! The city! Power – limitless power! And now…” Spidey follows him out onto the balcony. “She loved you, Kingpin!” he says, “You had it all! But you were too blind to see it!”
Eventually, Dr. Borden emerges to tell Kingpin that Vanessa’s “injury has left her paralyzed” even if she lives. The Kingpin buries his head in the sheets next to the unconscious Vanessa and vows, “I’ll make it up to you – if it takes forever!” Spidey leaves, determining that “the Kingpin’s finished! Not even the law can punish him as much as he’s punished himself!” But he doesn’t get far. He hangs around as an ambulance arrives to take Vanessa away. (Spidey seems to think that Vanessa is dying but that doesn’t turn out to be the case. Of course, we don’t learn that until the second "Operation: Spider-Man" story in 1979.) Out in the street, a reporter asks the Kingpin how his wife’s injury affects his candidacy for mayor and the Kingpin tells her, “It’s finished. It – wasn’t worth the price!” With that, Spidey swings away but he later pauses to brood, deciding, “It’s my fault! If I hadn’t backed the Kingpin – Everything might have been different!” (And, yeah, that’s probably true.)
As the sun comes up the next morning, Spidey is still thinking about the Kingpin. “His savage lust for power brought nothing but inevitable tragedy!” he says, “Still, am I any better? Why do I keep doing what I do? Am I really trying to help others or am I caught in my own unending power trip? The Amazing Spider-Man! Why couldn’t I see it would bring only trouble and torment? And yet would I have done anything different? I wonder…” All good questions and a nice lead in to the next story, “The Origin of Spider-Man!”
The next time we see the Kingpin (December 2, 1978, panel #2), he is in prison, blaming Spider-Man. “My wife is still in the hospital and I’m still here,” he thinks, “all because of one man. But I’ll get even! Sooner or later, Spider-Man will pay! The Kingpin swears it!” The only problem with this is that Spidey didn’t put the Kingpin in prison. No one even tried to arrest him, unless JJJ had some really good info about Kingy’s underworld connections that we never saw. So, the continuity is a bit skewed. Still, it's nice to see Stan and John establish the Kingpin as one of Spidey’s major villains in the strip-verse. First, they set up an existing history between the two (as shown by the films of their previous battles that Kingy shows Spidey in the August 7th strip). Then they go on to use him two more times during John Romita's run. And he keeps showing up after that. He’s even in the penultimate story of the strip run, “Fury of the Iron Fist,” Spider-Man Newspaper Strip 14 May 2018 - 11 November 2018.
When next we see Vanessa (February 23, 1979, panel #1), she is alive but confined to a wheelchair. She makes appearances in some subsequent Kingpin stories, such as “Carole and the Kingpin,” Spider-Man Newspaper Strip 26 Feb 1980 – 19 May 1980 but by the time we get to that story in 2018, Vanessa is not mentioned at all.
And it's interesting that the Kingpin is scheming to become the mayor of New York in this storyline, something he's succeeds in doing years later in Daredevil #595, January 2018.
Here are this story's "First appearances in the Strip-Verse"
As I quoted in the Background section, Stan believed that a Spidey newspaper strip would only work as a soap opera while Johnny wanted to do an adventure strip. This time, at least, the strip can be both. On the one hand, we get plenty of action with the Kingpin and his mob, but, on the other hand, we get Peter's inability to join MJ in Miami. These two approaches combine nicely in Spidey's decision to join with the Kingpin. It spurs on the action but it also presents us with a young man who still screws up too often by thinking with his emotions. Most of what occurs can be placed at Peter's feet because of this decision, from MJ going to Florida with Flash to the wounding of Vanessa. He is a flawed hero with room to grow and that makes his story compelling.
Speaking of Vanessa's wounding, doesn't it feel like this has happened before? I was certain that it took place in a comic book story. Even John Romita seemed to think so. He says, in Comics Creators on Spider-Man, "I loved that plot we came up with where we put her in a coma and the Kingpin is on his knees sobbing across her sick bed. Stan and I did two variations on that scene. In the newspaper strip, the Kingpin's in the coma and she's sobbing over him." At the end of this story, the Kingpin does kneel at the bed of an unconscious Vanessa but did this happen in the comic book? I can't find it. This, though, is one of the things I love about the strip-verse. Stan often uses elements from previous comic book stories and combines them in new ways. And then there are moments that feel like something you saw in the comic book but maybe it wasn't there after all. Vanessa's injury is one of those things. Another is the electronic bracelet. Spidey gets manacled to J. Jonah Jameson by Professor Smythe in the comics but that happens in ASM #191 which is cover-dated April 1979, two years after this story. (So, did Marv Wolfman copy Stan?) There was the magnetic iron manacle that Kraven slapped on Spidey in ASM #15, August 1964 but that's not quite the same. So these elements swirl around in the strip stories, feeling familiar when they're fresh, feeling fresh when they're familiar. All of this is fair because the strip-verse establishes a totally different continuity that may resemble the comic book continuity but may juggles its elements differently. (Just because the Kingpin and Spidey have a history here doesn't mean it's the history from the comics.) And it's fair that it uses elements from the comics since, if Stan was right, it had "millions of readers from all over the world" that didn't read the comic book and hadn't seen these things before.
This story juggles everything well and stays true to its characters; from MJ's thoughts of Peter even while she is angry at him to JJJ's switch to anti-Kingpin when he learns that Spidey is Kingy's partner to Spidey's sense of responsibility inducing him to try to rescue the guy hanging from the smokestack to the Kingpin taking advantage of the responsibility to the Kingpin taking advantage of Spidey's resentments to get him to join him to Vanessa's anguish over her husband's criminality that brings about her providing Spidey with the laser key and stepping in front of the Kingpin's blast cane. It is the establishment of the Kingpin's unswerving devotion to Vanessa throughout the story that makes the ending...when Kingpin just gives up his plans after Vanessa's injury...so believable.
And there is some real suspense here. When will Spidey realize that throwing in with the Kingpin is wrong? How will Spidey rid himself of the electronic bracelet? Who will get to JJJ first, Spidey or the gangsters? All designed to keep you on the edge of your seat...for 3 whole months. And it does a pretty good job.
So, everything works for me here. I even love that, in these days before Kingpin got a real name, he runs for mayor with a "Vote for the Kingpin," slogan. That's like saying, "Vote for the gangster, isn't it?" Or it's like the old TV show when the Caped Crusader ran for mayor: "Vote for Batman."
Next: It's been 10 months since the strip started so it's probably time for "The Origin of Spider-Man."