If you're expecting Garth Ennis, then you've come to the wrong place. This isn't that Hitman. This is the one you probably never heard of and who you'll probably never see again. But first... the Vulture!
It's 3AM on Manhattan's west side and Joe Knuckles, professional extortionist, is running for his life through the snow. He finds himself backed up against a wall as a great winged shadow looms over him. He tries to tell his pursuer that he was just doing what he was paid to do, that he was only following orders, and that he didn't know who his target was, but none of these excuses do any good. The Vulture (whose instinct tells him "to strike when his prey can fight or flee no more!") swoops down, grabs Joe by the lapels of his coat and hoists him up into the air.
The Vulture's flight path takes him right by the apartment of Peter Parker. Our hero is deep in a heavy sleep but something wakes him up; some sort of loud shout. He jumps out of bed, opens his bedroom window and peers outside; his breath visible in the frosty air. He looks down on the street but it is deserted. It never occurs to him to look up in the air to see the Vulture silhouetted under a full moon. And so, Peter heads back to the warmth of his bed. After all, he has an early class in the morning and he's still trying to recover his strength after his fight with Stegron the Dinosaur Man and the Lizard. (In Amazing Spider-Man #165-166, February-March 1977).
Meanwhile, the Vulture hangs onto Joe by the nape of his coat and dangles him underneath him as he flies. He arrives at the Hudson River and dumps Joe in. This is the punishment the strong-arm man gets for trying to force the Vulture to pay protection; a late night swim in "the garbage strewn waters" below.
Joe overcomes the shock and cold and manages to drag himself out of the water. By daylight, he is sitting with his feet in a bucket of hot water and wrapping his shivering body in a warm blanket in the office of the mob boss known as Mr. Morgan. Joe explains that he thought the Vulture "wuz just some old g-g-geezer runnin' a fix-it shop" but, much to his regret, found out differently. With Hammerhead and Kingpin both thought dead at this time (in ASM #159, August 1976 and ASM #164, January 1977 respectively) the Morgan mob has made plans to branch out from Harlem to take all of Manhattan. But now Joe wonders how they can accomplish that with "the Vulture featherin' his nest here". Mr. Morgan, a middle-aged African-American man with sunglasses, a blue pinstriped suit, a hoop earring in his left ear, and smoking a cigarette in a holder, thinks the answer is to team-up with the Vulture only to double-cross him later.
Over in his Chelsea apartment, Peter Parker wakes up feeling like he hasn't slept at all. He wonders if he can "snatch a couple of extra Zs" until he looks at his clock. Apparently, he shut the alarm off before and went back to sleep without remembering it. Now he has less than a minute to catch the bus!
Moving at spider-speed, Pete gets into his Spidey outfit with a webbing pack of civvies on his back. He leaps out his window and web-slings to the bus stop, arriving just as the bus ("one of the new double-deckers") pulls away. His only chance to catch it is to land on the top and ride on the outside. All well and good, except that it is freezing up there. Still how can he possibly complain... until a low tree branch conspires with the high roof of the double-decker bus to thwack him right in the solar plexus and knock him into the street. Can it get any worse? Yes. A cab driver yells at him to get out of the way. "Ya wanna play in the snow, go ta Central Park, Fancy Britches!" he says.
At the same time, Joe Knuckles and Mr. Morgan arrive in the boss' limo at the repair shop being run by the Vulture. (In case you are wondering, this fix-it shop business is all new. The Vulture was last seen limping away from the scene of his battle with Spidey in ASM #64, September 1968 and hasn't surfaced since.) Joe points out the shop, defending his actions by saying that he couldn't be expected to know the Vulture was hiding there. Morgan, now also dressed in a yellow coat with a fur collar, tells Joe that he was hired on the basis of knowing such things. "Fortunately I'll be able to use the Vulture to off-set employees of your caliber" he adds, chillingly.
The shop is closed but Morgan and a few goons enter anyway. The Vulture, wearing a blue cloak that covers up his costume, enters from the back room and tells the men to get out. Morgan assures the Vulture that the visit "is all strictly friendly". He tells Vultchy that Joe Knuckles "made a mistake last night" and that he hopes to correct it by letting the super-villain join his operation. But instead of accepting, the Vulture reacts with anger and outrage. "After months in this wretched shop anonymously rebuilding and increasing my powers, you dare think I'd turn them over to some mere mobster" he cries as he throws the blue cloak off, revealing his wings underneath. With incredible swiftness, he wades into the hoodlums, scattering them with his wings. Then he grabs Mr. Morgan by the hands, flies right through a closed window, scattering glass everywhere, and leaves the mob boss hanging by the back of his coat on one of the city's tallest lamp posts. "This is the new might of the Vulture" he declares, "Developed for one purpose only... the utter destruction of my long-time enemy Spider-Man!" And with that, he flies up and away.
Mr. Morgan stays up on the post until New York's Finest arrive with a cherry picker to get him down. The cops get a lot of pleasure out of the situation, making little jokes ("I guess the rumors are true. Morgan is all hung up on moving his operation downtown!") but Morgan is absolutely seething! He grits his teeth and clenches his fists when he's back on terra firma. "The Vulture's made me look the fool to the Man and my people", he realizes and he knows just what to do to get his revenge.
At Empire State University, Peter Parker is snoozing through Professor Ballinger's Chemistry Class. The Prof gets on his case about failing to complete his experiment in the required time. Peter admits that his "thoughts must've strayed" but he is certain he has finished the experiment. Ballinger points out that you can't get the desired result if you don't even remember to light your Bunsen burner.
After class, Peter walks the snowy New York streets, deep in thought. He starts to pass by a restaurant but stops when it recognizes it as the place he, Glory Grant and Flash Thompson came to eat "the other night" (namely in PPSSM #3, February 1977). While there, Flash recognized one of the waitresses as Sha Shan, the woman who he met on his tour in Vietnam (in ASM #108, May 1972). Flash makes a scene by grabbing Sha Shan. She tells him to leave her alone and runs away. A man with a goatee, black hair parted down the middle, sunglasses, a cravat, and a cigarette in a holder says, "Eef you gentleman are feeished disrupting my rasturant, would you be so kind as to get out?"
Now, Pete tries the door of the restaurant and finds it locked. A bald man with a Salvador Dali mustache looks out of the window in the door and tells Pete that the restaurant doesn't open until dinner. Pete recognizes him as "the guy who hustled us out last time" (which is a pretty neat trick since the guy doesn't look anything at all like the guy who asked them to leave last issue). Pete tells the man that he is looking for Sha Shan and the man replies "we have no one in our employ by that name". As he speaks, Sha Shan stands behind a curtain crying her eyes out.
So, Pete leaves the scene. At first, he wonders if Flash was mistaken but he also remembers Sha Shan when he teamed with Doctor Strange to battle the guardians of the Hidden Temple (in ASM #109, June 1972) and realizes that he, too, recognized her. But then Pete's introspection is interrupted by a building crowd looking up and a bystander yelling, "Holy crud!". He glances into the sky and sees the Vulture grabbing a man off the street and flying up to the top of a nearby building. There are already four frightened people clinging to a snow-covered ledge on the building. What is the point of all this? A man with a transistor radio provides the answer. According to the news, the Vulture has "vowed to grab a hostage every fifteen minutes unless Spider-Man faces him!"
Overhearing this, Pete slips away into an alley. He takes off his shoes, scales a wall, and arrives on a roof where he changes into his Spidey suit. The winter air is freezing and Pete shivers as he removes his coat. He checks his web-shooters and learns that one cartridge is almost empty so he uses the rest of it to make a "webbing bag" for his clothes. He gets a full cartridge from his belt, sticks his bag of clothes under a roof ledge and is "ready for action!"
In his office, Mr. Morgan watches the drama on TV. The newsman tells the viewers that "police tactical units are on the scene" but Spider-Man has not appeared yet. Morgan knows Spidey will eventually show. He spent plenty of time fighting the Falcon back in Harlem (in Captain America and the Falcon #152, 157, 158, 165, August 1972, January 1973, February 1973, and September 1973) and knows that "those hero-types are just too upright, up-tight to play it any other way". Morgan's musings are interrupted by a man standing in the shadows; a man Morgan is expecting. The man tells Morgan that there is "an extra charge for operating on such short notice" but the crime boss doesn't care. He wants revenge on the Vulture and "cost doesn't matter". He passes an opened suitcase filled with money across his desk to the mysterious new arrival. That man slams the case closed and guarantees that Mr. Morgan's job will get done. Then he announces himself as "the Hitman!"
Back at the Vulture's hostage situation, the police sharpshooters try to draw a bead on him from the ground. Every time the shooters think they can get him, the Vulture "swings in line with his captives" and the men don't dare shoot. To makes matters worse, the Vulture never stays away from his hostages long enough for the police to get onto the roof to rescue them. Spidey is having problems of his own. He watches the scene from a nearby building, trying to figure out how to attack. The Vulture has planned his location well. There is "no way" Spidey can swing over to the building without making himself an easy target. Then he notices a flagpole on a building closer to the Vulture and comes up with a plan. He attaches a strand of webbing to the flagpole, puts "lots of power" into his swing, and whips around and around the flagpole like riding a Ferris wheel at runaway speed. This builds up enough centrifugal force for him to spring through the air and hit the Vulture from behind "like a missile".
Unfortunately, this quick attack fails to knock the Vulture out of the air. Spidey is forced to shoot out some webbing to stop his own fall. With the Vulture in pursuit, he decides it is "alternate plan time". First, he clings to a wall with his hands while he tucks in his legs to avoid the striking Vulture. Then he leads the Vulture on a merry chase, giving the police time to get up to the roof and rescue the hostages. (Which is the "alternate plan", I suppose.) "Phase two" of the plan is to swing by the big plate-glass windows of an office building where Spidey hopes the "furniture-crowded interior" will give him an advantage in the fight. Spidey furthers figures that there will be few innocent bystanders since "everyone should be out to lunch". And, sure enough, the Vulture attacks Spidey with enough force to send them both crashing through the window and into the building but there the webhead's plan goes awry for the building turns out to be "one of these places where they ran out of construction money before it could be finished". It is not only uninhabited, it is unfurnished, providing the Vulture plenty of room to spread his wings. "I may be the first super-hero done in by the recession", Spidey thinks.
Still, you've got to adapt to the situation, so Spidey begins by setting up a net of webbing between two steel girders. Unfortunately, the Vulture has improved his power pack so that his wings can now shred Spidey's webbing if he attacks it before the web fluid hardens. He rips through and springs at the wall-crawler, carrying him past an open elevator door and into an empty elevator shaft. The Vulture allows both of them to fall, pinning the wallcrawler beneath him, expecting to fly to safety after he has forced Spider-Man to his death. But Spidey shoots a stream of webbing to stop the fall, maneuvers out of his vulnerable position and lands on the Vulture's back. While he's there, he decides to use the same trick he pulled before (in ASM #64, September 1968) to put the Vulture out of action... he grabs the power pack positioned on the Vulture's back and tries to crush it with his bare hands. The Vulture is absolutely thrilled by this. In fact, he's been waiting for it. He, too, remembers how he was defeated the last time and has now booby-trapped his power pack. When Spidey touches it, he is jolted with enough electricity to knock him unconscious. The Vulture lets the web-slinger fall. By this time, they are no long high enough for the fall to be fatal but it's gotta hurt, all the same. With Spider-Man knocked out and helpless, the Vulture swoops down for the kill. But, before he can get there, a grenade blast knocks the basement elevator door into the shaft, throwing the Vulture to the ground. As Spidey and the Vulture groggily look up, a new figure enters the fray. He wears a peach colored costume with crossing ammo belts, two holsters with pistols on a belt, goggles, a knife sticking out of his boot, and a mask that makes him look like he has a big nose. He carries a futuristic-looking rifle in his hands. Yes, here he is. It's the Hitman and, surprise!, his contract is not on the Vulture. Mr. Morgan wants revenge on the Vulture by thwarting the Vulture's revenge! The Hitman's task is take care of Spider-Man himself!
We sure didn't need a Punisher clone like the Hitman and Mr. Morgan is no Kingpin, but it is nice to have the Vulture back after so long away and the three-way battles between he, Spidey, and the Hitman are lots of fun. Four webs.