Spider-man as a comic title has always had it's share of edgy moments over the years (Harry tripping out on drugs comes immediately to mind). Going into the mid-80's, the Spidey books got downright dark as was the trend of the time (where gritty anti-heroes like The Punisher, Wolverine and Moore's Watchmen reigned).
Characters were killed as villains got downright murderous, Pete and his loved ones were set upon by gangs and violence, and Spidey, his world and the supporting cast's were made to reflect, and fit into, a harder street-wise sense of reality.
But before much of that was this tale by Bill Mantlo. Spidey's faced many a super-powered villain..but how does he respond to the scourge of gun violence? Read on..
On a summer night in Spanish Harlem, Spidey's hanging upside down, about to get the drop on two thugs breaking into a grocery. He arrived too late to actually prevent them from breaking in however, and after setting up his camera, follows them inside where they begin to tangle. The noise awakens the shopkeep, who comes out with a gun, saying it's the fifth time he's been hit that month. The shopkeep fires, killing one of the robbers who Spidey soon discovers is just a kid. The camera Pete set up before the robbery clicks away, taking shots of the kid dying in Spidey's arms.
The next day at the Bugle, a depressed Pete is showing his picture haul to Robbie Robertson. Rival freelance photographer Lance Bannon is also present. Bannon expresses envy of the shot of the dying robber in Spidey's arms, saying he wishes he'd been there to take it, which Pete demurs. Robbie, Lance and Pete go into a long discussion / argument about gun control (with all the usual pro and cons, and with Lance all for the pros and Robbie and Pete enumerating the cons). Somebody comes in the room with the info that an illegal shipment of handguns is being smuggled into the city that night. Pete dashes off as Spidey to investigate. As he does, a single panel and a series of captions show a father shooting his son by mistake as the son comes over to visit at night as a surprise.
Spidey swings over to Josie's Bar that night to rough up some thugs and get some info on the smuggled guns. Elsewhere, an armed mugger takes two more lives, a couple with a young son (I got the Batman origin nod again out of this--the mugger is holding a pearl necklace). Spidey throws the underworld types around at Josie's until someone clues him on to a shipyard in Brooklyn. As the shipment is being unloaded, the police arrive and the men getting the shipment open fire on them, killing one cop. The men try to escape in a truck with the smuggled arms, and are speeding toward the other officer they have pinned down behind his squad car. The surviving officer takes out one of the thugs riding on the side of the truck with a bullet as well. Spidey breaks a mast pole off of a nearby boat and uses it to vault up into the air and onto the truck. Meanwhile, a panel shows a gun owner 'someplace, somewhere' who shot himself while cleaning his gun.
Spidey tears the roof off the truck, webs the steering wheel, yanking the truck away from the pinned down officer and crashes it into some crates. The next day at the Bugle, the same group is going over Pete's pictures of the previous night again. Bannon tells Pete he deserves a pulitzer for the shots. A typically glum Pete says he hears they're giving the dead cop's family a medal. Jonah bursts in, saying while the police were stopping the smuggling operation, twelve other handgun shootings took place in New York alone at the same time. Jonah asks what the answer is, leaving Pete looking on.
Another "issues" issue of Spider-man, which I'm starting to think could be another category on this site unto itself. It's a theme that's undoubtedly relevant for Pete, who lost his own Uncle to gun violence. Luckily we're spared another rehash of the Uncle Ben shooting and Pete's guilt thereof. This story is too busy with it's own insane body count--I counted 19 killings along with the number Jonah came in with at the end. Mantlo is trying to prove a point but taking a decidedly anti-gun stance to do it (when considering that Robbie and Pete give the most cogent anti-gun facts and figures, while Lance Bannon can only muster boneheaded arguments like "we need them for self-protection", etc.). The stylistic choice this ish of showing gun killing victims in single, bold, off-colored panels is particularly effective.
The story, art and action is all pretty standard Spidey fare. The gun violence epidemic is something that is still resonant socially from then to today, making this tale a bit more memorable for it. Like most good dialectic argument stories, this one stops just short of prescribing a solution to it all--the reader mostly gets to decide for themselves.