Back in the early 1970s, it seemed like Gerry Conway wrote every super-hero book at Marvel. From Thor to Iron Man, Daredevil to Marvel Team-Up, Spider-Man to the Fantastic Four, Gerry was the boy genius... later to become the enfant terrible in many fans' minds after he turned Franklin Richards into a vegetable in FF and killed off Gwen Stacy and Norman Osborn in ASM.
Gerry then moved over to DC, writing stories for Superman and the Justice League of America; creating and writing Firestorm. He came back to Marvel to help launch the new Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-Man series, but lasted for only the first two issues (December 1976-January 1977). More than ten years passed before Conway wrote the web-slinger again.
He made his return with a story (entitled "You CAN Go Home Again") that brought back the long-forgotten Living Brain (Web of Spider-Man #35: February 1988). After one more issue of Web (#36 which brought us our first glimpse of Tombstone), Gerry switched over to Spectacular Spider-Man with #137 (April 1988). Spectacular had just finished its parts of the "Kraven's Last Hunt" and "Mad Dog Ward" storylines, followed by Peter David's terrific sequel to his Sin-Eater saga. It was a hard act to follow but, bringing his Web of Spider-Man subplots with him, Gerry dove in. He started with a story about the new Tarantula (resusitating one of the villains he created in his original Amazing run), then started bringing in Tombstone, the Persuader, the Arranger, the Kingpin, the Punisher (another Conway original from Amazing), Hammerhead (ditto), the Lobo Brothers, the Chameleon, Boomerang and on and on. Eventually, Gerry was writing both Spectacular and Web in nearly uninterrupted three year runs, (#137 to #174 for Spec., #47-#70 for Web), weaving a fascinating storyline between the two, creating one of the most unforgettable rides in the last ten years of Spidey.
The following is a small sampling of the entire weave, beginning with only the fifth issue of Conway's Web/Spectacular run. Spectacular Spider-Man #139-143 with the Punisher and the Persuader... and the first major appearance of that strange albino villain who rises up from Joe Robertson's past... Tombstone. Art by the always exquisite Sal Buscema.
|Cover Art:||Sal Buscema|
After receiving an urgent phone call from Daily Bugle editor Joe Robertson, Peter Parker dons his Spider-Man garb and webslings over, in the rain, to the newspaper office... where someone takes a shot at him. The gunman, perched on a nearby roof, runs, huffing and puffing, to his escape route but when he gets there, he finds the door webbed shut and himself caught in the light of the spider-signal beam. Tugging at the door does the gunman no good. Still, he refuses to talk when Spidey confronts him, so the web-slinger proclaims, "You want drama, we'll do drama!" and knocks the hitman unconscious with a short punch.
When the gunman awakens, he is hanging off of a very high flagpole, held by Spider-Man's web. Scared into talking, he reveals that the hit was a "blind hire" which he picked up at Aggie's Pub on 10th Ave. He doesn't know who the employer is but he reveals that the intended target was Joe Robertson and Spider-Man only got in the way. (And all those issues later, the question of who actually hired this hitman is never adaquately answered.)
Racing back to the Bugle offices, Spidey finds Joe Robertson gone. On his desk is a folder and an audio cassette player. The attached note reads, "for Peter Parker".
Spidey stays in the office and begins to listen to the tape. On it is Robbie's voice beginning, "I chose you to receive this tape because you're freelance... and what I'm about to tell you will destroy my reputation. Peter, I'm an accessory to murder." The tape directs Pete to the folder. Inside are news clippings on killings linked to a man called Tombstone. "I'm as responsible for the killings in those clippings as if I'd pulled the trigger myself", the recorded Robbie says. But just at that moment, Spidey hears Kate Cushing and J. Jonah Jameson outside Robbie's office door. He picks up the goods and beats it out the window.
Meanwhile, in the Kingpin's headquarters, a man named Roland Rayburn is being slapped around by the albino hitman known as Tombstone... at the behest of the balding, bespectacled assistant known as the Arranger. (What else but comics could inspire a sentence like that?) Rayburn's Wall Street career has been closely followed by Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin, and his strange talents have been noticed. "I believe you are a mutant, Mr. Rayburn", says the Arranger, "You have the uncanny ability to persuade others to do your will." The Arranger wants Rayburn to work to amass a fortune on Wall Street for Mr. Fisk. When Rayburn balks, Tombstone knocks him around again. Nose bleeding, eyes suddenly glowing, Rayburn says, "You don't want to hurt me, Arranger. You like me. You want to let me go." Immediately, the Arranger tells Tombstone to release Rayburn until the hitman, in his characteristic raspy whisper, tells his employer that "He's doing it." Embarrassed out of the "persuasion", the Arranger tells Tombstone to "dislocate Mr. Rayburn's arm". Tombstone gives it a tug, then disdainfully tells his screaming victim, "Wimp. I barely twisted it."
Just then, a call comes through for Tombstone. "A Mr. Robertson..." Tombstone takes the call and agrees to meet Robbie in Battery Park in one hour. As Tombstone takes some personal time, a nurse named Sheila comes in to administer to Rayburn. The Wall Street wizard still resists, in spite of his great pain, but Sheila isn't there to treat him. She's there to administer a drug. "One way or another you will help us, Roland", the Arranger says.
As a steady rain falls, Spider-Man, while web-slinging, listens to more of Robbie's tape. "If it began anywhere, it began my senior year at Harlem High School before black was beautiful and Martin Luther King Jr. was still alive to dream of better things." Robbie was editor of the school newspaper, a recent winner of a scholarship to the Columbia School of Journalism. But he had one problem that haunted him; a tough leather-jacketed, cigarette smoking kid named Lonnie Lincoln whom everyone called Tombstone. One Friday, well after the end of classes, Robbie prepared to go home after putting the school paper to bed. The whole place was deserted except for one other person... Tombstone. Grabbing young Joe by the scruff of his neck, Lonnie slammed his smaller schoolmate against the wall. "Word around school says you're writing a story about me for the paper", Tombstone whispered. "I hear you say some bad things about me in your story, Robbie. You say I beat kids if they don't pay for insurance." Lonnie tells Robbie to kill the story and when the young editor refuses, Tombstone beats the snot out of him. "We should be friends", he tells Robbie as he mauls him, "Friends that treat each other nice. You're gonna treat me nice, aren't you, Robbie?" A bloodied Joe Robertson, beaten to the ground, agrees.
The next day, Robbie spikes the story. At lunch that day, a smug Lonnie, wearing a leather jacket with a skull and crossbones on the back, wanders by, says, "Keep up the good work, Robbie-pal" and gives a sly wink.
Sickened by what he had done, Joe swore he would never retreat from another story but eight years later, married and working on a paper in Philadelphia, the whole thing comes back again. It begins with a call from a tipster who says, "I saw the guy who popped Ozzy Montana". (Ozzy was a mob boss who, only three days before, "had shown up dead in the trunk of his limosine".) Joe makes an appointment to meet the caller at the waterfront (why do they always agree to meet at the waterfront?) but, once there, he cannot find his informant in the darkness until... his flashlight shines upon a dead man with a broken neck, tongue still lolling out, eyes bulging (looking like some of those famous images from EC comics) and still being held up by the hand of the killer. There is a whispered welcome of "Hi, Robbie. Long time no see, Robbie pal", then the body is dropped at Robbie's feet. The flashlight beam reveals Tombstone.
Robbie flees in terror, sure that is he going to die. He stumbles into some stray boxes and cans (the kind that are always left lying around at the waterfront in comics) and cowers. But Tombstone makes no move until Robbie drags himself home an hour before dawn. Then the phone rings, waking his wife Martha. A whisper on the line says, "You do good work, Robbie-pal". When Martha asks who was on the phone, a beaten Robbie replies, "Nobody, honey. Nobody at all."
"That first compromise in school had cracked my spirit somehow", the tape continues. "Tombstone killed my source. He probably killed Ozzy Montana. And if I said anything, if I said just one word, in my heart, I knew he'd kill me."
Twenty more years went by. Joe and Martha moved back to Manhattan, where he took the job at the Daily Bugle. He followed Tombstone's career as a Philly mob enforcer. "He was arrested a dozen times for a dozen murders but never tried. Some witnesses recanted their testimony. Some witnesses disappeared. Tombstone always went free." Then a couple of weeks ago, Robbie saw Tombstone again.... in New York. Suddenly his life was in turmoil again. "I felt frightened and angry and bitterly ashamed."
That night, at a bar where Bugle reporters hang out, Robbie overheard Ben Urich discussing Tombstone. "The guy's a one-man murder epidemic... Rumor has it he's hired out to the Kingpin." These comments cause Joe to blow a fuse and berate Ben for listening to rumor. He steps outside into the rain. (And, hey look! On the door! It's "Al's Pub"! Shucks, fellas, I'm speechless.) He looks at the newspaper machines outside. The Bugle headline is Mob Hits Multiply. Enraged, Robbie smashes the glass, cutting his hand. "How many people had Tombstone killed? Thirty? Fifty? A hundred? Those deaths were on my head, too. If I'd had the courage to face Tombstone down twenty years ago, his victims would be alive today. I can't change the past Peter, but I can change the future. I'm going to meet him tonight. Tonight it ends."
Immediately, Spidey visits the Arranger and, while he can't get the mobster to admit that Tombstone is in the Kingpin's employ, he does get him to suggest that the hitman may just be in Battery Park. And there, in the pouring rain, Robbie confronts his fears and his past.
Soon after the two meet, Robbie pulls a gun on Tombstone, intending to arrest him, but Lonnie surprises Joe by charging at him. "How could a kid so smart grow up to be so dumb?" Startled, Joe fires but it does no good. Tombstone is wearing a kevlar bulletproof vest. He grabs Robbie in a fearsome bear hug. But Tombstone always had a fondness for Joe and "for old time's sake", instead of killing him, he gives him "one more break". He squeezes hard. Robbie's scream can be heard by Spidey all the way across the park. By the time Spidey arrives, Tombstone is gone. Robbie lies on the wet pavement... unmoving. "Robbie, are you hurt?" Spidey asks, "Let me help you up." "No... don't touch me..." Robbie replies, "He did it... he broke my back."