I've seen this story line, as well as the character of Ace Spencer, derided online as some of the worst Spidey stories ever. As some of the first Spidey comics I ever read, I've always had a bit of soft spot for this two-parter, and am re-evaluating it to see if its worthy of the bad rap it gets.
The story opens on a grisly crime scene: outside of DiFeo's Restaurant, the police are taking away bodies. Black-costumed Spidey thinks he's going to be sick. He's on a nearby rooftop, snapping away with his camera. Spidey thinks that while he can use the money the pics will bring, he would've given anything to have prevented the slaughter. Who should get out of a sqaud car but Captain Jean DeWolff herself, dressed in a green evening dress. Spidey greets her, commenting on her "lady about town" look, but DeWolff tells him to cram it, that she's just had a long-planned evening ruined by her beeper and teenage gangs at war with eachother in her precinct.
Spidey is rather incredulous at the idea of "kid" gangs, and DeWolff informs him that kids grow up fast around these parts in the city. An officer shows Jean and Spidey a green shirt bearing the logo "Dragons". Capt. DeWolff explains that the Reapers gang are most likely the perpetrators of the massacre. The restaurant's owner, Vincent DiFeo is being loaded into the back of an ambulance. He caught a couple rounds in the shooting, but stops DeWolff to tell her that he recognized two of the shooters and names them, and tells Jean he likes her dress.
DeWolff tells Spidey she'll notify DiFeo's wife, that Spidey should go home and turn on "Hill Street Blues", and be thankful that he can turn it off anytime he wants, that she doesn't have that option. Spidey compliments Jean on her dress once more and decides to take some snaps of her, "for professional purposes, of course". Spidey spots a stranger wearing sunglasses and sitting on a bike in an alley. Spidey decides to take some practice pictures of the person as well. As Spidey swings off, the person in the alley tears off on his motorbike, speeding through the crime scene. Jean yells at him, recognizes him as Ace, and tells him to watch it, that she'd hate to have to arrest him again.
Ace rides all the way across town to a run-down tenement. He lets himself in an apartment, where a young kid is sitting on the floor reading "Wizard Of Oz". Ace takes out his knife, the kid doesn't notice, and Ace throws it. It flies past the kid, and kills a rat on the floor. The kid is shocked, and yells at the stoic Ace, but then thanks him. The child is Ace's kid sister Rosie--he takes his sunglasses off for her when she tells him to lighten up and they embrace. He's called by someone from another room, and the shades go back on.
Ace's bedridden mother is in the room--she tells him she knows there was trouble tonight and asks if he was involved. He says no.
The next morning, Peter is making his way to Robbie Robertson's office to see if he liked the photos Peter left on his desk. Peter thinks he is nervous because "straight crime photography" is a little new for him (it is?). As he's heading into the Bugle, he's almost run down by a tall, sexy blonde reporter. "Gangway! Reporter on a deadline here! Taxi!" she says. Brushed aside, Peter asks for a little professional courtesy for a photographer. She recognizes him as Peter Parker and forces him in the cab with her. The reporter introduces herself as Joy Mercado, on her way to a preliminary hearing for two suspects in a gang shooting, but sans photographer. They share a crazy cab ride, and Peter recognizes the cabbie (see footnote).
Two punks are accosting a legless, wheelchair bound man on the street, meanwhile. Ace pulls up, and the punks get nervous but the man in the wheelchair explains that he taught Ace really well, not to get mixed up in other people's business. The punks say they could rob the wheelchair man blind right then and there, and Ace wouldn't do anything? The man in the wheelchair explains Ace wouldn't, but the man himself would, pulling a shotgun. The punks run. The man in the wheelchair asks Ace about his brother who was involved in last night's shooting, how he's being arraigned right now in a courthouse across town.
Peter and Joy are at the arraignment across town, where the judge informs the court that DiFeo is now in a coma from the shooting. The defense argues that DiFeo identifying the shooters to Captain DeWolff is hearsay, a charge that assistant DA Hillman can't answer to. The judge rules that the shooters will be held for trial, and sets bail at $25,000 each.
The very pregnant Counselor Hillman is talking to Joy and Peter later. DiFeo, the restaurant owner, has died in the hospital. His dying testimony is possibly inadmissable as court evidence--a flaw that could blow the case for the prosecution. Later, Peter pulls a picture of Ace out of his bag and shows it to Joy, telling her Peter spotted him there. This gets Joy excited and she says they're going to find Ace Spencer, that it'll get Joy more readers.
Joy and Peter are getting different street people's perspective on Ace; some say he pimps and runs drugs; another says Ace has too much class for that; another says he was seen taking on 5 assailents at once, that none of them laid a hand on him, like Ace knew what was coming.
After a long day of tracking Ace around town, Peter and Joy are sitting in an abandoned playground, when they're set upon by Reapers, friends of Ace's who say they're not keen on the two reporters sniffing around. They begin to accost Joy, and Peter has to lay in to them, but not so much that his secret identity is compromised. Ace roars in on his bike--Peter thinks he has to time the dodge to make it look like Ace hit him with the bike. Peter goes down, acting hit. Ace stands over him, investigating. He goes through Peter's bag, finds his camera. Peter plays possum, and thinks Ace means to steal his camera, but Ace doesn't, and roars off again on his bike. Meanwhile, the Reapers have taken Joy Mercado. Peter tagged one of the Reapers with a tracer, and changes into the black outfit to track them.
He finds the Reapers hideout, and sets up his camera outside. Spidey's crawling on the building when Ace crashes through a window on his bike. Down at street level, Spidey pulls Ace off of his bike, thinking he doesn't have to hold back now. As people in the buildings look on, and cheer for Ace, they begin to fight.
Joy, meanwhile, is being held in a dingy room in the Reaper's building. Joy is asking whether or not Ace is part of the Reapers, and one of the gang says that Ace stays out of gang business, but keeps outsiders from meddling too.
Outside, Spidey tries to snag Ace with a webline, but Ace dodges easily. Spidey can't land a blow on Ace, who dodges everything Spidey throws at him. Spidey is able to catch Ace off guard, and lunges at him, but Ace cuts him with a blade. Spidey is exasperated, thinking Ace seemingly shorted out his Spider sense when he got close. Angry from being cut, Spidey thinks Ace is now dead meat, but with squeeling tires, the rival gang the Dragons arrive to strike back at the Reapers. Spidey demands Ace tell them to back off, but Ace says it's their war, not his. Spidey dismisses Ace and webslings his way up into the building to look for Joy.
He finds her with the gang member, Sammy, that was keeping her captive. When the bullets started flying Sammy took a few hits and died in Joy's arms. Ace also enters the room, and Spidey starts giving him grief about not stopping the gang violence, asking who has to die next before Ace intervenes? Ace swings on Spidey again, hitting him, and Spidey had no time to react. Ace leaves, and Spidey asks Joy if she thinks any of what Spidey said to Ace got through, and she admits that she's a hardened reporter, and no.
Epilogue: Ace goes to Ryker's Island to visit his brother, Lorenzo Spencer, who's being held for the DiFeo shooting. Ace informs his brother of the death of Sammy at the hands of the Dragons, and that he's testifying in court--against Lorenzo.
This is the start of the "Hill Street Blues"-styled era of Spidey: stark, urban crime tales permeated with violence and a stronger sense of realism (though much of the actual violence here is either implied or happens off-panel). Peter David attacks this sensibility with gusto, and delivers a story here that has Spidey somewhat out of his element, caught between two warring street gangs, and gives us an ambigious anti-hero in the form of Ace Spencer.
Ace isn't too fully fleshed out in this issue--he spends much of the issue looking cool. It's obvious even to Spidey that Ace going through Peter's belongings and finding his camera would help Ace put two and two together and figure out that Peter and Spidey are one in the same, but little is done with that development in this part.
This issue also marks the first appearance in Spider-man of reporter Joy Mercado. I like Joy immensely, and she and Peter have some notable adventures together in both New York and abroad in forthcoming stories (and on that note, what the hell ever happened to Joy?). It's also good to see Captain Jean DeWolff here, who is months away from her own ultimate fate in The Death of Jean DeWolff.
Despite all the good in this issue, it comes off a bit uneven, as so many plot elements are so densely packed, and the courtroom scenes don't come off quite as well as in part two. The second part is more successful in fleshing out Ace and his world, and is a stronger issue for it.
The very-pregnant assistant DA Hillman makes an appearance in the David-scripted Web Of Spider-man #12, making for a nice bit of continuity between issues and characters.
With plenty of dark around the edges, there's a lot to like here, even though it definitely isn't a conventional Spider-man story. Peter David writes a fairly intriguing and ambitious tale, and even though all the story beats and characters don't fully connect this time around, it's a damn powerful story.
Joy Mercado first appeared in Moon Knight #33, written by Doug Moench.
The cabbie that takes Joy and Peter for a wild ride this issue is the same guy from David's classic story "The Commuter Cometh!" in Amazing Spider-man #267.