Ep. #3: The Third Age of Spider-Man

Al Sjoerdsma and Jonathan Couper-Smartt continue their journey through the "Ages of Spider-Man". Our progress so far:

The First Age
The Ditko Age
Amazing Fantasy #15Amazing Spider-Man #38
The Second Age
The Stan Lee Age
Amazing Spider-Man #39Amazing Spider-Man #150

Having wrapped-up the second age with Amazing Spider-Man (Vol. 1) #150 (Nov 1966), which effectively concluded Stan Lee's involvement in the comic book, Al and Jonathan now talk through Spidey's tumultuous teenage years trying to figure out where the next fundamental cultural and creative shift takes place.

[Theme Song - "Blues in C minor"]

Jonathan: Hi Spider-Fans, and welcome back to episode three of the Spider-Fan podcast. Hi Al.

Al: Hey Jonathan.

Jonathan: The third age of Spider-Man. Now, we're at 1975. Martin and his son Chip Goodman are both gone from Marvel, which is now owned by Cadence Industries. Jim Galton's just taken over as President, and the place is a mess.

Stan is over in the magazine division, he's in California, he's dreaming about movies. Pretty much anything other than comic books. Roy Thomas has just finished his meltdown after two years of attempting to replace Stan – an impossible task. There's one editor, they're making 53 comics books. Len Wein is having a go at running the place, and he eventually implodes as well. And the next three years see Marv Wolfman, Gerry Conway, and Archie Goodwin.

Al: All sorts of implosions.

Jonathan: Yeah, they all imploded. Gerry Conway was 23 years old, he lasted a month.

Al: Right, there you go. I think that's what anybody 23 years old would last.

Jonathan: That's exactly it. There's a rambunctious bunch of Hippie individuals. The creators are fighting with the editors.

Al: Yes, but all of those Hippie people are making some very interesting comics.

Jonathan: They are, although the quality is very erratic, and the deadlines are hugely erratic – they're getting hit with fees all over the place for late printing. And they're not making a great deal of money. Cadence Industries has bought in. They thought they were on to a good thing. But they've discovered they bought as many problems as they have geniuses.

Al: That's what comes with genius. Problems.

Jonathan: Yeah, I guess! Stan Lee was a quirky manager and a Quixotic figure, but gosh he seemed to make the place run OK, and in his absence... what are they going to do?

Al: Right, I mean they sort of figured out how difficult it all was, once he was gone.

Jonathan: They absolutely did. Our job is not necessarily to talk about Marvel's problems. What we're really looking for is the next change and the next transition. Which is difficult to do because the years that follow were a series of transitions.

Al: Yes, exactly. And a series of attempts at different... concepts. Different comics. Branching out into other areas of entertainment. You have the Spider-Man TV show, the live action one, shows up. You have toys, starting to proliferate in ways that they hadn't before.

Jonathan: Absolutely, 1977 the TV show, just on the horizon. We'll get to that. The toys, Marvel had dabbled with. Obviously the Spider-Mobile was a shameless attempt to boost the sale of some plastic car toys of the time. But in general with merchandising, back in that era, Marvel had a terrible track record.

Jumping back ten years, in 64, the Merry Marvel Marching Society was a huge success initially. Send in a dollar, get a badge and a record and a certificate. That was such a distraction for them that they pushed it out of house to a guy called Don Wallace who set up the Marvelmania International. He took a lot of orders but didn't ship a lot of stock. Ripped off a lot of people including John Romita, and the whole thing collapsed, coming back into Marvel in the early 70's.

But we're in 1975 now, and yet again, Marvel mucks up the merchandising. They had an in-house department run by head of licensing Ivan Snyder, and it was too much of a bother for them. They sold off the business to Snyder who renamed it Superhero Enterprises, later to become Heroes World, and it became a major chain and a major mail-order distribution business. Did really well for him, but Marvel got nowhere near as much out of it as they could have done.

Simultaneously, Stan's over on the West Coast increasingly in the mid-to-late 70's, trying to cut some sort of movie deal, either for Marvel, or sometimes his own little opportunities. None of these really manage to fire. And all through the 70's, even early 80's, Marvel really has nothing to show for secondary sales of their own intellectual property, outside of the comic books.

So, Al, what's happening with the comic books and the printed page, 75, 76?

Al: So come the mid-70's, Marvel is trying different things, so trying to branch out. They did try to branch out previously with the Spectacular Spider-Man Magazine, back in 1968, in an attempt to bring an audience that was looking at the news stand rather than the spinning comic book racks. And that didn't work, obviously. They lasted two issues with that.

In the early 70's in terms of Spider-Man, they brought in Marvel Team-Up. So he has a second title, but it's not always his title.

Jonathan: The Human Torch plays a big role.

Al: The Human Torch plays a big role. It seems to me that it's, it's a tittle essentially used to try and get people to read the titles of the guest stars. Issues that guest star the Werewolf by Night, they guest star Ghost Rider. Lesser characters that do have their own books, so they're trying to entice people to read those books.

Jonathan: And there's a high turnover in books as well. So there's comic books that will come in, and will last six or a dozen issues, and then will be ditched in favor of something else.

Al: Absolutely. So you had, in the early 70's, you had them expanding out, trying to do different things. So you have a lot of horror books that suddenly appear.

Jonathan: Helped by the relaxation and eventual demise of the Comic Book Code.

Al: But most of those are gone by the mid 70's. The Tomb of Dracula, I think is still around. Conan the Barbarian, which isn't a horror book but is a branch-out sword and sorcery from what what we're dealing with, with super heroes, is still around. But most of those other ones are gone. So you really are sort of back to super heroes.

Jonathan: And Spectacular Spider-Man kicks off in December 1976.

Al: Right, so The Spectacular Spider-Man, which at the beginning is Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man, is really the first attempt to create a second comic book that stars Spider-Man, exclusively. So you don't have to worry about a guest star like Marvel Team-Up. And the conceit at first is that, oh, it's going to be mostly about Peter Parker and the people around him. Which is why it's called Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man.

Jonathan: Supporting cast, Empire State University.

Al: Right, but that quickly disappears, and it becomes a second Spider-Man book. So that's really the first time that that happens with any of Marvel's characters or any of Marvel's titles.

Jonathan: And the challenge is increasing, obviously, for the poor overloaded editors, to keep a track not only of interactions between different titles, because the Marvel "conceit" as you say is that everything happens in one world. But now not only are they tracking Thor vs. Spider-Man, they've got Spider-Man vs. Spider-Man.

Al: Yes, exactly. So that becomes one of the many things that they try, during this period of this time. There's all sorts of different experimentation, essentially, as I think they've come to the realization that they're dealing with pretty much, exclusively super heroes at this point.

Jonathan: And that's a key point, because historically Marvel jumped from thing to thing. Martin Goodman's idea was find out what other people are doing that's making money, and do more of it than them.

Al: Right. So in the 70's you still had remnants of that. And even into the early 70's you had the western titles, you had Rawhide Kid, you had Two-Gun Kid, you had Millie The Model. So you had these sort of romance-type titles, or Archie Comics-type titles. And you still had things like Sgt. Fury, Captain Savage, so you had war books. These are all pretty much gone at this point.

Jonathan: Right, it's every... it's all-in on super heroes.

Al: Yes.

Jonathan: And amongst the different things they're trying, 1976, Spider-Man, Superman, the very first cross-over between DC and Marvel [Superman vs. The Amazing Spider-Man - Ed.].

Al: Absolutely. So, you're branching out in different ways. You've got a second Spider-Man title, now you're making a deal with your main rival to use the two most popular super hero characters from those respective companies. Meeting each other, and published in a big tabloid size, big treasury size. So once again it's something that's going to be on the newsstand and not on the comic book rack.

Jonathan: While they're going, the tabloid, they're simultaneously going small. Stan Lee, John Romita, Sr., newspaper comic strip. January the third, 1977.

Al: Absolutely. I'm glad you mentioned that, because I love that strip. So, also in 1977 is when the live action TV show comes out.

Jonathan: Now, Stan hated the show.

Al: There's not much to like about the show.

Jonathan: Yeah, I... I tried to have to have some affection for it. But it's hard work.

Al: Yep, it's very hard work. But it is once again an attempt to bring people in from other areas.

Jonathan: Also since we're in 1977, we should probably mention the magazine with Kiss, the band, was a bit of a hit for them. And a big hit was the Star Wars comic series that kicked of in 1977, ran for ten years. Big money maker for them. Nobody really expected Star Wars to be as big as it was, and that was a big help for Marvel. A great smash hit, generated a lot of revenue at a time when they really needed it.

And then the following year, 1978. Not such a big hit for them but another new direction, the novels. The Marvel novels. There were a dozen Marvel novels, three of them featuring Spider-Man...

Al: That's right.

Jonathan: ...written by Len Wein and his buddy Marv Wolfman.

Al: That's right, yep.

Jonathan: Not great novels either. Highly forgettable.

Al: But again, you know they're just throwing things and seeing what sticks.

Jonathan: It's not so much a deliberate transition in any direction, it's a... it's a scrambling 'round – a flailing of the octopus tentacles.

Al: Yes, and I think you can see that also within the Spider-Man titles. There are a lot of people who get down on the Len Wein books, and on the Marv Wolfman books, and the Denny O'Neil books. But I'm prepared to defend them, for the most part – not all of them.

But a lot of what they're doing is just trying new things. And part of what they're trying is... there becomes this pattern of bringing in villains from other series. So, for instance Denny O'Neil in his run brings in Mesmero and Lyra, who's a Sub-Mariner villain, in his version of the Frightful Four. Roger Stern. After Bill Mantlo, Roger Stern is writing the Spectacular Spider-Man, Denny O'Neil is editing, and he's bringing in characters like the Cobra, the Smuggler who was originally the original Power Man. Nitro. Characters like that.

When Roger Stern takes over Amazing, he's still doing that. He's bringing in characters like the Mad Thinker, and Stilt-Man. So that's something they're trying to do within the books themselves to sort of mix things up. Because I think essentially, at this point in time, for all of these guys, there's still this feeling that they want to sort of maintain the Stan feel of the books, the Stan feel of Amazing Spider-Man. So nobody's ready to step out and do something radically different.

So what do you do within the confines of that? And what you end doing, you know, Len Wein ends up for instance bringing back the Terrible Tinkerer and revealing that he wasn't an alien after all. He brings back the Kingpin, into the Spider-Man series for the first time since, uh, Amazing #85. He brings back the Green Goblin, when it's neither Norman nor Harry.

Jonathan: During this time there was an edict that the stories were not to change Spider-Man in any structural way because Marvel was seeking to find other outlets, movies and so on, and they wanted to have a consistent character that they could market in that context.

But be that is it may, it seems during this period that these stories written by Len, Marv, Denny, Bill Mantlo, none of them are earth-shattering enough to effect the transition that we're looking for. Later on, 1978, Jim Shooter steps up as Editor-In-Chief. He does make a few changes around the place, starts the process of getting those unruly creative guys under a little bit of control. Doesn't make himself desperately popular in the process but morale was in a pretty bad shape anyway.

But in any case, I don't think Jim Shooter's the guy we're looking for either. What about 1980, Roger Stern? He did a great run with Amazing... the Hobgoblin stories. Is that Spectacular enough, or sorry, I should say Amazing enough for us to say that that's a significant transition into the fourth era of Spider-Man?

Al: I don't think so. Roger, as I said before, Roger was writing Spectacular Spider-Man after Bill Mantlo left, with Denny O'Neil editing, and he does a great job. He clearly is a great Spider-Man writer. And so they moved him over to Amazing when Denny stopped writing Amazing, with Bill Mantlo taking over Spectacular again.

His issues are must-reads, Roger Stern's issues. Particularly all of the Hobgoblin stories. But they still seem like they're part of a piece. They're part of the whole continuity of Wein and Wolfman and O'Neil and Mantlo. So I would say no, we're still in the same age when we come to Roger Stern.

Jonathan: So the appearance of the HobgoblinAmazing Spider-Man 238, 239. Very important story, very popular. But not in itself the major transition that we're looking for?

Al: No, I don't think so. You're right that the Hobgoblin is a big deal at that point. But the Hobgoblin story is not resolved. It's not resolved by Roger Stern. It was John Romita, Jr., as a matter of fact, who did all of those Hobgoblin issues with Roger Stern.

But by the time you hit 250, which is the last issue for both of them, you still don't have the Hobgoblin story ended. So they sort of leave in mid-Hobgoblin. 251 is an issue that is taken over by another pair of creators that we think of as being integral to Spider-Man's history – Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz. Amazing Spider-Man #251 sort of polishes off, it sort of polishes off the Hobgoblin at that time. Because now it's time for Secret Wars and the new black costume.

Jonathan: Well Secret Wars does really change the world of Marvel comics, because Secret Wars is the first of the real events. Now I know there's the Contest of Champions, that was a little practice run that happened. But Secret Wars is huge on a number of points. First of it brings every hero together for an event which can't be quickly dismissed, that has to be managed over the course of several months.

And Jim Shooter at that stage really has to show the muscle and the authority that he's built up over the preceding three or four, five years, and take control and coordinate all of the individual sub-editor groups for the separate titles to make sure that they don't contradict what's going on in this major story-line that's being done across the whole company.

And on top of the impact that the Black Costume itself had, there's also the arrival of Web of Spider-Man which makes three titles.

Al: Yes. So I think you're stepping into a new world when you step into the world of Secret Wars. And specifically for Spider-Man you've got a whole new creative team.

Jonathan: And the Black Costume, which was huge.

Al: And the Black Costume, yes. And the whole concept of Secret Wars, which is very different from anything that was done before, in which they actually released it over a period of a year, when the first issues of the regular titles took place after Secret Wars. So you have all of these things that occurred – Spider-Man had a Black Costume, I think the She-Hulk is suddenly in the Fantastic Four – these different things, and you had to read the entire year's worth of Secret Wars to find out how all of that took place.

Jonathan: Secret Wars began the Marvel events, the corporate organization across the titles – the massive interconnecting. It started an era in which you had to become a completist in order to get the story. And also in the comics that followed shortly after, we started to see the story arc be officially represented on the cover. So historically we have a story that would cross two or three issues. But it wouldn't say "The Story Part One", "The Story Part Two" on the cover.

Al: Right. And eventually you'll get to cross-overs within the Spider-Man books themselves. So you'll have a story in Amazing that's continued in Spectacular that's continued in Web, and so on.

Jonathan: Well that, that happens very shortly after as well with Death of Kraven [a.k.a. Kraven's Last Hunt - Ed.] which crosses across the three titles for two issues.

Al: Right. Exactly.

Jonathan: So, yeah. That really is a technique which sticks around.

Al: So I suppose you could say that the books from 150 on up to 251 are when they're just throwing anything to see if it sticks. And then beyond that they have a pretty good sense of what they're doing in order [to] try to build interest or to build sales.

Jonathan: Secret Wars certainly did start a new commercial era. Marvel discovered that their readership had much deeper pockets than they had previously expected. And while they did grow the number of copies of Amazing Spider-Man after Secret Wars with the Black Costume, they also discovered that those same readers would buy two, three, four Spider-Man comics. Plus Annuals, plus Limited Series, plus the Secret Wars and the following event magazines.

And simultaneously over in the Mutants, and with the Punisher, there was a lot of market share that they discovered they could open up just by being ruthless with their cross-over arcs and their increasing number of titles. And later that expanded to variant covers. I have a lot I could say about variant covers, but that's a story for another time.

And for now it seems like we're ending the third age of Spider-Man with issue Amazing Spider-Man 251.

Al: I think so. 251. The end of the Hobgoblin story under Roger Stern, 'til he comes back a dozen years later to rectify things. The end of John Romita, Jr. being, being the artist. The end of the experimentation that ultimately is more of the same – leading to the experimentation that is actually a radical change.

Jonathan: Marvel finally makes money, which leads to problems further down the track in the junk bonds and the near-bankruptcy. But... for now, we're calling it the Third Age of Spider-Man runs from Amazing Spider-Man 151 through to Amazing Spider-Man 251, isn't that tidy.

Al: A nice even hundred issues.

Jonathan: Err... a nice even hundred and one issues.

Al: Oh... ha! Okay.

Jonathan: And our Fourth Age will kick off with Secret Wars #1 and leads into the Black Costume in Amazing Spider-Man #252. But that's for next time. Alright, thanks Al.

Al: Thank you, Jonathan.

Jonathan: And thank you, Spider-Fans.