A short while back, Worst of The Worst featured the Skin-Deep story by Gerry Conway, featuring the rather unimaginative villain "Skin-Head". At the time, I pointed out that Gerry was a pretty solid writer, and his skin-skulled candiate for WoTW was rather out of character.
Be that as it may, this months burnt offering to the gods of classic bad comics is another Conway story - "The City Stealers". But first, some history.
This story comes from 1974, which is quite some time back. This is in the days before Facade, before Maximum Carnage, and before Mackie and Byrne ever stepped in to trample the good name of Spider-Man.
Back in those times, asking a well-schooled Spider-Fan to name the worst ever Spidey stories would reliably result in two near-guaranteed responses - Bill Mantlo's "Death-Dance of the Hypno-Hustler", from Spectacular Spider-Man #24, and this gem... "The City-Stealers".
A slow start, to be sure. Spidey swings around the city, bemoaning the fact that it's been two weeks and he still hasn't found an apartment. This is a fairly typical tie-in to 'current' events in Amazing Spider-Man - Marvel Team-Up really was the second Spider-Man title at the time, with Spectacular Spider-Man #1 still being a couple of years away.
Meanwhile, his unwitting team-upster, Hercules, is walking the docks in contemplation, musing on how strange the world is that some men live in wealth, while street bums douse their sorrows in cheap liquor. Well, I'm no classicist, but I thought that Hercules was raised as a mortal, and would have been well versed with the basic inequities of life. Heck, as half-god and half-man, surely he of all people should be well-acquainted with disparity!
So, while Peter continues with the mental re-caps, and Hercules ponders with amazement the kinds of matters which really have no reason to amaze him, we cue an earthquake. An earthquake? Yep, a really good one, which throws a pretty girl out of a window in the side of the Empire State Building. Fortunately Spidey is there to save her. But let's run that scene again.
Firstly, the girl is thrown out of the top half of the window... a good six feet above the base of the window. Through a plate glass window, that is - without getting a scratch. Secondly, any earthquake that's going to toss people out of windows will level damn near most of Manhattan. New York isn't in quake country, and so the buildings there aren't built to absorb the shock. A quake of that magnitude, you can count on thousands dead and close on a million homeless. At this point, we start to suspect that this story is lacking a little in the realism department!
So, Spidey heads off to college, to the seismography lab, to find out what is going on. Fortunately, in the 70's, even non-quake prone areas were completely rigged with remote sensing instruments which could rapidly report by telementry and diagnose that there are exactly two points of origin for the quake. And even more fortunately, even though Peter is a bio-chem student, he is also the 'star pupil' of the geology department. As soon as he enters the door, the professor immediately ignores the hundreds of other students, and explains the whole scenario to Peter, without even being asked.
This is a fairly common phenomena - the idea that "science is science". Very few comic book writers grasp the idea that for example an expert in gene-splicing technology might not be able to assemble a nuclear bomb, or that a molecular chemist might be a little rusty on the principles of tectonic plate interaction. Still, of course even though Peter only manages to attend one lecture in four of the courses he is actually enrolled for, he is also the star pupil of every single science department in the entire university. Let's move on.
Spidey heads off to check out one of the sources. Meanwhile, Hercules is guided by instinct to the other. He muses "I sense that 'twas no natural occurence...", and "I can feel the very ground trembling, like a woman in fear..." but of course let's not ignore "With luck, I will settle this matter swiftly, and 'twill still be time this eve for a goblet of wine... some women... and a song." Move over Homer, Gerry's on the job!
Well, Herc finds the source alright. He opens a hole in the ground, and reveals a robotic alien being, manipulating a device which is clearly the source of the vibrations. The robot is fully prepared for this situation. He has been programmed with all the essential English phrases he will need. He eloquently echoes... "An intruder. The intruder must die. Kill the intruder. Kill the intruder now."
Well, perhaps you understand why not just anybody can be a script writer? It's a skilled job, and it requires years of training.
Meanwhile, Spider-Man finds a similar robot with device under an overpass at the other end of the island. He attacks, the robot shrugs him off and continues with his work. Spidey re-attacks. The robot isn't interested, he knocks Spidey out. But hang-on, the robot is interested, he chains Spidey up. An alien robot with hyper-technology uses chains to tie people up? That's a bit odd. But wait, that's just the start.
The robots aren't interested in fighting, but then they take the time to disable their victims. They speak English, but only to babble about intruders. They were at opposite ends of the island, but when our heroes awake, the robots are applying their strange machines in the same location. So why did they move? Why did the robots bring their victims with them when they moved?
Oh, it dosn't matter. Hercules breaks his chains... but is then hit with a zap-ray, and knocked unconscious again. But Spidey tries talking. He asks what the aliens are doing. Oh, now they speak perfect English. "There seems no point in concealing information from you, intruder." Well, I beg to differ on that. There's always a good reason to keep your plans secret from Super-Heroes! But that's OK, surely we want to hear what their plans are?
Well, you say that now. But wait until you hear the plan! It seems that the earth-digging machines are going to sever the interior foundation of Manhattan Island. Then, a Special Nuclear Submarine is waiting with attached chains (two of them, as we can see from the picture) to pull the island of Manhattan out of New York Bay, to a previously designated point... until they receive a Two Billion Dollar ransom!
Well, do you want me to cover the seventeen fundamental flaws with this entire plot, or can you imagine them yourself?
Let's just say that Spidey and Hercules get free again, and knock out the robots, reveal the forces behind them. But it's too late, Manhattan has already moved! No problems, Hercules grabs the chains and pulls the island back into place. New York has been saved - again!
More corny than a bag of corn-flavoured pop-corn. Worse dialog than the out-takes from a cheap-budget Arnie film. Plot holes big enough to sink Manhattan. This story certainly stakes a good claim to being dumbest ever Spider-Man story.
But that's not quite the whole picture. You see, this story comes from just around the end of the Silver Age, and there's a bit of a rose-tinted aspect in looking back nearly 30 years which makes a final judgement just a little more tricky.
Another angle which is often mentioned in regards to The City-Stealers is the selection of Hercules for the team-up. Hercules is certainly a larger-than-life figure, and his classic adventures do have a flavour of myth and unreality... especially when he re-tells them over a goblet of wine. Perhaps the tale should be taken in that vein. In fact, I believe that Conway himself raised this argument in his own defense for a story which I understand he openly admits is "not one of his best".
This story is undeniably stupid. But is it offensively stupid? Couldn't it just be one last harmless romp before the world of comics entered a new age? Isn't there a place for a bit of epic exaggeration every now and again?
I have to state for the record that this is indeed a terrible story. It was indisputably a serious contender for the worst ever Spider-Man story of its time.
There are a couple of arguments which can be raised in it's defence, and I am sorely tempted to toss in a half-web in recognition... but I shall resist the urge, and shall instead dub this story a true 1-webber! This story has earned it's place amongst The Worst of The Worst.