Admit it. You thought she was dead. Twice! First there was that time she was yanked out of her life-supports by the Juggernaut. Actually, she suffered brain damage resulting in memory loss, so that she forgot Spider-Man's true identity. Then there was the Gathering of Five when she collapsed without a pulse. But that just turned out to be the early stages of eternal youth. Now, after two apparent deaths, Madame Web is immortal and sports a new hairstyle. Just like Aunt May! And, like May haunting Peter/Spider-Man, Madame Web pesters Mattie Franklin/Spider-Woman, appearing regularly in that title. What a comeback! But let's go back to the beginning.
In the basement storage room of the New York Daily Globe, circulation manager Rupert Dockery schemes with four masked men who are armed with automatic weapons. He has concocted a plan to "put the snatch on the good-lookin' chick", as one of the thugs puts it, "an' waste anybody who gets in the way". It should be an easy operation, Dockery tells them. "The elevators will be closed, the switchboard inoperative". What can possibly go wrong?
Elsewhere, in Chinatown, Peter Parker takes a walk with his girl-friend, Debbie Whitman. Pete is stunned to learn that Deb is seeing a psychic and he teases her about it. Debbie pulls out the psychic's card. "Madame Web, Professional Medium", it declares and it features a picture of an older woman with a boomerang-shaped blindfold covering her eyes and a small jewel on her forehead, spiderwebs projecting out behind. Peter is not impressed. "She looks like a garden-variety fraud to me", he says. Then, before the conversation can proceed any further, he notices a clock in a store window and remembers that he is due at the Globe for a meeting in five minutes. He hates to do it but he has to abandon Deb right then and there and race off to work.
(Waitaminute! Rupert Dockery? Debra Whitman? Peter works for the Globe? If this is confusing to you, check out the Lookback of To Salvage My Honor! which chronicles the events in the issue preceding this one.)
It takes Peter twenty minutes to get to the Globe offices and, when he arrives, he finds that the elevator doesn't work. A uniformed doorman standing nearby tells him to give it up. "Word came down from on high that nobody goes to the editorial department before five o'clock." "How do they expect us to get there", Peter asks, "Climb up the wall?"
Actually, that's exactly what he does. Slipping into a storage room to change, Pete-as-Spidey is soon on the outside of the building, effortlessly scaling it.
Up in the office, Dockery introduces the publisher of the Globe to the editorial board. This is the mysterious K.J. Clayton (trust me, for several issues way back when, the identity of K. J. Clayton was a bit of a mystery) who turns out to be a beautiful young woman with long light-red hair. (But unseen by all but Clayton and Dockery is an older woman with glasses, eavesdropping on the meeting from an alcove.) K. J. Clayton announces that the purpose of the meeting is so she can officially turn the Globe over to Dockery but before she gets any further, the four armed masked men break in. One man grabs Clayton by the wrist while another herds everyone else (except for the woman in the alcove) to one side of the room. However, their simple little plan is interrupted by the arrival, through breaking glass, of our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.
One of the gunman cries out, "Waste 'im!" but that is easier said than done. First a demonstration of spider-speed avoids all the bullets. Then a demonstration of "egregious bellicosity also known as rotten temper" takes place as Spidey tackles all four men at once. Globe editor Barney Bushkin wants to go for help but Dockery restrains him. "This is news, man!"
The four hoods pile onto Spidey but he punches all but one of them into unconsciousness. Unfortunately, as Spidey punches and quips, the remaining hood exits out the office door, dragging K. J. Clayton with him. Dockery yells at Spidey to pursue, then gets right in the way of the web-spinner as he heads for the door. Spidey thinks that "Dockery wins first prize for clumsiness" but we know better, don't we?
Spidey bounds through the empty city room, crossing it in three leaps but he is just seconds too late. The kidnapper has escaped using a freight elevator and there are no windows nearby so the webhead can follow. Dockery's "clumsiness" has delayed Spidey just long enough to prevent a rescue. But, before moving on, the web-slinger notices a piece of paper on the floor next to the elevator... "and it's not a leftover scrap of the Globe which means the kidnappers may have dropped it". He picks up the clue and discovers it contains a picture of Madame Web, "that phony Debra was excited about".
He has no other lead, so Spidey swings over to Madame Web's apartment. He enters through an open window and then stops dead at the sight inside. Machines line the room from floor to ceiling. Each one is connected by a series of metal jacks that resemble an elaborate spider-web to a black bulbous chair that resembles a spider. Sitting on the chair is Madame Web. She is dressed in a red outfit with a spider-pattern on her chest. The outfit flows several meters past her feet and ends in a point. "And I thought I had cornered the market on spider-motifs", Spidey thinks.
Spidey begins by asking Madame Web about all the equipment surrounding her and is told that it is a life-support system, "designed by my late husband" which "keeps my blood moving, my lungs breathing, the electricity coursing through my brain". It sure doesn't look like it's even connected to her but Madame insists "without it I would be dead in a minute". Spidey then asks about her abilities and is told that she is a psychic whose "blind eyes can see beyond normal sight" and that she can "nurture these powers in others". Spidey then hands her the paper he found outside the elevator and asks her about it. Madame Web tells him that the aura surrounding the paper belongs "to my newest student... Belinda Bell". Belinda is a model and actress and Madame Web senses that she is involved in an affair in which she "cooperated in deceit... a lie... involving a second woman". The second woman is Katrinka Janice Clayton.
Madame Web continues, telling Spidey that Belinda realizes that she has done wrong but that she is now in danger. When Spidey pushes for details, the psychic tells him she sees "trains... in a great jumble... as though in an accident". Then she can see no more. She is sure, though, of one thing. "Unless you locate Belinda, both she and the Clayton woman will die!" Spidey's not sure why, but he believes her.
Meanwhile, at Hickory Dockery Toys in Lower Manhattan, the young woman who was introduced as K. J. Clayton is tied to a metal pole next to a model railroad set. She is, of course, actually the actress Belinda Bell and she doesn't understand why she is being held. After all, she was in on the whole charade, wasn't she? A goon in sunglasses, smoking a big cigar tells her that his orders are to hold her until he hears "from the guy who's bankrollin' this operation" and that, if she's lucky, "he might say to let you go".
And back at a penthouse suite at the Daily Globe, Rupert Dockery confronts the real K. J. Clayton who is, of course, the woman who was hiding in the alcove. He tells her that her downfall was that she was "ashamed of being old and... ah... unattractive". As a result, she agreed to the plan to have a young beautiful woman, Belinda, assume her identity in front of the editorial staff. Dockery now tells her that everyone heard Belinda, as Clayton, give control of the paper to him. Now, if the kidnap victim's body is found, everything belongs to Rupert Dockery. (I very much doubt this is at all legal but what the hey.) K. J. Clayton realizes her life is forfeit too and attempts to flee but Dockery just gloats. After all, "the doors are locked, the elevators are without power". There is nowhere for the woman to go.
Dockery calls the goons at the toy store and tells them to "dispose" of Belinda Bell. But before the gunman even gets off the phone, Spider-Man smashes his way through a skylight. He leaps down, upsetting the table that holds the model railroad set, taking two of the thugs out at the same time. Using the table as a shield against their gunfire, Spidey tells the goons how he discovered their location. "I got a hot tip you were holed up near a bunch of trains. After I eliminated Penn Station and Grand Central, I realized they didn't have to be real choo-choos. These toy jobbies fill the bill just as well. Then I checked and found out this model railroad shop is owned by a certain Mister Dockery... and here I am." (All clear?) He caps his explanation by throwing the table which takes two more bad guys out of action.
Continuing his monologue to rattle the hoods, Spidey leaps up to the ceiling and walks toward the last two men. They think they have a clear shot but leave themselves wide open for Spidey to use his webs on the stocked shelves that surround them. Yanking on his weblines, the wall-crawler brings the shelves down on the men. He swings down to rescue Belinda Bell but she tells him not to bother with her. If he doesn't hurry, Rupert Dockery is going to kill the real K. J. Clayton.
Spidey rushes back to the newspaper building. In the penthouse, K. J. Clayton has locked herself in the bathroom, but Dockery has set a gasoline fire. "Within minutes", he promises as he flees, "there will be nothing left but ashes... the Globe will, of course, have exclusive coverage".
Great clouds of smoke billow out of the penthouse and are immediately spotted by Spidey. He hears screams coming from the bathroom and jumps right through the closed window to the rescue. K. J. faints which makes it that much easier for Spidey to scoop her up and deposit her safely on the ground. He arrives in time to spot Dockery just getting into his automobile. From inside the car, Dockery vows "you can't outrun my vehicle" but Spidey doesn't have to. Before Dockery can even start it up, the wall-crawler grabs beneath the right rear door and flips the car over on its side. He then rips the passenger door off and pulls Dockery out by his lapels. Dockery quickly agrees to sing like a canary for the authorities.
Later, back at his apartment in Chelsea, Peter reads the newspaper. In it, he learns that Dockery has confessed everything, that K. J. Clayton has decided to retire and that the Globe has suspended publication. All well and good, except that it leaves Peter out of a job. Just as he begins to fret about that, the phone rings. It is Madame Web, congratulating "Mister Parker or should I say Spider-Man" on his recent success. (She goes on to tell Peter that her powers revealed his identity but that his secret is safe with her.) She finishes by telling him not to worry about his present financial crisis. "It will be resolved, not precisely as you would wish perhaps but even as we speak, your name is being mentioned by one who would employ you." And over at the Daily Bugle, a fuming J. Jonah Jameson can't believe that the line is busy. But, "I'll keep trying until I get through to him, as sure as his name is Peter Parker!"
Want the find out what happens next with Madame Web? Check out our review of her second appearance, in Amazing Spider-Man #216.