Spectacular Spider-Man (Vol. 1) #44

 Posted: 18 Mar 2021
 Staff: Keith Moore (E-Mail)

Background

It seems like the web-slinger is in a constant battle with organized crime, no matter who is in charge. After the Kingpin retired from that role back in Amazing Spider-Man #197, a void was left atop the world of organized crime. That status quo, of course, was not going to last long...

As for the web-slinger, at this point in his life he's working as a photographer for Barney Bushkin's Daily Globe, he's got an on-again/off-again relationship with Deborah Whitman and he teaches at ESU. Suffice to say, he's doesn't always excel at any of those tasks.

This sets us in position to take a look at part of one of this two-part story entitled, "The Vengeance Gambit!"

Story 'The Vengeance Gambit!'

High above the city skyline, Spider-Man braves the blustery wind as he web-swings through the city. Spidey then spots a funeral procession on the relatively empty streets below. Peter can tell from the number of limos in the procession that this person must have been influential, so he decides to opportunistically snap a few photos for his boss Barney Bushkin at the Daily Globe.

The procession continues to an old, stone building and pall-bearers emerge carrying a casket inside through the front door. Once inside, a well-dressed bald man named Malachai addresses the crowd as he stands in front of the casket of ‘Big Louie.’ It becomes clear that Malachai is speaking to a group of New York City gangsters.

Malachai recalls the retirement of Wilson Fisk (aka the Kingpin) and that as a result many of the city’s crime lords have been making moves on their own. Malachai states that his uncle had specifically warned them against this. Malachai then points to Big Louie as an example of someone who did not heed that warning.

But there is a chance for these gangsters to redeem themselves and prove their worth, thus avoiding the same fate as Big Louie. They can demonstrate their loyalty to Malachai’s uncle, the self-proclaimed new boss of New York’s mobs, by procuring various items which Malachai has provided them (he hands them each a list). The group then disbands, as Malachai makes his way back to his uncle (who’s identity is kept secret). Malachai’s uncle praises the work of his nephew.

A day then passes and one of the gangsters, Harry Dolenz, finds himself frustrated with the item he must steal in order to prove himself. With the Chinese New Year parade in full swing, Dolenz was tasked with stealing the New Year jade monkey from a temple in Chinatown. This is no easy task, nevertheless Dolenz hastily attempts a quick smash and grab for the jade item. Unfortunately, Dolenz does not pull off the theft, as he’s gunned down by members of rival gang run by Black Alfred. Alfred's sole purpose of killing Dolenz is to sow discord into Malachai’s organization. The killing was executed to perfection, as the crowd had no idea there was a murder because the noise of the parade had drowned out the gunfire.

Incidentally, Peter Parker was on the scene because he was covering the New Year’s parade in Chinatown on an assignment from Buskin. However, in typical Peter fashion, he simply stashed his camera on automatic as he web-swung over the crowd. He goes home and develops his film and he’s completely unaware that his camera caught photos of Harry Dolenz being gunned down!

Soon after, Malachai presents the deceased Harry Dolenz to his uncle who immediately realizes that Black Alfred is trying to manipulate his syndicate. The mysterious crime lord says that he will do nothing to stop Alfred for the time being, simply because his rival is removing the ‘dead weight’ from his organization.

Meanwhile, Peter drops off his photos with Bushkin and then heads over to teach his class at ESU. By the time he gets there, Peter’s classroom is empty with the exception of one student…Harvey K. Farber. Peter was so late to class that everyone had left, so he ends up teaching Harvey one on one. Later that day, Peter receives a call from Bushkin who noticed that his camera had caught a man being shot. Peter is dumbfounded by the photo, but then realized it must have been taken while the camera was on automatic. He then decides to investigate the killing as Spider-Man.

Later, some of Malachai’s thugs go after a member of Black Alfred’s gang named Herman, in an attempt to find the location of Alfred (it appears as though Malachai’s boss did take action, despite suggesting otherwise). The mobsters strongarm the young man and eventually he caves, and begins leading them to Alfred. However, Malachai’s thugs were duped, the Herman led them right into a trap as Alfred and his gang open fire on them. The two men are killed as they try to escape the gunfire and are electrified on the third rail of the El train.

Meanwhile, Spider-Man returns to the scene of Dolenz’s death but is unable to find any leads. As he web-swings away he finds a group of criminals in the middle of a heist. Spider-Man thwarts their attempt and then works them for information. They tell him that Dolenz’s body was taken to the Taylor Building in Manhattan. With that information in hand, Spider-Man decides to do a little research before simply storming the Taylor Building. Spidey eventually uncovers that the Taylor Building is owned by Malachai Toomes, the nephew of Adrian Toomes…aka the Vulture! Spider-Man makes his way to the Talyor Building to take down the original Vulture's nephew.

Soon after, Alfred decides to make his move on Malachai, by taking the item he was tasked with procuring (as a show of loyalty) directly to the Taylor Building. There appears to be a collision course set for the Taylor Building.

Shifting back over to Spider-Man, he arrives at the Taylor Building and decides to just crash directly in through the window. Malachai and his thugs are waiting for him and even though the web-slinger is able to subdue most of the gangsters, he falls victim to Malachai. Toomes uses the carnation on his lapel to release a gas that knocks Spider-Man out cold.

Spider-Man wakes up soon after inside of a coffin (with no top), wrapped in chains and being fed into a furnace while a group of gangsters stand by watching and applauding. At the forefront is the leader of this whole operation…Adrian Toomes, the Vulture, and he’s quite happy that he’s finally going to kill Spider-Man!

General Comments

I just want to open by saying that I love reading the Spidey books from this era. They're fun, they're action-packed and they have a simplicity about them that allows the reader to indulge in some serious nostalgia. I'm glad I chose to restart my reviews at this point in Spider-history.

But there's a downside to reading them as well. My natural tendency is to really dig deep into a story's logic to see if it holds water. Over the years I've tried to minimize that tendency because, quite frankly, most books don't hold water. So I went into this book with eyes wide open and tried to enjoy this story on a surface level. And, to some extent it worked, but there are three things that just did not sit right with me and I have to point them out...

The first one I alluded to in the section above, when the Vulture tells his nephew that he will not make any moves against Black Alfred after the death of Harry Dolenz. Yet not even two pages later, the Vulture's thugs are going after Alfred's gang member named Herman. Were those thugs acting on their own accord? Possibly, but in a story in which the theme of "loyalty or death" to the Vulture is so critical, it strikes me as utterly non-sensical that those two would be acting on their own. This certainly is not the end of the world from a storytelling sense, it just makes me feel like there's a good bit of throwaway dialogue featured therein.

The second bit of frustration involves Spider-Man. The web-slinger makes a specific point that he doesn't want to "blunder into some trap" at the Taylor Building, so he does some research and uncovers that Malachai is a Toomes, and the nephew of the original Vulture. Great find! The only trouble is that on the next page he goes "blundering into a trap" after crashing through the window of the Taylor Building! He just said he wanted to avoid doing that!! Oi vey.

The last part is just a missed-opportunity I want to point out from the story's narrative. When Spidey does the research on the Taylor Building that I just mentioned, he uncovers the relationship between Malachai and Adrian. Which is kind of cool, except...that information just spoiled the big reveal at the story's conclusion!! It would have been exceptionally clever to have provided that nugget mid-story (Malachai being Adrian's nephew), but then have some other villain vying for position atop the criminal underworld!

These instances make me feel as though the story was not quite true to itself. The actions and rationales of the various characters weren't sustained once you turned the page, making the story somewhat illogical. It was not enough to make this issue unreadable, but it certainly hurts any ability for a reader to say, "well that was one well-constructed plot!"

There were a few things about this story that I enjoyed though. For one, the cover suggests "Someone is Killing Them All!" And as you begin the story, you assume it is Malachai and his syndicate doing all the killing. But that was a misdirection, it was Alfred and his gang that proved to be the most cunning of the gangsters in this story.

I also really appreciated the notion that Adrian Toomes was actually ascending for the role of Kingpin of Crime. Over the years his aspirations have not been that ambitious, he's usually out for vengeance against Spider-Man or retaliating against someone who he perceived wronged him (ie, Blackie Drago). The last time Toomes was featured in a story (Spectacular Spider-Man #5) he had been hiding out in a workshop, avoiding conflict (that changed when the Hitman came into town). But seeing Toomes with this lofty goal was a welcomed progression for his character!

One final note, and this is really a bit of an aside but...this story was written in 1980 and the Chinese New Year that is celebrated in the story is the "Year of the Monkey." That is actually historically accurate, and I should know because I was born in 1980 and I, according to the Chinese custom, am a monkey!

Overall Rating

A little goofy at times but still interesting enough to get you to want to read the next chapter in this saga. Solid "middle of the road" grade for this one...

 Posted: 18 Mar 2021
 Staff: Keith Moore (E-Mail)