Only two months after his encounter with Stilt-Man, the wall-crawler runs into another old Daredevil villain. Bill Mantlo is the scripter again, this time in Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man.
The Gladiator first makes an appearance in Daredevil #18, July 1966 and is almost exclusively a Daredevil villain for about seventeen years thereafter except for stints in Iron Man #7-8, November-December 1968 and Ghost Rider #21, December 1976. His real name is revealed as Melvin Potter in DD #166, September 1980 where it is also revealed that he has become delusional and occasionally believes he is actually a gladiator back in Ancient Rome. He tries to fight off his Gladiator persona and go straight starting in DD #173, August 1981. He opens his costume shop in DD #186, September 1982. And then he has this encounter with Spider-Man.
Before I get into the meat of the splash page, I would like to point out that the credits for this issue run from the top left down to the bottom left of the page and feature caricature headshots of all the creators. From top to bottom, we have Stan Lee (Presenter), Bill Mantlo (Scripter), Al Milgrom (Pencils; a caricature familiar to anyone who ever read Al's Marvel Fanfare), Jim Mooney (Inks), Joe Rosen (Letters), Bob Sharen (Colors), and Tom DeFalco (Editor). The last headshot is listed as Jim Shooter (Chief) but is actually a picture of Dr. Doom. Take your own personal opinion of Shooter and read into that whatever you will.
As for the splash itself... well, it is nighttime inside a costume shop. In the background are costumes of Batman and Thor (two other costumes are obscured but one looks like... Hourman?). In the foreground, Spider-Man crouches suspended in the air, hanging onto a web. Behind him, the Gladiator in full yellow and blue armor extends his arms out. He has what look like small sawmill blades attached to his wrists and those blades are dangerously close to the web-slinger's head. Outside, gunshots are heard. Spider-Man and the Gladiator don't move a muscle. Then a curtain is parted and a large bald man with a mustache and goatee walks into the room. He pushes Spider-Man aside so he can walk through. Only now do we see that Spidey and Gladiator are not real but rather dummies that are modeling the costumes. But the real Gladiator is in the room. He is Melvin Potter, the large bald man, and he is the proprietor of this costume shop. He has stepped out of a back room because he heard the gunfire. Now he looks out his plate glass window, pressing his palms up against it. He tells himself that the shooting is none of his business but it turns out he is wrong.
In the street, three crooks are running from the police. First in line is Sammy who wears purple pants, a purple cap, and chartreuse jacket. Behind him is Freddy who has a mustache and wears a green jacket and shirt. Bringing up the rear is a fat guy in a white t-shirt who never actually gets a name. The trio runs along a sidewalk. All are armed with pistols. The cops have pulled up in two squad cars and gotten out so that they can yell, "Stop or we'll shoot" at the fleeing bad guys. The fat guy is too out of shape to keep up with his pals so he panics, turns, and shoots one of the officers. ("I won't be caught just 'cause I'm fat!" he declares.) The threesome runs into an alley, sending a stray cat scurrying. Freddy turns back and yells at his friend. "You overweight idiot!" he says, "You might've just turned a crummy armed robbery into a felony-murder!" Sammy points out that the cops won't give up chasing them now. But Freddy knows a place to hide. Sammy clears a wooden fence at the end of the alley. Freddy helps his fat friend over. Moments later the three of them arrive at Freddy's hiding place: Melvin Potter's Costume Shop.
Sammy tries the knob but the door is locked. So, he uses his elbow to smash through the glass, reaches his hand in, unlocks the door, and just like that, they're in. Then they all duck down below the plate glass window. The cops run by. One of them even shines his flashlight into the shop but the crooks are hidden right below it. Bill tells us that "Miraculously, the pursuing police fail to notice the shattered door pane as they race past" (such "miracle" being necessary for the furtherance of the story) and soon the cops are past. The three crooks stick their heads up and peer out the window. "We're safe! Whew!" says Sammy. But then a huge bald man in a red shirt and tan pants looms up behind them and wonders, "What's going on here?"
The three crooks turn and point their guns at the figure that they thought was "just another wax dummy". The man introduces himself as Melvin Potter and orders the men out of his shop. ("I'm closed," he says.) Sammy recognizes Melvin's name and Freddy tells the others that he chose the shop because he knew it was owned by the man who used to be the Gladiator. He tells Melvin that they need to be hidden from the police but Melvin refuses. "I've got a record," he says, "and I'm not blowin' parole by getting' involved with you cheap hoods." Melvin reaches for his telephone and Freddy shoots him in the arm. (The bullet goes right through his bicep.) Outside, the cops hear the gunshot and double back. As Melvin holds his arm, Freddy tells him that the cops are bound to be back now and that "you're already implicated just by us bein' here". He tells Melvin that he must now do more than just hide them... he must help them! And Freddy looks significantly over at the Gladiator costume. Melvin is so upset at the notion that little black lines surrounded by a yellow aura radiate off of his face. "Not... that!" he says.
Somewhere else in the city, Doctor Otto Octavius is traveling under the light of an immense full moon as only he can... crossing the rooftops by way of his metal tentacles. He is heading for Columbia Presbyterian Hospital where the severely wounded Black Cat is recuperating. As Felicia Hardy lies unconscious in her hospital bed, the Amazing Spider-Man holds vigil. He has set up a web hammock from the ceiling and is so exhausted by his previous battle that he sleeps and is assaulted by some very bad dreams. (This war with Dr. Octopus and the Owl begins in Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man #73, December 1982. The Black Cat is wound in PPSSM #76, March 1983. As we'll soon see, the conflict continues right through this issue and doesn't end until PPSSM #79, June 1983.) Spidey talks in his restless sleep as he dreams that he is entangled by real octopus tentacles that emanate from a grotesque and distorted image of Octavius' face. "Keep away, Octopus," says the sleeping wall-crawler, "You can't have the Cat! I won't let you take her!" as the real Doc Ock arrives at the hospital and scales the wall looking for the appropriate room.
Spidey's senses pick up Otto's presence even as he sleeps. His spider-sense tingles but he doesn't wake up. He continues to dream that he is wrapped up in flesh-and-blood octopus arms. "I'll fight you, Octopus! I'll fight you!" says the man in the hammock as Ock's silhouette can be seen right outside the window. Seconds later, Doctor Octopus smashes right through the glass into the room. This finally wakes the wall-crawler up but he is disoriented, unable to tell what is real and what is a dream. In that moment of confusion, Ock uses his tentacles to rip the hammock off of the ceiling and entangle Spider-Man in his own web. But instead of acting quickly, he pauses to tell the web-slinger about how much "you and your beloved Black Cat will suffer for all the agony you've caused me". This gives Spidey time to break out of his webbing and to note that Otto has reattached his tentacles. "I thought you would have learned your lesson after the way I tore them off you the last time we met". (Which was in PPSSM #75, February 1983.) Ock tells Spidey that the real reason he lost the last fight was because he was "exhausted from too little sleep and encumbered by the interference of the Owl". Now, however, Doc proclaims himself rested and ready for revenge. He wraps his tentacles around the wall- crawler but Spidey is not impressed. The web-slinger moves in closer as he reminds Ock that "I always end up putting you away". Otto thinks this time is different. He is sure that he will have his vengeance but he is not planning to get it tonight. Dropping Spidey and stabbing one powerful arm at him, Octavius declares, "this is merely a social call, a warning of things to come". Instead, he announces that he will achieve his revenge tomorrow night. Why wait? Because, Ock says, "I want you both to know a night of fear! Of helpless anticipation!" Spidey isn't exactly shaking in his boots. He shoots a spray of webbing at Otto as he tells him that he will probably end up, "beat [ing] the stuffings out of you and ship[ping] you back to prison like I've done every other time we've fought". Octopus blocks the web spray with his tentacles as he declares that Spidey's "days of easy victories and fortuitous triumphs are over". The web-slinger is so surprised that Otto blocked the web shot that he leaves himself open to a blow from one of the tentacles. Dazed by the blow, the Amazing one realizes that Ock has "somehow increased his strength". This blow was "hard enough to kill". Now he struggles to shake it off and to rise from the floor. Ock hovers above him and informs him that the blow "is but a sample of what's in store for you, Spider-Man". Then he offers "an example of what's in store for the Black Cat" by smashing her life support machines and ripping all the tubes out of her body. He leaves through the window that he broke, thanking Spidey "for this evening's enchanting entertainment" and declaring that the next battle will be to the death. Spidey stays behind, cradling the comatose Cat in his arms as he screams for a doctor. A medical team arrives in seconds, already alerted to the emergency by an alarm triggered by the destruction of the life support system. They tell the web-slinger that they will "take it from here" and Spidey is forced to withdraw and watch from the hallway.
While out there, he is hailed by Police Captain Jean DeWolff (who little suspects what awaits her thirty issues from now). She tells Spidey that the Cat has to be moved to "a more secure hospital" now that Ock is after her. Spidey clenches his fists, looks down at the ground, and rejects Jean's suggestion. The Cat's condition is too unstable. Any move to a new location may kill her and Ock would probably find her in the new place anyway. Spidey tells Jean that Otto promised to come back tomorrow and that her officers can guard the Cat until then. Jean puts her hand on Spidey's shoulder and asks what he's going to do. "I'll be getting ready for the biggest battle of my life" he replies as he web-slings away out an open window.
Spidey makes his way above the rooftop water towers of Manhattan. The city stretches out below him and he has photo work, graduate studies and his future career to consider but none of these things seem important. All he can think about is the Black Cat, the woman he "thinks he loves", and how to save her life.
But now, because Doc Ock definitely does not qualify as an OPV, Spidey finally swings over Melvin Potter's costume shop and sees six police cars filling the street in front of it. There are about seventeen armed cops spreading themselves out in strategic positions. The curious web-slinger alights on a rooftop to watch. The officer in charge picks up a bullhorn and orders the hoods inside to "come out or we'll use tear gas". There is no response so the cops blast several canisters of gas through Melvin's now- shattered plate-glass window. In the swirl of gas, the police see four figures coming out the front door. One of them is far larger than the others. He is in the lead and is wearing the costume of the Gladiator.
Coughing from the tear gas, Freddy, Sammy and the fat dude order Melvin out to "strut your stuff". When the Gladiator hesitates, Freddy (with tears streaming down his eyes) raises his gun and orders him to "quit stallin'". But Melvin vowed (in DD#186) to never wear the Gladiator armor again and this is hard for him. Try as he might to go straight, three petty crooks have drawn him back in. (Or as Michael Corleone said in Godfather III, "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!") Wondering if this is simply his destiny, Melvin lifts his arm, and fires one of his wrist-based sawmill blades at the struts supporting a neon sign for the Hotel Roxie. (So, it appears that the costume in Melvin's shop is a fully functioning Gladiator outfit. Probably not the sort of thing you want to rent to some guy who's going to get tanked at a costume party.) The sign falls down between the crooks and the cops, intercepting the police bullets. But intercepting the bad guys' bullets as well.
From his perch, Spidey briefly considers keeping out of things because "the Gladiator usually seems to fight Daredevil" (and, hey, you can't infringe on the other guy's villains without permission, am I right?) but then that "great responsibility" stuff kicks in and the web-spinner knows he has to get involved. Spidey shoots a webline out to take him down to the street. The Gladiator pauses, distracted by the throbbing of his wounded arm (which he has wrapped with some surgical tape or something) leaving him open to a punch in the jaw from Spider-Man as he swings onto the scene. The Gladiator goes down in a heap but Spidey is more concerned with his knuckles, which he almost broke against "that stupid steel-plated face mask of yours".
Sammy can't believe that "Spider-Man dropped Melvin with one punch". He starts blasting away at the web-slinger. Spidey crouches down and shoots webbing back. It plugs up Sammy's gun even as Spider-Man uses his speed to move in and clip Sammy in the jaw. He kicks Freddy in the face at the same time. Then he moves in on the fat guy and punches him into unconsciousness.
It looks like the whole event is finished. Spider-Man covers the three hoods with webbing. He holds Sammy and Freddy in one hand and the fat guy in the other. The cops move in to take the bad guys off his hands. But Melvin Potter has regained consciousness. Blood pours out of the bullet wound in his arm and the "pain clouds his mind", bringing back his fantasies of living in Ancient Rome. He looks at Spidey and sees the webster as a conquering gladiator in the Coliseum. The approaching police look like toga-wearing Romans pointing thumbs- down for the losers of the battle. It's too bad because, even as Melvin starts to rise, the three crooks spill that he was not part of their gang. "These jerks claim they forced him to help them," says one cop to Spidey. "No wonder he didn't try to hurt anyone!" the web-spinner replies. But behind them Melvin sits up, convinced that he is "a warrior of the Roman Empire" and that he must keep fighting to avoid disgracing the Emperor.
So, the Gladiator gets to his feet and aims his projectile blade at Spider- Man's back. The wall-crawler's spider-sense warns him of the attack just in time to push the cops out of the way. The blade flies through the air and cuts a swath through the back of Spidey's costume before getting embedded in the bricks of a nearby building. Spider-Man turns to face the Gladiator. But instead of rushing into action, he stands around asking the Gladiator why he attacked when they already know that he is innocent. This game of twenty questions gives the Gladiator time to pick up his previously fired blade from the sidewalk, walk over and pull the other blade out of the bricks. He puts the blades back on his wrists, moves in, and tries to slash Spider-Man. The webster leaps out of the way and the Gladiator's blade slashes over a fire hydrant instead. Still, Spidey tries to figure out what's what. He tells Melvin that "there's absolutely no reason for us to continue this fight" and he informs him that "the cops will have to take you in if you keep acting like this". The only response he gets from Melvin is, "You have shamed me before my emperor. Your bones will bleach in the arena for that indignity". Now, Spidey can be a real hamhead for someone who is a genius (or so he is written on far too frequent a basis) but the mention of "emperor" and "arena" are enough to overcome even his occasional thickness. He clings to a wall and leaps away as the Gladiator cuts a swath through the brick, then dangles from a web attached to a lamppost. While up there he remembers that lawyer Matt Murdock defended Melvin by arguing that he "used to suffer from delusions, that he really thought he was a warrior living in Ancient Rome". Spidey wonders if the three crooks "set him off all over again". Meanwhile, the Gladiator uses his blades to chop the lamppost down with a single thrust.
Now that the web-slinger is wise to the situation, he jumps down and perches on the top of a mailbox. From there, he talks to Melvin, patiently explaining that he's "only making things worse". Spidey points at Freddy, Sammy, and the fat dude (who are all handcuffed now but, for some reason, still just standing around instead of shoved into a patrol car), and tells Melvin, "Don't let these clowns make a fool of you!" This speech, (which follows the theme of "you shamed me in front of my emperor", I guess) gets through. Melvin turns to face the three goons, proclaiming, "They used me! Tried to hurt me!" Freddy, Sammy, and fat dude were looking pretty pleased with themselves just a moment ago but, with Melvin turning on them, they now recoil in fear. The cops point pistols and rifles at Melvin, as they tell him to keep back. Spidey tries to tell Melvin to leave it alone but Melvin is still in the Gladiator-frenzy. He strikes at Spidey, slashing the top off the mailbox and sending letters flying all over the place. (Glad I didn't mail my bills in that box.) Spidey leaps back and then shoots some webbing right onto Melvin's back. But he doesn't succeed in anchoring himself so he gets dragged along the ground as the Gladiator stalks toward the police and thieves in the street. (I've been listening to my old Clash records lately. Sorry.) So, the web-slinger reaches back and sticks his left hand to the street as he hangs onto the webbing with his right. This stops Melvin for a moment but not for long. He just reaches back behind himself and severs the webbing with a swipe of his wrist blade.
So, there he is approaching the curb as cops point guns at him and Freddy, Sammy, and fat guy cower on the sidewalk. The police warn Melvin to stay back but he knows what he must do. Saying, "Nothing can stand in my way", he stretches his arms out, pointing at the three crooks. Spidey yells out, "Melvin, no!" but to no avail. The Gladiator fires both of his blades with a "zwwwinng"! And with a "Schunng", they stick into the curb right at Sammy and Freddy and fat guy's feet. In the silence that follows, Melvin removes his helmet. "No, nothing can stop me" he says, "from ending my life as the Gladiator!" Then he drops the helmet in the gutter right next to the embedded blades. Pointing in the general direction of police headquarters I suppose, Melvin tells one of the cops, "I'll thank you, Officer, for getting these scum out of my sight!" and the police cart the bad guys away.
Melvin returns to the web-slinger and helps him up out of the street. He tells Spidey that he owes him "a great debt of gratitude" and wonders, "how can I ever repay you"? "Uh, you run a costume shop, right?" the web-slinger says as the two men walk back to the premises in question. "How are you at repairing Spider-suits?" "No one wields a wickeder needle," says Melvin. "Y'know Gladiator old pal" says Spidey, "This could be the start of a beautiful friendship."
Unfortunately, though, it isn't. Melvin's only other appearance in a Spidey title is Amazing Spider-Man #287, April 1987, an issue known mainly for the sorry sequence where Spidey battles the Kingpin only to discover he's really fighting Daredevil in a fat suit! Melvin and Spider-Man never do meet in the issue. Melvin and Peter Parker both attend Karen Page's funeral in Daredevil Vol. 2 #8, June 1999 but they don't interact. Amazingly, unlike the meddling with the Sandman, Marvel writers have chosen to keep Melvin reformed. The Gladiator that Spidey encounters in the limited series Spider-Man/Daredevil: Unusual Suspects, January-April 2001, is a different guy.
So, what about Doctor Octopus? That story continues in Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man #78-79, May-June 1983 when Ock returns to the hospital and attacks at last. The battle crosses the city and Spider-Man gives a lecture to Ock after winning again in which he tells the villain that "you'll never beat me! Never!" Octavius recoils in fear and stays terrified of the web- slinger until "cured" in ASM #296-297, January-February 1988.
Bill Mantlo is a vastly underrated comic book writer. Too often, discussions of Bill's Spider-Man work devolve into jokes about Razorback and the Hypno- Hustler or serve as nothing more than prefaces to a mention of the horrible accident that has left Bill severely impaired mentally. But, really, even at its worst, Bill's work was always entertaining and his best stuff can hold its own against the best of any Spider-work. Think the original Carrion story or the first appearances of Cloak and Dagger or this run with this gem planted right in the middle of the classic Owl-Octopus war. Bill manages to keep the Doc Ock suspense up even as he tells a simple but affecting story of the Gladiator and his struggle to keep his nose clean. The art team of Al Milgrom and Jim Mooney is not one that sets your heart aflutter but they manage a strong style in this issue that is occasionally reminiscent of Frank Miller and Klaus Jansen. The cover is memorable and Shooter looks good as Dr. Doom. But the fat guy never does get a name. What's up with that?
Four and a half webs.