Before Untold Tales of Spider-Man, before Avengers, before Astro City, before Marvels, Kurt Busiek was just an ex-letter hack trying to break into the big time by writing Power Man and Iron Fist and taking on some occasional guest-writing. Here's a two-issue job for Spectacular Spider-Man which is often overlooked, wedged as it is between the tail-end of Gerry Conway's work and the start of J.M. DeMatteis' run. It introduces the woman known as Corona.
Sal Buscema contributes the art.
The Spectacular Spider-Man is web-swinging his way along Lower Manhattan when he sees a well-dressed woman pass out as she is crossing the street. (Well-dressed if you like purple and black striped dresses, pink jackets, and pearls, that is.) He immediately swings down and grabs her before she hits the pavement. The crowd can't tell if Spidey is "saving her or kidnapping her" but the woman isn't complaining. She is "out like a light" and sweating profusely even though it is a chilly spring day. Spidey checks her out and realizes that, though her breathing is steady, "she's burning up with fever". He figures there's no time to lose. Holding the woman under one arm, he webs his way to the nearest hospital. (I'd really like to know how he crosses the city on his webs when one arm is occupied with holding the unconscious woman but Sal just leaves it up to our imaginations.)
After dropping the woman off at the hospital's emergency room, Spidey returns to his original reason for being downtown. He has an appointment with Daily Bugle reporter Joy Mercado at "SoHo's spanking new Forrester Building" and this detour to the hospital has made him late. Still, he had to take the time to help. He reminds himself that ignoring a burglar cost his Uncle Ben his life and he reiterates his vow to "never ignore another situation where my powers can do some good, no matter what it costs".
Finally arriving at the Forrester Building, Peter exits the elevator and immediately tries to offer up an excuse to Joy Mercado for being late, but she tells him not to bother. "You're not the most punctual of photographers but at least you show up! That's better than some!" she says. Then she straightens his jacket, telling him she "can't interview New York's hottest new scientific team with you looking like you got dressed in the elevator shaft". (But since Pete is wearing a white t-shirt with a black jacket over it, I'm not sure what she can do to dress him up.) A rather stuffy fellow with red hair and a blue business suit interrupts Joy's come-on. He introduces himself as Cedric Forrester and takes the time to mention that it was his sister Dagny who arranged the interview because "she is quite the publicity-seeker". He goes on to explain that Dagny is currently unavailable "to jump through your inane hoops" but that they may as well come in anyway. (And just in case this dialogue hasn't completely gotten the point across, Kurt picks up a ball peen hammer and whacks you over the head with Joy's comment to Pete: "Brr! Robbie told me this guy had a reputation for arrogance, but I had no idea!" Trust me, Kurt is much more subtle in his writing nowadays.)
Cedric leads them into the laboratory. He explains that their "main laboratory is in the south of France" but that he and his sister "whipped up" this "little workshop" since they "had social obligations in New York". Peter is so stunned by the "little workshop" that his eyes pop out of his head. The lab is immense with huge impressive-looking computers and machines that look like oversized dental drills. Six people in lab coats are so busy that they don't even turn around when Cedric and crew enter.
So, Pete starts snapping pictures while Joy follows Cedric around with her tape recorder. She asks if she can call him "Cedric" and (as if the "inane hoops" and the "south of France" and the "little workshop" weren't enough to irritate you) he replies that he prefers "Dr. Forrester". (But as far as I'm concerned, "Dr. Forrester" is from Mystery Science Theatre 3000 so we're going to keep calling him "Cedric".) Joy begins her interview by mentioning that Cedric "recently turned down a humanitarian award for your great contributions to radiation therapy" and she asks if this is because he feels that "a scientist's role is to serve society without thought of recognition or reward". Cedric asks her where she got "such a stupid idea". He tells her that he does his work because he likes it and is good at it. "Society is lucky to have me" he says, "I turn down all awards that don't involve cash". (Okay, Kurt, okay! Enough! The guy is a complete turd! We get it already!) Joy is so annoyed that she must remind herself that she is getting paid to do this. Either that or Pete is whispering it to her, which seems more likely since the line begins with "Psst, Joy!" except that Peter's mouth is closed up tight and he seems to be uninterested in the conversation. Instead, he is busy snapping pictures of the "fusion cyclotron" which amazes him even as it worries him since he's heard that "the EPA hadn't approved them for use within the city limits because of the Radiation Danger". Then Pete notices some data being printed out. Oblivious to any privacy concerns, Pete snaps the paper right up and begins to read the data. It comes from "some sort of water chemistry experiment" but Peter can't believe that the figures are correct since "the volumes are enormous". (Not that he has any idea of what the experiment is about or anything.) Cedric notices Pete snooping and snatches the paper away from him. He tells Pete not to "meddle with the equipment" and further explains that "the material is far beyond your comprehension in any case". Ah, but he doesn't know our science genius webhead, does he? Joy knows. She tells Cedric that Peter has won scholarships working on biochemistry at Empire State University. "How precious" Cedric replies, "We must compare I.Q's (sic) sometime." (Okay, everybody, I'm sorry but I can't ignore it. It's the English grad in me. I.Q. in this sentence is not possessive. It is plural. Therefore no apostrophe. The correct spelling in this case is "I.Q.s". It has become more and more common to put in apostrophes where they don't belong. So, for all of you out there doing that... stop it!!! Now back to our story.) Peter isn't interested in Cedric's snide avoidance of the subject. He wants to know more about the water experiments. But the conversation is interrupted by the sound of gunfire. (At least I assume that's what "Skreeee. Blam blam blam" means.) Cedric calls for assistance from "Gunther" and "Fredrick". They join other snarling men in brown military-like uniforms who are carrying rifles. (Or, as Joy calls them, "plug-uglies with assault weapons".)
Joy smells a real story here and tries to get Cedric's permission to follow the plug-uglies. Cedric refuses, of course. Peter decides that he won't be missed and runs off to change into his Spider suit. (Now, let me get this straight. Here we have a snide scientist clearly hiding something. Here we have men rushing off with assault weapons. Here we have Cedric clearly wanting to keep the Daily Bugle folk away from whatever is happening. And he's NOT going to notice that one of the reporters is missing? Excuse me?) So, sure enough, "seconds later", Spider-Man is outside and has webbed his camera to a building across the way in case anything photogenic happens along. (And I'd love to see him explain to Joy how he suddenly got pictures from the building across the street.) Three of the plug-uglies stand on the roof of the Forrester Building and shoot at a golden-skinned woman with brown hair and green pupil less eyes. She wears a one-piece bathing suit, go-go boots, and wristbands, all in orange and she is surrounded by a green aura that seems to act as a force field. She can also fly and she is flying straight down at the three men. And she appears to be as snide as Cedric as she asks the men if they were "hired for stupidity or bred that way?" It turns out that the rifles are loaded with tranquilizer bullets but even the real thing wouldn't penetrate her green aura. The men remark that the bullets melt as soon they come in contact with it but the woman corrects them, explaining that "they've been transmuted into a gaseous state, to be precise". Then she goes on to demonstrate that her aura gives her "more than just defensive capabilities" by firing some sort of laser blast out of her left hand. Two guns that are hit heat up so much that the men must drop them. The woman lands on the roof and orders the men to "tell Cedric that Corona is here to see him". The frightened men rush off to deliver the message.
Corona follows the men inside but she is unaware of the second line of defense. Two goons hide behind a corner, holding a fire hose. One, called "Fred" by the other (this is perhaps the famous "Gunther" and "Fredrick" duo) turns on the hose and sprays Corona down with "energy-retardant foam". It penetrates and shuts down Corona's aura, staggers her, burns her eyes, and makes her vulnerable enough for another goon to come up behind her and whack her over the head with the butt of his gun. Then he gets her in a serious headlock, lets her know how much he is enjoying it "after the way you treated me since I started this job" and presents her to Cedric. Even though Cedric has told Joy she cannot exceed her invitation as an interviewer, he still lets her tag along to the scene of the fight. Joy naturally wants to know who the woman is. Cedric tells her that it is not a woman because "it's no longer even human". Coughing on the foam and forced down on her knees, Corona tells Cedric that he will "pay for this indignity". The man with the headlock responds by grabbing her hair and pulling it. "Show some respect, babe," he says, "Or I'm liable to get rough!" That's when Spidey steps in, grabs the goon by the wrist in a painful grip and pulls his hand away from Corona's hair. Spidey then grabs the goon by the front of his shirt and lifts him up into the air. He doesn't know the good guys from the bad guys but he knows he doesn't like the way the guard is manhandling Corona. The guard tries to tell Spidey that's he's making a mistake giving Corona a chance to get "her wind back". And, sure enough, in the next moment, Corona's green aura returns, she burns the foam off of herself and takes to the air, flying right over Cedric, Joy and the other guards.
Cedric quickly realizes that Corona is heading for the lab. "She mustn't be allowed access," he yells. Corona chides him for first saying she is no longer a woman and later calling her "she". "Inconsistency is so gauche, after all" she says, proving herself to be easily as snide and annoying as Cedric and making me wonder if I can make it through two issues of this kind of talk. Corona does go to the lab but she isn't there to destroy anything. Instead, she grabs Cedric's laptop, which has his "working notes" on all his experiments. Then she melts a hole in the ceiling (yeah, yeah, she transmutes the ceiling to a gaseous state) and escapes.
Spidey, however, can't let it go at that. He follows through the hole. As Corona flies over Manhattan, the wall-crawler follows on his webs. "Corona! Hey Corona! Wait up!" he calls. Corona agrees to stop, "since it seems that's the only way I'll be rid of you", she says to Spider-Man as she lands on the roof of a building. The web-slinger joins her noting that she's "as bad as ol' Cedric" which gives Corona the opportunity to explain that she is Cedric's sister Dagney Forrester (or, as Cedric calls her, "Dagny"). Nudged just a smidgeon by Spidey to talk about it, Corona proceeds to spill her guts.
She begins by explaining that her brother is ruthless and powerful, that he ignores all governmental safety regulations in his research and simply beats the rap in court or pays the fines if the charge sticks. When Cedric needed a human subject for his experiments Dagney assumed he would "simply abduct some vagrant" and she tried to stop him. Cedric retaliated by having his men abduct her from her bed by chloroforming her and then stuck her in a big tube full of some yellow liquid with green jolts of radiation circling all around. Thus, Dagney became Cedric's subject in an experiment to "prove that human cells are capable of converting matter directly into energy" (a topic that would be rejected by a ten year old for his science project). The procedure required a lot of chemical and radiation treatments (apparently at the same time) and, Corona adds, "was quite painful". And because this is a comic, this dopey experiment actually works! Dagney glows with power (and so Cedric dubs her "Corona") but she is "confused, disoriented" so she flies off "without thinking" and has been in hiding ever since. Cedric wants her back, Corona explains, because he never intended to "create a super-being". Rather, "he wants a guinea pig, a subject he can test and analyze and tinker with for years and then destroy". As for Corona herself, she just wants to be human again. As tears stream out of her blank green eyes, she tells Spidey that she stole the laptop with hopes that Cedric's notes will tell her how to reverse the process.
Spidey has perched himself on a chimney right behind Corona and now he lays a sympathetic hand on her shoulder. He tries to tell her that having powers isn't so bad and that she can use her powers for good, but Corona jerks away from him in anger. She doesn't want to hear the "with great power" speech. After all she's rich. "I've been hearing that garbage since I was a little girl" she tells him. Then she goes on a toot about how she agrees with Cedric "that power gives one privilege not responsibility" and then she seems to get a pain in the stomach and hurriedly flies off before Spidey can do anything to stop her. The web-slinger reflects on what he has heard and decides that he "can understand why that guard hated her so much" since "she and Cedric must have been nightmare employers". Still, he hopes things work out for her... just as he hopes that Cedric will wind up in jail. In fact, he thinks he may even be able to do something about that.
And so, presumably, Pete hooks up with Joy again and heads back to the Daily Bugle to drop off his photos. (Though none of that is shown.) Soon after, he heads home where a very top-heavy Mary Jane is aerobicizing to a Jane Fonda exercise tape. MJ is sweating profusely which seems to be just a by-product of the exercise until she loses consciousness and collapses.
Peter doesn't waste any time. Next thing we know, MJ is in a bed at St. Vincent's Hospital, still sweating from fever, and muttering to Pete to turn the heat down. Peter stands over her and holds her hand. The doctor, a woman with orange hair in a pageboy cut, and wearing glasses and earrings to go along with her lab coat, ushers Peter outside, puts her hand on his shoulder, and tells him that they don't know what MJ's got. All they know is that "dozens of people in the SoHo area" has come in with the same thing. While they search for the cause, the doctors can do little other than make sure the patient stays hydrated. Peter realizes that the symptoms are the same as the woman he brought to the hospital earlier in the day. He heads to the Bugle to consult with Ben Urich.
But Ben is no help. He has checked with the Mayor and the Department of Health about this "SoHo Fever" but he keeps getting the run-around. While Pete and Ben discuss this, Joy Mercado joins them. She tells Pete that she followed up on his info about Cedric and that it all checks out as true. (This is apparently what Spidey meant about helping to put Cedric behind bars. He put Joy on the trail in that unseen time between Corona's departure and Mary Jane passing out while exercising.) The trouble is that Cedric has "too many powerful friends" so even though "the EPA has a file on [him] three inches thick" nothing is likely to be done.
Pete puts all that out of his mind for the moment while he calls MJ at the hospital. MJ is still sweating and her voice is weak but she keeps up a good front on the telephone. Peter starts to promise her that he'll be over to see her in ten minutes when he looks out the window and sees the top of the Forrester Building engulfed in a fireworks display of glowing green light. Which must mean that Corona has returned and is attacking the place.
Gallantly, from her sick bed, Mary Jane tells Peter to get over to the Forrester Building. Pete tells MJ he can't desert her and MJ thinks "that's so sweet" but nevertheless, she insists that Pete go and do what he's "an expert at".
And so, it isn't too much later that Spider-Man web-swings over to the Forrester Building where he finds Corona flying around firing force bolts at uniformed men on the roof who fire back with fancy "protonic cannons". (Of which, Spidey notes, "it took months for Reed Richards to get approval to use these babies in the Fantastic Four's defenses" which is a moot point here since, as we learned, Cedric skirts around such regulations.) Corona is happy to see Spider-Man. She tells him that she "found the most awful news in my brother's computer files". It seems, Corona explains, that Cedric illegally tapped into the city's water system to supply his experiment on Dagney. (Seems that the glowing golden liquid in which she floated was water purified through Cedric's special system.) Unfortunately, the purifier overloaded during the experiment that turned Dagney into Corona and all the "toxic chemicals were flushed directly back into the water main". These chemicals are the cause of the SoHo Fever. Cedric knows this and even has a cure but he doesn't want his role to be revealed so he is paying people off to keep it all quiet and "leaving all those sick people to die".
When Spidey hears this, he goes off on a rampage. ("Well, that really honks me off!" he says as he plows into the armed guards.) He smashes through a plate-glass window. Cedric is right there inside, so Spidey snags him with some webbing, drags him through the air by his jacket collar and smashes him up against some machinery. Corona enters behind the web-slinger, still zapping guards along the way.
Spidey pushes Cedric up against the wall, holding him by his lapels, and demands to know the full story about the suppressed antidote. Cedric tells him that he doesn't know what he is talking about. Rather than suppress a cure, he assures Spidey that he has just completed making "enough antitoxin to serve the city's needs" and at his own expense no less! He points over to a giant upside-down test tube swirling with a bubbly yellow liquid as proof of his claim.
Just as Spidey tries to figure this out, he and Cedric are attacked with a force bolt from behind. The webster's spider-sense kicks in and gives him enough time to move Cedric out of the way. But, yes, that's right, the ol' wall-crawler has been duped once again. Corona hovers above him, suddenly looking quite evil indeed. She tells him he is so gullible that "I could have told you Cedric was an alien brain vampire and you'd have believed it". (Well, I wouldn't go that far, Corona!) She reveals the truth, which is that she was a willing volunteer in the experiment, that she craves the power of Corona and that Cedric aborted the experiment halfway through because he "turned coward". Corona's goal all along was to get back to the liquid and complete the experiment that will "turn [her] fully into Corona and give [her] power beyond imagining!" (Ah, the old "power beyond imagining" scheme. You just gotta love it.)
Of course, the liquid that will give Corona the rest of her powers is the same liquid that will cure the SoHo Fever so Spider-Man decides to try to keep Corona away from it. He shoots his webbing at her but it evaporates as soon as it hits her green aura. She sneers at the web-slinger, telling him that she didn't need his help against the guards "but when you blundered in like some over eager puppy, how could I not take advantage"? But there is perhaps a little compassion within Corona after all since she bothers to tell Spider-Man that she will be able to cure all the people with the Fever once she gains full power. Or, at least, she starts to tell him that, until she doubles up in pain, wrapping her arms around her midsection. Spidey calls it "a seizure" but it just looks like a whole lot of agony to me. Corona is in such pain that she settles back down to earth, muttering "so cold, so empty". (Hey! That's what I always say when I read some of the really bad issues of Spider-Man!) She winds up sprawled helplessly on the floor, her aura gone, her powers drained. Cedric coldly explains that "her cells produce vast quantities of energy fueling her aura" but since she is "only halfway converted" her body can't cope with the strain. Without undergoing the rest of the conversion, she is likely to "blow up, melt down, burn out and die, anything". Cedric takes Dagney's chin in his hand as the final wisps of her aura drift off of her. Then he turns and walks away. "Perhaps we should depart" he tells Spider-Man, "If she explodes, she could contaminate a substantial area".
Spidey can't believe what he has just heard. "She could be dying and all you're thinking about is yourself!" he tells Cedric. The scientist is unaffected by Spider-Man's words. "Feel free to do the weeping and wailing for both of us" he says, "It seems to be your forte!" And when Corona screams (her mouth so wide open that we can see a green and golden glow inside it), Cedric chides her with, "Dagney, please, you're making a spectacle of yourself."
Desperate, Corona works up enough strength to stand and run toward the tube full of chemicals but Spider-Man steps in and blocks her way. He can't let her take the antidote with "dozens of lives" at stake from the Fever. Corona replies that she also needs the antidote and makes things more difficult by pointing out that a bunch of lives will be lost if she should happen to explode. Spidey tries to find a third solution. He asks Cedric if he can make up a second batch of the liquid but Cedric is no help at all. Stoically he explains that "some of the ingredients are quite scarce" and that he used his "entire stock to prepare the antitoxin". In other words, "it would take weeks to procure more". Corona has had enough of waiting. She tells Spidey to "stand aside... or face the consequences". The poor web-slinger is in a real quandary. Corona has told him that she can cure the Fever if she gets to full power but she has already lied to him about other things. How can he trust her now? Cedric has also lied to him. How can he trust him? But does he dare withhold the antidote from Corona when she will likely die without it especially when her death could cause the deaths of a number of other people? Let's face it. This is a sticky one. So what does the web-slinger do?
Answer? Nothing! He stands there like a slab of ham while Corona works up enough of her power to sustain a slight aura that allows her to fly past the web-slinger. Then she loses it all together, blindly firing force blasts at the web-slinger and screaming out, "I said die, Spider-Man! Die, die, die!" You know what happens next. One of her blasts hits the big tube and the antidote comes pouring out on the floor. Corona shrieks out "Nooooooo!!" (That's right... seven "o"s and two exclamation marks.) in rage and denial. She crawls on her hands and knees toward the liquid that is already rapidly pouring down a floor drain. Spidey still stands stock still, shocked by what has happened. He is thinking about how his inaction may have contributed to the death of his wife when he notices Corona's aura intensifying. Corona is curled up into a ball by the drain when she suddenly raises her arms into the air and screams in pain. The energy flies off of her in waves. Spidey staggers back, blinded by the onslaught. It looks like the explosion is coming, he prepares himself for the end, when... suddenly the energy starts to fade back to its source. Before Spidey or Cedric can figure out what is going on, a gnarled, taloned hand reaches out and crushes some metal laboratory thing into bits. Corona has changed. She again has her green aura but her body has grown scaly, her teeth have become fangs, and her face has taken on a snaky appearance making her look like a combination of Mephisto and a wearer of the Serpent Crown. She doesn't like what's become of her one bit and, of course, she blames the web-slinger for it. "Look what you've done!" she yells as she leaps at Spider-Man, "You'll pay for this!"
The letter page in this issue is mainly devoted to readers coming to the defense of Sal Buscema who was ripped up one side and down the other in the letter page of Spectacular Spider-Man #173 (February 1991) by Tim Childers of Toledo, Ohio who said in part "Sal go home! Sal go home! Sal go home! Sal go home! Sal go home!" The best response to this came from Brain F. Miller (which I suspect should be "Brian" though you never know) whose address was withheld by request and who said in part, "Tim shut up! Tim shut up! Tim shut up! Tim shut up! Tim shut up!" This dispute also gave Eric Gwynn of Westwood, California the opening to ask, "How do you say Buscema?" The answer: "Byoo-sem-uh." Now on to part two...
Perhaps you can ready my overall feelings about this tale. Essentially, it's just a classic ham-fisted over-dramatic but under-delivering mess that reinforces the bad name that the super-hero comics genre labours under.
Let's call it two and a half webs for this first half. I guess that most of the basics are competently done, there's just some silly moments.