Marvel Comics’ original summer tradition of publishing “King-Size Special!” annual issues featuring (mostly) new material had a relatively brief heyday in the Sixties — just six years, really. I’ve known that for decades, but before digging into my collection to do the research or this blog, I hadn’t realized how very few of those annuals I actually bought new off the stands. While I’d bought my first Marvel comic book in the summer of 1967, I didn’t pick up any annuals until the summer of 1968 — and that was the last year that the specials featured all-new material, at least for a while. As it turns out, I just managed to catch the very tail end of this golden era of Marvel annuals. And I’d end up buying all of two off the spinner rack
I think that the main reason I didn’t remember how few of Marvel’s classic annuals I bought brand-new is that several “almost-new” copies found their way into my collection fairly quickly. Among these were 1967’s Amazing Spider-Man Annual #4 and Avengers Annual #1, and 1968’s Fantastic Four Annual #6. Exactly how I acquired those books isn’t clear in my memory, I’m afraid, although I’m pretty certain that I didn’t buy any of them from Howard Rogofsky or Robert Bell — the two mail-order back-issue dealers who regularly advertised in Marvel’s classifieds. I’m inclined to think that I might have bought them from (or traded for them with) a good pal of mine at the time, Howard Murff. (Howard, in fact, was probably the first person I knew who was into Marvel Comics, and his interest probably had some influence upon my own gravitation to the publisher’s wares. I honestly should have acknowledged that months ago, but it’s never too late — so here’s to you, Howard!)
But, to regroup, I did manage to pick up a couple of King-Size Specials, fresh off the stands in the summer of ’68. The first of those, Avengers Annual #2, was covered in this space a few weeks ago. The second is the topic of today’s post, Amazing Spider-Man Annual #5, featuring “The Parents of Peter Parker!”.
I’d only been reading Spider-Man comics since January, but I was familiar with the basic outline of his origin story — I knew about Peter having been raised by his Aunt May and Uncle Ben, in other words. I didn’t necessarily understand how little information longtime readers had been given about Pete’s mom and dad, from Spider-Man’s 1962 debut up to this point in time — but John Romita’s striking, op art-influenced cover made it clear even to me that this was indeed a really big deal.
The splash page gave further indication of the “special” nature of the lead story, via the opening scene of Spider-Man crawling the walls of an unfamiliar locale — “the mysterious Casbah, in far-off Algeria” — rather than the usual Manhattan, as well as by the inclusion of an unfamiliar (to my eleven-year-old self, at least) name in the credits, that of “Larrupin’ Larry Lieber”.
I didn’t have a clue that Larry Lieber was Stan Lee’s younger brother (why would I?), or that he’d been a member of the Mighty Marvel Bullpen from the beginning, playing a role in the creation of Thor, Iron Man, and Ant-Man. By 1968, his main gig was drawing Marvel’s Rawhide Kid — and I didn’t read Westerns. I also wasn’t yet picking up any of Marvel’s reprint books, where I might have come across his name. So Lieber was a complete unknown as far as I was concerned.
Much better known to me, of course, was the name of “Jazzy Johnny Romita”, the regular layout artist on the monthly Amazing Spider-Man book, credited here as “chaotic consultant”. My younger self didn’t have any idea what that might mean (though I’d have at least an inkling after I’d read the back-up story later in this issue, which we’ll be getting to later). According to Romita’s introduction to Marvel Masterworks – The Amazing Spider-Man, Vol. 7, his contribution included the character designs for Peter Parker’s heretofore unseen mom and dad, as well as working with Lieber on the page layouts. At this late date, we’ll probably never know how much of the finished product (as embellished by Mike “Mickey Demeo” Esposito) is Romita’s handiwork and how much is Lieber’s. It’s a good-looking book either way, if not one of the best in Romita’s Spider-oeuvre.
But hey, enough about the credits. What the heck is our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man doing in Algeria?
Answers to our question will be forthcoming, but not until after Spidey has tussled with these exotic-looking thugs for 5 or 6 pages:
Luger or no luger, none of these guys are a match for our hero. They all turn tail and run, but Spidey figures he needs to bag at least one of them for questioning, so he heads out in pursuit, via the rooftops:
When the wall-crawler fails to quickly resurface, his erstwhile sparring partners give him up for dead, and leave the scene. But, of course, as soon as they’re gone…
Peter rushes to confront Aunt May about his discovery:
You’ll have noticed, I’m sure, that while Richard and Mary Parker appear to be in their twenties (early thirties, tops) in this flashback-within-a-flashback, Richard’s brother Ben and his wife May look quite a bit older — indeed, Aunt May looks just as frail and elderly in this scene as she does in the present day, which must be 15 years later at the very least. I guess May Reilly Parker really has always been an old woman. (Though, just in case you’re wondering, I’m pretty certain this apparent age discrepancy among Peter’s relations didn’t register at all with my eleven-year-old self, way back in 1968.)
Stunned and tormented by this new, terrible information, poor Peter stumbles through his normal routine for the next few days. Ultimately, however, he decides that he can’t go on without knowing the truth, one way or another, beyond any shadow of doubt. “I’ve got to go to Algeria!” he exclaims. “There must be someone who’ll remember — someone who was involved with my parents — who can tell me the truth!”
That Reed Richards — what a nice guy, right? But it seems that the F.F. were always good about giving a lift or other assistance to the more earthbound of their costumed brethren, back in the day.
“Algeria isn’t exactly the town next-door!” This is probably as good a place as any to note that Algeria is, of course, not a town at all — it’s a country, with an area of 919,595 square miles (it’s about four times the size of Texas, in other words). Scripter Stan Lee was almost certainly thinking of the rather more specific location of Algiers — the capital and largest city of Algeria, and the location of the famous historic district known as the Casbah.
Spidey leaves the restaurant, and strikes out for the address he’s been given for this mysterious “master of intrigue” — and we readers find that we’ve come full circle, all the way back to the splash page:
Spidey is certain he must be on the right track, since why else would those hoods have jumped him? Proceeding on to his original destination, he finds the building at the address guarded by one lone gunman. He quickly takes out the guard, and after smashing through the door, finds himself in a lavishly appointed — but presently unoccupied — office. Spidey then immediately begins poking around, looking for any useful files or records:
The Red Skull! My eleven-year-old self had never read an actual story featuring this villain before, but I still knew enough Marvel lore by this time to be cognizant of the fact that he was a Captain America foe, rather than one of Spidey’s regular bad guys — and also, that he was a big deal.
Of course, what my younger self didn’t know at the time — neither, for that matter, did any other readers, nor even (I believe) the creative team — was that while this cigarette holder-wielding, housecoat-wearing gentleman was a Red Skull, he was not in fact the Red Skull, not by a long shot. But, more about that a little later on.
The Skull has proclaimed that he’ll deal with Spider-Man without dirtying his own hands, and he does his best to make good on his word, siccing a hulking brute named Sandor on our hero:
A few more quick punches, and its nighty-night time for Sandor:
The Skull slips out of sight — and Spider-Man gloomily swings off into the night, dejected at his having apparently confirmed that his father was, indeed, “employed by the most evil spymaster who ever lived!”
But the Skull’s not quite finished with the wall-crawler yet…
The Finisher — an older, quite well-dressed gentleman whose shtick involves using an “electro-scanner” to track his victims — zeroes in on Spider-Man, and then launches a missile at him from his vehicle. Spidey catches the projectile with his webbing and hurls it away, so that it explodes harmlessly. But hey, the Finisher has more rockets, not to mention better ones:
The vehicle’s driver, unharmed by the blast, runs away — but the Finisher, mortally wounded, isn’t going anywhere:
I’m going to step in and interrupt here at the start of the Finisher’s tale, just long enough to point out the continuity discrepancy which, years later, would lead Marvel to decree that the Red Skull depicted in this story was not Johann Schmidt — the original, Nazi villain who fought Captain America in World War II as well as in the present day — but a former Soviet KGB agent named Albert Malik, who’d assumed the Skull’s identity in the postwar era, and had gone on to fight the Captain America who was active in the Fifities (not Steve Rogers, in other words).
This retcon was necessary because the timeframe in which the Parkers were double-agents is clearly indicated in this story to be after the end of World War II — but writer Stan Lee had just as clearly indicated in Tales of Suspense #79, published a mere two years previously, that the original Skull had been placed into suspended animation before the war’s conclusion, and that he wasn’t resuscitated until after Steve Rogers (who’d also been put into suspended animation prior to the war’s end) had himself returned to active duty. So he couldn’t have been around in the years following the war to interact with Richard and Mary Parker.
As things turned out, Marvel eventually figured out they needed a Fifties Red Skull, as well as a Fifties Captain America, to account for the stories they’d published in the 1950s that featured Cap fighting a Communist-aligned Skull. Once they’d done that (in a classic 1970s storyline written by Steve Englehart), it was a pretty simple matter to retroactively declare the spymaster Skull of Amazing Spider-Man Annual #5 to be one and the same as the “Red” Skull of the 1950s Captain America comics.
Got all that? I hope so. And now, back to our story:
Returning to the Skull’s lair, our hero finds the villain sitting on a throne, excuse me, a “command chair”, which has of course been tricked out with “deadly, built-in weaponry!”
OK, so the next-to-last-page “card-within-a-card” reveal that provides Spidey with the all-important proof of his father’s innocence is a bit of a stretch. That didn’t bother me at all when I first read this story in 1968, and fifty years later I’m still inclined to give it a pass. Maybe that’s due to simple nostalgia, but I’d like to think that it’s because the creative team has been so successful in making us empathize with Peter Parker in his sorrow and struggles over the previous thirty-eight pages that we feel he’s absolutely earned his happy ending.
And a happy ending it most certainly is. This was, in fact, probably the happiest ending my eleven-year-old self had seen in any Spider-Man story I’d read to date. In virtually every other tale, even if our hero defeated the villain and saved the day, the final panels showed him still worrying about something. (Will Gwen ever forgive me? Will Aunt May be all right? Will the Green Goblin return one day?) The unambiguous triumph of this story’s conclusion was unusual, and made a huge impression on me — as did Spidey’s avowal that “never again” would he complain about his secret identity, or consider giving it up. I feel fairly certain that later writers did not hold Peter Parker to the letter of that vow; but if I ever read their stories, I’ve forgotten them. Fifty years later, I haven’t forgotten this story — and I don’t imagine I ever will.
(But, jeez, I really hope that Reed gave Spidey a signal device or something off-panel — because there’s no way he’s going to be able to web-sling all the way home to the Big Apple. Right?)
Obviously, the revelation in 1968 of the secret history of Peter Parker’s parents represented a rather significant addition to his backstory. I’ve seen the opinion expressed here and there that it was actually a mistake, creatively speaking — that part of the essence of Spider-Man is his “everyman” quality — the idea that the only thing truly separating Peter from the majority of his readership is a single radioactive spider bite. Giving him parents who were involved in international espionage, not to mention unjustly accused of treason, goes against the grain of what makes this hero “just like us”.
I can see their point. On the other hand, the fact that Stan Lee and his collaborators hadn’t established any background details about Spidey’s parents in the first six years of the character’s existence meant that when they finally did go there, those details were going to have to mean something. And without getting too much into thorny questions of “nature versus nurture” (e.g., if Peter never really knew his parents, could he have been influenced by their bravery and selflessness?), the notion of a heroic legacy is certainly well established in superheroic comics, as well as in heroic fiction in general.
For my part, I’m always going to see this story through the prism of my initial experience of it fifty years ago — when I was still discovering Spider-Man’s world as a whole, and here found myself discovering a significant part of it at the same time as the hero. For that reason alone, the story is always going to work for me. (Maybe that’s not the most rational or objective of aesthetic judgments, but who says it has to be?)
In any event, whatever else it might have been, 1968’s revelation of Peter’s parents’ fate indisputably represented a notable contribution to the Spider-Man mythos; it’s hardly surprising, therefore, that over the last half-century, a number of the web-slinger’s latter-day chroniclers haven’t been able to resist returning to the subject.
For a while in the early Nineties, it actually looked like at least part of the history chronicled in Amazing Spider-Man Annual #5 would itself be overwritten, when a storyline that kicked off in Spidey’s 30th anniversary issue (AS-M #365) found Richard and Mary Parker alive and well, and showing up on their long-lost son’s doorstep. It seemed then that Pete’s folks hadn’t been killed in that Skull-arranged plane crash, after all — no, they’d been taken prisoner by Russian agents, and had been held in captivity all these years.
Except that these weren’t the real Richard and Mary Parker, of course. They were, instead, Life Model Decoys — artificial life forms that had been created by the longtime Spider-Man villain known as the Chameleon. Peter eventually discovered the ruse (in issue #388), and the LMDs didn’t survive the adventure, as they were both destroyed after ‘Mary” went against her programming and attempted to save her “son”. Afterwards, Peter’s parents were dead, “again”, and things returned to the status quo.
But a little thing like being dead couldn’t stop Richard and Mary from turning up in flashbacks, or even in entire stories set in the past, such as the lead story in 1997’s Untold Tales of Spider-Man #-1, written by Roger Stern, which considerably fleshed out the history of Richard and Mary’s romance — and made it crystal clear that Mary was every bit the skilled, sexy secret agent that her hubby was (a welcome clarification, since AS-M Annual #5, though tagging Mary as well as Richard with the “traitor” label in its early scenes, had come to focus almost entirely on the latter’s role as a spy by the story’s end). It also revealed that, like virtually every other Marvel character active during the 20th century, they’d crossed paths at one point with a Canadian operative named Logan, later to be known as Wolverine (but you knew that already).
John Romita provided interior pencils as well as the cover art for this tale of the “Amazing Parkers”, which seems quite fitting, considering his evident affection for the characters (in that Marvel Masterworks introduction I referenced earlier, he calls then two of his “most satisfying creations”).
Another wrinkle would be added to the Parkers’ tale in the 2014 graphic novel Amazing Spider-Man: Family Business, in which readers got a few more glimpses into the adventurous lives of Mary and Richard Parker, in the context of a contemporary tale that held out the tantalizing possibility that the two might have had another child — a daughter — and that Peter could very well have a younger sister out there, somewhere.
Meanwhile, other iterations of the Spider-Man mythos, in comics as well as in other media, have given us alternative versions of Peter’s parents. In Marvel’s “Ultimate” universe, for example, Richard had been a brilliant research scientist, rather than a covert operative — though, as in the “main” Marvel Universe, both he and Mary met an untimely, violent end in mysterious circumstances (either in a plane crash, or during a rampage by the Ultimate Hulk — it’s not entirely clear). Also as in the main continuity, Richard appeared to return from the grave (though without Mary, this time), before being exposed as a clone (who was eventually killed).
The Ultimate Marvel interpretation seems in turn to have significantly influenced Marc Webb’s two Amazing Spider-Man films, in which actors Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz played Richard and Mary respectively. In the films, Richard is a scientist working on a mysterious project for his employer, Oscorp, and Richard and Mary are both killed after an assassin attacks them on a private plane, resulting in its crash. The second film also incorporates the “treason” theme from AS-M Annual #5, as Aunt May tells Peter that she and Uncle Ben were visited by government agents after the crash, and told (untruthfully) that Richard had been planning to sell secrets to a foreign interest. Webb and his collaborators were apparently intending to bring in the “return” theme, as well, as a scene was shot featuring Richard, in the present day, showing up and confronting Peter in a cemetery. (The scene didn’t appear in the theatrical release version of the completed film, but is included as an “extra” among the special features in the home video release). But, as this version of the Spider-Man cinematic franchise was scrapped following Sony Pictures’ 2015 decision to collaborate with Marvel Studios on future Spider-films, it’s not likely we’ll ever learn if this “Richard Parker” would have turned out to be an LMD-like robot, a clone, or the real deal.
In the meantime, the “scientist” take on the Parkers seems to have infiltrated the comics’ main Marvel Universe as well, as a 2018 storyline in Spider-Man/Deadpool indicates that both Richard and Mary were brilliant scientific geniuses as well as top-flight, world-saving superspies. Frankly, this aging fanboy thinks that with this additional wrinkle to the Parkers’ history, Marvel has, perhaps, finally taken things just a tad too far — but, of course, your mileage may vary.
And with that, boys and girls, we’re all caught up on the continuing saga of Peter Parker’s parents. (“But wait!” I hear some of you ask. “What about Trouble?” To which I can only reply: “What about it?”)
Way back at the beginning of this post (it seems like years ago, I know), I commented that the summer of ’68 was the end of the “golden age” of Marvel annuals. But it wasn’t just the special-event, double-length stories that made the early annuals great. It was also the special features — including pin-ups, like this one that immediately followed on the heels of “The Parents of Peter Parker!” in Amazing Spider-Man Annual #5:
OK, so maybe a quick look-in at the Daily Bugle offices, showing all of four characters (including two — Betty Brant and Ned Leeds — who’d barely appeared in the pages of Spidey’s regular series during the eight months I’d been reading it) doesn’t make for the most thrilling pin-up ever. (Heck, the caption admits as much.) I’m sure the next special feature will be a stand-out:
Well… maybe if I was more of a sports fan (either then or now). What’s next?
This was probably pretty interesting, and even useful, if you happened to be a New Yorker. But when I first saw this “They Are Here” map, my first visit to the Big Apple was still several years in my future, and so it didn’t mean a lot to me. Oh, well. Maybe the Marvel annual was already past its prime in summer, 1968? On the other hand, we’ve still got a few more pages to go…
Now this one — featuring our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man transmogrified into other familiar comics characters — made me grin fifty years ago, and still does today. Though I recall being stumped for some time — days, or even weeks — before I figured out who the character in the upper right-hand corner was supposed to be. DC’s artists weren’t using that particular pose for Superman-in-flight all that regularly at the time, I suppose.
We’ve got one more special feature left in this annual, and it’s the best. Like all of Marvel’s 1968 annuals, it purports to provide the “true” story of how the creative team put together its lead story:
“No credits for this one, ’cause nobody will take the blame!” Regular readers of Marvel’s Not Brand Echh humor title, however, could probably identify the pencil art as being by Marie Severin — and according to the Grand Comics Database, “Mirthful” Marie did indeed draw this three-page feature, as well as write it. (Frank Giacoia did the inking.)
Even more than does the parallel tale in 1968’s Avengers Annual #2, this story shines a light on the “Marvel method” of comic book production — showing the artist(s) as well as the writer involved in plotting the story.
Inspired by “Larrupin’ Larry”‘s sour ball mishap, “Good Ol’ Smiley” and “Jazzy Johnny” decide that Aunt May gets a pill stuck in her throat — and when Peter tries to help dislodge it with a friendly smack on the back, his spider-strength accidentally breaks her back:
Hmmm… Doctor Doom? I don’t remember him being in the story, so what gives?
“Aw — hang loose!” “Sheesh!” EXCELSIOR. It just doesn’t get any more Silver Age Marvel than that, folks.
As noted, 1968 was the last year for a while that Marvel’s annuals would feature all-new material. And though new stories would return to their pages some years down the road, things would never be quite the same. (Well, not as far as I was concerned, at any rate.)
But if I’m going to be perfectly honest with you, when the summer of 1969 rolled around, I didn’t necessarily miss the new stuff all that much. That’s because the annuals that year — reprints though they were — featured absolutely classic Marvel material that my younger self had never seen before.
Amazing Spider-Man Annual #6, for example, would feature Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s classic “Sinister Six” tale from Spidey’s first annual, along with other goodies, including the web-slinger’s first encounter with the Fantastic Four.
Meanwhile, Fantastic Four Annual #7 would re-present that team’s own first adventure from FF #1, as well as their battle with Doctor Doom from FF Annual #2, and Doom’s classic origin story from that same issue — all by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.
And lastly, Avengers Annual #3 would showcase perhaps the greatest prize to be found in all three — a reprint of one of the single most important early Marvel stories, the return of Captain America in Avengers #4. Rounding out the issue would be three of Cap’s World War II adventures (including, incidentally, the origin of the Red Skull — the real one, that is), as originally presented in Tales of Suspense. (Sure, those stories would have more logically been included in a Captain America Annual, but Marvel hadn’t given him one yet — and they were great stories, so why worry about it?) All, once again, by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.
It was all great stuff, and all material that I would have had to wait years to catch again in reprints — to say nothing of how long I’d have to wait until I could afford to buy all of it in its original form, as back issues. (Try “forever”.)
Reprint books they all might have been, but they were all great comics, just the same — and I figure they’ll each be worth a blog post of their own, when next summer rolls around. I hope you’ll return to join me then.