Back in October of last year, I wrote a post about Amazing Spider-Man #68, the first installment of the “petrified clay tablet” story arc that would run for a full eight issues (or ten, depending on how you look at it — more about that later). If you’re a regular reader of the blog, you may remember that I identified this storyline as a major highlight of my early years as a Spider-Man fan, and that I wrote I planned to return to it for at least a couple more posts before we reached the 50th anniversary of its finale.
Well, it’s kind of funny how things go, sometimes. The fact is, there have been so many other fine comics hitting the half-century mark over the past seven months that Spidey has kept getting squeezed out. But there’s no way I can let the climactic chapter, issue #75’s “Death Without Warning” pass by without posting about it; and so, here we are.
Of course, I can hardly launch into a review of AS-M #75 without giving you some sense of what’s preceded it, right? Let’s start, then, with a brief recap of what went down in issue #68: As you may recall, a recently-discovered clay tablet was being exhibited on the campus of Empire State University, the institute of higher learning attended by our hero Peter Parker, aka your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. Spidey’s enemy, the gangland boss known as the Kingpin, was keen to acquire the mysterious but priceless artifact, and used the occasion of a campus protest to stage a theft. Spider-Man attempted to thwart the robbery, but was ultimately unsuccessful. And that’s where we left matters, back in October.
In the next issue, however, the wall-crawler was able to track the Kingpin to his lair, and ultimately managed both to overcome his foe and to retrieve the stolen tablet; but the Kingpin, while being taken into custody, told the police that Spider-Man was his partner in crime, so that when Spidey attempted to turn over the tablet, the cops responded by firing on him. The situation grew even worse in issue #70, as the Kingpin broke out of jail and went after our now-wanted web-slinger in a bid to reclaim the tablet. Just as before, Spider-Man was able to foil the Kingpin’s efforts — but the villain managed to escape, due primarily to the interference of Daily Bugle publisher (and Spider-Man nemesis) J. Jonah Jameson. An angry Spidey then seized Jameson and began berating him, only to have the publisher collapse in his grasp; as he fled the scene, our hero wondered if he’d just proven that he was the dangerous menace Jameson had always claimed he was.
Fortunately, the next issue revealed that J.J.J. had suffered only a case of shock, not a heart attack. But Spider-Man was still stuck with a “hot” tablet and was still wanted by the NYPD, besides — and then, to make matters worse, the onetime Avenger known as Quicksilver — who’d been on the lam with his sister, the Scarlet Witch, and their ally, the Toad, ever since Avengers #53 — decided that he could redeem himself in the eyes of his estranged teammates (and the law) by capturing the “wanted criminal”, Spider-Man. The two superhumans fought, until Spidey ultimately managed to dissuade the mutant speedster from his course of action. Before the issue’s end, the web-slinger also finally hit on a way to dispose of the tablet, by delivering it into the hands of retired police captain George Stacy — the father of Peter Parker’s girlfriend, Gwen, and a man who’d shown himself sympathetic to Spider-Man in the past.
Unluckily for all concerned, however, in the very next issue the Stacys’ home was invaded by the Shocker, a villain last seen in AS-M #46. Having read of the tablet’s current whereabouts in the newspapers (!), the Shocker overcame the elderly Capt. Stacy and took the priceless artifact from his wall safe. But his plan to auction it off to the highest underworld bidder went awry when he learned that since Spider-Man had stolen the tablet from the Kingpin, it had become too hot, and no one wanted to touch it any longer. Spider-Man confronted and eventually defeated the Shocker, but by that time the villain had stashed the tablet away in an unknown location.
In issue #73, following a tip provided by the recovering Capt. Stacy, Spidey tracked down the Shocker’s onetime girlfriend, only to find someone had already gotten to her before him and was tearing the poor woman’s place apart, looking for the tablet. This was Man-Mountain Marko, an enforcer for “the Maggia” (a fictional criminal organization that’s more-or-less the Marvel Universe version of the Mafia). Despite his apparently not having any actual super-powers, the hulking, musclebound Marko managed to more than hold his own against Spider-Man, and ultimately got away with the tablet after dropping the Shocker’s ex out of a window, forcing our hero to abandon the fight and rescue the girl.
Marko took the tablet directly to his boss, the elderly Silvermane — described as being among the last of the Maggia’s “legendary, old-time leaders“. Meanwhile, another Maggia figure — a diminutive “big-time mouthpiece” named Caesar Cicero — bailed out a subordinate of the Kingpin named Wilson, who’d been introduced in issue #68 as the Kingpin’s resident “brain” and expert on the tablet. Silvermane and Cicero quickly set Wilson to work on deciphering the ancient artifact’s inscriptions. Before long, however, he was joined by another expert — a research biologist named Dr. Curt Connors, whom Cicero had ordered kidnapped from his lab in the Florida Everglades and brought to New York. What Cicero and Silvermane didn’t know, however, was that Dr. Connors was prone to turning into a scaly, green, reptilian monster, the Lizard — one of Spider-Man’s oldest foes, a creation of writer Stan Lee and artist Steve Ditko who’d debuted in AS-M #6 and had made one return engagement since then.
Issue #74 revealed that the Maggia had also kidnapped Connors’ wife Martha and son Billy — the former of whom knew her husband’s secret — to ensure his cooperation. Spider-Man learned of this development, however, and even found out where the mother and son were being held, but was ultimately unsuccessful in his attempt to rescue them. A booby-trap blew up the hideout where the Connors had recently been imprisoned, almost killing our hero, as a car sped Cicero and his captives away to the safety of Silvermane’s headquarters. Quickly recovering, Spider-Man once more took up the chase…
Elsewhere in the heavily secured building, Dr. Connors was rapidly approaching a breakthrough — but time was running out even more rapidly for him and the hapless Wison, in more ways than one:
And still elsewhere in the Maggia boss’ HQ, young Billy Connors confided to his mom that he’d known his dad’s secret for years.
Finally, Dr. Connors completed his work. He gave the vial of serum to Silvermane, while cautioning the aged crimelord that the formula hadn’t been tested yet:
And with that, we’ve at last caught up to date — said “date” being May, 1969, of course — and are finally ready to take a close look at Amazing Spider-Man #75.
As with all the other parts of the “Tablet Saga” (and, indeed, every other Spider-Man story published up through June, 1971), the script for this chapter was provided by Stan Lee — while the finished art was by Jim Mooney, who’d done the same job for the previous installments as well. Meanwhile, John Romita was credited as “innovator”, which seems to have been Lee’s term for Romita’s role in crafting rough (perhaps very rough) layouts for Mooney to then fully pencil and ink as the “illustrator”, as well as for Romita’s co-plotting the story with Lee — but, unusually for the era, two earlier chapters (#72 and #73) bore the touch of John Buscema as well. By all accounts, Buscema had no enthusiasm whatsoever for the Spider-Man gig; of course, this didn’t stop Lee, as editor, from continuing to assign him to the book as needed. (In fact, the five issues following #75 were all “Innovated” by Buscema with no credited artistic input by Romita, save for the books’ covers — although, according to the introduction Romita wrote for Marvel Masterworks: The Amazing Spider-Man, Vol. 8 , he helped Lee co-plot every issue of AS-M during this era, even when all the interior artwork was produced by Buscema and Mooney.)
In the opening pages of the present story, Spidey manages to acquire the address of Silvermane’s HQ by shaking down a couple of small-time bookies. Meanwhile, at our hero’s ultimate destination, the situation is growing more tense by the moment:
In an adjoining room, where Martha and Billy Connors are being held as hostages, Caesar “Big C” Cicero hears the commotion from next door, and goes to investigate:
Of course, once Spider-Man is on the scene, the mayhem ratchets up another couple of notches:
My eleven-year-old self was pleased to read Spidey’s assertion that he’d gone easy on Man-Mountain Marko in their first encounter, since I hadn’t really felt that one single big, strong (but not super-strong) guy should be able to give our hero that much trouble. (I was willing to make an exception of sorts for the Kingpin, for whatever reason, but Marko was a bridge too far.)
By the time that Silvermane’s backwards-running clock brings him to his “early twenties“, he’s beginning to bear a certain resemblance to one Peter Parker, don’t you think? I’ve always wondered if that was intentional on Lee, Romita, and/or Mooney’s parts, or merely a coincidence.
And now, just when you’d think things can’t get any worse:
Not realizing that his friend Curt Connors has already undergone his terrible transformation, Spidey just wants to locate all three members of the family and get them to safety — but Silvermane has no intention of letting him leave:
As the Maggia don grows ever younger, he also begins to grow weaker, so that Spider-Man is at last able to throw him off and exit the lab. Unfortunately, the web-slinger still has “Big C” and his goons to get through, before he can rescue the Connors:
The preceding sequence is, for me, perhaps the single most memorable scene in any Spider-Man comic book I’ve ever read, in any decade, and it has a great deal to do with why the “Tablet Saga” as a whole ranks among my favorite Spider-Man storylines of all times. The sequence’s effectiveness comes, I think, not so much from the originality of its conceit (I don’t know for sure that there’s actually a work of fiction predating AS-M #75 where someone age-regresses completely out of existence, but I’d be rather surprised to learn there isn’t*), but from the skill of its execution. Some of Lee’s most restrained and understated writing, combined with Romita’s measured visual pacing, grants the scene an unusually weighty sense of pathos; and while some might question whether such emotional weight really should be accorded to the demise of a self-serving, murderous criminal like Silvermane, I believe that in May, 1969, my eleven-year-old self (probably just barely cognizant of my own mortality at the time, if I’m going to be honest) instinctively grasped the point that Lee and company were trying to make; that another human being’s final fate might be so awful (in virtually every sense of that word) that the only appropriate response would be pity. It probably goes without saying, but I had never read anything quite like this before; and I would never forget it.
The end of Silvermane** is also effectively the end of the “Tablet Saga”*** — the ancient artifact’s secret has now been fully revealed and exploited, thereby ending its value as a story-driving MacGuffin**** — but, of course, the story can’t really end there, with the Connors family still in jeopardy from the Maggia, and all that:
So… that’s the end of the story, I guess? I suppose you could see it that way, since the connecting thread across every issue since #68 has been the petrified tablet, and its part in the ongoing saga of Spider-Man is now over. But it doesn’t feel very satisfying as the conclusion of anything — at least, it never has to me.
Of course, the “never-ending serial” mode of comics storytelling (common in newspaper “story” comic strips, as well as in TV soap operas), where the ending of one plotline overlaps with the beginning of the next one so that an actual break or “full stop” in the narrative never arrives, is nothing new — and it was an especially prevalent mode of production in the Marvel comics of the 1960s. But the scenes of Dr. Curt Connors and his family that ran for several issues of Amazing Spider-Man prior to the full re-emergence of the Lizard in #75 are different from the comparable “Norman Osborn remembers” scenes that ran for multiple issues of the same series in 1968, before culminating in the return of the Green Goblin in Spectacular Spider-Man #2, in one very important respect; while virtually all of the Goblin “teasers” could be deleted from the issues in which they appeared without doing any damage to the “main” stories in those issues, the Connors scenes are absolutely integral to the “Tablet Saga”. Without Dr. Curt Connors (or someone else filling his exact same role), the hieroglyphs on the petrified tablet never get translated, and the story falls apart.
For that reason, the two issues following #75 have always been part of the “Tablet Saga”, at least as far as I’m concerned.***** Call ’em an epilogue if you want to, or a coda, or whatever — but they’re the real end of the story for me; and so, I can’t close out this post without giving you a quick rundown of what transpires within their pages.
As noted earlier, this is the third time the Lizard has gone up against Spider-Man; and, as in his previous appearances, defeating this villain poses some particular challenges for our hero. While the Lizard is undeniably a dangerous public menace, his “true” identity, Dr. Curt Connors, is not at all an evil man; on the contrary, he’s an altruistic scientist and a friend of Spidey’s, who even helped him save his Aunt May’s life back during the classic “Master Planner” storyline (AS-M #31-33). Spider-Man thus faces the dilemma of needing to shut the Lizard down as quickly as he can, but without seriously harming him if at all possible. The fact that the Doc has a loving wife and son who depend on him just adds to the stakes in this situation.
This third go-round follows the same general pattern as the Lizard’s previous outings, but adds a couple of new threads. The first of these comes near the end of issue #76, when, after slugging it out with the white-coated reptile across the rooftops of Manhattan for ten pages our so, our friendly neighborhood wall-crawler attempts a “rope-a-dope” strategy:
The question raised by #76’s next issue blurb — “Friend or Foe?” is quite apt, as the relationship between Spider-Man and the Human Torch during this period of Marvel history could well be summed up by the contemporary term “frenemy”. Peter Parker and Johnny Storm were Marvel’s two leading “young” heroes (the X-Men notwithstanding), and Stan Lee and his collaborators loved to team them up, always having them butt heads in the process of taking down whatever common foe they happened to be facing. In the present scenario, the usual friction between the two young men is exacerbated by the fact that Spidey won’t explain to the Torch why they need to handle this particular baddie with kid gloves, but expects him to stand down, nevertheless; meanwhile, the Torch is understandably frustrated by Spidey’s efforts to get in his way, and suspects that the web-slinger is merely trying to hog all the glory. One can’t help but imagine, however, that if Spider-Man found himself in the same situation with another superhero (say, Daredevil), they’d manage to work things out more smoothly than do Spidey and the Torch.
(As an aside, it’s worth noting that these two issues represent an early go by John Buscema — who took over as “innovator” from John Romita with #76 — at drawing a member of the Fantastic Four, for whose adventures he’d soon become the regular illustrator for several years, following Jack Kirby’s departure from Marvel in 1970.)
The second new complication to the way things usually go when Spider-Man battles the Lizard is occasioned by the fact that little Billy Connors now knows that said homicidal reptilian monster is really his dad — and when he and his mom, whom Spidey had earlier safely stashed away in a midtown hotel, learn of the ongoing brouhaha between the Lizard, Spider-Man, and the Torch, young Master Connors decides he has to do something:
Yeah, you know that’s going to go well. Meanwhile, thanks to the two heroes’ scuffling with each other as much as with him, the Lizard manages to elude them long enough to get to the waterfront, where he figures he’ll have the advantage. Around this time, Spidey gets a bright idea about how to stop the Lizard, but first, of course, he has to get rid of Johnny Storm. He finally accomplishes this by subterfuge, telling the Torch that his “spider-sonic hearing” has just “picked up a distress call — from the Fantastic Four!” Unaware that there ain’t no such thing as “spider-sonic hearing”, the Torch flies off to the aid of his teammates, while Spidey hustles to put his plan into action. Unfortunately, Billy Connors has also made it to the waterfront — and following the trail of the combatants, runs into the Lizard while our hero is otherwise occupied:
(Um, Spidey, I know you’re under stress and everything, but the kid’s name is “Billy” — not “Bobby”, OK?)
With his main mission accomplished, all that’s left for Spider-Man to do is reunite Curt and Billy Connors (who gets called “Bobby” again on the last page, by the way — this time by his dad. Dammit, Stan…) with a grateful Martha — and then Spidey is swinging off into the sunset, having brought this latest adventure to an almost 100% successful conclusion — a fact that seems to leave him as pleasantly surprised as I believe my younger self probably was, back in July, 1969:
Now that’s what I call a real ending, True Believers.
But though the “Tablet Saga” may be over and done, the saga of Spider-Man continues — so be sure and check back here in a mere three months, when we (and Spidey) will be making the acquaintance of one of Marvel Comics’ earliest black super-characters, the Prowler.
**For the record, I’m well aware that in terms of Marvel Universe continuity, AS-M #75 wasn’t actually the “end” of Silvermane; still, that doesn’t mean I have to like it. I know, I know — “death” in comics is never final, yadda yadda yadda. But for my money, the only creative justification for overturning a comic-book death as affectingly crafted as this one was is that there’s a great story to tell that can only be told if such-and-such “dead” character returns from the grave. (Or wherever it is you go when you’re age-regressed completely out of existence.) And to put it bluntly — Silvermane ain’t no Bucky Barnes (or even Barney Barton, for that matter). This character first appeared in Amazing Spider-Man #73, created specifically just so he could die, two issues later. He had no meaningful connection to any other Marvel character whatsoever (at least, not as originally written). And while I can’t claim to have read every post-1969 story featuring Silvermane, I have read at least some of them, and I’ve read about most of the others — and I remain unconvinced that there’s a single one of them (Silvermane as Supreme Hydra? Silvermane as a cyborg? Silvermane as a disembodied head?) that couldn’t have been told just as effectively using some other Mafia Don-type in Silvermane’s place. But, hey, if you think I’m wrong about this point, feel free to try to change my mind.
****Again for the record, I’m familiar with the 2001 “Tablet Saga” sequel by Fabian Nicieza (writer) and Steve Rude (artist), Spider-Man: Lifeline, which revealed that we didn’t learn the whole secret of the tablet back in 1969 after all, due to there literally having been a piece of the thing missing — which, when discovered and matched up to the original artifact, changes everything. And I’m fine with that. Nothing in this three-part story overturns or undermines the events of the original saga, to which this sequel has been crafted as a loving homage. As far as I’m concerned, it has every right in the world to exist — something I can’t say about, oh let’s see, Cyborg Silvermane.
*****Marvel doesn’t agree with me, apparently; or, at least, whoever put together the 2017 Spider-Man: The Lifeline Tablet Saga trade collection, which includes 2001’s Lifeline (see fourth footnote, directly above) along with the original story arc, didn’t. That book’s presentation of the1968-69 “tablet” material ends with issue #75. On the other hand, 2006’s Marvel Masterworks: The Amazing Spider-Man, Vol. 8 did include all ten issues in a single volume. I don’t know if the editors of the Masterworks library did that on purpose, or if that was just the way things fell together as they worked their way through the whole run of Amazing Spider-Man; but either way, it makes me happy.