By the late summer of 1969, Marvel Comics had been slowly but steadily increasing the number of black characters in its titles for some time. Having already introduced the first black costumed superhero, the Black Panther, to the world in 1966, Marvel had gone on to develop such non-costumed, supporting cast-type African-American characters as newspaper editor Joe “Robbie” Robertson and his family (in Amazing Spider-Man); while Gabe Jones, who’d been appearing as one of Sgt. Nick Fury’s Howling Commandos in that World War II army unit’s series since 1963, was gaining greater visibility in the present-day Marvel Universe as one of Fury’s agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. June, 1969, had brought the debut of Marvel’s first African-American hero, the Falcon (the Panther, of course, was African, but not American) — and with August came the first appearance of yet another black costumed character, the Prowler. This character, however, would be introduced as the world not as a superhero — but as a super-villain.
The original Prowler, Hobie Brown, wasn’t Marvel’s first black (or even African-American) super-villain, having been preceded by at least two others — Centurius, in Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. #2 (July, 1968), and M’Baku, the Man-Ape, in Avengers #62 (March, 1969) — but his making his debut in Marvel’s flagship Amazing Spider-Man title gave him arguably greater visibility than either of those predecessors. On the other hand, Hobie’s bona fides as a villain were not only rather dubious from the get-go, but, by the end of his first storyline, were virtually non-existent. And what’s more, in the earliest stages of his conception, the Prowler wasn’t even black (probably not, anyway).
The Prowler’s origins go back to the ill-fated and never-published third issue of The Spectacular Spider-Man, Marvel’s abortive attempt in 1968 to enter the magazine-size comics market. All fans ever saw of what was planned for that issue was the full-size “Next Issue” splash shown at right, which ran at the back of SS-M #2. Thus, we would never learn just what “The Mystery of the TV Terror!” was all about — though, thanks to the introduction artist John Romita wrote in 2007 for Marvel Masterworks – The Amazing Spider-Man, Vol. 9, we know that Romita got far enough along on the project to design the story’s villain. Luckily, the artist hung onto his sketches when the story was deep-sixed. They’ve been made available in the years since — though, as you can see from the artist’s handwritten notes, the character was at this time named “the Stalker”:
According to Romita, the next step in this new character’s development came when his thirteen-year-old son (and future professional comics artist) John, Jr. drew up a design for a new character he called “the Prowler” and sent it in to Marvel:
I took the sketch to Stan [Lee], an imposition only a proud dad would make, and to my surprise Stan said he liked the name (the costume was too sci-fi to fit) so we put the name together with the costume from my files. That’s Marvel serendipity for you.
Romita goes on to note that Lee came up with the “twist” of making the new character’s civilian identity a young window washer, apparently no older than Spider-Man himself, though he doesn’t mention whose idea it was to make the character African-American.
Weeks or months later, when the completed comic book featuring the fully-realized Prowler’s first appearance finally went to press, it bore a cover drawn by John Romita, Sr. — but the opening splash page’s credit for “suggesting” the character went to the junior artist of that name:
It’s actually interesting that John, Jr.’s name appears in the credits box and that his dad’s does not, because although the senior Romita may not have contributed to the interior art (John Buscema is credited as “innovator”, which appears to mean pencil layouts, and Jim Mooney as “illustrator”, signifying finished pencils as well as inks), according to the same Marvel Masterworks intro that’s quoted above, he co-plotted (with editor and scripter Stan Lee) all of the stories from this period of Amazing Spider-Man. Apparently, however, during this era Marvel didn’t, or couldn’t, recognize (or pay for) “plotting” as a separate creative activity from either scripting or drawing.
The story starts off at a leisurely pace, as Spidey muses on how much quieter things have become since he wrapped up the case of the petrified tablet and defeated the Lizard. Eventually, he decides he might as well give his girlfriend, Gwen Stacy, a call:
The handsome fella in uniform is, of course, Flash Thompson, a frenemy of Peter Parker’s since their high school days, though until very recently he’d been away from the book, doing military service overseas in Vietnam.
Disappointed, Spidey swings back home to the apartment he shares with his friend Harry Osborn, and tries to get some studying in for the next day’s college physics class, but it’s no good; he can’t stop thinking about Gwen. Finally he heads back into the New York City night, though this time as plain ol’ Peter, rather than as Spider-Man:
Poor, bummed-out Pete continues wandering the streets into the wee hours of the morning. Eventually his meandering takes him by the office building of the Daily Bugle newspaper, for which, as we all know, he freelances as a photographer. Glancing up, Peter notices a man at work cleaning the Bugle‘s windows, and reflects, “I’ll bet even that window cleaner hasn’t half the worries I do! Wonder if he knows how lucky he is?”
And here, already halfway through this issue, we at last meet the cover-featured antagonist of our story — though at this moment, he’s just a hard-working, gifted young black man named Hobie Brown:
As regular Amazing Spider-Man readers know, Daily Bugle publisher J. Jonah Jameson is an egostistical, self-centered blowhard with an unjustified grudge against our hero — but he’s not a completely bad guy, as Lee and his collaborators subtly show in this scene.
Something he’s quite specifically not is a racist, as is demonstrated on the next page — a characteristic that Hobie’s boss, Clark, unfortunately doesn’t share:
The story never overtly states that Hobie’s difficulties in getting ahead — not only in his last job, but in society in general — are caused, or at least greatly exacerbated, by pervasive racial discrimination; it is, however, clearly implied. This approach is typical of the way Lee handled racial issues in late-’60’s Marvel comics, which tended towards subtlety — some might say to a fault.
Returning home, Hobie goes right to his workshop, where he decides he’s been going about things all wrong: “Nobody cares what Hobie Brown invented… ’cause nobody cares about Hobie Brown! But I don’t have to remain Hobie Brown!”
And because this is a comic book story, set in the Marvel Universe, you know what that means:
Hobie’s making a bad choice here, obviously — but it’s not quite as bad as his dialogue in that last panel might make you think. (Not yet, anyway.)
OK, so Hobie doesn’t really want to be a costumed thief. He just wants to pretend to be a thief, so that he be acclaimed as a hero when he “recovers” the stuff he himself stole. Yeah, this plan is going to work out great.
Meanwhile, Peter Parker — still out on the streets — has realized he needs to get his hands on some cash quickly, so he can send funds to his elderly Aunt May, who’s currently in Florida for her health. He decides to hit up the notoriously tight-fisted J. Jonah Jameson for an advance on his next batch of photos, which I suppose is the kind of decision you make when you’re seriously sleep-deprived:
Robbing a newspaper office? I guess the publicity angle makes sense, but what kind of cash or other valuables does Hobie think a newspaper office would have on site? Oh, well, he hasn’t had any sleep all night either.
By the time the Prowler reaches J.J.J.’s window, the publisher and Peter are well into a thoughtful, considered discussion of Pete’s request for a modest advance:
The next issue, #79, was by the same team of Lee, Buscema, and Mooney (as well as, one must assume, an uncredited Romita. Sr.). The action picked up immediately from the last page of #78; this in itself was unsurprising, but unusually, the picking-up occurred not on the opening splash page, but on the book’s cover — which, as you can see, portrays a moment that falls between page 20 of “The Night of the Prowler!” and page 1 of “To Prowl No More!” It’s an interesting creative choice that will likely remind modern comics fans of the way that the covers of all twelve issues of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen (1986) served as each issue’s “first panel” — though it’s entirely possible that cover artist Romita was just choosing to illustrate what he and/or Lee thought was #79’s most dramatic scene, and that the cover’s added utility as a “bonus” story panel was unintentional.
Lee’s first page caption makes a point of explaining that this issue was originally intended to be the middle chapter of a three-part tale, but that he and his collaborators felt they had to wrap their story it up in two issues due to Marvel’s new “no continued stories” policy. This is an interesting comment for a couple of reasons. Firstly, as published, the story frankly has quite a bit of room to breathe — its narrative is decompressed, to use the current term — which makes one wonder if a huge hunk of the original plot wasn’t completely excised to make it fit in two issues. Secondly, it’s curious that Lee was so concerned about getting into single-issue story mode as soon as possible on Amazing Spider-Man, as after a mere three issues of such tales (less-than-memorable done-in-ones featuring the Chameleon, the Kangaroo, and Electro, respectively), he and Romita would be back to continued stories as early as #83, kicking off a three-parter featuring the Kingpin with that issue.
Unfortunately for the Prowler, Spider-Man recovers from his kick much quicker than he expects, and comes right back after him. For his part, Spidey soon realizes that this newcomer is “no pantywaist!”
Spidey swings the Prowler up onto the rooftop, and the battle continues. But our hero’s spider-sense still hasn’t started tingling, leading him to think this guy isn’t as dangerous a menace as he first appeared; nevertheless, he did see the Prowler attempting to rob the Bugle offices, so…
Ruefully, Spider-Man changes back to Peter Parker, so he can let Robbie and J.J.J. know he’s not dead:
Good ol’ J.J.J., always thinking of others first.
Unfortunately for Hobie, he hasn’t hung around the area long enough to get the same good news, and so he arrives back home freaking out because he believes that somehow, someone has died as a result of his first outing as the Prowler:
Sigh. Hobie is clearly a very bright young man, but his decision-making skills leave something to be desired. Maybe if he can just catch a few z’s…
And speaking of slumber — Peter, at least, manages to catch a few hours of “fitful sleep” before getting up and dragging himself to the campus of Empire State University. There, Gwen sees him and attempts to talk to him, but our boy’s not having any of that:
Whoof! That’s cold, Pete. And probably something you’ll soon regret — maybe as early as the top of the next page, in fact:
Suiting up to go after the Prowler, Peter decides to take his “miniaturized gas filter” along, even though it renders his Spidey mask “rough and uncomfortable”. Putting safety before comfort? That’s good thinking, Pete!
Hobie’s riding pretty high at this point, having somehow learned since last we saw him that Parker guy’s not dead after all, and now here’s Spider-Man, taking the bait of his clever trap. Unfortunately, Hobie quickly discovers that Spidey, now no longer vulnerable to his gas, is more than a match for him — and within a page, he’s trying to make a hasty exit:
And with that, Hobie Brown’s career as a “super-villain” — such as it was — came to an end. While he’d find himself on the wrong side of the law a time or two over the next five decades, his exploits as the Prowler — intermittent as they were — would generally have him counted among the good guys. Those exploits would generally occur in the context of one Spider-Man title or another, though not exclusively. (His first non-Spidey-associated appearance would be in the mid-’70’s black-and-white Deadly Hands of Kung Fu title, of all things, and would find him fighting the original White Tiger; later, in the mid-’90s, a continuity implant would reveal that Hobie was the brother of one of that hero’s predecessors, Abe Brown, aka the Black Tiger.)
But though he’s never disappeared from the Marvel Universe — at least not for long — the Prowler has never quite broken through the ranks of “C”-list heroes to become even a minor star. That’s in spite of having gotten a solo shot in not one, but two miniseries (the first appeared in 1994, and ran four issues; the second, from 2016-17, ran for six). As Omar Holmon of Black Nerd Problems put it in his review of the last issue of the most recent miniseries, “Hobie has been plagued with a ceiling he just can’t seem to break through.” It can probably be counted as emblematic of the lack of full-throated support that Marvel has demonstrated for the character over the past half-century that the first four issues of his last solo outing weren’t even actually about the real Hobie Brown, but were rather about his clone.
It also doesn’t help Hobie’s future prospects that, back in 2011, Marvel introduced a whole different Prowler into their “Ultimate” Universe. That Prowler was Aaron Davis, a career criminal who also happened to be the uncle of Miles Morales, who eventually became that universe’s second Spider-Man. Though the Ultimate Universe met its demise in Marvel’s 2015 Secret Wars event, both Miles and his uncle Aaron were folded into the main Marvel “Earth-616” reality afterwards; and if the mass audience of 2019 knows any Prowler at all, it’s likely the Aaron Davis version, thanks to his Mahershala Ali-voiced appearance in 2018’s Oscar-winning animated film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (to say nothing of Donald Glover’s cameo as a non-costumed Davis in 2017’s live-action Spider-Man: Homecoming.)
No, surveying the current media landscape, it’s hard to hold out a lot of hope that Hobie Brown will ever become a household name (though the Prowler may be a different matter altogether). But, you never know; the kid’s still just fifty years young, after all.
The Prowler has always been one of my favorite underutilized characters. Way back when I was writing Marvel fan fiction, The Prowler was one of the first characters I wrote.
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Yeah, I always liked the Prowler too; he was never really a villain, just a guy pushed to the breaking point. The friendship between him and Spidey was cool … he even saves Spidey’s secret identity in his next appearance, though he didn’t know that’s what he was doing. I was glad to see him (and Rocket Racer, another anti-heroic type) pop up years later working for Silver Sable; it seemed like a logical (and legal) way for them to use their talents.
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I’ve always liked the Prowler, and I was also always impressed when Stan would slip in those little “pseudo-redemptive” moments, where a character who was usually a total jerk would show that not even THEY were okay with something as utterly unsavory as racism (or drugs, or what have you). Great post, Alan!
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One question that I think I thought of even when I read this story for the first time in 1969 was how Hobie Brown, if his life was so bad and he was so poor, could afford the materials to create all of his gadgets and costume pieces, to say nothing of the tools to develop them. As long as I’m at it, how did Peter Parker get the materials and tools to originally create his webbing? Ah Marvel comic books, just enough reality to make them interesting, but don’t look too close!
I guess I must not have noticed Stan’s comment on the first page of Spider Man 79 regarding continued stories, or else I was just puzzled by it, because I actually did not know about the policy until I read Sean Howe’s book five years ago. Perhaps the decision to cut the story from three to two parts (obviously cutting out subplots) came after Spider Man 78 was finished, because that issue is very decompressed (as you noted, Hobie Brown doesn’t even show up until midway through that issue). Perhaps I didn’t notice a general policy against non-continued stories because I read all of the Marvel books and some continued to defy the edict (not so coincidentally, my favorite story in the last quarter of 1969 was an Iron Man multi-parter involving Tony Stark giving up Iron Man and handing the job over to Eddie March, a boxer who admires Iron Man but fails to tell Tony that he has health issues that prevent him from being Iron Man). I am assuming that Spider Man quickly returned to continued stories after three months because Stan and crew quickly realized that the stories they were coming up with were real stinkers. I just reread The Kangaroo story recently (it came out 50 years ago this month) and it has to be the WORST Spider Man story, if not the worst Marvel story I had ever read up to that point (similarly the Monocle story in that month’s Fantastic Four was the worst FF story I had read up to that point, although that distinction was quickly and soundly beaten by the hideous moon landing story a couple months later). No wonder you gave up comic books for awhile. Sheesh!
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A fresh insight on the evolution of the Prowler: Apparently, between the TV Terror and the Prowler, there was an additional stage of the character’s genesis where he was the “Phantom Burglar” of the original newspaper pitch for Spidey. All this according to Tom Brevoort, as detailed here: https://tombrevoort.com/2020/06/07/bhoc-marvel-tales-81/
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Thanks for sharing that information and link, crustymud!