A half-century after the fact, I’m at something of a loss to explain why I stopped reading Amazing Spider-Man for almost an entire year, after my subscription ran out with issue #85 in March, 1970. Regular readers of this blog may remember that my younger self went through a period of being considerably less interested in comic books than I previously had been, a period that began in the fall of 1969 and extended through the next spring. But my subscription had actually carried through the bulk of that time span, as it had for my other favorite Marvel comic of the time, Fantastic Four; and I was back to picking up FF, at least occasionally, by June, 1970. Somehow, though, even as late as February, 1971 — well after I’d resumed buying Avengers, Daredevil, and other Marvel standbys on a semi-regular basis — I was still avoiding becoming reacquainted with May Parker’s favorite nephew.
Until Amazing Spider-Man #96, that is. This one brought me back into the fold.
So what sold me on this particular issue? Perhaps it was the cover, which is a particularly striking one. To begin with, there’s Marie Severin’s dramatic layout (expertly rendered by Gil Kane), which is unusual in framing the book’s hero as a relatively small figure in the background — a somewhat counterintuitive choice which nevertheless catches and holds the eye. My attention might have also been attracted by the cover’s inclusion of a left-hand sidebar — also an unconventional design choice, at least for this era at Marvel. Still, my thirteen-year-old self was probably most captivated by the content of said sidebar, specifically its fourth and final text blurb (as well as by the evilly grinning face floating just above that text) — the blurb proclaiming that, within this comic’s very pages, “The Green Goblin Returns!” After all, the suspenseful subplot leading up to the Goblin’s last return had coincided with my becoming an Amazing Spider-Man reader to begin with, back in 1968, and its culmination in the magazine-sized Spectacular Spider-Man #2 was (and still is) one of my favorite Spidey stories. If I hadn’t already been clued into this development by the Mighty Marvel Checklist for that month (and I may well have been), finding out about it here would probably have been enough to make me plunk down my fifteen cents.
Of course, there’s one other notable factor about this cover, as well; but this is one that I’m pretty sure I didn’t even notice at the time, and even if I did, I probably paid scant attention to it. In any event,, it had no impact on my ultimate decision to buy the comic.
And that factor (as many if not most of those reading this already know) is that unlike the cover of every single issue of Amazing Spider-Man that came before it — not to mention every single other Marvel comic published since 1955 — this cover did not bear the official seal of approval of the Comics Code Authority.
The story of how Marvel Comics came to release an issue of what was probably their most popular title without the seal which signified to parents (and, perhaps more importantly, to distributors and retailers) that the so-labeled product was suitable for consumption by children of any age had actually begun four months earlier, when editor-in-chief Stan Lee received a letter from Michael F. White at the National Institute of Mental Health (an agency of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare). This letter asked for Marvel’s assistance in helping communicate an anti-drug abuse message to the publisher’s “youthful readers”; more specifically, Mr. White suggested that “factual information on drug abuse” be included in “future storylines” within Marvel’s comics.
On October 15 — within a week of Mr. White mailing his letter — Lee was interviewed on WYNC Radio. A general question concerning the Comics Code Authority provided the opportunity for him to discuss the federal government’s just-received request, as follows:
…I’ve been wanting for the longest time to have stories that involve the theme of drug addiction, just as we have ecology and civil rights and demonstrations and so forth. And this is one thing the Code is very staunchly against. They think more harm can be done than good if we even mention drug addiction. My point, of course, is that it’s a fact of life. It’s like not mentioning the Sun, if for some reason you don’t approve of the Sun. At any rate, just yesterday I received in the mail—and I can’t wait until they contact the Code— received something from the government, oh I forget which office, the office of health, education, and welfare or so, and from somebody apparently highly placed with all sorts of brochures, a lovely letter that I’m going to keep. “Dear Mr. Lee, we understand that Marvel Comics is very influential among young people and so forth. We’d consider it a very fine thing if you would mention drug addiction and do what you can, and here’s. …” They enclosed a number of pamphlets to give me background. And I felt, by god, I cannot wait to call this guy and say “Don’t send me the letter, call the Code and tell them this.” Which is what I’m going to do as soon as I get off the mic here.*
Did Lee actually call Michael White back at NIMH and ask him to make the federal government’s case to the CCA (Comics Code Authority)? If so, did White follow through? As best as I’ve been able to determine, the historical record is silent on the matter. What we do know is that Lee went ahead and devised a three-issue Amazing Spider-Man storyline in which the issue of drug abuse would be addressed. The first issue, scripted by Lee with art by Gil Kane (pencils) and John Romita (inks), was completed and sent to the Code Administration office for its approval prior to Marvel sending the book to the printers, per the usual custom.
And the issue was rejected.
There are a couple of important facts worth noting here. One is that, contrary to what many comics fans might believe, the original Comics Code, as adopted in 1954, did not ban illegal narcotics from being depicted or mentioned. In fact, prior to 1971, the Code didn’t mention drugs at all. What it did do was include this general statement: “All elements or techniques not specifically mentioned herein, but which are contrary to the spirit and intent of the code, and are considered violations of good taste or decency, shall be prohibited.” Such a provision essentially gave the Code Administrator carte blanche in deciding what was or wasn’t acceptable under the Code; in practice, all the publishers who subscribed to the CCA understood that scenes of drug use were among the “elements or techniques” which were prohibited.
Nevertheless, illicit drugs did find their way into at least one Code-approved comic, published some three years prior to Marvel’s submission of Amazing Spider-Man #96 to the CCA; as noted by CBR.com’s Brian Cronin back in 2009, DC Comics’ Strange Adventures #205 (Oct., 1967), featuring the first appearance of Deadman, included scenes involving the sale of opium. One might surmise that the Code Administrator took a more lenient view in this case as the drug references were limited to the narcotics trade, and didn’t deal with narcotics use; nevertheless, the incident underscores just how arbitrary the CCA’s adjudications in this area could be.
Another interesting fact is that the publishers’ organization behind the Code — the Comics Magazine Association of America, or CMAA — had apparently decided to start considering revisions to the Code even before Marvel’s push to do an anti-drug story brought things to a head in late 1970. According to the minutes of a meeting held in June, the trade group determined at that time that “each publisher, after discussions with his editorial staff, should prepare any suggested revisions he saw fit, and these should be submitted to the Board for its consideration at a subsequent meeting… In the meantime, the Code Administration’s ruling that no stories shall deal with narcotics addiction shall remain in effect.”** The specific reference to “narcotics addiction” indicates that that particular topic was on publishers’ minds at least four months in advance of Stan Lee receiving his letter from NIMH.
Work on suggested revisions proceeded over the summer and fall and were taken up by the CMAA’s board of directors at a special called meeting on December 7, 1970. By this meeting’s end, the board had agreed to liberalize the Code in several important areas, mainly having to do with crime, sex, and horror. The approved revisions were set to go into effect on February 1, 1971 — which, as we related in last week’s blog post about Forever People #2, appears to have been sufficient notice for that particular DC comic — published on Feb 2nd — to secure Code approval, despite its use of the previously forbidden word “vampire” on the cover.
But drugs? No dice. According to the CMAA’s records, the dispute over that subject spilled over into a later meeting, held January 28, 1971. At that time, the Board debated a proposal by DC Comics’ editorial director Carmine Infantino that the Code’s Part C — the section that gave the Code Administrator broad authority over “elements or techniques not specifically mentioned herein” — be amended by the addition of a second paragraph, which would read, in part: “It is not the intent of the Code to prohibit the treatment of such realistic problems as drugs, generation gap, poverty, racial relations, abortions and political unrest handled in an instructive positive fashion.” This amendment was, predictably, supported by Marvel (represented at the meeting by Charles “Chip” Goodman, son of Marvel publisher Martin Goodman) as well as by DC, but was voted down by the representatives of three other publishers: Archie Comics’ John Goldwater, Harvey Comics’ Leon Harvey, and Charlton Comics’ John Santangelo. As of February 1st, the Comics Code would be different in several significant ways; but so far as drugs were concerned, it would remain unchanged.
This left Marvel in a difficult position. As already noted, Stan Lee — believing, perhaps, that the CMAA would surely change its stance on the subject of narcotics, especially now that the federal government was asking for the industry to produce such material — had gone ahead and developed his three-part drug story for Amazing Spider-Man. The first issue, #96 was prepared and ready to go. What to do? In the end, Lee opted to send the issue to the printers — and thence, to distributors and, ultimately, retailers across the country — without the Code seal of approval. And Marvel’s publisher, Martin Goodman, backed him up.
In his biography of Lee, A Marvelous Life (St. Martin’s Press, 2019), Danny Fingeroth — noting that Goodman, though still nominally in charge at Marvel, had in fact sold the company to Perfect Film & Chemical Corporation in the fall of 1968 — suggests that, for the publisher,if not for Lee, this move might not have been as risky as it first appears: “…Goodman, having already cashed the check he’d gotten for the sale of the company, had nothing to lose, and both he and Lee must have sensed that they could get some great publicity from the decision.” But it’s been well reported that Goodman expected his son Chip to eventually follow him as the executive in charge of things at Marvel, even though the family no longer owned the company (that role ultimately fell to Lee), so it doesn’t seem quite accurate to say that he “had nothing to lose”. On the other hand, Fingeroth’s speculation that both Lee and Goodman may have wanted to tweak Archie Comics’ John Goldwater — who, in addition to being the president of the CMAA (a position he’d held since its 1954 inception), appears to have been the member most adamantly against updating the Code’s stance on drugs — seems reasonable, even though it’s probably not enough to account for Lee and Goodman’s willingness to flout the Code all on its own.
Whatever the Marvel honchos’ motivations may have been, however, they’d made their decision — one which, at least in the immediate aftermath, seems to have surprised and dismayed at least some of their publishing peers. A story published in the New York Times on Feb. 4th quoted Goldwater as stating his continued opposition to “any [comic book] stories dealing with drugs.” Meanwhile, DC’s Carmine Infantino — who’d been Marvel’s ally in lobbying for a change to the Code — seemed stung by his competitor’s move. “You know that I will not in any shape or form put out a comic magazine without the proper authorities scrutinizing it so that it does not do any harm, not only to the industry but also to the children who read it,” ” he told the Times. “Until such a time, I will not bring out a drug book.”***
The Mike’s Amazing World web site gives an approximate on-sale date of February 9, 1971 for Amazing Spider-Man #96. Assuming that’s accurate, the Times article — and perhaps other media reports — would have gotten the “no seal” word out to the general public prior to the actual comic book showing up in spinner racks, if only just barely.
But my thirteen-year-old self was not a reader of the New York Times, nor of any other publication that might have picked up on the story prior to my first laying eyes on AS-M #96. No, if I had any idea that there was something “very special” about this issue, it would have come by way of the aforementioned Mighty Marvel Checklist for February, which did in fact include “Spidey and the drug scene!” as one of the issue’s highlights. (That was actually more informative than the book’s cover, which came no closer to mentioning drugs than the sidebar blurb, “The Last Fatal Trip!” — which, as it turned out, wasn’t even accurate.) As already noted, however, I may not have seen the Checklist entry prior to picking up the comic itself — and if I did, I don’t think it made much of an impression.
After all, they had me at “Green Goblin”.
Of course, not having read an issue of Amazing Spider-Man in almost a year, I had some catching up to do; for example, I’m not even sure that I knew yet that retired police captain George Stacy, the father of Peter Parker’s girlfriend Gwen, had perished in issue #90, or that Gwen blamed Peter’s alter ego, Spider-Man, for that tragedy. This was a major development in Spidey’s continuing saga that had largely driven the storytelling for the last six months.
Another, non-story development I had to get used to was the advent of artist Gil Kane — a long-time favorite of mine, primarily for his work at DC Comics — as the series’ new regular penciller. Kane had come on board with #89, bringing with him a welcome new dynamism to the series’ scenes of Spidey in action, though the continued presence of John Romita on inks ensured a certain level of consistency with the feature’s long-established “look”.
That seems like pretty sound reasoning on Peter’s part — although, as quickly becomes apparent after our hero’s plane lands, he hasn’t really thought the situation all the way through. After all, if he had, would he immediately attempt to sell photos he’d taken of Spider-Man in London to Joe Robertson, his editor at New York’s Daily Bugle?
Kinda late to worry about that, Pete!
The story now jumps ahead to the next day, where we see Peter return to his routine as a student at Empire State University. He runs into his roommate, Harry Osborn, who invites him to join their gang for a theatre performance that night. Pete tries to beg off, explaining that he’s broke, but…
Of course, we longtime readers know why Peter wants to steer clear of Harry’s dad, no matter how tempting a job at Osborn Industries might be — and that’s because the senior Osborn, Norman, is really the Green Goblin. Or, at least, he used to be, before losing his memory of his super-criminal career in an explosion, back in issue #40 — a loss which, thankfully, also included his knowledge of Spider-Man’s true identity, a secret he’d uncovered in the previous issue.
That two-part storyline had seen print in 1966, well before my time as a Spidey reader (though I’d tracked down and bought the back issues since then). But, as I’ve already mentioned, I’d had a front-row seat for the Goblin’s return in 1968, via a subplot that unfolded over six months of the web-slinger’s monthly title, during which time we watched as Norman Osborn’s memories ever-so-slowly returned, until the narrative reached its grand climax in Spectacular Spider-Man #2. That story had concluded with Spidey just barely managing to hit the reset button once again, using the Goblin’s own hallucinogenic gas (and a bit of psychological manipulation) to once again make him forget that Spidey was Peter, and that he himself was anything other that a wealthy industrialist.
And all had been well with Norman ever since, as far as we readers knew. Now, after monologing an abbreviated version of what I shared just above, Peter apparently concludes that if his luck has held out this long, it’ll probably last forever. “So why don’t I take the job he’s offering?” our hero asks himself. “It’ll be more steady than selling pictures to the Bugle.“
His mind made up, Pete heads on over to the Osborn corporate offices, where he learns that Harry has indeed called ahead just as he’d said he’d do, and young Mr. Parker is expected. Peter enters Norman’s office, where a medical exam is just wrapping up:
Heading back out onto the midtown Manhattan streets, Peter is in a pretty good mood, which gets even better after he runs into his Aunt May, on her way to take in a matinee of Hair with her good friend Anna Watson (Mary Jane’s aunt). Delighted that his ever-frail aunt is getting out and having fun (if somewhat nonplussed by her and Mrs. Watson’s choice of show), Pete muses, “Maybe things are looking up for me, at last… The only thing still missing is — Gwendy.“
Quickly changing to Spider-Man, our hero follows the speeding police cars until…
In the months and years to come, Stan Lee would take some heat for the vagueness of his depiction of “drug abuse” here, as well as elsewhere in the storyline. What illicit narcotic did the writer have in mind, which in one moment could cause someone to believe he could fly and in the next cause acute respiratory failure?
Decades later, Lee recalled the circumstances in a conversation with his former Marvel colleague Roy Thomas (subsequently published in Comic Book Artist #2 [Summer, 1998]):
Stan: …I remember it contained one scene where a kid was going to jump off a roof and thought he could fly. My problem is that I know less about drugs than any living human being! I didn’t know what kind of drug it was that would make you think you could fly! I don’t think I named anything; I just said that he had “done” something.
Roy: It was just a generic kind of drug… I take it that you didn’t do a lot of research on drugs, then?
Stan: I have never done research on anything in my life…
The police officer’s efforts at mouth-to-mouth resuscitation are ultimately successful, and Spidey takes that as his cue to leave. It’s essentially the same scene that’s so dramatically depicted on Severin and Kane’s cover, although its resolution in the story is pretty anti-climactic; after acknowledging to his fellows that Spider-Man, a wanted fugitive, is indeed taking off, the cop who resuscitated the boy adds, “”but I’d turn in my badge before I’d bust ‘im — after this.“
As indicated by the sequence of panels above, Lee was considerably more interested in getting across the anti-drug message requested by the National Institute of Mental Health than he was in offering a realistic depiction of drug use. (Despite his later claims to “have never done research on anything”, I’d be willing to wager that he had at least given a solid read-through to those pamphlets NIMH’s Michael White had sent him.)
Mary Jane Watson had been dating Harry Osborn, at least casually, ever since I’d first started reading Amazing Spider-Man. But it had also always been evident that she found “Petey” attractive, and thus it wasn’t necessarily surprising that she would begin giving him extra attention, now that Gwen Stacy was apparently out of the picture.
The confrontation between Randy Robertson and Norman Osborn is in some ways the most interesting sequence in the issue; it’s rather a shame that it won’t be followed up on, as Norman is about to have other, much more super-villainous things on his mind.
After the show, the gang hangs around long enough to congratulate the triumphant MJ, then splits up to go their separate ways — though more than one of their number almost immediately return to the now-deserted theater:
“I didn’t think — it would happen — so fast –” Yeah, it did happen pretty damn fast, especially compared to the slow build-up to the Goblin’s last comeback — but I don’t recall that I had any strong objections as a thirteen-year-old reader. The return of the Green Goblin was, after all, precisely what I’d signed on for.
In its Feb. 4th story, the New York Times reported that Marvel Comics would not be censured for the company’s failure to follow the Comics Code Authority in regards to the Amazing Spider-Man drug issues. Calling Marvel’s decision to go to press without the Code seal an “error”, CMAA president John Goldwater told the Times reporter, “Everyone is entitled to one slip.”
Goldwater’s equanimity was probably influenced by assurances, tendered by Chip Goodman at a Feb. 1st meeting of the association, that — following the release of AS-M #98 in April — Marvel would never pull something like this again.**** But, of course, both Goodman and Goldwater made their statements prior to the first issue of the “drug trilogy” going on sale; never mind the second and third. It’s doubtful that either man (or anyone else in the industry) had any real idea yet what impact these comics were going to have.
The second chapter of the three-issue story arc went on sale on or around March 9th. Lee and Gil Kane continued on as scripter and penciller, respectively, though John Romita was replaced as inker on “In the Grip of the Goblin!” by Frank Giacoia (at least as far as the book’s credits were concerned; however, according to the Grand Comics Database, Romita did in fact contribute inks to several pages, while some backgrounds appear to have been completed by Tony Mortellaro. Romita also drew the cover, and is credited as “Artist Emeritus” on the opening splash page.) As with issue #97, nothing on the cover or within the comic’s pages calls any attention to the absence of the Code seal; nor is there any direct or indirect mention of the drug abuse plot element on the cover (unless, of course, you want to count the blurb’s all-inclusive guarantee of “lots, lots more!”).
As the issue begins, the Goblin leaps to the attack — apparently, this particular secret hideout contained a full array of his customary weaponry, as well as his costume and glider. You’ve got to credit the guy for planning ahead, if nothing else…
The fight continues on, over, and between the rooftops, as Spider-Man attempts to reason with the Goblin — to reach his “true” personality of Norman Osborn — but to no avail. The Goblin has our hero at a disadvantage, because while Spidey doesn’t want to hurt his best friend’s dad, said dad has no compunctions about harming, or killing, him. Of course, that’s not Spidey’s only problem…
Reasoning that as long as the Goblin thinks Spider-Man is dead, he won’t have any reason to expose his foe’s secret identity, our hero decides he should be safe for a while if he just lies low. So, he heads home to the apartment he shares with Harry Osborn — but no sooner has he changed back into Peter Parker, than he’s confronted by a sweaty, jittery Harry, who lashes out at Pete over Mary Jane’s behavior earlier in the evening:
Presumably, the pills that Harry is “popping” (to borrow Peter’s term) are all legally prescribed medications, though of course that doesn’t mean that they can’t be abused. As with the “flying” episode in the previous issue, Lee offers no information as to the drugs’ specific identities, though we can infer from Peter’s musings that Harry has been resorting to both stimulants and depressants. Lee also takes a stab here at analyzing why someone with all of Harry’s material advantages would overuse drugs to the point they become dependent on them, but doesn’t get any further than having Pete wonder why his friend is “so weak“.
The next morning, Peter and Harry are walking on the ESU campus when they’re approached by Mary Jane. Once again, MJ largely ignores Harry, choosing instead to compliment Peter on the chains he’s wearing. “Where’d you find them?” she asks. “I got them from Gwen!” he growls in response.
Meanwhile, having lost track of Harry, Pete opts to leave campus to go search for the Green Goblin (an effort that soon proves fruitless); thus, he’s not around for this next development…
I have to say, Ms. Watson doesn’t come off terribly well in this scene. Perhaps Harry has been behaving in too possessive a fashion, and making assumptions about MJ’s level of commitment to their relationship that he shouldn’t; on the other hand, one gets the impression that he’s been pretty consistent in how he relates to MJ for quite some time, and that she had been more-or-less fully accepting of his attitude until very recently, when she got the idea that, with Gwen far away across the pond, Peter was now “available”. (That’s this old man’s take, anyway.)
“She gave it to me straight!” Harry acknowledges to himself as he walks away. “I don’t mean a thing to her.” But then, he almost immediately begins brooding over Peter’s role in bringing things to a head — and upon arriving at their apartment a few minutes later, he lashes out again at his roommate, who’s returned empty-handed from his Goblin-hunting and is now just trying to get a little studying in…
After taking the mysterious new pills (based on the last panel above, he downs at least three), Harry goes to have a little lie-down, while Pete once again goes swinging through the city as Spidey. This Goblin quest is just as unsuccessful as the earlier one, however, and after many hours, our heo prepares to return home. “Harry’s sure to be asleep by now,” he thinks as he changes back into his civvies. “Don’t want him to know I was out all night.”
It sure would be nice to have some idea of what Harry has taken here. Has he had this strongly negative reaction simply because he took too high a dosage? Or was this allegedly “real new” drug (to quote the dealer from page 12) just really dangerous stuff from the get-go? Lee’s vagueness doesn’t allow for much nuance in its depiction of drug use. That probably wasn’t a concern in 1970 for the writer-editor, who was, after all, trying to deliver a straightforward “drugs are bad” message; but it does help make his story seem overly simplistic, and even naive, half a century on.
Appearing in mid-April, the third issue of Amazing Spider-Man to be published without the Comics Code Authority’s seal of approval made no more of that fact than had the previous two. This time around, Kane and Giacoia handled the cover as well as the interior art (though Tony Mortellaro again contributed background inks to the latter, apparently), while the issue’s script, naturally, was once again by Lee.
(Before getting into the story itself, it would probably be advisable to take note of an oddity in how punctuation was handled in “The Goblin’s Last Gasp!”, as well as in other Marvel stories written by Stan Lee published in mid-1971. Evidently, as part of an ongoing effort to reduce the use of exclamation marks in the company’s books, every such mark that appeared at the end of a word balloon was replaced — but by empty space, rather than by a period. And only at the end of the balloon, so you’d still have exclamation marks in the middle of them. Thankfully, this experiment only lasted a few months — but while it was going on, it made for a strangely choppy reading experience.)
The story picks up right where it left off in issue #97, with Peter — and Harry — facing the menace of the Goblin. The Goblin promptly comes smashing right through their apartment window, declaring, “The time has come for us to settle things — forever“.
“Trip” doesn’t seem quite the right word to apply to Harry’s drug experience, as there’s been no suggestion of his having had hallucinations; this is one instance where Lee’s lack of specificity threatens to veer into the realm of misinformation.
Peter’s reflections about “how loving a girl can drive a guy bananas” naturally evolve into thoughts about the much-missed Gwen Stacy — which in turn provides our storytellers with a natural segue to a scene featuring Gwen herself. It seems that the young lady, though still grieving over her father, has determined that she’s been unfair in taking out that grief — as well as her hatred of Spider-Man, whom, you’ll remember, she wrongly blames for Capt. Stacy’s death — on poor Peter. “But, maybe it’s not too late — to set things right again”, she decides.
Back in New York, Peter is again walking the campus of ESU when he’s hailed by the drug dealer from issue #97. The guy is looking for Harry, ready to do more business — and by waving a pill bottle in front of our hero, he makes it very clear what kind of business that is…
Pete does indeed let the dealers two underlings “have it” — then, when the dealer himself pulls a gun, quickly knocks it from his hand.
Now, wasn’t that satisfying? My thirteen-year-old self certainly thought so.
The Daily Bugle scene with Joe “Robbie” Robertson and his boss, J. Jonah Jameson, is a fascinating one, and an echo of sorts of issue #96’s confrontation between Robbie’s son, Randy, and Norman Osborn. Like that earlier scene, this one has next to nothing to do with the main “Spidey vs. Goblin” plot, but everything to do with the story arc’s anti-drug message. The emphasis here is different, of course, in that Robbie stresses the fact that the drug problem isn’t merely “a ghetto hangup”, while Randy’s main point was that it “hurts us more than anyone else” — but both scenes ultimately agree on the larger point that drug addiction is a problem besetting society as a whole, rather than a single race or class.
Beyond the anti-drug context, the sequence is a deft bit of characterization of one of Marvel’s most enduring supporting characters, J. Jonah Jameson, as Lee subtly shows him caught between his mercenary, businessman’s instincts, and the better angels of his nature as a responsible journalist. In the end, thankfully, the journalist wins out.
As the story continues, Peter changes into Spider-Man once more, and again goes hunting for the Goblin, hoping to at last provoke their “final showdown.” Before long, however, the Goblin finds him:
Of course, our hero continues to face the same quandary he’s been dealing with since the end of #96 — even if he can stop the Goblin without hurting him, he’ll then have to find a way to stop the Goblin from telling the world that Spider-Man is really Peter Parker.
And while Spidey struggles with this conundrum, the Goblin lobs another of his pumpkin devices — though this one’s neither a stun bomb nor a hallucinogenic gas grenade:
How did the Goblin come to have such a thorough understanding of Peter’s wall-crawling ability that he could come up with a chemical agent to negate it, even temporarily, while leaving the rest of our hero’s powers unaffected? Eh, the guy’s a scientific genius, right? Let’s just roll with it.
As for the unlikely coincidence of Spidey running out of web-shooter fluid at that exact same moment? Umm… well… I’ll have to get back to you on that one…
And that’s how you hit the reset button, folks! Of course, it does seem like Spider-Man is making a whole lot of assumptions about what the Goblin’s fainting spell signifies. Shouldn’t he, you know, maybe hang around Norman Osborn’s place until the guy wakes up, just to make sure he’s reverted to “normal”? On the other hand, this is the next-to-last page — that drug stuff took up a lot of space, after all — and Lee and Kane still have a bit more story to squeeze in under the wire…
That is a pretty happy ending for an issue of Amazing Spider-Man, I gotta say. Of course, we all knew it wouldn’t last, back in 1971 — but it was still nice to see Peter Parker get to enjoy his win at the end of this story. As for poor Harry Osborn… well, that’s what ongoing subplots are for, right?
Mike’s Amazing World gives an approximate on-sale date of Tuesday, April 13 for Amazing Spider-Man #98. If that date is accurate, then the issue got out just a few days ahead of a story in the New York Times that was a clear follow-up to the newspaper’s Feb. 4th article.*****
Appearing in the Times‘ Friday, April 16 issue, the new article reported that, following the CCA seal-free publication of Marvel’s three “drug” comics, the Comics Magazine Association of America had had a change of heart. Evidently, all three issues had reached America’s spinner racks without a peep of concern emitting from anyone in the distribution or retail side of the comics industry — or from parents, teachers, and other guardians of the morality of the nation’s youth, for that matter.
Rather, Stan Lee and Martin Goodman’s “error”, as John Goldwater had called it in February, had by all accounts been a complete public relations success. “The issues were best-sellers,” Lee recalled in his 2002 autobiography, Excelsior!. “We received letters of commendation from more antidrug organizations than I had known existed as well as from schools, parent groups, and religious leaders.”******
Of course, that success doesn’t tell us whether, in the end, these three comics had any effect on the attitudes of Marvel’s readers towards drugs — if, as Lee had put it to the Times‘ reporter back in February in explaining Marvel’s decision to defy the Code, the publication of Amazing Spider-Man #96-98 helped even “one kid anywhere in the world not to try drugs or to lay off drugs one day earlier”. That is, necessarily, a question that — especially fifty years after the fact — can only be answered in anecdotal terms, on an individual basis. For my own part, I don’t believe that these comics affected my thirteen-year-old self’s attitudes towards drugs at all, beyond perhaps mildly reinforcing what was already a pretty strong aversion to the things. But I’m probably not the best, or at least not the most typical, example of who Lee and company were trying to reach — after all, I was a pretty sheltered kid, living a comfortably middle-class life in a home infused with conservative Southern Baptist values. Indeed, I don’t even remember having the opportunity to be “tempted” by illicit narcotics until well into my college years. (For the record, I inhaled.)
Still, regardless of any larger social impact, the effect of Marvel’s actions on the liberalization of the Comics Code in regards to drugs, and thus on the content of mainstream American comics going forward, is undeniable. The new guidelines regarding the depiction of narcotics use, fully incorporated into the official Code prior to the end of the year, read as follows:
Narcotics or Drug addiction shall not be presented except as a vicious habit. Narcotics or Drug addiction or the illicit traffic in addiction-producing narcotics or drugs shall not be shown or described if the presentation:
(a) Tends in any manner to encourage, stimulate or justify the use of such narcotics or drugs; or
(b) Stresses, visually, by text or dialogue, their temporary attractive effects; or
(c) Suggests that the narcotics or drug habit can be quickly or easily broken; or
(d) Shows or describes details of narcotics or drug procurement, or the implements or devices used in taking narcotics or drugs, or the taking of narcotics or drugs in any manner; or
(e) Emphasize the profits of the narcotics or drug traffic; or
(f) Involves children who are shown knowingly to use or traffic in narcotics or drugs; or
(g) Shows or implies a casual attitude toward the taking of narcotics or drugs; or
(h) Emphasizes the taking of narcotics or drugs throughout, or in a major part, of the story, and leaves the denouement to the final panels.
So, no… Marvel and DC weren’t about to start publishing The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. On the other hand, DC would now feel comfortable in proceeding with a drug abuse story in their primary showcase for “social relevance”, Green Lantern (aka “Green Lantern/Green Arrow”) — a story which went beyond Marvel’s effort in several ways, and one which you’ll be able to read about on this very blog, come June. I hope to see you then.
UPDATE 2/13/21: In the hours since this post went live earlier today, I’ve learned via Tom Brevoort (see his comment below) that Gil Kane and Frank Giacoia produced a cover for Amazing Spider-Man #97 that ultimately went unused — probably because Stan Lee and/or Martin Goodman had second thoughts about its graphic representation of the story’s drug abuse theme. Presented below are the color guide for the cover as originally drawn, as well as the original art, showing alterations evidently intended to tone the image down (i.e., eliminating the bottles of pills) :
*Stan Lee: Conversations, edited by Jeff McLaughlin (University Press of Mississippi, 2007)., p. 27.
**Amy Kiste Nyberg, Seal of Approval: The History of the Comics Code Authority (University Press of Mississippi, 1998), p. 140.
***Lawrence Van Gelder, “A Comics Magazine Defies Code Ban on Drug Stories”, New York Times, February 4, 1971, p. 37, 44. (Subscription required.)
****Nyberg, Seal of Approval, p. 141.
*****Lawrence Van Gelder, “Comic-Book Industry to Allow Stories on Narcotics”, New York Times, April 16, 1971, p. 38. (Subscription required.)
******Stan Lee and George Mair, Excelsior! The Amazing Life of Stan Lee (Simon and Schuster, 2002), p. 98.
That John Romita cover on AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #97 was a last minute replacement for an earlier Gil Kane penciled cover that featured Harry Osborn’s experiences with pills more overtly–a cover that itself was reworked at least once to take the bottle of pills out of Harry’s hand before being replaced entirely, possibly in response to concerns about the Code’s response to Marvel going ahead with this anti-drug story sans approval.
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Tom, as I mentioned over on Facebook, I had no idea these pieces existed, so I very much appreciate you sharing this information. I’ve updated the blog post to include both versions of the unused cover.
I suppose, after the heat that came with the EC comics mess and the Wertham debacle, the Code seemed like a good idea at the time. But, like most regulatory agencies of that type, it tried to hold on to it’s antiquated rules and regulations longer than necessary and once NIMH asked Stan to help, Marvel had their excuse for forcing a change onto that outdated group. What we really needed was a rule against that fringed yellow vest Peter was wearing on pg 7. You wore that to a job interview, dude, but you wore a suit and tie to drop off photos to Robbie? I think you’ve got it backwards there, bub.
Whatever the reason for it, or however many times it had to be re-drawn, that Kane cover is striking and one of the best of the decade. I was a sucker for all the “social-relevance” stories comics got up to in the seventies and I distinctly remember this one because of that cover. Yes, the story might have been better if Stan had done a little more research on drug use, but that opinion comes in the harsh light of fifty years of hindsight. At the time, I know I didn’t know anything more about drugs and drug use than Stan did and it didn’t phase the thirteen year-old me at all. Comics have always been a gateway (see what I did there?) to teach kids, and sometimes adults, about the important issues of the day and for me, and a lot of other young kids, the drug conversation started here.
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Hmm, good point about Pete’s choice of attire to wear to his job interview. Maybe deep down, he knew this was a really bad idea, and this was his subconscious’ way of trying to sabotage his chances?
On the other hand, I suppose we should just be glad he didn’t wear those chains…
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I have, of course, heard of these issues, but I had not read them. So I enjoyed your retrospective on them, and I appreciate the in-depth research into the historical background behind this story, as well as the contemporary reactions and affects it resulted in.
I knew Gil Kane was a great artist, but I now think that some of the best work in his career was in these issues. Some of his layouts & storytelling, especially in the sequences with Harry Osborn on drugs and Norman being under psychological pressure as his Green Goblin identity slowly begins to resurface, are incredibly effective. I’ve read that one of the reasons Kane apparently departed DC for Marvel in the early 1970s was that he found the editorial approach and artistic “house style” at the former confining, and hoped that he would have less restrictions on his work at the later. If that is true, then this three issue story seems to have provided him with exactly that opportunity.
Reading this post, as well as your past blog posts about late 1960s Spider-Man stories, I feel that something significant was lost when Norman Osborn was brought back from the dead in the mid 1990s. One of the interesting dynamics of the character in the Silver and Bronze Ages seems to have been that Osborn, while gruff and hardheaded, was nevertheless a basically decent person, and that the psychopathic Green Goblin was the result of some sort of chemically-created “split personality” or something. When the character came back from the dead at the end of the infamous “Clone Saga” suddenly he was Evil with a capital “E” 24-7, which makes him a lot less compelling, at least in my mind.
Oh, yeah… I find it amusing that Osborn, having forgotten that he was the Goblin, sold one of his hideouts to a theater company, and that after they bought the building they completely ignored the locked closet containing Osborn’s costume & gear, conveniently enabling him to retrieve them many months later when his memory returned.
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Glad you enjoyed the post, Ben. Re: Norman Osborn — yeah, as much as I’ve enjoyed some of his post-Clone Saga escapades (e.g., becoming Iron Patriot during “Dark Reign”), I have to agree that the old dichotomy of “decent man/evil psycho” was more dramatically interesting than the latter-day “sane evil/crazy evil” one.
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Let me start off with the really important stuff. Anna Watson is Mary Jane’s aunt, not her mother (you wrote that she was MJ’s mom). Mary Jane’s mom had died around the time that her sister’s husband ran out on her and right before MJ ran off on her sister. OK, the stuff about her sister was written in the late 1980s, but Anna Watson has always been Mary Jane’s aunt.
I actually remember noticing that this book did not have the comics code seal when I first got it in 1971 (I have not read the part of your blog on the next two issues yet as I will wait for the 50th anniversary of each). I thought that it was an inadvertent mistake. I found nothing in the book that I thought would be objectionable (OK, looking back now the fact that Aunt May and Aunt Anna were going to see “Hair” might have been seen as an objectionable endorsement for impressionable little kids). Even though I was a nine/ten year old growing up in a small town pre-internet, I saw stories about drugs on TV, in the newspaper,in Life magazine and heard news stories on the radio. Hell, I remember Ad Council spots against drug use airing during Saturday morning cartoons! The notion that stories that showed the negative impact of drug use and tried to inform/scare kids not to use them should be banned is totally absurd. Bureaucracy run amuck.
Consider: The Code was created by the comic publishers out of fear that the Federal government would enact legislative restrictions on the industry. So the Federal government REQUESTS that Marvel publish an anti-drug story and Marvel is taken to task for it (I guess in fairness, this does count as the Federal government stepping in to interfere with industry content)? The whole thing seems ridiculous and the fact that the publisher of Archie comics, whose characters were as far removed from the reality of teen life at the time as you can probably get (is Archie’s jalopy from the 1920s?) would be at the head of the line of this criticism makes it even more so. Although I only reread the first of these issues now, I did reread all three just a couple of years ago in homage to Stan Lee after he died and they are classics and send a strong positive message against drug use. In the meantime, no one seemed to care about, say, Mephisto (who is basically Satan).
On a comment to another blog post, I promised a Gerry Conway jab even though he has nothing to do with these issues (not surprisingly since “classic” and “Gerry Conway” don’t usually go together). In Sean Howe’s excellent book on Marvel history, Conway is quoted as saying that he considered Gwen Stacy boring and Mary Jane Watson as a much better choice for Peter. Now, even as a seven year old kid I liked Gwen better than Mary Jane, who I considered to be a shallow party girl. However, in this three issue arc, Stan makes Mary Jane absolutely abhorrent. Here she is at her big debut (for what actually isn’t clear by the way, it seems, as Don Henley would say “All She Wants to Do Is Dance”), her boyfriend has gotten his Dad and all of her friends to come–his Dad is paying–and then MJ publicly flirts with Peter in front of everyone, including her boyfriend’s Dad?!? And her behavior got worse in the following issues, which helped lead Harry into the despair of drug abuse. Marvel tried to retcon Mary Jane’s story right before she and Peter got married, but nothing could successfully retcon this (unless she had been a clone or really the Chameleon or the Space Phantom). Anyway, I never forgot how callous Mary Jane was in these issues and I don’t blame Stan for this–it was realistic behavior for Mary Jane as her character was written at the time. But Gerry Conway thought that Mary Jane was better for Peter than Gwen.
Anyway, excellent blog post for the part that I read and I am looking forward to reading the rest over the next two months!
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Erp! You’re right, of course, Stu — Anna Watson is indeed MJ’s aunt, not her mom. How could I have forgotten that? (Actually, now that I think about it, practically none of Peter Parker’s peers have a mother among the living, at least not one we ever see; the only exception that comes to my mind at present is Randy Robertson.)
Anyway, it’s fixed now. Thanks for the catch!
OK, I’ve just finished reading Spider Man #98, the last of the three drug themed issues (as I mentioned earlier, I was reading each one in the 50th anniversary month of their original issue). All I want to add is that when I saw the “happy ending” at the end of Spider Man #98 on re-reading, all I could think of was “some happy ending”: if Gwen Stacy stays in England, then she isn’t killed by the very same villain that Spider Man tucked into bed a page earlier. Damn Gerry Conway!
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Since the Comics Code got prominent mention…
Best book I’ve read on the controversy of the pre-Comics Code Comic Books and the creation of the Comics Code is “The Ten-Cent Plague, the Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America” by David Hajdu. Contains a great account of the U.S. Senate hearing on Juvenile Delinquency held in New York City on April 21, 1954 that focused on Comic Books and heard the testimony of Fredric Wertham, author of “Seduction of the Innocent”, and the grilling of William Gaines, Publisher of E.C. Comics; the hearing where Senator Estes Kefauver held up the copy of Crime SuspenStories #22.
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Steranko has a nice recap of the whole mess in The History of Comics vol.1, as well.
Thanks for the recommendations, guys.
Loving your blog, as always, Alan. I can confirm that the NY Times magazine article preceded #96’s arrival on the newsstands. I remember reading it maybe a week before I got my copy of S-M. The headline was something like “comic books get relevant”, and it mentioned GL/GA as well, a book (when it was just GL) I had stopped paying attention to for over a year, until this article galvanized me into finding #83 (the most recent).
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Good to hear from you, NE! But I think you may be conflating the piece that ran in the Thursday, Feb. 4, 1971 NYT — a relatively brief news article that focused on Marvel defying the code, and didn’t mention any specific title but Amazing Spider-Man — with a longer feature article, entitled “Shazam! Here Comes Captain Relevant!”, which ran in the Sunday, May 2, 1971 New York Times Magazine. That one definitely mentioned GL/GA, as well as other titles. 🙂
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Great post, Alan. I didn’t get to read this stuff until it came back around in Marvel Tales 77-79 (March-May, 1977), but I loved it– nothing beats Spidey versus the original Goblin! Regarding some of the problems with how Spider-Man dealt with the Goblin knowing his secret I.D., I delved into this in great detail in my giant-sized Gwen Stacy post from several years back here: http://crustymud.paradoxcomics.com/?p=139&page=3
Really looking forward to your take on ASM 121-22 just a couple years from now!
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Thanks, crusty! I gotta say, though, between you and your fellow commenter Stu Fischer, I’m already feeling the heat re: those future AS-M #121-122 posts!
No pressure! Really, I’m really just fascinated to hear how you reacted to the events of the storyline in real time, as I didn’t get to experience it that way.
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