Today, we continue this blog’s commemoration of Giant-Size Marvel Month (aka August, 1971) with a look at a comic book that does both of our previous subjects, Thor #193 and Avengers #93, one better — literally — by way of a story that checks in at a whopping 35 pages, compared to those other two worthies’ 34-page yarns. How did scripter Roy Thomas, penciller Gil Kane, and inker Frank Giacoia pull off this trick? I’m not sure, but it seems they may have nicked a page from Hulk #145, the only Marvel comic published that month whose extra-length story ran a mere 33 pages.
In any event, Amazing Spider-Man #102’s “Vampire at Large” kicks off precisely where the previous issue‘s installment, “A Monster Called… Morbius!” left off (the opening splash even recycles the dialogue from that tale’s final page):
The second page quickly recaps the events of the past two issues, explaining how our hero, Peter Parker, attempted to rid himself of his Spider-Man powers by drinking a chemical formula he’s concocted, but wound up giving himself four extra arms instead. (What a way to celebrate your 100th issue, amirite?) Borrowing a beach house in Southampton from his pal Dr. Curt Connors (aka the Lizard, at least sometimes), Spidey set to work in the domicile’s fully equipped lab to find a cure for his excess supply of forelimbs, only to be set upon there by a stranger calling himself Morbius, who, via his attempts to suck our hero’s blood and whatnot, gave every indication of being a vampire. And that’s when Doc Connors showed up to check on his friend, and, naturally, things went even further south, very quickly.
The battle begins in earnest on page 3…
… and continues on through page 4, as the Lizard rebounds to get in his own licks. Meanwhile, Spider-Man ponders joining in on the fight (so thrillingly choreographed by Gil Kane, who could blame him?) — but on which side?
But Morbius isn’t prepared to relate his life story at this time — rather, he opts to go looking for less formidable sources of sustenance, and so flies away, taking a course that will ultimately take him into New York City.
What he doesn’t realize, however, is that the web-slinger managed to slap one of his patented Spider-Tracers on his back before he took to the skies…
As the hours pass, Curt Connors becomes more and more erratic, his Lizard personality breaking through with ever greater frequency. Still, it’s better than having to contend with both Morbius and a full-on-evil Lizard at one and the same time, as this issue’s cover (as well as last issue’s final page) had suggested our hero would.
“Morbius — Morbius,” muses the scaly scientist. “Something about that name — strikes a familiar chord.” But, try as he might, he can’t place it at the moment — and so, he and Spider-Man begin their long trek to track down Morbius.
Meanwhile, their quarry has himself reached the city, but before he’s able to find a suitable victim to slake his thirst on, he realizes that it’s almost sunup. This bums Morbius out, as he not only loses much of his power and stamina in daytime, but is also more likely to be wracked with feelings of guilt and remorse over his murders. “If only it could be always night — always night — !”
As he did in Avengers #93, Roy Thomas uses the occasion of his story’s extended page count to follow the once-prevalent practice of dividing the narrative into separate chapters, each of which gets its own title. But whereas in the former story he riffed on the titles of classic science-fiction novels, he sticks here to the comic-book basics. Sure, “The Way It Began” may have graced many another origin story before this one, but why not go with the tried-and-true?
Michael Morbius, winner of the Nobel Prize for…? I’m going to go with “Science”.
Despite Michael’s evident determination, Martine did take ship with him and Nikos — sailing first through the Mediterranean Sea, then up the western European coast to Great Britain, and finally out into the broad Atlantic on a chartered yacht — a yacht equipped not only with a laboratory, but with an “electro-shock device”.
Through it all, Martine still had no idea what her fiance and his friend were up to — a situation which distressed Nikos, but which Michael insisted was necessary: “The fluids we distilled from the bats have not slowed the illness which gnaws at my body… my very soul.” Nikos understood, but remained concerned: “Still, don’t you think she deserves to know…?”
“But, what of this suit which you wore as secondary insulation against the shock…?” You, know, Mike — the black one you decked out with a red flared collar, a red belt, and these red wingy-capey bits for God only knows what reasons?
Morbius intended to sacrifice his own life in the deep ocean waters, rather than surrender to his new, dark urges — but his instinct for preservation was too strong. By the time he resurfaced, his yacht was out of sight — yet, he knew that, eventually, another ship would come…
And that’s how you create a “scientific” vampire, folks — not to mention a supervillain with enough pathos in his origin that it won’t take all that much to reshape him into an antihero, when the time comes (as it will, less than three years hence). Marvel’s spandex-clad answer to Barnabas Collins, one might say.
Morbius’ killing of the derelict is discovered sooner than you might think, as we learn on the very next page. There we find the employees of a TV news operation fielding multiple calls not only about that murder in the Bowery, but also about a mysterious phantom with a tail — most lately seen in Queens, but heading swiftly for Manhattan. Which, naturally, provides the segue into our story’s third and final chapter…
On the very next page, we see the Lizard personality take over long enough for the villain to suddenly fling himself free of his hated enemy Spider-Man, even though the action sends him plunging towards an almost certain death. Spidey snags Liz with his webbing, however, and by the time our hero has hauled his uneasy ally back to the safety of a rooftop, Curt Connors is back in the driver’s seat. “But for how long?” wonders the wall-crawler.
At this point, Thomas and Kane seem to decide that they’ve got plenty of pages left to finish their story with room to spare, because they drop in a couple of brief scenes featuring members of the book’s supporting cast — the first featuring Gwen Stacy and Aunt May, the second J. Jonah Jameson and Robbie Robertson. It’s the kind of thing you’re used to seeing in a Spider-Man story, of course — just usually well before page 26.
Finally, we’re back to our principal cast members, just in time for the story’s climactic scenes…
The storytelling seems a little confused here. Surely the taking of one small blood sample from Morbius wouldn’t completely rob him of the enzyme he needs for survival. I may well be wrong, but I suspect that the original idea was for Morbius to want to drink the serum to see if it would cure his own condition — and that that concept somehow got away from Thomas as he knocked out his script’s final few pages.
As he pursues Morbius, Spider-Man realizes that he’s been subconsciously pulling his punches with Morbius, because on some level he can empathize with him. “What would it do to you,” he asks himself, “if suddenly you needed human blood — just to survive? … Face it, fella. You don’t know. And you just pray that you never find out.”
But then Spidey realizes that they’ve reached the waterfront — if he doesn’t get his head in the game now, Morbius will fly out over the river and escape…
“– Finis – ?” Well, not for Morbius, as most of you reading this are already well aware. He’d make his return less than a year later, in Marvel Team-Up #3 and #4, and would hardly slow down after that, riding the horror/monster boom of the early ’70s to solo gigs both in Adventure into Fear and the black-and-white Vampire Tales. Though I doubt that even at the height of the Living Vampire’s mid-’70s stardom, anyone could have imagined that four-and-a-half decades later, Michael Morbius would be headlining his very own major motion picture. And yet, here we are.
Nor was it finis for the Roy Thomas-Gil Kane run on Amazing Spider-Man. As Stan Lee’s “couple of weeks away” from comic-book scriptwriting stretched into its third month, the two storytellers appear to have decided that, having enjoyed riffing on Dracula for two issues as much as they did, a King Kong-inspired romp through the Savage Land might be even more fun, for themselves as well as for readers. Next month, we’ll see if they managed to pull that off.
Nevertheless, the conclusion of Amazing Spider-Man #102 did spell finis for something — and that something was Peter Parker’s four extra forelimbs. Save for flashbacks, “What Ifs”, and the like, Spidey’s surplus appendages would never be seen again following their nigh-miraculous banishment on the story’s final page; and as far as your humble blogger is concerned, that’s probably for the best. While some might disagree, I’m of the opinion that three months and seventy-four pages was just the right duration for the “Six Arms Saga” — long enough to make a lasting impression, but not so long as to wear out its welcome, either by giving readers enough time to consider how dubious the whole concept of four extra arms was to begin with, or by driving poor Gil Kane crazy trying to make the things look plausible. Just long enough, in the end, for the half-century old memory of it to bring a fond smile to an aging fan’s face, rather than a pained wince; at least, that’s how it works for me.