As writer Roy Thomas and artist Gil Kane began work on the 103rd issue of Amazing Spider-Man over half a century ago, the comics-scripting sabbatical of the title’s regular writer (and Marvel editor) Stan Lee — originally announced as “a couple of weeks away from the typewriter” — was going on its third month. For their first two issues together, Thomas and Kane had been kept busy resolving the “six arms to hold you” plotline Lee and Kane had set up in AS-M #100, while also introducing Marvel’s first vampire supervillain, Morbius. — an idea inspired by Lee’s interest in taking advantage of the new freedoms offered by recent revisions to the Comics Code. But now, having restored Peter Parker and his web-slinging alter ego to their normal two-armed status quo, as well as having sent Morbius to a watery grave (don’t worry, it didn’t hold him), the two creators were finally on their own. What would they do now?
As Thomas recalled in 2000 for a personal reminiscence of his longtime friend and collaborator Kane, originally published in Alter Ego #4:
After those two oft-reprinted issues were finished, Gil suggested a King Kong-inspired storyline. I eagerly concurred, and we cast J. Jonah Jameson in the role of Carl Denham, with Gwen Stacy as Fay Wray, and an alien “Kong.” Part of the reason Gil and I liked doing these two relatively offbeat stories was, I suspect, that neither of us liked doing Spider-Man all that much, and would have preferred to be working on other features.
In other words, Kane and Thomas decided to do whatever the hell they wanted, without worrying too much about what fans (or other pros — including, one assumes, Stan Lee) thought was the appropriate approach to take for a “real” Spider-Man story. And as far as your humble blogger is concerned, that decision paid off, as the result would prove to be one of the most thoroughly enjoyable Spidey yarns of this era… but let’s begin at the beginning, shall we?
Joining Thomas and Kane for this issue (as well the next) was inker Frank Giacoia, who’d been embellishing Kane’s pencils on Amazing Spider-Man since issue #97 (the centerpiece of the series’ recent “drug trilogy”). While Giacoia’s relatively heavy linework would never represent the ideal finishes for Kane’s pencilled art, the artists’ collaboration seemed to yield better-looking results with each issue (at least to the eyes of this reader).
Naturally, Spider-Man’s tussle with these “protection heavies” has nothing to do with the rest of the story — but it allows our creative team to show out hero in action in the first few pages — and with that action choreographed by a master like Gil Kane, who’s going to complain?
Once that episode is over, Spidey swings for home, passing by the offices of his employer, the Daily Bugle newspaper, along the way:
J. Jonah Jameson doesn’t need to watch The Dick Cavett Show to get the lowdown about a “hidden jungle” somewhere in Antarctica — i.e., the Savage Land — after all, he’s met its “lord”, Ka-Zar, before. This had happened back in 1967, in Amazing Spider-Man #57 (which yours truly missed reading only by a couple of months, incidentally, my own first issue being #59). Having come to New York to consult with his lawyer (Matt Murdock, aka Daredevil, naturally — who else?), Ka-Zar was briefly employed by Jameson, who hired him to track down and defeat Spider-Man — who had amnesia at the time. Fortunately, everything worked out OK in the end (well, maybe not so much for J.J.J.), and the two heroes parted in issue #58 as friends.
In the present, Jameson is convinced that “an in-depth look at the so-called Savage Land — and the real lowdown on whatever it was that came crawling out of there” will be just the ticket to lure news consumers away from their televisions, and thus save the Daily Bugle (well, at least until the Internet arrives in force in about a quarter-century). He tells his city editor, Joe “Robbie” Robertson, to get in touch both with the guide, Calkin — “and Parker!”
If you ask me, Gwen is letting Pete off the hook awfully easily for his mysterious, days-long, completely off-the-grid disappearance — especially considering that “Got a guilty conscience?” crack he made when on the phone with her in #101. Y’know, I think she must really like the guy…
The “flare-up” between Robbie and Jonah is an intriguing development in their respective characterizations, which takes the everyday friction in their relationship to what I believe is a new level (at least, I don’t recall the threat of termination coming into play before this) — though it seems to blow over about as quickly as it started.
It’s interesting that Gwen mentions needing money; I believe I’ve always assumed that she was able to live fairly comfortably off of her late father Captain George Stacy’s NYPD pension, especially since I don’t recall her ever having a job. (Though it’s quite possible she did, and this aging fanboy has simply forgotten about it…)
Yuk yuk yuk.
The last leg of the journey is made by helicopter — first from the ship to an Antarctic research base, and from there on into the great unknown.
Hours after leaving the base, the aircraft passes into “a gleaming ivory wall of mist“, and then…
(I hate to nitpick a fifty-year-old comic-book script, but Thomas’ captioned ruminations in the last two panels don’t make a lot of sense. After all, Pete/Spidey also has memories of meeting “Ka-Zar’s snarling sabre-tooth“, Zabu, that are likely at least as vivid as Jameson’s.)
“Outfit”, eh? I guess that J.J.J. must have picked up a pith helmet and some cute khaki shorts for Gwen, too… or maybe…
To quote Mr. J. from back on page 8, “a pretty face never scared gents away from the newsstand”. True words, I’m sure, to which we might add: and a beautiful blonde in a bikini never scared fourteen-year-old boys away from the comics spinner rack, either. (I speak from experience.)
As I recall, I had two major takeaways from this scene (other than the obvious): first, that J. Jonah Jameson, a character I’d previously considered to fall on just this side of outright villainy, was actually more human and relatable than I’d previously imagined; second, that certain aspects of one’s life as a heterosexual male human shouldn’t be expected to change all that much as one grew older. (Which time has proven to be largely true, at least for your humble blogger.)
Yeah, really playing up “the women’s angle“, there, guys…
Unfortunately, before Peter has time to snap a single pic, Jonah succumbs to the temptation to strike the idol’s big gong — which immediately summons a large-ish group of “savages” (i.e., members of the local indigenous population, who may be intended to be Neanderthals). And these folks don’t seem particularly eager to welcome visitors…
Since time is of the essence, Peter doesn’t clue Jameson and Calkins in to his survival — rather, he strips down to his Spider-Man costume and goes swinging off through the trees after Gwen and her Kong-sized captor. Speaking of whom…
Meanwhile, Spidey continues to follow Gog’s tracks (which, he informs us, are “roughly the size of a waterbed“; now there’s a ’70s reference for you) — but runs into trouble (or maybe that should be onto trouble) when the limb he’s racing along starts moving beneath his feet, “which might just mean –”
I have to confess that I was never much of a “Kukla, Fran, and Ollie” fan growing up (in my defense, their first and most popular TV run ended the year I was born), so I’m pretty sure that Spidey’s “Oliver J. Dragon” reference went right over my head in September, 1971 (just as it did a few moments ago, before I looked it up. Thanks, Google!)
Oh, no — not quicksand! (As comedian John Mulaney has reminded us, most kids go through a period of thinking that quicksand is going to be a much bigger deal in adult life than it turns out to be, and comic book cliffhangers like this are one reason why.)
That’s all she wrote for Amazing Spider-Man #103, obviously (though before we bid the issue farewell, let’s note that Thomas, Kane, and Giacoia managed to give us a full 24 pages of all-new art and story here, just one month after #102’s 35-page wrap-up of the “Six Arms Saga”*). But — it’s not the end of this blog post. Rather, we’re going to plunge on ahead with #104’s conclusion to this two-part adventure, “The Beauty and the Brute”, as produced by the same creative team. (It’s not that we don’t think that #104 isn’t deserving of its own individual post, mind you; it’s just that we have so many other comics we want to cover on this blog in October…)
The issue opens with Spider-Man still sinking into quicksand (duh). As our hero observed in the previous chapter’s last panel, there’s not a limb close enough for him to grab hold of to save himself. “But wait!” you might have thought upon reading that bit of dialogue. “Can’t he use his webbing to snag onto a limb?” Well, you’ll be happy to learn that Spidey finally thinks of that himself — unfortunately, however, the limb he snags turns out to be “rotten as a month-old egg“, and it snaps and falls right on top of him — more specifically, it falls on the wrists he throws up to shield himself, damaging both his web-shooters in the process. (What are the odds, right?) And so…
Spider-Man immediately makes it clear to Ka-Zar that there’s no way he’s sitting this one out — and Ka-Zar, quickly catching on to the fact that the young woman taken captive by Gog is beloved by our hero, ultimately acquiesces. Together, they set off once more in pursuit of Gog and Gwen.
Meanwhile, Kraven the Hunter is telling his newly chosen mate (eww) why he’s currently in the Savage Land, and how he first came to meet and know Gog: Following his original trek to the hidden Antarctic jungle for the purpose of hunting and capturing Zabu, and his subsequent thrashing at Ka-Zar’s hands (events already known to readers of Astonishing Tales #1 and #2), the villain had brooded over his defeat for quite some time; ultimately, he’d decided that the only thing for his blue mood was to go back, destroy Ka-Zar, and make himself the lord of the Savage Land…
While the basic premise of this storyline may be derived from King Kong, Gog’s outer space origins — as well as his overall character design, and even his name — indicate a clear debt to the giant monsters of Marvel’s Atlas comics days (who themselves took obvious inspiration from Kong, Godzilla, and other colossi of the movies). You know the ones I’m talking about — Goom, Googam, Gorgolla, Groot… all those Guys.
“Yes, Gwen Stacy,” gloats Kraven, “on his world, it is I who would be the inferior… but here, he is but a lost and lonely child…” The Hunter concludes his account by explaining that while he and the “child” — whom he christened Gog “after a Biblical giant” (top that pedigree, Groot) — have thus far only established dominion over one tribe (the “savages” we saw earlier) who bring “tribute to the lizard-altar which Gog built at my [i.e., Kraven’s] command”. (Why a lizard-altar? My guess is that, well, that’s what Gil Kane wanted to draw.)
Gwen quite reasonably responds to all this by informing Kraven that he’s “stark, staring mad!” — and then asks, equally reasonably, why he wants to rule the Savage Land in the first place…
Kraven doesn’t get an answer from Gwen, and so, neither do we readers — at least, not right away. Later on, however, it’ll be confirmed that Ms. Stacy didn’t catch even a glimpse of Spider-Man in this scene — which, as you might imagine, will be good news for our hero on the secret identity front.
Of course, Ka-Zar is only temporarily stunned by Kraven’s “electro-bursts” — still, it seems like he’ll be down for long enough to allow his enemy to finish the job, by way of dashing out the jungle lord’s brains with a boulder. But then, Zabu charges in, just in the nick of time, which startles Kraven into dropping his rocky weapon — and a moment later, Ka-Zar is back on his feet; fully recovered, and more than ready to wrap this thing up for good…
While we readers don’t see Kraven hit the ground at the bottom of the cliff, Ka-Zar’s dialogue on page 15 (see left) doesn’t seem to leave much doubt that the Hunter is gone for good… though, of course, that would eventually turn out to be not the case at all. Indeed, Kraven would be back in less than a year, in Amazing Spider-Man #110 (Jul., 1972), courtesy of Stan Lee (in his last regular issue as the series’ writer) and John Romita. How’d he survive? As related by new scripter Gerry Conway in the following issue, #111, Kraven was able to slow his descent by grabbing onto little branches growing out of the cliffside, resulting in a mere “bone-shattering” fall, rather than a fatal one. Hmmm… seems like Ka-Zar would have noticed that as it was happening, but what the hey. I’m sure I wasn’t surprised in the slightest by Kraven’s survival back in ’72, and I doubt any other contemporary reader was, either.
After a brief word to Gwen, Ka-Zar is off again, as he and Zabu follow the trail of Spider-Man and Gog — whom the scene shifts to at this point, naturally…
I probably didn’t get Roy Thomas’ “Willis J. O’Brien” reference back in 1971, any more than I had the previous issue’s “Oliver J. Dragon” one — though it’s possible I’d run across the name of King Kong‘s pioneering stop-motion animator in an issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland, which I’d recently started buying. (Incidentally, Thomas got the man’s middle initial wrong; it’s actually “H”, as in “Harold”.)
Gog’s battle with a T-rex is an obvious loving homage to a parallel scene in 1933’s King Kong film (said scene having been animated by Willis O’Brien, of course).
Alas, poor Gog! But dry your tears, gentle readers… Gog, as it turns out, can hold his breath for a really, really long time. And he’ll eventually be rescued — by another villain, unfortunately (Ka-Zar’s evil brother, the Plunderer). That will all go down in Astonishing Tales #17 and #18 — but as there’s a decent possibility we’ll be covering that storyline here on the blog when it reaches its golden anniversary in early 2023, we’ll skip the details for now.
Back in 1971, Spidey hurries to retrace his steps, while Ka-Zar, Gwen, and Zabu make their way back to where they’d left Jameson and Calkin. Say, I wonder how those two are making out?
I’m pretty sure that Thomas’ last King Kong reference of the story — a tongue-in-cheek “dedication” to a fictional character from the movie — was completely lost on me in August, 1971. Even if I had seen the film by that time (which I probably hadn’t), I don’t think I would have recalled the name “Carl Denham”.
But it didn’t matter. I enjoyed the heck out of this two-parter as a fourteen-year-old reader, and I remain very fond of it today. If the story has a significant flaw, it’s one that has little to nothing to do with the fact that it takes Spider-Man well outside of the urban, relatively grounded (for the Marvel universe) environment that some fans seem to consider necessary for the character to “work” the way Stan Lee and Steve Ditko originally intended. Rather, it stems from the fact that the exigencies of the story’s plot — more specifically, the need to avoid a situation where Peter Parker and Spider-Man are seen by others to be hanging out in the incredibly remote Savage Land at the same time (except by Ka-Zar and Zabu, who don’t really count) — ultimately requires Spidey to play a rather passive role in an adventure of which he’s ostensibly the protagonist. After all, it’s Ka-Zar, rather than our hero, who gets to have the big fight against Kraven, and to rescue Gwen Stacy from the villain’s clutches; by contrast, Spider-Man mostly swings around a lot, first chasing Gog, then leading him into the situation that results in his apparent demise — all without ever laying a hand, or even a web, on the giant alien.
But, again, I’m not sure it really matters. The proceedings are just so much fun — both Thomas and Kane are clearly having a blast, and while that doesn’t always carry over to the readership, it does in this instance (at least for me) — that in the end, it hardly matters that Spidey doesn’t do all that much. He still looks great doing it.
Would the Thomas-Kane team have carved out a whole new, more expansive and fanciful direction for Spider-Man to follow had they remained on the strip longer than four issues? Perhaps, but we’ll never know. With the following issue, #105, Stan Lee at last returns from his comics-writing sabbatical, and things start getting back to normal almost immediately: Professor Spencer Smythe unveils a new model of his Spider-Slayer robot, to be piloted (as had the two previous versions) by none other than J. Jonah Jameson — who, despite having now been shown to have warm and fuzzy feelings about Peter Parker, still hates Spider-Man with an all-consuming passion. Meanwhile, it appears that those Savage Land articles must sell a lot of newspapers (even without any photos), as we don’t hear any more about the Daily Bugle‘s financial difficulties — at least, not for quite some time.
One issue later. and Gil Kane has followed Roy Thomas out the door (though he’ll be back with issue #120, and will also draw some adventures of the wall-crawler in the new Marvel Team-Up title before then), as John Romita returns to fully pencil the book; a couple of issues later, he’s inking it as well, and it might as well be 1967 again — at least until #111, at which point (as we noted earlier), Lee turns the writing reins over to Gerry Conway, and an era comes to a close.
I enjoyed most of those stories — as well as a number of the later ones by Conway, Kane, and others — well enough at the time they came out, and I’m still partial enough to a few of them that it’s likely I’ll be blogging about them as their own fiftieth anniversaries roll around. But, in may ways, Amazing Spider-Man #103 and #104, atypical as they are, represent for me the high point of Marvel Comics’ flagship series in the Bronze Age. What can I say? That Gil Kane fellow really knew his way around jungles, dinosaurs, snake-idols, and giant alien monsters… and web-slinging super-heroes, as well. (And, all right, fine; he wasn’t exactly a slouch when it came to beautiful blondes in bikinis, either.)
UPDATE 9/8/21, 12:20 pm: Since this post went live about 12 hours ago, it’s been brought to my attention that certain aspects of Gog’s origin story appear to have been inspired by the 1957 science fiction monster movie 20 Million Miles to Earth, which featured the stop-motion animation of Willis O’Brien’s protégé, Ray Harryhausen. Many thanks to Charles Butler at the “Comics of the 20th Century” Facebook group and to Carl Taylor at the “Gil Kane: Raising Kane!!!” FB group, both of whom independently clued in your humble blogger.
*And just one month later, the creative team completed the two-issue storyline with another 21 pages of all new content — which makes it interesting to speculate just when Thomas and Kane learned that Marvel publisher Martin Goodman was axing the new 25-cent/48-page format after only one month. Did the duo originally intend to tell the story of Gog in a single 34-page installment? That seems the most likely scenario; yet, the story as we have it doesn’t feel noticeably padded. And if they initially thought they’d have two 34-page chapters to work with, you’d expect the version we ended up with to seem rushed; yet, again, that’s not the case (at least, I don’t perceive it to be). So, it’s something of a puzzler. Anybody out there have more info, or other ideas about how this would have worked?