My Misspent Youth — Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man #86 by Bill Mantlo, Al Milgrom, and Fred Hembeck

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

There was a unifying conceit to several of the comic book issues released under the Marvel banner with a cover date of January 1984. A faux stamp on the front of the publications offered a concise explanation: BEWARE: IT’S ASSISTANT EDITORS MONTH! DON’T SAY WE DIDN’T WARN YOU! The backstory went like this: the primary editors of mighty Marvel mags had left the building to attend San Diego Comic-Con (back when comics were indeed the primary focus, as opposed to its current status as a promotional launching pad for Hollywood’s nerdiest blockbuster wannabes), and they’d left the responsibility of getting the monthly books out to their seconds-in-command. The playful editorial mice indulged fanciful whims, so many of the superhero narratives tilted toward the wacky.

The secondary title starring everyone’s favorite web-head had an especially inspired goof. Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man #86 opened with a justification for what would follow. Taking advantage of the fact that Marvel Comics existed within the pages of Marvel Comics, its tales of costumed do-gooders not fiction but journalistic recounting of what the heroes were up to. Al Milgrom, the title’s regular artist, storms into the bullpen to demand an explanation for why his latest pages were rejected.

Assistant editor Bob DeNatale crows that he wants to make his mark in the one issue for which he’s acting editor. Instead of Milgrom providing the pencils for regular scripter Bill Mantlo, DeNatale looks to a fan favorite. The guest artist on the issue is none other than Fred Hembeck, the comic-centric humor cartoonist whose work regularly appeared in Comics Buyer’s Guide, Marvel Age, and all manner of superhero spoofery.

The most amusing gag of the issue is that there aren’t all that manner gags in it. Hembeck’s familiar rendering of the characters, right down to the trademark knobby knees, is applied to a story that is mostly played straight. The ongoing soap opera of Peter Parker’s love life, then centered on a dalliance with the partially reformed criminal the Black Cat, is presented in the same way it would have been with a more traditional artist.

When the action kicks in, the contrast of Hembeck’s cartoony style is more noticeable, entertainingly so. The issue’s bad guy is the Fly, a logical adversary for a hero who spins a web any size. Like more than a few members of Spider-Man’s rogue gallery, the Fly holds grudge against both the wall-crawler and bloviating newspaper publisher J.J. Jameson. Whenever a writer needed a shortcut to get the narrative going, they could always send the fearsome foe crashing through one of the windows of the offices of The Daily Bugle.

There’s a freewheeling charm to the issue that feels unique to its era. It wasn’t just the assistant editors who believed that comics could be serious and silly at the same time. Every new month was an opportunity to create something wild, adventurous, and alive with possibility. An adherence to continuity meant that Marvel had all sorts of rules that were not to be broken. At their best, though, they sure knew how to bend every one of those rules to serve the only mandate that mattered: making comics that were just plain fun.

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

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