Previously: We’re knee deep in Spidey-villains lately, with recent weeks covering everyone from the Chameleon to the Vulture to the Scorpion. Sensing a certain “animal” theme, are you? Well, they wouldn’t be the last, as we’re about to learn…
Our next Spidey-villain actually made his debut elsewhere, but quickly settled into a steady gig serving as a minor but persistent annoyance to Spider-Man for the next couple of decades. The Beetle made his premiere Spidey appearance in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #21, in “Where Flies the Beetle!” by Lee and Ditko. The Beetle, a.k.a. disgruntled master mechanic Abner Jenkins, had first appeared in the pages of STRANGE TALES, in which Jenkins created an armored suit for himself and set off on a wave of destruction as the Beetle, using his armor-plated suit, suction-tentacled gloves and flying wings in battle with the Thing and the Human Torch, hoping to make a name for himself by defeating the Fantastic Four. Instead, all it got him was a prison sentence, which was just completed at the beginning of ASM #21.
The Beetle wastes no time in heading after the Torch for revenge, and winds up blundering into a game of romantic oneupsmanship between Spidey and the Torch, with Spidey trying to put the moves on Johnny Storm’s girlfriend Dorrie Evans after the Torch inadvertently made Peter Parker’s girl Betty Brant think Peter was seeing someone else. Just as Spidey arrives at Dorrie’s place, the Beetle attacks, planning on getting Spider-Man out of the way before the Torch arrives. Naturally, Dorrie winds up taken hostage by the Beetle, with Spider-Man getting the blame and having to battle the Torch as a result. Eventually, it’s all worked out and the Torch and Spidey put down the Beetle, who’s off to jail. While, as usual, Johnny Storm gets the girl while Spider-Man goes home with a big pile of nothin’.
The Beetle’s fixation thereafter shifted from the Torch to Spider-Man, returning time and again only to repeatedly foiled by the wallcrawler. Despite many fans’ bewildering fondness for the original outlandish design of the Beetle armor, the suit was completely overhauled by Jenkins in the 1980s, with a more sleek, streamlined and, for lack of a better word, “beetle-ish” set of armor replacing the earlier goggle-eyed clunky model.
Despite better tech, more weaponry and a computer-controlled targeting system that allowed him to better predict his opponent’s movements, the new Beetle suit did Jenkins little good, still continuing to get his tail kicked by Spider-Man (as well as his occasional opponents the Avengers).
Jenkins really got his moment in the sun in the excellent series THUNDERBOLTS, in which he was featured as one of the supervillains posing as heroes under the command of Baron Zemo, under his new armored identity of MACH-1. T-Bolts writer Kurt Busiek cannily deduced that it was never wealth or power motivating Jenkins; instead it was respect that he craved, respect that he finally began to receive in his new life as a hero. Jenkins would finally find some resolve that he had always lacked earlier, standing against Zemo, turning himself in to pay his debt to society, and even, in the pages of NEW THUNDERBOLTS, leading a new team of heroes. A nice bit of character development done over the long haul.
It would be awhile before a new major villain was introduced to Spidey’s world, showing up in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #41, “The Horns of the Rhino!”, by Stan Lee and new artist John Romita.
The Rhino showed up pretty much without explanation, as a super-strong, nearly invulnerable thug sent to kidnap former astronaut John Jameson (J. Jonah Jameson’s son), in order to get a hold of the valuable information he knew about the intricacies of space travel (a motivation that’s a bit dated nowadays, nearly 40 years after the end of the space race…). The Rhino, whose primary modus operandi is to run at things really fast and hit them with his head, was given his powers and artificial armored hide by scientists from behind the Iron Curtain, who intended to use him as a tool for espionage. However, the process that increased his strength also increased his intelligence, and the Rhino, once his impervious second skin was applied, killed his benefactors and went into business for himself.
In a second attempt at kidnapping Jameson in ASM #43, the Rhino encountered Spidey once again, who had come prepared, having cooked up a special chemical treatment for his webbing (with the help of the sometime Lizard Dr. Curt Connors) that would dissolve the Rhino’s thick second skin, allowing Spider-Man to kayo him with a simple right cross. Before that, however, we’re treated to what might be my favorite Spidey one-liner ever:
“It always goes FTIFFFT, instead of FTAKT!” That kills me.
The Rhino has resurfaced over and over again over the years, sometimes with armor upgrades, sometimes with temporarily boosted intelligence, but you can always count on him, well, running really fast and slamming his head into things.
I’ll probably get some flack for including our next Spidey-villain in these pages, who’s admittedly a second-rater (and that’s being charitable) but I don’t care — I love the Shocker.
He’s just so damned goofy-looking. First appearing in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #46, by Lee and Romita, the Shocker has well, vibrators. On his wrists. That’s about it.
Seriously, ol’ Herman Schultz here was a run-of-the-mill safecracker who set out to design the perfect safecracking tools, and decided that vibration was the key. After months of labor in the prison workshop (and really, why does any prison in the Marvel Universe have a workshop? You’d think they’d learn. I’m surprised Schultz was able to elbow his way into getting some room at the work bench, between the Vulture in there working on his new wings and the Tarantula grinding out a new pair of pointy shoes…), Schultz created a vibration device strong enough to blast through the wall, allowing him to escape but nearly killing him in the process.
Having realized the danger in his new discovery, Shultz makes himself a heavily padded, quilted costume (in a breathtakingly bad yellow and brown ensemble at that) and redesigns his vibro-unit to attach to bracelets worn on the wrists and knuckles. As the Shocker, Shultz defeats Spidey pretty handily in his first bank robbery, but to be fair, Spider-Man did have his arm in a sling from a previous injury. Spider-Man does much better in their second encounter thanks to a fairly simple strategy: he webs up the Shocker’s thumbs.
Over the years, we’d see Spidey evolve this plan of action into an even simpler one that would be used quite frequently, simply snagging the vibro-units with his webs and yanking them off the Shocker’s wrists entirely. In recent years, the Shocker has come to terms with his fate as a strictly low-rent super-criminal, and is usually more concerned with getting away clean with the loot than any grand schemes for revenge, as, unlike most of his contemporaries, he’s now keenly aware that he’s got zero chances of defeating Spider-Man.
Artist John Romita’s best contribution to the Spider-Man rogues’ gallery was probably Wilson Fisk, better known as the Kingpin, who made his debut in the pages of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #50, written, naturally, by Stan Lee.
After Peter Parker has decided to give up his career as Spider-Man (a story line serving as partial inspiration for Sam Raimi’s SPIDER-MAN 2), the Kingpin’s organization embarks on a massive crime wave, taking advantage of the webslinger’s absence. When Spider-Man decides to return, he makes tracking down the Kingpin his first priority, and soon find himself face to face with the imposing crimeboss, who despite having no superpowers, is still able to keep up with Spider-Man in the fisticuffs department, thanks to his deceptive speed for a man his size and his “300 pounds of solid muscle,” as well as the fact that Spidey is forced to pull his punches, since Fisk is still just a regular guy. Early on, the Kingpin made use of a couple of gadgets as well, most notably a disintegrator beam that would fire from his diamond-tipped cane, and a tie pin that could fire knockout gas.
While most of the Kingpin’s appearances throughout the 1960s and ’70s were in the pages of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN and SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN, Frank Miller’s use of the character in his landmark DAREDEVIL run of the 1980s has cemented the Kingpin in the public’s mind as the primary antagonist in that series, and he’s rarely seen in a significant role nowadays outside those pages.
There are plenty more Spidey-villains to talk about, but I’ll just call attention to two more before we turn our attention elsewhere. As much as I find the character somewhat boring, there’s no denying that Venom is probably the most significant character to be added to the Spider-Man universe since Lee, Ditko and Romita left the book, simply due to its overwhelming popularity for most of the 1990s, a turn of events all the more surprising considering that this was a character that was essentially created by committee (with everyone from Jim Shooter to Peter David to David Michelinie to Todd MacFarlane having a hand in his creation).
Follow along: In Jim Shooter’s MARVEL SUPER HEROES SECRET WARS miniseries, Peter Parker returned home from outer space with a stylish new black costume, a freaky garment that not only could change its appearance to look like anything, it also obeyed Peter Parker’s telepathic commands, lengthening or shortening the sleeves, pulling back the mask, whatever he wanted. As the days turned to months, Peter continued to wear his new costume as Spider-Man, and found himself growing more and more fatigued by the day, never suspecting that it was because his costume was actually a living alien creature, which was taking his body out for test runs at night as Spider-Man while he slept. Growing concerned by his constant lack of energy and overwhelming fatigue, Spidey went to see his local M.D. — Reed Richards. Hey, who else can you go see if you’re Spider-Man? Besides, there’s gotta be some benefits to knowing the smartest man on the planet.
After a few tests, Reed puts it all together, that the costume was really an alien symbiote organism, and was preparing to bond with Peter Parker. Understanding what was happening and alarmed, the creature immediately tried to bond with Spidey, but was blasted off Spider-Man’s bod, thanks to a quick-thinking Mr. Fantastic and his hand sonic blaster (sonics apparently being the creature’s only weakness). The symbiote was held captive in the Baxter Building for study, until it was freed by a mysterious robotic drone that had invaded the FF’s headquarters. The symbiote headed right back for Parker again, and nearly succeeded in bonding permanently with him — had Spidey not taken refuge beneath the cacophonous gongs of a cathedral bell, which drove the creature from his body, and, so Spidey believed, killed him. Or so he thought.
Meanwhile, over in the pages of SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN, Spidey had been pursuing a serial killer calling himself the Sin-Eater, who had killed Spidey’s best friend on the NYPD, Sgt. Jean DeWolff. (A brief digression, if I may: as well done as Peter David’s “The Death of Jean DeWolff” storyline in SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN was — and it was quite good — I’ve always felt it to have been a real waste of one of the SPIDER-MAN supporting characters with the most appeal and most unrealized potential. Even in her first appearance in MARVEL TEAM-UP, Jean DeWolff had a spark and a great “tough-chick” appeal that really clicked well with Spider-Man, and as the character was utilized over the years, with her grudging respect for Spidey developing into a hidden affection, I really felt that there was so much more to be done with the character that would have had long-term dividends for the series, as opposed to the short-term shock value of her taking a shotgun blast to the chest. )
Anyway, in the course of Spidey’s pursuit of the Sin-Eater, a copycat killer showed up to claim credit for the crimes, whose name and story were plastered all over the Bugle‘s competitor the Daily Globe by reporter Eddie Brock. When it was later discovered that the stories were bogus, the Globe was a laughingstock, and Brock’s reputation was ruined, reduced to a journalistic pariah who could only get paprazzi-type assignments. Despondent, Brock went to a church with plans to kill himself, where the still-surviving symbiote sensed his despair, his need, and his hatred of Spider-Man (an emption the symbiote shared, due to Spidey’s rejection of it), and permanently bonded with Brock, creating the new creature calling itself Venom.
After a secret campaign of stalking and intimidation, Venom declared all-out war on Spider-Man, terrorizing him both as Spidey and as Peter Parker, since, thanks to the symbiote’s memories, Venom knew Spidey’s secret identity (a narrative tool that still had some power and effectiveness back then, as opposed to now when it seems everybody and his brother knows Peter Parker is Spider-Man, and all Spidey has to do is sneeze for his mask to come flying off…). The design for Venom was simple, but startlingly effective, retaining the already sharp look of the black Spider-Man costume, but transposing it onto a huge, overly muscled body, and adding a wide, sinister, sharp-toothed grin and a disturbingly long tongue.
Along with all of Spider-Man’s abilities, Venom can camouflage himself and alter his appearance thanks to the symbiote’s shapechanging powers, and does not register on Spidey’s spider-sense, making him one of Spider-Man’s most dangerous enemies. After several years’ worth of heated battles with Spider-Man, Venom’s popularity grew so great that Marvel wound up shifting his motivation slightly into “protecting the innocent,” at least as his twisted mind perceived it, and Marvel began using the character as an anti-hero vigilante (all the rage in the “grim-and-gritty” comics era of the ’90s), and for a time, sales were pretty strong.
Venom’s popularity has faded in recent years (partly, I think, due to overexposure), and in Mark Millar’s Marvel Knights SPIDER-MAN series, a terminally ill Eddie Brock auctioned the symbiote off to the highest bidder, with the creature eventually settling with Mac Gargan, formerly known as the Scorpion. These days, it’s actually Flash Thompson bonded with the symbiote, believe it or not.
Finally, there’s my all-time favorite Spidey villain: Stegron the Dinosaur Man. Just look at him:
How do you not love Stegron?
In my favorite Stegron appearance in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #166, Stegron finds a way to reanimate dinosaur bones into live dinosaurs (with the coerced assistance of Curt Connors) , and marches them down Fifth Avenue.
But before that, Stegron had to contend with Connors’ alter ego, the Lizard, leading to a classic all-reptile smackdown:
In case you were wondering, Stegron was at one time Vincent Stegron, Curt Connors’ lab assistant, who became obsessed with Connors’ transformations into the Lizard, and combined Connors’ work with stolen dinosaur DNA from the Savage Land, to transform himself into the dinosaur-human hybrid. And come on, with a name like “Stegron,” you had to be expecting something like this to happen, right?
To my surprise and delight, Stegron even had an action figure made a few years back. If that doesn’t make him A-list, I don’t know what does…