Much has been made about Batman having the best “Rogue’s Gallery” of villains in comics, and I’ll admit, it’s right up there. However, I’d have to put Marvel Comics’ Spider-Man in very close competition, as Spidey creators Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, and later Spidey writers and artists like John Romita, Gil Kane, Ross Andru, Gerry Conway, David Michelinie, Todd MacFarlane and others, dreamed up a fantastic grotesquerie of gruesome ne’er-do-wells for the webslinger to face, from crimelords and thieves to mythological monsters, and practically the entire animal kingdom in between. And unlike Batman, whose “mere mortal” status as a non-superpowered hero tended to limit his adversaries to stylishly obsessed crooks, Spider-Man’s vastly superhuman strength, speed and reflexes allowed his opponents to be all the more formidable and outlandish, presenting both a true challenge to Spidey and the opportunity for a wide variety of characters and powers, since no matter what he’s up against, there really isn’t much that Spidey can’t handle (I mean, he beat up Firelord once. A freakin’ herald of Galactus… And I’m not complaining either — it was a great story). Everyone settle in now for what’s likely to be a somewhat lengthy (and long overdue) exploration of (to steal a catchphrase) the deadly foes of Spider-Man…
Spidey’s first real “supervillain” encounter came in only his second appearance in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #1, in “Spider-Man vs. the Chameleon!”, by Lee and Ditko.
After an unsuccessful visit to the Baxter Building in the hopes of joining the Fantastic Four to make a little extra dough, Spider-Man is lured to a downtown building by the Chameleon, who has devised a plan to steal valuable missile defense plans and pin the blame on Spidey.
The Chameleon, an international spy and master of disguise (much later give the birth name Dmitri Smerdyakov), impersonates Spider-Man while stealing the plans, and with Spidey in the neighborhood while the crime is underway, the Chameleon swiftly makes his escape while the cops head after Spider-Man.
Even after Spidey manages to collar him, the wily Chameleon makes another quick change and nearly escapes again, before being undone by, of all things, a poor-quality garment:
The Chameleon would recur repeatedly in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN over the years, usually as someone else’s flunky, due to his somewhat less than-stellar powers. Although those would be juiced up as time went on, first using a gas that would spray from his belt buckle and alter the features in his makeup (shades of the later Ditko creation the Question), and later progressing to a holographic projector to change his appearance. More recently, the Chameleon underwent a surgical procedure that allows him to alter his epidermis and change his appearance at will, along with a special costume that responds to nerve impulses and can change form at his command.
It was also revealed much later in the character’s history that the Chameleon was the half-brother of his fellow Spider-villain and occasional partner in crime Kraven the Hunter (about whom we’ll learn more later…).
The next long-running villain to face Spider-Man would make his premiere in the very next issue, in “Duel to the Death with the Vulture!” in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #2, by Lee and Ditko.
Herein, New York has fallen victim to a crime wave from the winged menace known as the Vulture, a.k.a. Adrian Toomes, an elderly electrical engineer who has managed to invent a harness that allows him to fly, thanks to a magnetic-electrical power pack on his back, and long pinioned wings on his arms that direct his flight. In addition, the harness increases his strength to superhuman levels (and, according to some accounts, lengthens his lifespan as well, although that notion has varied over the years, leading to several plotlines involving the Vulture searching for ways to artificially regain his youth).
Spidey’s first encounter with the Vulture comes about primarily, like so many other things in Peter Parker’s life, through Pete’s constant need for money, as Spidey first goes after the Vulture not only for altruistic reasons, but also to try to get photos of the villain to sell to J. Jonah Jameson, in Peter’s first attempt at photojournalism. Their first encounter is a win-lose proposition for the webslinger, as he does succeed in getting photos to sell to Jonah, but unfortunately gets his butt whipped by the Vulture in the bargain. In what would be the first of many instances of Peter’s scientific knowhow getting the job done where his Spider-powers could not, Spidey deduces from the silent running of the Vulture’s flight harness that his wings are magnetically powered, and jury-rigs together an anti-magnetic inverter that nullifies the Vulture’s equipment, nullifying his flight power and sending poor Adrian spiraling to the pavement below.
Usually, however, Spidey would just pull the classic move of jumping on the Vulture’s back while in flight and yanking wires out of his power pack, a maneuver that Spider-Man made use of so often that eventually the Vulture would be forced to electrically booby-trap his backpack to keep Spidey from tearing into it.
There was another Vulture to run afoul of Spider-Man, a prison cellmate of Adrian Toomes named Blackie Drago who stole the Vulture wings from his ailing roomie, after arranging for an “accident” to get him out of the way.
Spidey made short work of the new Vulture, who would only wear the wings once more, when a once-more-healthy and now-furious Adrian Toomes broke Blackie out of prison and gave him a new flight harness only so he could publicly kick his ass and prove to the world who the real Vulture was, which he did, with a vengeance.
Next up in Spidey’s hit parade was Otto Octavius, otherwise known as Doctor Octopus, but since the good doctor has already received considerable coverage in these pages, so instead we’ll move along to AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #4, and the next of Spidey’s fearsome foes to make his debut, the Sandman.
Originally known by the alias of “Flint Marko,” William Baker was a career criminal, escaped from prison and on the run from the law, until the day he hid from the police in an atomic devices testing center. Baker stayed hunkered down on the beach in the cordoned-off area, little realizing that a nuclear blast was about to take place. The radiation from the blast affected Baker’s cellular structure, merging the molecules of his body with the molecules of the sand at his feet, giving his body the physical qualities of the sand itself, and giving him total control over those molecules.
With but a thought, the Sandman can convert his body into a completely fluid sandlike powder, or harden it to the strength and density of granite. In addition, Baker could reform his sandy body into nearly any shape his mind could conceive, allowing him to grow or shrink, flatten or expand, or re-form his hands into deadly weapons like axes or maces.
Baker wasted no time in taking advantage of his new power, calmly walking out of bank robberies with handfuls of cash, waving at news camera while police bullets pass harmlessly through him. Spidey doesn’t have much better luck against the new supervillain in town, being easily out fought in their first encounter. He gets a second chance when the Sandman decides to hide out from the cops at Peter Parker’s high school, but the much stronger Sandman still seems to be getting the best of him, until Spidey spots an industrial-strength vacuum cleaner, then tricks Sandman into assuming his sandy form, so as to allow him to suck the supervillain up into the vacuum’s heavy canvas bag.
Sandman would return time and again to bedevil Spider-Man, and would also later branch out a little, joining the Frightful Four and facing off against Reed Richards and company numerous times over the years (more often than not wearing the same green striped shirt, brown pants and work boots, although he occasionally favored a truly hideous set of tights with a weird cowl attached).
The evolution of the Sandman character over the years serves as a great example of both the advantages and disadvantages of work-for-hire comics like Marvel and DC. After years of consistently getting whupped by everyone from the Fantastic Four to Spider-Man to the Hulk, William Baker began to have second thoughts about his career as the Sandman (particularly after a fairly ugly incident in which he accidentally merged with Hydro-Man, a lesser-known Spidey villain with similar, water-based powers, resulting in a mindless mud monster until the two managed to separate), and began to express this sentiment in various appearances throughout the Marvel Universe, particularly in the pages of MARVEL TWO-IN-ONE and THE THING, as Ben Grimm began to lend a friendly ear to his former enemies’ second thoughts. As a result, in the character’s numerous appearances over the next couple of years, Sandman was shown to be changing his ways, eventually leading to his being granted full amnesty when he was granted membership in the Avengers.
Sandman’s active Avengers tenure was pretty brief, although his law-abiding status stayed in his next gig, working as hired muscle for the European mercenary Silver Sable.
However, all it takes is one wrongheaded creator with a little political pull to undo years of carefully wrought continuity, and in this case it was John Byrne, when he was briefly given the creative reigns of Spider-Man (beginning with his poorly received “Chapter One” series in 1998) who unilaterally decided that the previous decade or so of collective and consistent character development for the Sandman was a bad idea, and had the Sandman declare that his reform had all been a ruse, that’d he’d just been “faking it.” Wow. Not just a copout, but a lazy one at that. There was a later attempt to make it go down a little smoother by revealing that it was actually the Sandman’s old Frightful Four boss the Wizard who had monkeyed with Baker’s brain with his “Id Machine,” forcing him to return to his villainous ways. This was still a waste of what had become a very interesting and complex character with tons of potential, but at least it didn’t merely spit upon the last few years of characterization the way Byrne’s original “just kidding” revamp did. The Sandman is still running around the Marvel Universe as a villain these days, back to the same one-dimensional bad guy he was back in 1962.
Another classic Spidey bad guy first appeared in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #6: Dr. Curt Connors, otherwise known as the Lizard.
Amid reports of sightings of a mysterious “lizard-man” in the Florida everglades, Peter Parker and DAILY BUGLE publisher J. Jonah Jameson fly down south in the hopes of getting pictures of the monster. Looking for some insight, Parker decides to consult with Dr. Connors, a local reptile expert, only to be attacked by the Lizard on the way to Connors’ home.
The Lizard, wearing a nice black turtleneck and a smashing lab coat, turns out to be more formidable than Spidey expects, throwing Spider-Man a distance of nearly half-a-mile in their first encounter.
When Spider-Man arrives at Connors’ house, now intent on warning them that the Lizard is nearby, he learns from Connors wife Martha the shocking truth: that Connors himself is the Lizard. Connors, formerly a surgeon, lost his right arm in combat as a medic, and since than had been obsesses with reptiles and their biology, hoping to discover a way to replicate the reptile’s unique ability to regenerate lost limbs or body parts. After months of research, Connors believed he’d synthesized a serum, and downed it himself, looking on with joy as a new arm sprung from the stump at his right shoulder.
Connors’ joy soon turned to horror as the metamorphosis continued, with Connors’ skin transforming to a scaly green, a long tail sprouting from his lower back, and his head and face contorting to resemble that of a giant lizard. Connors tried to resist the change, and even left a note for his wife and young son, but eventually succumbed to the full transformation into the Lizard.
After another tussle with the Lizard, Spidey asks Mrs. Connors for her husband’s notes and research, and once more it’s the scientific knowhow of Peter Parker that saves the day, synthesizing an antidote that will reverse the process of Connors’ serum. Of course, that brings up a bigger problem: how to get it down the Lizard’s scaly gullet. Before he can dwell on the matter too much, the Lizard attacks, now determined to destroy Spider-Man, “the only one who does not fear me.”
Knocking Spidey out, the Lizard returns to his plan, to inject existing reptiles with his serum, creating an army of super-reptiles under his control. Recovering, Spidey tracks down the Lizard once more, and after a titanic struggle, manages to get the Lizard in a half-nelson and pours the antidote down his throat, returning Curt Connors’ humanity.
Spider-Man agrees to keep Curt Connors’ transformation a secret, and returns to New York with a disgruntled JJJ, who’s none too pleased at what he considers a wasted trip, believing Peter Parker’s genuine photos of the Lizard to be fakes.
Spider-Man would go on to have lengthy relationships with both Curt Connors and the Lizard — Connors, who would eventually move to New York City, would go on to become Spider-Man’s frequently consulted scientific advisor, while he would later discover that periods of great stress could re-trigger his transformation into the Lizard, forcing Spider-Man to whip up yet another batch of the antidote serum. In fact, sometimes the most entertaining part of a Lizard story was seeing just how Spider-Man would manage to administer the antidote to the Lizard in that particular episode. Sometimes he’d just load up his webshooters with the serum and spray it down the Lizard’s throat. In a personal favorite, one time I remember Spidey actually making a pitcher out of his webbing and using it to pour the antidote into the Lizard’s unwilling maw. If you’re gonna do something, you might as well do it with style.