Comics 101 In Focus: A Shocking Development

It’s all about perspective, really.

If you’ve been reading SPIDER-MAN comics any time for the last few years, you know who the major villains are and who the small fry are, and odds are that the Shocker probably isn’t going to make the first list.

However, when Li’l Scott was reading Spidey at the tender age of 5, the Shocker was big-time villainy personified — even that crazy comforter-looking outfit of his couldn’t dissuade me. The Shocker was world-class bad news and Spidey was in trouble. Why did I think that? Let’s take a look at the first Spidey comic I can ever remember reading, AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #152 (January 1976), “Shattered by the Shocker!”, written by Len Wein and drawn by Ross Andru.

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Although in the interest of full disclosure, I should note that in my mind’s eye the comic book looks like this, since as far back as I can remember the cover was always missing:

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Since getting two successive issues of the same comic was a rare thing back in those days, I, like many young readers, was dropped in the middle of the story, with Spidey trapped in a sewer up to his webbed neck in water, surrounded by rats. In what I now realize was a bit of a tip of the hat to Steve Ditko’s famous “trapped under machinery” sequence from his Master Planner storyline, Wein and Andru put Spidey through the wringer here, swimming against the current trying to reach the next manhole, then having him desperately holding his breath, hoping to be swept out to the river before his air gives out.

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This kind of sequence isn’t used much anymore, and it’s a shame. Part of Spider-Man’s appeal as always been his identifiability, and putting him in perilous situations where he’s in as much jeopardy as anyone else would be, where his spider-powers do him little good, not only highlights his bravery, but also allows the reader to more easily put himself in Spidey’s shoes.

Also, let’s take a look at Wein’s use of the thought balloons for Spidey’s inner monologue. Note the way Spidey’s constantly referring to himself as Parker — once again grounding him in reality and reminding the reader that Peter Parker is a real guy under that mask. And I know thought balloons are out of vogue in comics nowadays, but take a look at how effortlessly Wein catches us up to where we were in the storyline last issue, just with a couple snatches of dialogue:

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We catch up with Pete as he returns to Jameson’s party, and is given the bum’s rush by his disagreeable boss, with a bit of slapstick over Jameson’s materialism.

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As we’ll see later, Peter’s supporting cast played a much larger role in the book back then than it has in years, both the Daily Bugle staff and his friends at Empire State University, which not only gave Peter a wider variety of personalities to bounce off of, it once more helped firm up Spidey as a real person in the eyes of the reader — the unusual concentration on Spider-Man’s large and varied supporting cast was part of the reason the book was Marvel’s top title for years, giving it a soap-opera aspect that many other “action-adventure” books lacked.

Writer Wein (and his predecessor, Gerry Conway), was also very big on long-running subplots, hinting and giving sneak peeks at menaces that would come to bedevil Spidey some months down the line. Here we see the introduction of a mysterious vagrant who would be repeatedly shown for months at a time, before finally being revealed as a somewhat addled Doctor Octopus. However, sharp-eyed readers could have figured out that it was Doc Ock even here, thanks to this subtle gag, as the man holds his cup with both hands while pouring from a bottle at the same time:

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The scene cuts back to Peter Parker, the next day at the ESU cafeteria, trying to make amends to a steamed Mary Jane Watson, but she’s not having it. We’re treated to a bit of comedy with Peter and his friends Flash Thompson and the oddly jittery Harry Osborn, who’s either about to become the Green Goblin again, back on the drugs, or else he just really wants Pete’s meatloaf, succotash and stewed tomatoes.

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I didn’t really get this scene when I was 5, and I don’t really get it now, but it’s always been funny in an odd off-kilter way.

And by the way, check out those sideburns on Peter. I’m not sure who he resembles more here, Elvis or Captain Kirk…

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Meanwhile, the Shocker has gotten on with his plan to extort New York City, threatening to black out the entire city unless he’s paid the tidy sum of one million dollars. When the mayor’s office refuses, Spidey takes it upon himself to check out the city’s power stations, and investigates a power plant in Queens when he notices a suspiciously slumped guard in the building’s doorway. After discovering more unconscious guards, Spider-Man is ambushed by “Ol’ Quilt-Face” (a nickname for the Shocker that sadly failed to catch on), and the two go at it.

Shocker here is portrayed as much more of a threat than we’ve seen him in recent years, with several close-ups of his vibro-units intended to make the character seem more formidable.

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Not only that, but we’re told through Spidey’s inner dialogue how powerful the Shocker is and how seriously Spider-Man takes him as a threat, as he remarks that the Shocker’s vibro-blasts are “turning [him] into wall-crawling oatmeal.”

Before we get back to the story’s big finish, let’s take a look at another of the comic’s distinctive ’70s flairs: the ads. Marvel had no problem with whoring out their characters for advertising back in the day, and here are a few examples. First up was a full-page ad for Marvel’s then-new sequel to the bestselling ORIGINS OF MARVEL COMICS, SON OF ORIGINS.

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On the same page, they were also shilling their new Marvel Bicentennial Calendar, which boasted scenes of “the Hulk at Valley Forge and Conan at the Battle of Lexington!” I must have missed the Hulk’s appearance with the Colonial army in my high-school history book…

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Then there was also this one, promoting their new kid-sized spring-loaded Spidey Webshooters, which were, according to Spidey himself, “What the well-dressed Spider-Fan should wear!” I always enjoyed Doc Ock’s snappy one-liner: “I think I’ll steal six!”

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Once you were done checking your Marvel Bicentennial Calendar, and shooting up your house with your Spidey Webshooters, you were probably a little run-down; so what better way to pep you back up than with your official Spider-Man Vitamins!

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Available with or without Iron, don’t you know. I especially like the fact that they helpfully included a coupon for “your best friend,” to make sure you got your buddy hooked on the Spidey vitamins, too.

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Of course, you might need your vitamins after gorging on the last product Spidey was endorsing in these pages: what else but Hostess Twinkies!

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It’s also a little odd that Spidey doesn’t actually arrest the kidnappers of his Aunt May or drop them off at the police station or anything — he just collects his aunt and he’s on his way. Maybe he figures making them eat nothing but Twinkies is punishment enough…

Back to the Spidey/Shocker fight. Along with dealing with a contentious Shocker, Spider-Man finds himself up against some equally contentious New York cops, who are convinced Spidey is in on the Shocker’s extortion scheme. Spider-Man is surprisingly rough with these cops, although they are acting like punks.

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The cops out of the way, Spidey returns his focus to the Shocker, who takes advantage of the extra strength his suit provides to throw Spider-Man into a spinning turbine. Luckily, he’s able to put the brakes on with a handy webline:

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Usually what happens in a by-the-numbers Shocker encounter is, Spidey manages to use his webshooters to yank the vibro-blasters off the Shocker’s wrists, a quick punch to the jaw, end of story. This time, however, Spider-Man fires off a volley of webbing just as the Shocker is pulling the triggers, jamming them at full-strength, and careening the helpless Shocker around the room like a ping-pong ball, before he’s finally knocked out by an impact into a nearby wall.

thammMaybe he should’ve been taking his Spider-Man Vitamins…

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