the science fiction
fantasy horror &
The Spider: King Of Crooks
Jerry Siegel, Ted Cowan, and Reg Bunn
Titan hardcover £14.99 / $19.95
review by Andrew Darlington
For this 'Spider', there are no Peter Parker alter ego complications. No existential angst, no motivational crisis-moments of indecision. No other identity, no other life - in fact, there's never a time when he's not in costume. There's no arachnid-bite point of genetic mutation either, and no clues to any earlier pre-Spider backstory. This black-garbed web-maestro is merely a "spindly super-thief with disastrous dress sense," according to trash-aesthete Jonathan Ross. Vain, arrogant, and ruthless in his determination to become king of crime, he's a master scoundrel with savagely slicked-back hair and near-Vulcan pointy ears, his hatchet nose and zigzag eyebrows set into his long fleshless goblin face. He operates from his American mountaintop lair, an eerily chilling gothic fortress of black turrets and dark staircases, "an ancient castle transported stone-by-stone from Scotland." And from here he recruits his Army of Crime by organising a break-out from San Paulo high security prison, going on to perpetrate a strangely modest 'crime of the century' by lifting a million-dollars in cut diamonds from the Torado State Fair. A million dollars? That's barely a lottery ticket these days! Yet this, as announced at the head of the first instalment, is The Fantastic Story Of The World's Most Sinister Crook.
It's sometimes said that by establishing the benchmark that UK juvenile publications could aspire to, Eagle also defined the goody-goody limitations it must operate within. Of course, the imposition of the US 'Comics Code' had a similarly restrictive, morally uplifting effect on American comicbooks. But by the mid-1960s, faced with declining sales figures, that consensus was breaking down sufficient for some experimentation and envelope-pushing to take place. Lion was a tasty little weekly title, which had been doing its 'king of story-papers' thing since 1952, spawning such successful long-running characters as 'Robot Archie', 'Captain Condor', and 'Karl the Viking'. So when he's commissioned to ink the debut instalment of The Spider - 26th June 1965, artist Reg Bunn's smearily distinctive sketched art-style was already familiar to its readers through the fantasy-horror adventures of Rory MacDuff: Danger Wanted. And his black and white streaks and smudges will pretty much stay for the long run. Ted Cowan - scripter for Robot Archie, is drafted in to write the first two stories, until legendary Jerry Siegel - co-creator of 'Superman' steps in as The Spider expands into three-page colour-cover status by 19th March 1966. Now, this long-awaited and welcome Titan volume bulges with those first three full-length serials. But it also comes packed with DVD-style bonus features, including an entertainingly informed capsule history by Steve Holland, plus a full stripography tracing the character-history all the way to its eventual demise (26th April 1969), through its various reprints and 'Fleetway Super Library' pocket-books into a 2000 AD Action Special re-launch in 1992. There's even a complete one-off The Spider Versus The Red Baron tale salvaged intact from Lion Annual 1969.
By the time The Spider began spinning there was already a long UK comics' tradition of super-scientific criminal masterminds, going back at least as far as 'The Black Sapper' who commits such stupendous crimes as stealing the Crown Jewels by using his subterranean boring machine. And as Steve Holland points out, there was Victorian petty-thief Charlie Peace, the incredible 'Shrinker', and Henry Jardine in control of his 'toys of doom'. But The Spider is different. The original spin here is that the central protagonist is not the hero, he's the bad guy, the 'King of Crooks', the Spider himself. He might be a bombastic braggart, but he runs rings around bumbling good-guy cops Bob Gilmore and Pete Trask. With his cohorts - the bespectacled geek 'Professor' Pelham, and thuggish safecracker Roy Ordini, he even makes good his escape in one frame by flying his wonderfully cylindrical helicar over the Statute of Liberty. Yet he's "a daring crook whose secret armoury of ingenious weapons enables him to spin his own web... like finely tempered strands of steel," so in that sense he's more 'Black Sapper' than he is superhero. His only concession to the DC/ Marvel iconography is that fantastic protagonists need equally fantastic opponents - lumbering G-men cops in long trench-coats have limited dramatic potential, so soon there is prehistoric monster-mayhem in New York, courtesy of hypnotic virtual-reality projections created by rival super-crook the 'Mirror Man' (young comics-fan Philip Oakey storing away the title for a future Human League single). With treacherous multiple-bluff following before Spidey can turn the situation to his own advantage by using the confusion to effect a bullion-heist from United Bank Trust. Then he clashes with New York hoodlums and killers allied to the high-tech gadgetry of Jerry Siegel's nefarious 'Dr Mysterioso'.
Yet the Spider's preferred weapon is always his non-lethal paralyser-gas pistol. This is, after all, a school-kid's comic. As the Spider says, "by the humming spinners of Juba!" indeed...
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