Comics : Amazing Spider-Man (Vol. 1) #170

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This story is part of a Lookback Series: Other People's Villains

This review was first published on: 2004.

Background...

Johann Fennhoff was a child growing up in a well-to-do Austrian family when the Nazis invaded Vienna. He and his parents managed to escape to England but exhausted their fortune in the process. Johann's father died a broken man while his mother spent the rest of her life scraping together whatever money she could so that Johann could study psychiatry. Johann proves himself a genius in the field and grows to be a large powerful man but he is clearly psychologically damaged himself by his experiences. (This, in flashback, from Marvel Team-Up #133, September 1983.) He takes to calling himself Dr. Faustus (after the Christopher Marlowe character who makes a deal with the devil) and turns all his talents on trying to destroy Captain America in a very elaborate plot involving hallucinogens, hired actors, masks, aging tablets, becoming Cap's psychiatrist (How? Beats me!) and Nazis. ("It amuses me to totally destroy him without the use of force" he answers when asked why he doesn't just put a bullet in Cap when he has him defenseless on his psychiatric couch, "without leaving a single clue!") When Cap figures it out, he takes Faustus out with a single punch. (This from Captain America #107, November 1968.)

Faustus returns to face Cap again and remains exclusively a Captain America- related villain except for a couple of forays into the Spider-verse. This is one of those.

In Detail...

"Madness is All in the Mind!"
Amazing Spider-Man (Vol. 1) #170
Jul 1977 : SMURF 170.500 : SM Title
Summary: Doctor Faustus, Spidey Goes Mad
Editor:  Len Wein
Writer:  Len Wein
Pencils:  Ross Andru
Inker:  Frank Giacoia, Mike Esposito
Cover Art:  Ross Andru
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 Reprinted In: Essential Spider-Man #8
Articles: Elizabeth (Allan) Osborn, Mary Jane Watson-Parker

Our story in ASM #170 actually begins on page 17 of ASM #169, June 1977 (which is actually page 11 of the story itself). So, let's quickly recap that...

Spidey is taking a breather on the side of a building when his spider-sense goes off and he sees a man in a trenchcoat and hat enter a condemned building across the street through a door clearly marked "Do Not Enter". Two more men, also in trenchcoats and hats, follow through the same door in succession. When a fourth one comes on the scene, Spidey can no longer resist and he snatches him. The man wears a purple costume under the trenchcoat with bronze boots, belt and tunic. His hat falls off to reveal a bronze helmet that makes him look a little bit like Klaw. Spidey terrorizes the man (whose name is Gibson) into revealing that he is supposed to be part of a heist taking place in an abandoned subway tunnel "some distance away". Spidey tracks it all down and finds four other men, all dressed as Gibson is, talking about a mysterious "boss" and using a laser-cannon bought from the Tinkerer to blast a hole in a wall. The web-slinger takes them all down and then spots the mysterious boss lurking in the shadows. Since the silhouette is "mountainous" and the man smokes a cigarette in a holder, Spidey assumes the boss is the Kingpin. Instead a man with red hair and beard, wearing glasses, a green pin- stripe suit, green vest, and green tie steps into the light. "I assure you, my friend, I am not this so-called Kingpin you were talking about" he says, "My name is Doctor Faustus!"

One last thing before we really get started. The title of this issue ("Madness is all in the Mind!") is the same as the title of Marvel Team-Up #49, September 1976. It's not all that unusual to have duplicate titles but to repeat one from another Spider-Man story released less than a year before seems like somebody wasn't paying attention. Anyway...

Our issue doesn't just pick up where the last one left off. It picks up mere seconds before the last issue ended. Here again is Spider-Man perched on a wall in the abandoned subway with the laser-cannon and unconscious goons in the background. Dr. Faustus stands below him and is just now announcing, "My name is Doctor Faustus!" (The last two words are written in big red letters... in both issues in which he speaks them and this issue's cover too... so we know he must really be booming his name out.) Spidey recognizes the name. "You're the guy who tried to blackmail New York with a plane full of thugs a while back" he says, "But I thought you were dead!"

(Spidey is referring to the events of Captain America and the Falcon #192, December 1975 in which Cap found himself on an airplane with Faustus, Karla Sofen... later to become Moonstone... and a bunch of mobsters. Faustus has "several rather deadly weapons which I had procured from a rather disgruntled worker at Stark International" stashed aboard his plane. He plans to "blackmail New York into letting us loot their fair city" by threatening to level Manhattan with the weapons. But Cap steps in and, in the ensuing battle, a bullet breaks a window causing cabin decompression. Just like Goldfinger, Faustus gets sucked out the window and sails away. So... yeah, Spidey. Good question. Why isn't Faustus dead? Let's let the doctor explain...)

"Even as I seemingly plunged to my doom" Faustus says, as the smoke from his cigarette wafts into Spider-Man's face, "I stripped off my jacket and pulled the ripcord of the wafer-thin parachute I had been wearing underneath". It turns out that the doc has "an overwhelming fear of heights" so he wore the parachute to assuage his nerves but didn't dare reveal this to any of his colleagues "lest they sense any weakness in me". So, it's as simple as that. He parachutes safely to earth and gets back to the business of creating crimes. "Ironic is it not" he asks Spidey, "That my own fear should save me?" (Of course, that's what fears are often for... to save you.)

Spidey isn't in the mood for any more conversation. He starts to step off the wall to put some deep hurting on Faustus when his left ankle is grabbed by the pincers of Doctor Octopus' tentacle which is coming right through that very same wall. Ock's head and shoulders poke through the wall next. In seconds, Otto is completely through the wall and Spidey is down on the floor with a tentacle wrapped around his neck. The wall-crawler doesn't know when Ock developed the power to pass through solid objects but he isn't worrying about it now. Instead, he punches Otto squarely in the jaw and is shocked to see that his opponent doesn't even feel it. "I'm stronger than I've ever been," says Ock, by way of explanation, "strong enough to destroy you in [an] instant but still I've brought some friends along to share this exquisite moment". Even as Ock speaks, even as the tentacles have Spidey stretched out on the ground (one still on his left ankle, one still around his neck, one attached to his left wrist), four more figures start to come right through the wall. The Vulture is almost completely through. The Man-Wolf is through to his waist. The Rhino is through to his shoulders. Morbius is just peeking through with his face.

In the next panel, they have all gotten through (and the Shocker has joined them). Even as Spidey pushes Octopus away, the Shocker and Man-Wolf pounce on him. Rhino, Vulture, and Morbius hang around looking menacing. Spidey can't believe that all of these enemies have shown up and are attacking him all at once. "I must be losing my mind!" he declares. (This is the scene depicted on the cover where the Green Goblin is prominently featured to perhaps draw unsuspecting readers in. There's no sign of him in the story itself.)

That's when Dr. Faustus steps in. He agrees that the web-slinger is indeed losing his mind. "And only Dr. Faustus can save you!!" he proclaims. Then, with Spidey covering his head and cowering on the floor, Faustus raises his hands in the air and yells, "Begone you fearsome phantasms. Doctor Faustus commands you! Begone!!" And since that last word is again in big red booming letters, what can the villains do but disperse like smoke... "For in truth" Len tells us, "smoke is all they'd been!" The web-spinner unsteadily gets to his feet, still holding his head, which "feels like it's full of cotton". As the costumed goons start to come to behind them, Faustus approaches Spidey and puts his arm around him. "You'll feel quite splendid in a matter of moments!" he says, "Won't you, my friend?" And, surprisingly, Spidey responds, "Sure, doc. I'll feel... fine."

Above ground, elsewhere in Manhattan, Liz Allan and Mary Jane Watson head for a "Bride and Groom" store. Liz thanks MJ for coming along since she is feeling a little bit nervous. (Liz is going to marry Pete's old friend Harry Osborn. They announced their engagement in ASM #166, March 1977.) MJ tells Liz to "Stay loose" since "After all, people have been getting married for more years than Jimmy Carter has teeth. (Jimmy Carter was President of the United States at the time and was renowned for his big toothy smile. You all knew that, of course.) Inside the shop, Liz holds a bridal gown up in front of her and looks in the mirror. MJ already thinks they've found the gown that "look [s] like it was made for [Liz]" adding, "If I know Harry Osborn, Liz, that outfit will floor him!" Liz thinks the gown looks better on MJ. She holds it up so MJ can model it. MJ starts to wonder what Peter would think if he saw her in this gown when a salesclerk approaches and offers to help. Liz starts to tell the clerk that they are planning a wedding but an embarrassed MJ hastens to add that it is Liz who is really looking. "I'm just along for the ride" she says, blushing.

Back at the subway tunnel, one of the now-awake helmeted goons (we found out last issue that one is named Joey and he used to be a heavyweight boxing contender... but who can tell these four guys apart?), moves up to Faustus' side and whispers, "Are ya sure that gas of yers worked, boss?" The doctor tells his flunkey that Spidey got a big whiff of "the narcotic smoke from my specially prepared cigarette" and will now "believe whatever I tell him". As proof of this, Faustus introduces Spidey to his men, calling them "special agents who will be working with us". Spidey cordially shakes hands. "Nice to meet you fellas" he says.

The six men move back to the laser-cannon. One of the thugs climbs aboard and fires the laser at the wall once again. Faustus tells Spidey that the wall "separates us from the enemy's secret laboratory". The web-slinger buys into this without a second thought. In seconds, the laser has blasted a big round hole in the wall "without tripping any of the hidden security alarms". Faustus tells Spidey that the corridor on the other side of the wall "is fraught with unknown perils". He tells Spidey to lead the way and warn them of any dangers. "No sooner said than done" says the web-slinger as he heads for the hole.

As soon as Spidey sticks his head through the hole, his spider-sense goes off. Right away he knows there is something wrong with the floor. He turns back to the goon right behind him and asks, "You got a few spare bullets I can borrow for a minute, pal?" ("Huh? Why, uh... sure... pal" replies the surprised henchman.) Spidey takes four bullets and, one by one, rolls them along the floor. Amazingly, they roll all the way along the corridor's length, without stopping and without taking a sudden turn and clunking up against the wall as rolling things shaped like bullets usually tend to do. And when they've done their job, they disappear altogether! Anyway, the rolling bullets reveal to Spidey that "there are triggers hidden at random beneath the floor tiles which set off a cross-pattern of stun-beams if anyone steps on them". (Which is kind of cool, I guess... but why not just put those triggers into every floor tile? What's stopping them? Budget constraints?) The stun-beams shoot out of the walls as the bullets pass, reaching across the whole corridor. Clearly, the only way to avoid being whacked by a stun-beam is to avoid the trigger entirely.

So, Spidey sets out, using his spider-sense to tell him which tiles are safe (and blabbing about that spider-sense to Faustus and all of his flunkeys). One of the goons takes Spidey's right hand with his right hand, then a second takes the first's left hand with his right hand, then Faustus takes the second's left hand with his right and so on until they form a chain of six. Spidey warns them to make sure that they only step exactly where he is stepping "or we're all going to wind up resting in pieces". (Which sounds pretty serious for something described as a "stun-beam".) As they zig-zag along the grid of floor tiles, the goon behind Faustus marvels over the way the gas "messed with the web-slinger's head without affectin' his powers at all". Faustus tells the man to shut up... "before he hears you".

Spidey tells the "gang" to take it nice and easy. He thinks they are almost out of the maze of tiles and stun-beams. Suddenly, though, he is blinded by a set of strobe lights that were hidden in the walls. "Our very body heat must've activated them" he speculates. The henchmen start to panic. Spidey tells them to shut their eyes and continue following him since "my spider-sense isn't affected by the lights". (Again blabbing away about his spider- sense.) But things have gotten very hectic in a hurry and the second goon in line takes one fatal misstep. Immediately, the stun-beams kick in and flatten the poor slob who touched the wrong tile. The rest of the group stops holding hands and stands still as stun-beams criss-cross around them. Faustus has already conceded defeat. "We're already finished, Spider-Man" he says, "There's nothing more we can do!" But Spidey doesn't agree. He has just noticed a control box high up on the wall at the end of the corridor. Using his leaping ability, agility, and spider-sense, he tumbles around all of the stun-beams until he gets to the control box. (Of course, he could have just jumped up to the ceiling and crawled above the stun-beams but this way looks a lot cooler.) He lifts the cover on the box and sees that a key is needed to shut off the beams. With no time to bother to "fashion a web-key", Spidey resorts to brute force. He just yanks the box right off of the wall, severing it with a "skrakt!" from its cable. As soon as he does this, the stun-beams shut down. The men rush to the end of the corridor where a "thick steel door" opens with the push of a button... since its lock was also controlled by the now-destroyed wall box. (Since that box controlled everything, maybe the designers should have found a less obvious place to put it.) Spidey, Faustus, and the three remaining men enter a hermetically-sealed chamber with lots of big vats and tubes and mechanical doo-hickeys. Within, according to Faustus, "lies the means to world domination" and of course he is thinking of using that domination by himself. (This plan worked out fine but I do have to wonder how Faustus planned to accomplish this without Spider-Man whose presence was just an accident, remember? I mean, all he had were four goons and a laser-cannon! And they call this guy a genius?)

Over in Forest Hills, a green car stops in front of the old Parker house and two men get out. The man in the blue suit is a real estate agent and he ushers a man in a blue hat and brown topcoat into the empty home. The agent explains that the house is owned by a little old lady named Parker and that the place eventually became too large for her and her nephew after her husband died. They moved out and "empowered my agency to rent it". The other man puts a toothpick in his mouth and says, "I'll take it" so quickly that the agent is a bit dumbfounded. They leave the house and the man in the topcoat tells the agent to drive ahead without him. "I wanna look over the er neighborhood" he says. The agent drives away as the man thinks, "I'd have paid him ten times the rent he asked for if it had come to it!" Then he looks up at the house, shakes his fist and declares, "I swore I'd return to you someday, you broken- down old firetrap and this time I'm not leaving till the secret you possess is mine!!"

Back at the robbery, one of the goons looks around at all the equipment and declares, "Man, I can't tell what end'a of this nuthouse is up, boss". Faustus lights his cigarette and tells his men that they don't need to "understand the working of this complex". It is enough that he does. In fact he has "devoted months" to studying it. (And all he came up with was four goons and a laser-cannon after months of studying? I just can't get over it.) Faustus blows semi-smoke rings as he points out a large vat that contains "this nation's only supply of the new antelope flu vaccine". (This story came out not long after the Swine Flu hysteria of 1976.) This vaccine is going to be distributed "to every man, woman, and child in the country" within days. Faustus plans to add "a certain psychogenic additive to the vaccine mixture" that would make "the millions of people that are injected with the altered flu vaccine... susceptible to my hypnotic control". And he pulls a tube that looks like a fat pen or cigar holder out of his pocket with a flourish. This contains the drug he is planning to add to the vaccine this very moment!

One of his goons says, "Boss, you're a genius!" but we have to remember that this is the genius who planned this job with four goons and a laser-cannon... so you know that something has to go wrong. And, sure enough, Spidey is standing under two working ceiling ventilators and they draw Faustus' smoke away from him. As Faustus drones on about how he will "command first America and then the world" instead of attending to business, Spidey's head starts to clear and he starts to really hear what the doctor is saying. (Though, actually, if just getting away from the smoke for a few minutes was enough to clear his head, Spidey should have come out of it in the corridor. There's no way that smoke was filling up that whole area.) So, Spidey shoots out a web, snags the tube out of Faustus' hand, swings it up to the ceiling and sticks it up there. Realizing that the web-slinger has broken his hypnotic spell, Faustus orders his goons into action against him. (And we remember how well that worked the first time.)

The first goon pulls a gun and steps right up but Spidey attaches a web strand to the guy's forehead (or the piece of the helmet that covers his forehead if you want to get specific), pulls him off his feet so that he is heading right for him, and punches him in the nose so he rebounds right back. The punched hood plows into one of his buddies, taking him out of the action as well. That leaves one guy. (Because, remember, the fourth guy got blasted by the stun-beam out in the hallway.) This guy must not have been paying attention while Spidey took out his two friends because he leaps at the web-slinger with the conviction that "ya still have ta be groggy from the boss's screwy smoke-gas, wise guy". Clearly this is not so. As Spidey patiently explains about the ceiling vents, he grabs the goon by the belt and the back of the neck, swings him around, and tosses him through a large pane of glass.

And that's when Faustus himself attacks... sneaking up behind Spidey and clubbing him in the back of the head with his two hands clasped together. Spidey lands on the floor and Faustus immediately stomps on his hand. All of that weight on his hand is excruciatingly painful ("If it wasn't for my spider- strength, he'd have crushed it.") but Spidey tries to rise up on his feet and punch Faustus right in the chest. The doctor declares the punch to be "surprisingly ineffectual". He takes his foot off of Spidey's hand but then just kicks him in the head instead. The web-slinger gets to his feet and punches Faustus across the room... but unfortunately he uses the same hand that was just stepped on and the pain flares up once again.

In that moment, two of the goons (who, according to Faustus awaited "the most psychologically advantageous moment to strike" but that's probably giving them too much credit) leap in and hang all over Spider-Man. The web-slinger quickly takes care of them with a kick and a headlock, even as he ridicules Faustus' reputation as "the world's greatest psychologist". Then he leaps up to the ceiling and hangs down in the doctor's way.

Faustus tells Spidey that his "knowledge of the human mind, the compulsive quality of my perfectly-modulated voice, still make me your master". But he finishes this speech with a yell of "Now get out of my way!" and Spidey knows that he has him rattled. Or at least that's what Faustus wants him to believe. Instead his "fit of pique was merely a ruse" to induce Spidey to let his guard down. This allows Faustus to get close enough to blow more hypno- smoke in the wall-crawler's face. The blast of smoke immediately sets Spidey's head reeling. He falls from the ceiling and tries to keep his balance by grabbing onto a nearby pole. But this is all Faustus needs. He runs for the corridor, making his escape.

Spidey tries to rise, "falls flat on his face", gets to his knees, then finally to his feet (all in two captions with none of this actually shown) and staggers out into the corridor. Faustus is already close to the hole in the wall. The webster knows he is too groggy to follow. Then he gets an idea. He looks over at the cable hanging out of the wall where he removed the control box. And darned if it hasn't moved from the top of the wall to right about eye level! (Well, actually, to be fair, it was only shown to be high up on the wall in its first panel and moved down to eye level right after that.) Not only that but there are now two cables sticking out of the wall, as if Spidey just pulled the cable apart, instead of one which he yanked off of the control box. So, he doesn't even have to track down the box. He merely takes the two cable ends and connects the wires together again. As soon as he does this, the stun-beams start up again and four of them nail Faustus right in the chest. Spidey disconnects the wires and Faustus tumbles to the floor. (And it turns out they are stun-beams, after all. I don't know what Spidey was talking about with this "step exactly where I step or we're all going to wind up resting in pieces" business.)

The web-slinger grabs the unconscious Faustus by the foot and drags him back over by the goon who was previously hit by a stun-beam. He can already hear police sirens heading this way so he decides to "make himself scarce". Later, the cops walk through the corridor. One notes that "It looks like a tornado hit this place" but another points out that "the flu vaccine still appears to be safe". A third cop (named Harry) wonders what happened to the goons all laid out on the floor. A fourth cop gestures to Faustus who is hog-tied with the sentence "Compliments of your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man!!" written above him on the wall. (Does Spidey keep a sharpie handy just for such purposes like Terrell Owens?) "Well, I'm not really sure, Harry" he says, "but I think I can make a pretty good guess!"

In the Spider's Web, longtime letter hack Edward B. Via of Roanoke, Virginia (Whatever happened to Ed, I wonder?) says, "I'm thrilled to learn that Harry Osborn and Liz Allen [sic] are going to get married. Even if Peter Parker's gonna be in college for the next 75 years, at least somebody in the supporting cast is moving forward. My only request, and I don't really care if I'm the only one asking for this is that Harry not resort to being the Green Goblin moments before the ceremony is to begin." Ed need not have worried. In fact, Harry and Liz' wedding ceremony is never even shown. Liz disappears after ASM #199, December 1979 and Harry after ASM #203, April 1980. When next they appear in Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man #63, February 1982, they are already married.

More interesting than the letters in this issue are the house ads that surround them. Plugs for Ms. Marvel ("Never before has a fighting female captured the imagination of the reading public so dramatically!") and the first issues of Tarzan, John Carter of Mars ("Mighty Marvel presents the Crowning Creations of Edgar Rice Burroughs!) and Star Wars ("Luke Skywalker! Is coming... and the countdown starts now!!"). Fun stuff.

Now, let's settle up:

Dr. Faustus goes back where he belongs when he turns up as the man behind the National Force in Captain America #232-236, April-August 1979. Spidey (with the FF) meets him again in Marvel Team-Up #133, September 1983 in which we not only learn Faustus' origin but find out he's slipped a cog or two himself as he sees and has conversations with his long-deceased mother. Faustus himself takes the dirtnap in Nomad #19, November 1993 when gunned down by the star of the series.

The mystery man renting Aunt May's house doesn't appear again for nearly two years. Len Wein's subplot is picked up by Marv Wolfman in ASM #193, June 1979 as we see the man, now dressed in more familiar garb, ripping the place apart in search of the treasure of Dutch Mallone, stashed in the house before the Parkers owned it. (And though it is two years from his last appearance, the caption tells us it's only been "several weeks" since the man started renting.) He is revealed (in ASM #194, July 1979) as the Burglar who killed Uncle Ben, and it all comes to an end with his death in ASM #200, January 1980.

Oh, and if you're worried about the condition of Spidey's hand after being stepped on by Faustus... it's fine. In fact, he never mentions it again.

In General...

Not the most important of issues. If you were collecting at the time and happened to miss this one, it wouldn't have made much of a difference to you at all. (Except of course that the story begins in #169.) Still, it does have some nice sub-plot moments with Liz and MJ at the bridal shop and with the Burglar renting the Parker home. (In these days of non-continuity and forgotten subplots, it is wonderful to see that a story thread begun in #170 was picked up much later and became the driving force behind ASM #200. Maybe someday other vanished sub-plots will come back and be finished off. I can dream, can't I?) The smoke-induced hallucinations of past villains feels like a cheap device to justify the use of these characters on the cover and Faustus' plan is completely ridiculous. (Four guys and a laser-cannon? To plant a drug in the flu vaccine?) But the moments of Spidey leading the crooks through the corridor are a lot of fun and Spidey's punctures of Faustus' pomposity are priceless.

Overall Rating...

Three webs.