“Livewires” begins with a great Ed Hannigan-Al Milgrom illustration of Electro shocking the daylights out of Spider-Man, with bolts of zig-zagging electricity filling the panel. Meanwhile, in case you’re wondering, the writer is neither hurricane expert Steve Lyons of The Weather Channel nor the former major league baseball player nicknamed “Psycho,” but the author of numerous novels featuring established characters like Dr. Who and the X-Men. As far as I know, this is his only Spider-Man story. So, let’s see how he does.
We’re back in the days when Peter Parker was a Empire State University graduate student “shortly after Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man #45, August 1980” as the Continuity Guide helpfully tells us. Marcy Kane, back in the days before she was revealed as an alien, is conducting a research project for which she has gotten special permission to bring Max Dillon, Electro, from Ryker’s Island prison. Peter is there taking pictures, having been given the assignment by Barney Bushkin since this is during the time that Pete works for the Daily Globe. Electro is on a pallet “anesthetized, swathed from head to foot in nonconductive bandages, and accompanied by four armed guards.” (Not “four-armed guards.”) When fellow grad student Philip Chang shows up, Marcy recruits him as her replacement assistant for Steve Hopkins who is running late. She tells Phil that she is intending to discover “what makes Electro’s body such an efficient storage battery,” adding, “My instruments will give us all the data we need as soon as he tries to use his powers.” She claims that “any energy he builds up will be sapped and fed back into the generators,” but we know how such safeguards usually work out in these stories.
Steve Lyons then shifts the perspective over to Electro. He observes his surroundings, feels “cool air against his skin” as the nonconductive bandages are removed, tests his powers only to feel the machine counteract him, and decides to be patient. “Admittedly,” he knows, “that wasn’t his greatest virtue.” When Marcy prompts him to use his powers, he refuses, thinking all the while about how “he would fry her, crisp her skin, blacken her bones” when given the chance. He glories in Marcy’s anger when he refuses to cooperate.
Soon after, Steve shows up and Marcy, still seething, refuses to let him replace Phil. Steve cleverly disrespects Electro, goading Max into using his powers which Marcy’s machine successfully dampens. Marcy gets the electric surge she wants but still won’t let Steve back into her good graces.
Later, Steve Lyons switches us to Peter’s perspective as Spidey keeps an eye on the lab from outside. It is a wet night and things seem to be going as planned so Spidey decides to get back into his Parker duds and go work in his cubicle. Entering, he runs into one of Steve Hopkins’ practical jokes, a plastic skeleton dangling in the doorway, then finds Steve himself lying beneath Phil’s desk, setting up a prank as revenge for Phil getting the experiment’s assistant position. “I’ve crosswired everything in his cubicle,” Steve tells Pete, “When he turns on his desk lamp, he’ll activate the radio. When he tries to use the fan, he’ll operate the heating instead.” Pete realizes the implications of this but is not fast enough to stop Steve from pulling his switch. With Marcy drawing electricity from outside the lab, this prank puts too much stress on the system and the power goes out. Sensing his moment, Electro melts his way free before the back-up generator kicks in.
In the darkness, Peter changes into Spidey and heads for the lab. Arriving, he finds Electro gone and six bodies laid out on the floor. He checks Marcy and Philip, finding them still alive. (He doesn’t bother to check the four guards but later says something about an ambulance for them so they appear to be alive too.) He tells Marcy that Dillon is probably not fully charged up yet or he would have killed them. Then he goes after Electro.
Meanwhile, Electro, who has taken a gun off of one of the guards, dodges into a dark campus building, hoping to evade pursuit. There, he runs into Steve Hopkins. Still, too weak to use his powers, Max raises the gun, intending to get revenge for Steve’s earlier taunting. Before he can fire, the police outside order him to come out with his hands up.
Spying the police cordon, Spidey joins them and gets permission to tackle Electro alone. He confronts the villain who uses Steve as a hostage. It isn’t long, though, before Steve is shoved aside and the super-powered foes go at it. Electro gets the upper hand but Steve realizes that Dillon is, other than his electric abilities, a normal-powered man. He sneaks up behind Electro and clubs him over the head with his plastic skeleton, knocking him unconscious.
In the aftermath, Steve tells a crowd of reporters, “Electro’s not as tough as people think. Last time out, he was defeated by a fire hose. I just thought, well, nobody could top that. So that’s what I used against him: ‘no body’!” Marcy tells Peter, “[Steve’s] clowning around could have gotten him killed. I did hope he might have learned a lesson from it.” “He did,” Pete tells her, “but you know Steve. I think he just unlearned it.” He smiles at the thought and thinks he sees Marcy smile too. But he’s not sure. “Perhaps he had imagined it.”
Note that the story is called “Livewires.” Plural. So who are the livewires? Electro, obviously, both literally and figuratively. Merriam-Webster defines “live wire” as “an alert, active, or aggressive person.” Marcy fits the bill with her anger, the way she replaces Steve with Phil on her research team, and her approach to Electro. But Steve is also a livewire, with his aggressive practical jokes and the way he uses one of those jokes, the plastic skeleton, to brain Electro and save the day, after causing the problem with a revenge-tinged joke to begin with. Spidey is also in the group with his vigilance and willingness to take on Electro. Poor Max. He thinks he’s the only live wire in the story. He doesn’t know they surround him. Peter and Marcy, though, seem to sense that they and Steve are in the club. Which may explain why they both smile when concluding that Steve has “unlearned” his lesson.
All good stuff. Also good is the way Steve Lyons did his research of the Spidey era he is using. Besides Steve, Marcy, and Phil, he also brings in Deb Whitman and April Maye. He references the Swarm story from Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man #36-37, November-December 1979, correctly has Peter working for the Daily Globe, has Steve Hopkins mention that Spidey previously defeated Electro with water (Amazing Spider-Man #9, February 1964) and by tying his hands and feet together creating a short-circuit (Amazing Spider-Man #82, March 1970) and has Peter recall the day he first met Deb and startled her into bumping her head (Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man #36 again, though I think Peter actually first met Deb in Amazing Spider-Man #196, September 1979. We’ll give Steve L. a pass on that.)
I also appreciate the transfer of perspective from Peter to Max to Steve, each occasionally providing an internal monologue in the guise of exposition-laden prose. I’m always looking, in these stories, for writers that make use of the prose format rather than presenting a comic story that is transposed into a short story. Granted, there are now comics out there that employ this same technique but with text at a premium they can’t do the job that a prose tale can.
I also love the inside joke of an incredulous Electro asking Marcy, “What planet did you come from?” but Spidey’s “What I need is a clone or two. That’d make things a lot simpler” seems a bit heavy-handed to me. (And while, I’m getting picky about dialogue, I’d also like to mention Peter’s comment to Marcy while taking pictures of Electro: “I won’t file the story until Sparky here is safely back at Ryker’s Island.” Wouldn’t you think Peter would work harder at not sounding like Spidey when in his civilian identity, particularly when one of his old foes is around? Wouldn’t you think that Electro would wonder how Spidey showed up out of nowhere to battle him, and then recall Peter’s “Sparky” comment and put two and two together? Why take the chance, Pete?)
So, this story has a lot to like. The “livewire” theme, the in-context references and characters, successful prose techniques, and inside jokes. The trouble is the plot is thoroughly routine. Marcy gets permission to use Electro in an experiment that he is certain to escape. Spidey steps in to battle him. Steve Hopkins causes Electro’s escape then redeems himself by knocking Electro out. Everything else is great. Really it is. But I need more out of a plot than that.
The pedestrian plot drags the rest of it down. But not too far. Call it three and a half webs.
Next: Doc Ock! And KRAD!