After passing the halfway point of the book last time, I took an inadvertent year off. Time to crack it open again to look at Richard Lee Byers’ “Deadly Force.”
Spider-Man is still deep in mourning after the death of Gwen Stacy three weeks before. In the time since, a killed dubbed “the Rooftop Ripper” has murdered blonde women by carrying them to the tops of buildings and torturing them before tearing them apart with superhuman strength. With the Ripper’s victims reminding him of Gwen, Spidey is determined to bring the killer down. Spotting a figure climbing a building, Spidey pursues. When he gets to the roof, he finds the Ripper, a large man in a ski mask, waiting for him. Not intimidated at all, the Ripper tells Spidey he’s been anxious to have some “fun” with him. He goads Spidey by telling him he’s killed once tonight, then describes a bit of the gruesome details, finishing by promising to kill again if Spidey doesn’t stop him. Spidey leaps to the attack and the Ripper pummels him into unconsciousness.
Spidey awakens hours later to find himself “cradled in someone’s arms.” He soon realizes the arms belong to another Ripper victim. He tears himself free. “Now he could see every ragged gash and mutilation. It looked as if the Ripper had carried away pieces of her as souvenirs.” Spidey remembers that the Ripper promised to kill again that evening if he wasn’t stopped. Anguished, Spidey departs. “But no matter how fast he swung through the city, he couldn’t leave the sight and feel of her behind, any more than he could forget the sight and feel of Gwen’s inert body dangling in his arms.”
Later, an emotionally damaged Peter wanders the Empire State University campus. He doesn’t know how he’s going to stop the stronger, psychopathic Ripper. Then he realizes that he fought the Ripper “the way he fought everyone, taking care not to do any permanent damage.” He decides he must go all out, use “every iota of his strength from the first second.” But can he use deadly force when it “violated everything he believed in?” Still, he considers, “If he’d eliminated Dr. Octopus in one of their early encounters, the deranged scientist would never have gone on to cause the death of Gwen’s dad. If he’d killed the Green Goblin, Gwen herself would still be alive.” He decides that the Ripper is “viler than any of them” and mulls over the fact that, “Cops used deadly force when lives were at stake. Why shouldn’t a super-hero?” But he still can’t decide whether he can justify it enough to do it.
Later, Spidey talks to the police at the scene of another Ripper murder and finds out they have no clues. As Peter, he goes to the Daily Bugle. There he sees Jonah Jameson’s latest headline: “Is Spider-Man the Ripper?” If hits him like a blow but he can’t get angry because “he couldn’t shake the ghastly feeling that even though the accusation was completely false, on another level it was entirely valid. Spider-Man was to blame for at least the most recent murders…because he’d failed to stop the Ripper when given the opportunity.” This decides him. When next encountering the Ripper, he plans to use deadly force. That night, “desperate for a rematch,” Spidey hears a woman scream and comes upon a ski-masked figure grappling with her. Using full power, he shatters the man’s shoulder and kicks him in the face before realizing his opponent is not the Ripper but a teen-aged purse snatcher. Soon after, Spidey watches as an ambulance takes the teen away and realizes he was lucky he didn’t kill him.
This incident reminds him that the only thing that keeps him from becoming the menace JJJ thinks he is, is his personal code of honor. He knows that he cannot try to kill the Ripper even if that puts him back where he started. Thinking about it, he realizes that he was tired and hungry in his last Ripper battle, as well as enraged and emotionally vulnerable. He vows to be better prepared next time.
Not long after, Spidey witnesses the Ripper abduct another blonde woman and he follows him to the rooftop. Centering himself, Spidey uses his webbing, speed, and reflexes to separate the Ripper from his intended victim, unmask him (“…revealing a boyish face with apple cheeks and a snub nose, the face of a baseball player in a Norman Rockwell painting”), frustrate him, and enrage him. Then he goes on the offensive, pummeling the Ripper so severely that the killer tries to escape by throwing his victim off the roof. Reminded of his failure with Gwen, Spidey leaps down and rescues the woman, before catching up with the Ripper and knocking him out cold.
In the aftermath, as the police take the Ripper away, Spidey wishes he could have caught the Ripper sooner, wishes he could have saved all his victims, wishes he could have saved Gwen. “But at least he tried. And he knew now that he would always strive to preserve life and never take it, even when facing an enemy as twisted and evil as the Ripper…Spider-Man was a hero, now and forever, and the knowledge eased his sorrow at least a bit.”
Ordinarily, I’m not fond of stories with conveniently placed themes or plot threads. You know the kind I mean. The Human Torch goes to a flophouse in Fantastic Four #4, May 1962 and happens to find an old copy of a Sub-Mariner comic just before he happens to discover that the old amnesiac derelict is the Sub-Mariner. Or Spidey just happens to battle a maniac who kills only beautiful blonde women just weeks after the death of Gwen Stacy. It’s far too obviously plotted, even for a comic book (or comic book-based short story), and usually keeps me at a distant. But not this time. As artificial as the premise is, this one wins me over because it’s so very well plotted, presents a truly vile villain (In a world where super-powers appear with regularity, why can’t a Ted Bundy type be a recipient and use them to further his psychosis? A terrifying prospect that is not much seen in comics.), steps very nimbly into the mind of Peter Parker, has him learn an important lesson, and provides one avenue by which he heals the wound caused by Gwen Stacy’s murder.
It’s a story that would have been nice to have within the comics themselves, except that this story is definitely not for kids. With the previously-mentioned line about the Ripper carrying away body parts as souvenirs and lines like, “Her body really had burst like a piece of fruit, just as the Ripper had said” and Ripper statements like, “You want me to describe how they beg for mercy, or splat like tomatoes when I dump them over the side,” this story is not for the squeamish. Which makes it ideal for the short story medium not only because small kids are less likely to get their hands on it but because the reader is spared the grisly details in illustrated form. Besides, as we all know, the imagination is a better conveyor of horror than any artist around. What these lines conjure in your mind is more horrific than anything you’d see on paper. So, file this one along with “Identity Crisis,” under “stories that know how to take advantage of their medium, that know how to be a prose story rather than a comic book story.”
Give Richard Lee Byers credit for knowing that too. I don’t know a thing about Byers except for what I found on his website, which says, among other things, “Richard Lee Byers is the author of over thirty novels and the co-creator of the critically acclaimed Young Adult series The Nightmare Club. His other books include…the X-Men novel Soul Killer.” Judging by the strength of this story, I’d say his other work is worth checking out. Louis Small, Jr., best known for his Vampirella work as well as drawings of other beautiful women, provides the story’s illustration, depicting Spidey holding one of the Ripper’s victims. Not surprisingly, the woman, though brutalized, is beautiful but Small’s Spidey seems a bit blocky, his stance awkward and unnatural. Still, Spidey’s horror can be felt in the picture and that makes up for any inherent awkwardness.
In case all of the praise wasn’t clue enough, this story gets a full five webs. It’s a powerful, disturbing look at a dark time in Spidey’s life with the web-slinger overcoming a terrifying villain to come to one of his most life-affirming realizations. One of the best stories in the book. Oh, and by the way, Richard Byers thinks that, in Gwen Stacy’s death, “The shock of the fall…killed her.” Should we break it to him?
Next: Two writers with whom I’m unfamiliar spotlight one of my favorite Spidey villains, Fancy Dan. Do they do him justice?