Quick! Name the Spidey supporting characters that have died! Well, there’s George Stacy and Gwen Stacy and Norman Osborn (for a while) and Harry Osborn (for a while) and Aunt May (for a while) and Nathan Lubensky and Lance Bannon and Nick Katzenberg (remember those three?) and Jean DeWolff and Ned Leeds and Martha Connors and most recently Marla Jameson and more and more. Now, how many of those packed a punch, how many really served a purpose in the storyline? Only a handful. The rest were ultimately gratuitous, apparently because far too many writers resort to a supporting character death just to spice things up after their run on a title goes stale. But, Stan Lee never resorted to cheap deaths with his supporting characters. When Stan killed a character, you could be reasonably sure that he thought it out, weighed the impact with the consequences, considered how that death changed the other characters and how losing that killed character affected the series. As a result, Stan only killed two Spidey supporting characters in his run on the title and both stories are among the series’ best issues. This is the first one. (Yes, it is. Don’t give me Uncle Ben or Bennett Brant. They were one issue devices and don’t count as supporting characters.) The cover says “To Die a Hero!” and so did the next issue blurb in Amazing Spider-Man #51, August 1967 but just who is the hero to which it is referring?
|Pencils:||John Romita, Sr.|
|Cover Art:||John Romita, Sr.|
|Part Reprint In:||John Romita's The Amazing Spider-Man Artifact Edition (IDW)|
|Reprinted In:||Marvel Tales #37|
|Reprinted In:||Essential Spider-Man #3|
About that cover. It depicts Spidey and J. Jonah Jameson shackled to what looks like a metal medicine ball. We can tell it’s a confined space because of the brick wall behind and the water rising far enough up so that Spidey’s toes on his left foot are submerged. There are three spouts of water pouring in but only one source is seen. The other two bracket the scene, on the left and right sides of the cover. At first look, the reader’s eyes go to the blurb, “To Die a Hero!” situated right below the logo. From there, the eyes drift right to JJJ’s frightened face as he looks over his shoulder. We follow JJJ’s line of sight to look at Spider-Man, bowed down and apparently beaten. There, we pull back from the specific to the general to take in the “pillars” of water on either side and the rising water within. This is one nasty-looking death trap.
The cover has given us a glimpse of the future. Now, as we open the comic and look at the splash, we go back in time to a point shortly after ASM #51’s conclusion. The Kingpin has just defeated Spidey. Now he has two of his goons carry the unconscious wall-crawler down some very intimidating stone steps into some sort of dungeon (which the Kingpin calls “the sub-cellar”). A third thug grabs Jonah Jameson (no longer blind-folded) by the forearms, forcing him down the steps as well. Jonah tries to remonstrate with the Kingpin, who stays at the top of the stairs, but to no avail. Stan jumps right into the story, providing only the slightest of recaps, as if he knows that you’re well aware of the situation and have been waiting with bated breath for a month.
The two thugs carry Spidey into a brick room with a single door, through which the third thug pushes a resisting JJJ. There are big spigots on the walls and what looks like a metallic medicine ball in the middle. Oh oh. This is looking familiar. Spidey is still knocked out as the thugs secure him to the ball. The third thug pushes Jonah down into position as JJJ yells at Spidey, “you wall-crawling weasel, wake up!!” The water already starts pouring in before the thugs get out of the room. In fact, the last one racing out has just got to have gotten his feet wet. Outside of the room, the Kingpin’s assistant Flint, turning the wheel that controls the water, tells his boss that “It shouldn’t take more’n five minutes!” The Kingpin, his back to Flint, holding his cigarette holder imperiously in his left hand, couldn’t be bothered. “Spare me the boring details, Flint!” he says, “Just let me know when the charade is completely ended!” Now, we are talking about a seriously secure and cold-blooded criminal boss here. He’s about to kill Spider-Man and he refers to it as a charade. Back in the death room, Spider-Man starts to show signs of awakening but the water is already reaching them. We have come back to the present time of the cover and, what do you know? It’s only on page 3. The cover looks so monumental that it seems like it must be the climax of this story but it’s only the start. Whether intended or not, this works beautifully. We’re faced with a formidable death trap on the cover, we’re allowed to backtrack out of it on the splash page and we’re right back in it by page 3! What can possibly happen after that? Well, let’s try to get Spidey and JJJ rescued first.
Spidey awakens, recognizes his predicament and narrates it for Jonah. “We don’t need a blasted Huntley-Brinkley report!” says JJJ. (Everybody remember Huntley and Brinkley from our last From the Beginning review of Not Brand Echh #1, August 1967 Everybody’s reading all of the FTB reviews, right? Not just the ASM ones? It’s not like you’ve had to do a bunch of reading lately to keep up. Anyway, for those who didn’t read the last review, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley were NBC-TV news anchormen who helmed the national news from 1956 to 1970 when Huntley retired, dying four years later. David Brinkley continued on in network news for several decades, dying in 2003. I still miss David Brinkley, his wry wit, and his distinctive style.) Now, where were we? Spidey snaps out of it and determines that the shackles are not all that strong. The reason for that is clear. As JJJ puts it, “Even if you do get free, then what? Even you can’t breathe for long under water!” The two bicker as Spidey breaks free of the shackles. “Big deal!” says Jonah, “What’re you gonna do, breathe through your fingers?” Instead, Spidey fires his web-shooters. “We’re a few seconds away from drowning and you start shooting those nutty webs of yours into the empty air! I was always right about you, you’re batty as a bedbug!”
So, what happens? Can Spidey escape? Stan is too accomplished a scripter to let you off that easy. First we must switch scenes to the Daily Bugle where Ned Leeds and Betty Brant have discovered the broken door at Jonah’s office. (In case you’re wondering, we saw the thugs break into Jonah’s office in ASM #51 but we didn’t see the door break. Here, the door is off its top hinge and the window glass is broken. There, it doesn’t look like the door even has a window.) Ned picks up the phone and announces “I’ll call Robertson! He’s City Editor!” “Don’t bother, Leeds!” says the African-American man we saw last issue, “I’m right here.” And in that clever way, Stan informs us of Robbie’s last name and job so that it appears that he’s been part of the supporting cast all along. Robbie tells Ned that he’ll hold down the fort “while you see what you can uncover.” You may recall that Robbie wanted to replace Foswell as crime reporter with Ned Leeds last issue. Now, Betty tries to prevent Ned from venturing out. “You’re not a crime reporter!” she says, “That was Foswell’s job!” “I’ve got a job to do and I’ve got to do it as best I can!” Ned says. So, Ned has just been given Foswell’s job. Perhaps that is telling us something.
Don’t turn the page yet! First, let’s look at the “Another Marvel Masterpiece” page. Again, the page is taken up with only one issue. Not Brand Echh #2, September 1967, featuring Spidey-Man versus Gnatman and Rotten! You may recall that the “Marvel Masterpiece” page last issue also only featured one issue… in that case Not Brand Echh #1. You think they really want you to read this “Echh” thing? We will read them all, eventually.
After a turn of the page, Stan sticks us with one more panel of Ned and Betty, just to really get our anticipation building, then switches us back to the deathtrap where Spidey is spraying webbing above himself and JJJ. The water up to his neck, Jonah starts to panic (“I’m finally going to that ol’ newspaper office in the sky with a full-time web-slingin’ nut!”) but Spidey manages to drop the webbing down over both of them. He explains, “I’ve made my webbing triple-ply thick, dense enough to hold the oxygen within it against the pressure of the water! It’ll be like being within a giant air bubble! The only problem is…how long can it last!” (Great panel here, by the way, showing JJJ and Spidey silhouetted within the web ball with Spidey’s silhouetted hands showing a couple of outstretched fingers so that we know he is still shooting webbing even as he speaks.)
Outside the room, Flint tells Kingpin that the room is filled with water and “They’re goners by now!” “Naturally,” says the arrogant crime boss, “that was my intention!” Yet he is cautious enough to tell Flint to “Wait another 30 seconds to be sure!” before draining the room, adding, “Be sure you tidy up when you’re finished! I detest sloppy work!” (A neatfreak murderer. You gotta love it.)
Flint drains the room and sends two goons in to get the bodies. But what they find instead “looks like some kinda big cocoon” out of which Spidey springs, clocking both thugs into unconsciousness. So, it looks like the web-slinger and Jameson have survived the deathtrap. Which means the cover was a bit deceptive tying the issue’s title with the deathtrap. No one died a hero yet. So we still don’t know to whom the title is referring. At this point, it could be almost anyone. And the way Ned rushed off as the new crime reporter with Betty worried about his safety, it could be that the hero will be Ned. At least, I suspect that Stan hopes you are thinking that way.
With the two thugs unconscious, Spidey’s spider-sense tips him off to someone else entering the room. It is Flint and he is brandishing a gun. He shoots at the web-slinger who avoids the shot with one of those cool “bends his body like a U as his hands and feet stick to the wall” kind of maneuvers. He then turns and, still clinging to the wall, kicks the gun out of Flint’s hand. Flint tries to flee but Spidey grabs him by his jacket and yanks him back into the room. He bops Flint on the top of the head with the flat of his head. “Thap!” Flint joins the pile of other thugs that Spidey has just knocked out.
Just then, Jonah calls over to him and demands to be freed from the shackles. Spidey complies. When Jameson continues his grousing, Spidey points out that he saved his life. “Big deal!” says Jonah, “you saved yourself. I just came along for the ride.” (Actually, he does have a point there.) The two venture out. Spidey puts in a fresh web cartridge and seals the thugs inside the room. He notices that JJJ is “cold, wet and scared” and decides “I’ve gotta keep talking to him so he won’t lose his nerve!” (Spidey can’t help but notice that Jonah is scared since it’s written all over his face courtesy of John Romita’s spot-on illustration.) They round the corner and find themselves back at the stone steps leading down to the sub-cellar. There is a group of thugs standing at the top but Spidey wall-crawls up and grabs two of them by the ankles. (Somebody really should have thought about putting up a banister for those stairs.) Johnny gives us a great high angle shot looking down on Spidey reaching up to grab those ankles. He tosses the two goons over his head but he doesn’t kill them because suddenly there is a landing that wasn’t there before and the bad guys only fall about five feet. This allows the thugs to get back up and fight the wall-crawler. As he tussles with three thugs, Spidey tries to get Jameson to escape. Seeing that JJJ is “petrified with fright, ” he decides the best way to get him moving is to threaten him. “Jameson!” he calls out, “I said move or you’ll be my next target!” This does the trick. Jonah flees, yelling, “I knew it!! You’re mad, uncontrollable! You’ll attack anyone just to prove your power!” (And another interesting angle looking from the door at the top of the stairs as JJJ runs through it with Spidey on the landing down below.) Unfortunately, Jonah is so intent on looking back at Spidey that he runs right into a “low hanging pipe in the gloomy sub-cellar.” (And now I’m not sure where Jonah is. Page 9 panel 4, the high angle shot, sure makes it look like JJJ is running through the door at the top of the stairs but Stan refers to the sub-cellar in the next panel. Is the next level up still the sub-cellar or does JJJ not exit through that door at all? All I can tell you is that Jonah slumps into unconsciousness and Spidey, who has webbed up his opponents, passes through the doorway without encountering JJ.
Meanwhile, in his office, the Kingpin informs Fred Foswell that Spidey and JJJ are both dead. Kingy wonders why Foswell seems “so nervous and shaky” at the news, adding, “Can it be that I was wrong to trust you?” Foswell cocks his thumb at himself and responds, “Nobody talks to Fred Foswell that way! I’ll go along with anything that’ll make us a buck but cold-blooded murder just isn’t my style!!” This doesn’t sit well with the Kingpin. He slams his fist down on his desk, then grabs Foswell by the lapels, saying, “You are either too chicken-hearted to be of any use to me or else, you’re an undercover agent…Either way, I can no longer afford to tolerate your presence!” (And the perpetual sneer that Johnny draws on Kingy’s face seems more threatening than ever.) The Kingpin plans to kill Foswell with his bare hands but, just then, Spidey busts into the room. The Kingpin thrusts Foswell away (“I’ll deal with you later!”) and prepares for Spider-Man’s attack.
We’re twelve pages in and the action has been fast and furious. Part of the way Stan accomplishes this is by using very few captions as the action races along. In the first 8 pages, there are only 3, each of few words. When JJJ knocks himself out, Stan gives us four captions in 2 panels, since the set up of JJJ lying unconscious when Spidey thinks he is out of harm’s way is essential to the rest of the issue. But now Stan takes a breath, giving us a scene that has nothing to do with the current story. He brackets this scene with two of his lengthier captions before going back to the action and almost-exclusive dialogue once again. That scene switch takes us to the Silver Spoon where Flash, home on furlough, surprises Gwen and Harry. They chat for a bit, then Mary Jane shows up. Everyone wonders where Pete is. That’s about it. It’s a scene that wouldn’t be missed but it does do two things: it gives us a moment of anticipation before the big Spidey-Kingpin fight and it refamiliarizes us with four of the major supporting characters. It also has three Vietnam era references, courtesy of Flash who says, “Westmoreland promised to keep an eye on things while I’m gone!” and “You musta heard how the Viet Cong wanted to sue for peace as soon as they found out I was there!” and “Ol’ Lyndon asked me what to do but I decided he oughtta work it out for himself!” General William Westmoreland (1914-2005) was the commander of the US forces in Vietnam. The Viet Cong were the Communist army that the US army fought in the Vietnam War (and, clearly by his comments, Flash has already seen action over there). Lyndon is, of course, President Lyndon B. Johnson. Now back to the action.
Spidey clogs up the Kingpin’s sleep gas tiepin with webbing but Kingy grabs Spidey’s wrists. “His hands are like living vises!” thinks the wall-crawler. The Kingpin slams Spidey to the floor as, behind them, Foswell heads to the room’s bar. In the following panel it is Foswell in the foreground as he grabs a gun from behind the bar. In the background, Spidey fights back with “a sudden knee to the breadbasket.” Again the point of view switches as Spidey eludes the Kingpin’s punch in the foreground while Foswell slips out of the room in the back. Spidey hangs from the ceiling as the Kingpin approaches and Johnny opens the fight up into a three-panel page with lots of motion lines and big sound effects as Spidey uses a two-fisted punch to knock the Kingpin to the ground. However, Kingy reaches out and grabs Spidey’s arm, taking him down with him. They land with a “Pthud!” and a “Ftamm!” respectively. Springing up, the Kingpin flees, announcing, “Only a fool continues to fight when its wiser to flee and formulate a new set of plans! And the Kingpin is no fool!” He pulls a switch hidden behind a curtain, opening up “a man-sized pneumatic tube for instant escapes!” He steps into it and disappears. Spidey decides that the Kingpin has realized that JJJ is “on the loose…he can’t afford to wait around for the police!” Pursuing, Spidey forces open the now-closed tube but it is booby-trapped and the resultant gas-blast knocks him back. So, Spidey takes to the wall, hoping to avoid any more Kingpin booby-traps as he goes to make sure that Jonah Jameson has escaped.
But Jonah has not escaped. He is just waking up with water dripping on his head. Realizing that his head is wet, Jonah jumps to the conclusion that “It must be blood! I’m wounded!! I’m dying!!” He runs off, screaming for help. This only attracts the Kingpin’s gunmen who pursue him. Up ahead, he encounters Foswell. “Jameson, turn this corner quick!” says Fred, “You’re the only one who ever helped me or gave me a second chance! I didn’t want you to be hurt! I’ll hold ‘em off for you somehow!” But one of the Kingpin’s goons takes a shot at Jonah and hits Foswell in the stomach instead. Spidey hears the shot and comes to the rescue, even as the wounded Foswell holds off the goons in his determination to save Jameson. Spidey grabs the two gunmen and quickly knocks them unconscious. But it is too late. Saying, “Better this way…I failed…at everything,” Frederick Foswell dies. (Who knew, when Adam Warlock said “My life has been a failure, I welcome its end” in Avengers Annual #7, 1977 he was channeling Fred Foswell?) Jonah kneels by Foswell’s body as Spidey stands impotently behind. Spidey thinks, “Jameson had gambled right for once! He gave an ex-con a job, a second chance and when the chips were down, Foswell repaid the debt the only way he could, with his life!” Jonah says, “I don’t know how or why he got involved with the Kingpin but there’s one thing I do know. When Fred Foswell breathed his last, he died a hero!”
So now we know it is Fred Foswell who dies a hero and Stan gives him a fine send-off. Foswell was a great character, developing nicely from his introduction as the Big Man but where else could he go? After playing with the notion that he may have returned to crime in Amazing Spider-Man #26, July 1965 and Amazing Spider-Man #27, August 1965 only to reveal that he was instead the stoolie known as Patch, what was there to do with him? Stan even went so far as to have him discover Spidey’s secret identity only to be fooled by the ol’ web-slinging web-dummy trick (in Amazing Spider-Man #46, March 1967). So if you’ve already teased the reader with the idea that Fred could go bad and reneged on the notion that Fred figures out Spidey’s identity, what else is there…except to have him really go bad, only to be redeemed by his loyalty to Jonah and die a hero? I can’t think of a better conclusion. Foswell has always been one of my favorite characters and I think his demise is one of the reasons why. And what’s more, no one has bothered to resurrect him in the 40-odd years since Stan killed him so the story hasn’t been tarnished in the way Amazing Spider-Man #122, July 1973 and Amazing Spider-Man #400, April 1995 have, for example. Let’s hope they never do. But wouldn’t you think that some character at some point would say, “Hey, whatever became of that stoolie Patch, anyway?”
Soon after, the police arrive and take Foswell’s body away. Ned Leeds arrives and Jonah assigns him the job of writing a front page story about Foswell. “Give him all the fame, all the glory he never had while he lived,” he says, “And then I’ll write another blast against Spider-Man! He’s more of a menace than ever! Because you never know what side he’s on!” Hearing this, a tired and angry Spidey decides he won’t lift a finger to help Jameson ever again, then quickly changes his mind. “Awww, who am I kiddin’? I’d do the same thing all over again if I had to and I know it! In my own way, I’m probably a lot like Jameson! He’s a compulsive crank and I’m a compulsive do-gooder!” Then he decides to “head back to my pad and sleep for a week!” Only Stan’s “Next Issue” blurb promises “there’s not much slumber in Spidey’s future.” It also promises Doctor Octopus.
It’s the Bullpen Bulletins! (“Awe-Inspiring Announcements for You to Yawn With!”) And it’s barely worth mentioning this time. Stan plugs Brand Echh yet again, “the book that’s been called the biggest gamble Marvel – or anyone else – ever attempted!” A gamble that, in spite of all the promotion, ultimately does not pay off. He publishes a letter from Bruce Long of Leonard Wood, Missouri who worries that “you’re allowing Marvel to turn into a fad – due to the tons of merchandise bearing your characters which is on sale all over.” Bruce states, “I was here when the Marvel Age of Comics began, but I don’t want to be here when it ends!” Stan tells him “the end isn’t quite in sight yet” and he’s certainly right if you’re talking about the existence of the company and the characters. But, if you’re talking about the so-called “Marvel Age of Comics” and the special feel that went along with that in the 1960s, that’s a little harder to pin down. It could be argued that it ends as early as 1970 in which case Bruce’s concerns are justified. Stan closes with his Soapbox in which he begs readers to “make your letters shorter!” Turns out Stan is reading every letter and, apparently, some readers are sending him tomes.
I know some of you only read these reviews to see the list of “26 More M.M.M.S. Members” so here they are: Marc Marshall of East Omaha, Nebraska; Ken Frosch of Toledo, Ohio; Bonnie Goodwin of New York, New York; John Ray of New York, New York; Rob Costantion of Westbury, New York; Paul Klisiewcz of Webster, Massachusetts; Clegg Harrington of Landis, North Carolina; Steve Loris of Fort Smith, Arkansas; Ronny Hayes of Kingston, New York; Rodney Rasberry of Shreveport, Louisiana; Mark Klespis of San Francisco, California; Ricky Hipps of Omaha, Nebraska; Brad Fravel of Canton, Ohio; Terry Mitchell of Bowie, Texas; Terry Larson of Grafton, North Dakota; Ronald Jung of New York, New York; Steven James of South Boston, Virginia (a Boston so far south it’s in Virginia); Richard Lund of North Bergen, New Jersey; Paul Glaze of Houston, Texas; Gary Goodwin of Upper Falls, Massachusetts; Mark Lonergan of Bergenfield, New Jersey; John Holliburton of Indianapolis, Indiana; Tommy Howlin of Landover, Maryland; John Canger of Chicago, Illinois; Samuel Costanzo of Los Angeles, California; and Randy Jacobson of Rockford, Illinois. If you’re on the list, let’s hear from you!
In the Spider’s Web, Chris Jessup of Geneva, Ohio asks, “why isn’t [Spidey’s] web activated when he makes a fist?” Stan rewards himself a no-prize by coming up with this cheap excuse: “In order to activate his little webbie-shooter, Spidey does indeed touch the electrode in the palm of his hand but he has to touch it twice!” I remember when this was considered canon and now we can see that Stan dreamt it up just to half-facetiously answer a smart-ass letter. Niels Dutka of Dallas, Texas wonders “How can you say that it is spring or summer in one mag and winter in another when they are both so closely related as if they were one story??” He also states, “No man, not even a super-villain, can fly, even with the help of wings. Therefore, it is illogical that the Vulture can seek his prey from the air.” Stan gives Niels a no-prize for the seasonal confusion but says, “Here’s a bunch of mags wherein one cat walks on walls, another can burst into flame, one can turn into a Thunder God, to say nothing of a green-skinned rampager and an ever-lovin’ orange-skinned butterball, and you say it’s illogical for a fella to fly! Another peep outta you and we’ll reclaim that no-prize!” And in a reply to a letter from Larry Katz of Westfield, New Jersey, Stan reveals that “Incidentally you haven’t seen the last of ol’ Vulchy yet! He’ll be back again with the coming year but in a way you’d never suspect! We were just kicking the next Vulture plot around a few days ago and we came up with a gimmick that’ll make you realize why fandom calls Marvel “The House of Ideas”!” Do you suppose the gimmick mentioned here is that the original Vulture is not dead after all and knocks the new Vulture for a loop? Or was it something they ultimately rejected?
The Kingpin will be back in Amazing Spider-Man #59, April 1968. He’ll do this “escape and return about seven issues later” thing a few times.
Flint will return too but not until Daredevil #174, September 1981, courtesy of Frank Miller.
Why does the Kingpin have that deathtrap room anyway? Is he drowning all his rivals? That seems a little inefficient, doesn’t it? Why not just shoot them? Doesn’t he run up one heck of a water bill? Oh who cares? It’s comics! And it’s one of the coolest deathtraps and deathtrap escapes you’ll see.
The whole story seems so fresh, so different from previous Spidey issues that it even feels like the Kingpin must be the first villain to get away by the end of the story. That thought had me going over the previous issues looking for prior escapees. I didn’t have to search long before I found the Terrible Tinkerer, then Dr. Doom, then the Green Goblin four different times, then Doctor Octopus as the Master Planner… So, was the Kingpin the first Spidey villain to escape at the end of the story? Uh, no.
Milestones (Landmark events that take place in this story.)
The 1969 Marvelmania International Spider-Man Portfolio checklist entry for this story. Warts and all:
"To Die a Hero" - Spidey frees himself and JJJ from a trap of certain death but the Kingpin escapes. - Fuswell dies.
"Fuswell" gets no respect from the Portfolio checklist.
A great deathtrap with a greater escape, Spidey and JJJ bickering as their lives are on the line, the Kingpin at his most threatening, Johnny’s great composition and facial expressions. This one is five webs even before the big death scene. Add that and it becomes my second favorite Spidey issue of all time… and the three issue “Spider-Man No More” story becomes one of the best multi-issue tales ever. Granted, the fact that I list Amazing Spider-Man #10, March 1964… Foswell’s first appearance… as the best Spidey ever and this issue… Foswell’s last appearance… as the second best, says something about me and Fred Foswell that I’d just as soon not explore, but come on! Anyone who doesn’t put ASM #50-52 in their list of the best Spidey storylines of all time hasn’t actually read the issues. This is Stan at his peak. If Steve Ditko hit his stride with ASM #17-33, then Stan hits his with this storyline. What follows is a two-year run of almost uninterrupted gems, most of which will receive a full five webs. We’ll get to them as soon as we can, including expanding the already-available reviews of ASM #53-56, but first…
Next: Uncanny X-Men (Vol. 1) #35. Bet you thought I forgot all about that, didn’t you? I’ll get it to you as fast as I can.