BACK ISSUES: The Working-Class Villains of “Spider-Man: Homecoming”


Welcome to another edition of “Back Issues”, the column where I examine characters, concepts or themes making waves in comics today through issues from the past. When Spider-Man: Homecoming hits theatres today, audiences will watch Tom Holland‘s wall-crawler face off against the Michael Keaton‘s Vulture. But those might not be the only Spider-Rogues popping up in the film. This edition is going to look at the comic book history of the Vulture as well as three of the other dastardly working-class faces you might be seeing in the film, starting with the high-flying main antagonist. I’m not going to spoil anything that hasn’t been revealed through cast lists and trailers, but if you want to enter the movie completely unspoiled, be aware I’ll be chatting about characters that might show up in Spider-Man: Homecoming.
Amazing Spider-Man #2
Written by Stan Lee
Art by Steve Ditko
Marvel Comics

The Vulture: Taking Flight

Poor old (and we mean old) Adrian Toomes. He really ought to rank higher in the Spider-Man’s Rogues Gallery. And maybe, after Michael Keaton plays him in the upcoming film, he will. But for a bad guy who debuted in Amazing Spider-Man #2, and as one of the first of Spidey’s super-villains to return for a rematch, the Vulture doesn’t get a ton of respect.

The story of the Vulture’s creation is kind of fascinating, as it details the brilliance and pitfalls of the Marvel Method in the 1960’s under editor/writer Stan Lee. Lee and another comics legend Steve Ditko were the creators of Spider-Man, but as Lee was writing a bunch of other books during this period, he pioneered what came to be known as the Marvel Method. Simply put, Stan would come up with a plot and broad ideas for an issue, pass this synopsis onto Ditko, who would then draw the pages for the issue. Those pages would then be delivered to Lee, who would only then write dialogue, narration and sound effects. The Marvel Method was incredible for facilitating true artistic collaboration between the writer and artist, blurring the lines of who was responsible for what and resulting in a final issue that could honestly be said to have come equally from both people. It also made assigning credit a nightmare, a fact that resulted in many of Lee’s collaborators harbouring a major grudge. With Lee claiming the “Writer” credit, it suggested to readers and the public at large that the stories were devised solely by Stan the Man, when in fact artists like Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Don Heck and others had far more input than simply providing visuals.

The Vulture and his creation is a good illustration of this. According to Ditko in an essay he wrote in 2002, Stan’s inclination when it came to bad guys was to favor large, imposing figures. But when he suggested a flying villain called the Vulture to Ditko, the artist took inspiration from the name and designed Adrian Toomes as a lean, bald, wrinkled figure. As Ditko put it in his essay, “An elephant’s bulk can be frightening and destructive, but it is easier to escape from than the lean, fast cheetah.” In any case, Ditko’s vision for the character won out, and that’s the Vulture who appears in Amazing Spider-Man #2. And he’s a striking figure, too. Like the best Ditko designs, he looks really odd, with a clean design that immediately resonates. He’s a great-looking bad guy. Yeah, he’s just a guy who flies through the air thanks to some bizarro Silver Age tech, but it works and he provides Spider-Man with his first significant super-powered challenge after fighting petty crooks, the spy known as the Chameleon and….the Fantastic Four, I guess, in his previous adventures.

It makes sense that the Vulture would return, and he does so in Amazing Spider-Man #7, but already he seems like a bit of a one-trick pony. Old guy who flies doesn’t have the same pizzazz or versatility as a super-scientist with robot arms (Doc Ock), a good man who turns into a ruthless giant lizard (The…uh…Lizard, obviously), or a tough crook made of living, malleable sand (Sandman…look, you get the idea). And Lee and Ditko would continue to create memorable baddies throughout their run, and though the Vulture would return as part of the original Sinister Six, once richer and more interesting antagonists like the Green Goblin or Kraven hit the scene, a septuagenarian with green wings and a turtleneck started to look a bit silly.

It seemed that Stan Lee thought so too. In Amazing Spider-Man #48, Lee tries to retire Toomes in favor of the younger, tougher Blackie Drago, who dons the Vulture’s wings and take up the mantle after Toomes appears to die in prison. Hmm, a heavy-set, physically imposing Vulture appears just after Steve Ditko abruptly quit Marvel. Coincidence? Excelsior! In any case, while Adrian Toomes might not have been as popular as Doc Ock or the Green Goblin it’s important to remember that comic book fans of the Silver Age are no different than comic fans today, and this new version didn’t really click with readers who wanted the original back. In Amazing Spider-Man #63, Adrian Toomes returns to reclaim his mantle. After quickly beating the living crap out of Blackie Drago, who wisely gives up, Toomes spends the subsequent issue fighting Spider-Man to a standstill, reasserting himself as a force to be reckoned with. In many ways, this two part story by Stan Lee and John Romita is the best Vulture story of the Silver Age, and it makes sense that while he’d pop up every once in a while to torment Spidey, he really didn’t have another high point until the 1980s.

Amazing Spider-Man #63
Written by Stan Lee
Art by John Romita
Marvel Comics

It would take a radically different approach to the character to provide the Vulture with another opportunity to soar. In 1980, Marv Wolfman was handing the writing duties of Spectacular Spider-Man over to Roger Stern. Wolfman had written for his final issue a story that saw Malachi Toomes, Adrian’s nephew, attempting to take control of New York’s criminal underground following one of the Kingpin’s periodical downfalls. When Stern took over with issue #45, he killed off Malachi and revealed Adrian to be in charge of the attempt to control the mob, ushering in a colder, more serious interpretation of the Vulture. Stern returned to the character with a story arc in Amazing Spider-Man #240 & 241 (art by John Romita Jr) that saw a semi-retired Toomes return to his old ways after discovering an old business associate had pilfered some his technology for his own profit. Stern’s take on the character added new depth as a deep-seated feeling of having been cheated out of his just reward for inventing, you know, a damn flying harness would become a consistent motivation for the Vulture from then onwards. This feeling of being an ordinary guy with an inventive streak jealous of corporate success and stymied by his own modest life obviously informs the version of the character in Spider-Man: Homecoming.

This darker version of the Vulture made a pretty damn bleak appearance in a post-Frank Miller issue of Daredevil written by Dennis O’Neil with art by David Mazzucchelli. Daredevil #225 is pretty damn depressing actually, as was par for the course in comics in 1985. Daredevil goes to the grave of his latest girlfriend (and there’s a whole other article on that, my friends) only to find the Vulture violating the grave in order to steal her jewels. Which….yuck, frankly. Daredevil and the Vulture battle, only to see Toomes escape. Later in the issue, Toomes nearly convinces Matt Murdock’s best friend and partner Foggy Nelson to commit suicide until Daredevil intervenes. The issue ends with Daredevil luring the Vulture into a dark enclosed space and beating him unconscious. It’s a hell of an issue, really, and kind of astoundingly dark for a mainstream comic book.

The next significant Vulture story happens with 2013’s Superior Spider-Man #3. During this period, Doctor Octopus’ mind is living inside Peter Parker’s body, and Doc Ock is attempting redemption and trying to be a better Spider-Man than Peter himself was. The issue sees Otto facing off against his former ally Adrian Toomes, only to discover that the Vulture is not the man he thought he knew. Written by Dan Slott with art by Ryan Stegman, it’s one of the best tissues of the stellar Superior Spider-Man series, as it examines how relationships can change and sour when one person grows and the other’s flaws are therefore revealed. Slott and Stegman smartly play off the fact that everyone, readers included, think of the Vulture as a flying fogey and how that can mask his real corruption and inherent dangers. It seems that Spider-Man: Homecoming, in casting an actor as good and as imposing as Keaton, recognizes this aspect of the Vulture as well, and will use hopefully use this quality to chilling effect.

Superior Spider-Man #3
Written by Dan Slott
Art by Ryan Stegman
Marvel Comics

But cast lists and trailers suggest a few other familiar faces could be popping up, so let’s move on to another street-level Spidey villain who often struggles to get respect.

 

The Shocker: A Superior Foe?

Amazing Spider-Man #46
Written by Stan Lee
Art by John Romita
Marvel Comics

Yeah, this is a tough one. Because, honestly? Even though Herman Schultz, aka the Shocker, has been a Spider-Man villain since first appearing in 1967’s Amazing Spider-Man #46, it’s not like he’s iconic. Despite having been created by Stan Lee and John Romita during a straight-up classic period in Spidey history, the Shocker spent most of his existence appearing in stories that ranged from serviceable to forgettable to incredibly silly. And yet, the Shocker somehow has lasted. No one talks about the Looter/Meteor Man (please don’t make me talk about the Looter/Metoer Man). People rarely if ever bring up Molten Man. Or the Kangaroo. But there is something about the Shocker.

Maybe it’s his funky gloves which can produce powerful vibrations, a power both silly and yet still plausibly threatening. Maybe it’s his classic John Romita design, which suggests a cross between a luchadore and your grandmother’s special quilt. And maybe it’s that poor Herman Schultz never seems to catch a break, that he’s always struggling to pull something off and you can’t help occasionally rooting for him.

When he was created in the Silver Age, he was supposed to be imposing and a genuine threat. But somehow, over the years, he came to perfectly embody the disposable, ineffective D-list bad guys Spidey would trounce handily in the first act of an issue before the true threat was revealed. And so, even though the Shocker boasted a cool and formidable power set and  striking visual, he became a stand-in for the no-hoper with pedestrian aims and who posed a small threat. And that’s a recipe for the underdog.

After this first appearance, the Shocker would pop up over the years, sometimes in his role as disposable thug, sometimes as the main threat. One of the best examples of the latter comes in  a two-issue arc from Amazing Spider-Man #151 &152, written by Len Wein with art by the incredibly underrated Ross Andru. Set in the aftermath of the first “Clone Saga,” the issues find the Shocker laying siege to the city, and only Spider-Man can stop him….I guess. The storyline sees the Shocker become as imposing and effective as he’s ever going to be, and features him nearly drowning Spidey in the sewers beneath Manhattan.

Still, the intervening year saw the Shocker become more and more of a joke. But in 2013, a brilliant new series called The Superior Foes of Spider-Man hit the stands.  Written by Nick Spencer with art by Steve Lieber, it followed a group of chump super-villains as they attempted to reform the Sinister Six, despite having only five members. Funny, incisive and exceptional, the series turned losers into underdogs and resulted in one of Marvel’s strongest series of recent years. And, of course the Shocker was a member, given one of the funniest and most effective storylines as the team member betrayed by a best friend and then tormented by the severed head of a cybernetic, elderly, Italian-American mob boss. It was crazy. It was ludicrous. It was brilliant. And it gave the Shocker a new interpretation to build upon; that of a clueless, amoral, but basically good blue collar guy trying to make his way.

Superior Foes of Spider-Man #9: Shocker Confides in Hydro-Man.
Written by Nick Spencer
Art by Steve Lieber
Marvel Comics

 

The Scorpion: Heavy-Hitter

One of the most memorable and effective of the blue-collar villains that often face Spider-Man has always been the Scorpion. In fact, given his strong visual design from Steve Ditko and an imposing power set, it’s kind of weird that he hasn’t appeared on screen as a villain in any of the Spider-Man cinematic efforts to date. That may change with a new cycle of Spider-Man films about to kick off. Though it hasn’t been entirely confirmed that the Scorpion will be appearing in Spider-Man: Homecoming, a glance at the cast list allows for the possibility of him popping up sooner than later.

Amazing Spider-Man #318
Written by David Michelinie
Art by Todd McFarlane
Marvel Comics

The Scorpion first appeared in Amazing Spider-Man #20 by Lee and Ditko, and unlike the Vulture or the Shocker, he turns out to be an impressive and imposing foe right out of the gate. Mac Gargan was an unprincipled P.I. hired by J. Jonah Jameson to find out how Peter Parker got his incredible Spider-Man photos. While slimy, that seems entirely feasible behaviour for the publisher. But when Gargan is unable to uncover the goods, JJJ moves to plan B, which involves paying a scientist to give Gargan super-powers augmented by a high-tech cybernetic tail so that Gargan can beat the snot out of Spider-Man. Which is perhaps going a titch too far for a newspaper publisher, but hey, it’s the Silver Age! The Scorpion lives up to his promise, kicking the holy hell out of Spidey twice. But the process which gave him his powers also drives Gargan insane, and when Jameson tries to reign the Scorpion in, Gargan turns on him. Luckily, Spidey manages to eke out a victory.

Issue 20 is one of the Lee/Ditko era’s most action-packed and thrilling stories, and it’s no wonder that the Scorpion would make a bigger splash than some of the other villains. He was vicious and menacing with imposing powers and Ditko’s great design sense behind him. He would return to plague Spidey a bunch of times throughout the 1960s, and cemented his success through multiple appearances in other titles through the next couple decades, including Captain America, Daredevil and Ms. Marvel. In fact, he was the first villain Ms. Marvel faced when she first got her own title in 1977. Written by Gerry Conway with art by John Buscema, Ms. Marvel #1 saw Gargan once again try to wreak vengeance on J. Jonah Jameson for convincing Gargan to undergo the process that gave him his powers. Which, frankly, is a pretty understandable motivation, really. Garage had planned to drop JJJ into a vat of acid, but while fighting Ms. Marvel it was the Scorpion who found himself doused in the acid. Ms. Marvel #2 found the burns from the acid having pushed Gargan truly over the edge, and the once brutal and unbalanced Gargan truly becomes divorced from reality.

Another memorable appearance during this time occurs in Spectacular Spider-Man #21, which sees the Scorpion wandering the sewers of Manhattan, convinced that he is forever imprisoned inside his suit, doomed to lief as a monster. The Scorpion then tries to once again to kill Jameson in revenge, but is confronted by Spider-Man. Spidey takes out his frustrations on Gargan, tired of brutal madmen who blame others for the choices they have made. However, he does wind up helping the Scorpion in the end by removing the Scorpion’s mask to reveal that he is still a man, not a monster trapped within a hideous suit.

Interior from Spectacular Spider-Man #21
Written by Bill Mantlo
Art by Jim Mooney
Marvel Comics

Though the Scorpion would appear in various stories over the next few years, sometimes joining teams like the Masters of Evil and fighting the Avengers, the primary Scorpion plot typically involved his pathological obsession with Jameson and Spider-Man. Jameson would eventually publicly admit his role in creating the Scorpion, but this admission didn’t lessen Gargan’s desire for vengeance. In 1989, during writer David Michelinie and artist Todd McFarlane‘s legendary run on Amazing Spider-Man, the Scorpion returned in a new career as a mercenary working for corporate baddie Justin Hammer. Hammer had given Gargan an upgraded and more versatile tail and hired the Scorpion to kidnap a general. But Gargan once again lets his obsessive hatred for Spider-Man overwhelm him, and he can’t resist abandoning his mission in order to draw Jameson into a trap. After it all unravels, a furious Hammer aggressively repossesses the new tail enhancements he had given Gargan.

Interior from Marvel Knights: Spider-Man #10
Written by Mark Millar
Art by Terry & Rachel Dodson
Marvel Comics

Eventually, after more years of fairly customary appearances, comes the Marvel Knights: Spider-Man series in 2005. Written by Mark Millar with art by Terry Dodson, “The Last Stand” storyline finds Spider-Man facing off against Norman Osborn’s Sinister Twelve, a super-team of Spidey’s greatest villains (Millar never does anything small, does he?) that also features our previous subjects Shocker and the Vulture. But in Marvel Knights: Spider-Man #10, it’s revealed that Gargan is now a host for the Venom symbiote, and he abandons his Scorpion persona to become the new Venom. In this role, Gargan enjoyed greater prominence in the Marvel Universe, joining the Thunderbolts and Osborn’s Dark Avengers team before having the symbiote forcibly removed from him during 2010’s Siege event. Since then, Garage’s been back in the tail and green suit as the Scorpion.

What has made the Scorpion click and last in the Marvel Universe? He’s a pretty solid street-level baddie with a aggressive and brutal personality that may never see him positioned as the mastermind, but makes him perfect as an interesting yet disposable part of a larger unit such as the Sinister Six, Thunderbolts or Masters of Evil. But his clearly defined motivation of vengeance allows for him to have more meat on his bones than say, the Shocker or Boomerang. Like the Vulture, he’s full of flaws and and pettiness, but he’s still capable enough to pose an actual threat. When you combine that with his visually interesting design, then it’s not hard to see why he’s used not just in Spider-Man stories (where his motivations can be examined) but also as a formidable threat to face off against other Marvel heroes. And his personality as a rough and tumble thug allows him to fit right in with the Vulture’s crew as depicted in Spider-Man: Homecoming. What remains to be seen is whether or not the Scorpion will make a full appearance in the film.

 

 

The Tinkerer: No, Seriously.

For some reason, the Tinkerer is also in Spider-Man: Homecoming, apparently. I’m pretty sure it’s so there could be a plausible explanation as to how all these other characters are able to adapt alien tech into the weapons they use in the film.

The Tinkerer is yet another creation of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, and he debuted in the exact same issue as the Vulture, Amazing Spider-Man #2. The Tinkerer story is one of the Silver Age-iest of Silver Age stories, boasting an insane concept revolving around a wacky central question. The wacky central question upon which the story hangs is basically wouldn’t it be funny if an old man who runs a junk repair shop was actually a super-villain. And the insane concept explaining why the Tinkerer is doing all this bad stuff is that he’s really a space alien wearing a rubber mask. Yep.

This story was later retconned to be an elaborate deception by Mysterio, and the Tinkerer wasn’t actually a space alien, but really just an old man named Phineas Mason who was good with machines. Over the decades, he would pop up now and then, usually either as a joke (like, “Hey, can you believe this guy’s a Spider-Man villain?! Comics!”) or as the brains behind the “sophisticated” high-tech weapons small-time crooks used to rob banks before getting their ass handed to them by Spider-Man. In this latter category, see Rocket Racer, Big Wheel, etc.

But in modern times, the Tinkerer has taken on a more interesting role, one that is most likely informing his role in Spider-Man: Homecoming. By 2004’s Secret War series, the Tinkerer has become a bigger-time weapons manufacturer for the plethora of mid-tier bad guys like the Vulture or the Grizzly, and SHIELD soon discovers that the Tinkerer’s operation is being financed by the country of Latveria. By 2006’s Civil War, the Tinkerer appeared to have retired, but he was next seen during the events of Secret Invasion, eventually helping a stranded Fantastic Four get back to Earth in the Secret Invasion: Fantastic Four miniseries by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Barry Kitson. Despite a couple nice moments, the Tinkerer is pretty much the definition of a forgettable character, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the version we see in the film is the character pretty much in name only. That’s probably a good thing, frankly.

Interior from Amazing Spider-Man #2
Written by Stan Lee
Art by Steve Ditko
Marvel Comics
They weren’t all classics, guys

 

 

Well, that’s about it. Hope this gives you a better idea of the characters you’ll be seeing in Spider-Man: Homecoming. I’ll be back later tonight with my review of the film itself, and until then, see you around the quarter bins!

 

 

 

 

Jeremy Radick

Knight Radick, a shadowy flight into the dangerous world of a man....who does not exist. But he is a comic Book geek, cinephile, robophobe, punctuation enthusiast, social activist, haberdasher, insect taxidermist, crime-fighter, former actor, semi-professional Teddy Roosevelt impersonator and Dad.

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