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Comics: Nothing Can Stop the Juggernaut

Spider-Man: Nothing Can Stop the Juggernaut

Roger Stern (scripts)

John Romita, Jr. (art)

Marvel Comics, 2012

Fitfully and unevenly, Marvel Comics continues mining its enormous backlog for gems worthy of repackaging – in the case of Spider-Man, far more fitfully and unevenly than might be expected, considering that the character stars in an ongoing and very lucrative Broadway production and just this summer starred in a big-budget Hollywood movie that’s made $700,000,000 and counting. Such success makes it difficult to understand why Marvel hasn’t flooded the market with spider-products (a fat, deluxe thousand-page omnibus hardcover of the original comic’s first fifty issues, for example), instead of hunting-and-pecking with isolated reprint volumes like this latest one, Nothing Can Stop the Juggernaut.

Still, fans should count their blessings that some of these reprint volumes are well-chosen (less blessed is their usurious price-tag, a whopping $30, for 160 pages of garish and often sloppy color remasterings) – volumes like this one, which reprints seven issues from the glorious 1980s, featuring writing by Roger Stern and artwork by John Romita, Jr. (with one rather regrettable fill-in, best left unmentioned). The issues aren’t linked in any thematic way – this isn’t one big story-arc; the only thing that holds them together is their central character – ordinary New York teenager Peter Parker, who’s bitten by a radioactive spider and somehow thereby gains super-strength, super-speed, and super-agility and takes on the superhero identity of Spider-Man to fight crime.

The other thing connecting these issues is their creative team. Artist John Romita, Jr. (son of one of the greatest Spider-Man artists of them all, John Romita, Sr.) was in the ’80s just beginning to achieve the kinetic, hyper-dramatic style that would go on to make him one of the most popular of all Marvel’s artists. In these issues, he’s still working toward that style, as often as not being restrained or hampered by the timid inking of journeymen like Jim Mooney and Pablo Marcos, but you can see some of his strengths already coming together – his playful sense of movement, his pacing, most of all his explosive handling of action-sequences. And in these issues he’s perfectly employed by one of Marvel’s best writers, Roger Stern, who inherits from comics guru Stan Lee both a knack for big, fun stories and an ear for wry, snappy dialogue. The stories in this volume are mostly the work of this great team.

There are four stories here, basically. There’s an opening adventure pitting Spider-Man against his old enemy the Vulture – literally old, in this case: Stern interestingly explores the ramifications of the Vulture being an old man. This neat little confrontation is followed by another featuring the ridiculous character of the Foolkiller, whose main super-power seems to be impersonating a pretentious college undergraduate:

“But now I have the answer! Just as poetry is the highest form of self-expression, so must be my ability to perceive fools! I need merely wait for the fools to meddle with my life! By their very nature, they will seek me out, so I can end their useless lives! It’s so simple!”

(And even with such a dead duck of a character, Stern works in some neat stuff, as when our hero watches his enemy getting away and thinks, “Well, that’s accommodating of the Foolkiller! He’s running up the avenue in plain sight!” – and then caps it with a quintessentially Queens flourish: “What a jerk!”)

There’s also a good deal in this volume involving the wretched character of the Black Cat, a petty thief who dons a feline-themed costume to commit her crimes. She falls in love with Spider-Man and goes to the nearest crime-lord with a pet mad scientist in a quest to buy some super-powers so she can keep up with her web-slinging crush. Spider-Man is attracted to her, but he can control himself – he mainly holds her hand and urges her to go straight. This is the dark side of Stern’s inheritance from Stan Lee: his sexism, born in the pages of Marvel’s inaugural super-team, the Fantastic Four, a team in which the three male members have super-powers without any restrictive limits, whereas their female teammate not only can’t do much but can’t even do that consistently (she gets tired from using her super-powers – a concept Stan Lee invented, alas).

The Vulture, the Foolkiller, and the Black Cat – all three are warm-ups for the main event, which serves as the climax of this volume. There’s an old woman named Madame Web whose visions predict the future – and there’s an Irish criminal named Black Tom who thinks that power would be a great boon to his nefarious ends. He sends to kidnap her his enormous friend Cain Marko, whose body has been incredibly enhanced by an extra-dimensional supernatural being called Cyttorak. Marko has taken the super-villain name Juggernaut, and at Black Tom’s urging, he stomps his way up Manhattan to Madame Web’s apartment in order to kidnap her (as he passes through Central Park, Stern gives him has him recall, “The last time I was in this park, I was just a kid … an ordinary punk kid”).

This might be characterized as another of Stern’s Lee-inherited weaknesses, this blindness to gaping holes his plots. In the Marvel universe, Manhattan is the home to not one but two super-teams, the Fantastic Four and the Avengers (not to mention a baker’s dozen solo superheroes, including Doctor Strange, who’s on a first-name basis with Cyttorak); Stern has them conveniently absent in this story, but there’s no way Black Tom would have known that – so there’s no way he’d have thought sending the Juggernaut on walkabout in broad daylight would work.

But Stern could excuse it just as Lee always did: it makes for a nifty story. Because without the big super-teams at home, the task of stopping the Juggernaut falls to our hero, Spider-Man – hence the volume’s classic cover image (taken originally from issue #230). The drama here comes from the unevenness of the match, as specified in what Marvel fans must consider Holy Writ: The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe. In that seminal work, we’re informed that Spider-Man is strong enough to lift ten tons – and that the Juggernaut is strong enough to lift over 100 tons. Spider-Man is conventionally vulnerable – if you prick him, he bleeds. The Juggernaut is invulnerable to all physical harm. In other words, there’s simply no chance of this super-hero actually defeating this super-villain in a fair fight. That’s comics gold, and Stern mines it expertly – the volume ends on a wonderfully strong note (and with the arc’s signature visual sequence from Romita: the Juggernaut getting hit with an exploding tanker truck).

More such volumes are possible, of course – even the ’80s had half a dozen more gems. They won’t all end with a Juggernaut-rampage, but quite a few of them could be almost as good as that. And in the meantime, this present collection is very nearly worth what Marvel’s charging for it.

 

 

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