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"The Reprehensible Riddle of the Sorcerer!"

COVER IMAGE NOT FOUND May 1968; Marvel Comics; featuring Spider-Man in "The Reprehensible Riddle of the Sorcerer!", written and edited by Stan Lee, pencilled by Ross Andru, inked by Bill Everett, lettered by Sam Rosen, and "Witchcraft by Forbush Fetishes Inc."!

Review by Bill Henley

The Silver Age Marvel comic book that started out as FANTASY MASTERPIECES ran through several formats. It began as a 12 cent comic reprinting pre-hero Marvel monster stories, then went to 25 cent giant size and featured Golden Age and 1950's superhero reprints along with the monster yarns, and then became for a time Marvel's version of SHOWCASE, running tryouts for new features in the lead spot, with GA reprints filling in the back of the book. Among the characters who appeared in MSH were Captain Mar-Vell, Medusa (the longhaired Inhuman as a solo act), the Phantom Eagle (a World War I costumed aviator hero), the Black Knight (Roy Thomas' modern-day version of the 1950's Arthurian hero), the Guardians of the Galaxy, Ka-Zar, and Dr. Doom. And then there was this issue, featuring a *really* obscure character who was never heard from again....

"Smilin' Stan" explains in a note on the credits that this tale by former veteran DC artist Ross Andru was commissioned when regjular Spidey artist John Romita (Sr.) sprained his wrist, and then Romita made his deadline after all. I suspect that Stan must not have been delighted with Andru's artistic take on Spidey, or the story would have been used as a fill-in in the regular AMAZING SPIDER-MAN title rather than being burned off here. (Though in fairness to Andru, it may just be that Stan didn't have anything else ready to go into the new spot in this MSH.) Anyway, the result is something of a "semi-lost" Spider-Man tale; at least, I don't recall seeing this story ever reprinted in MARVEL TALES or the mor recent ESSENTIAL or MASTERWORK Spider-Man series (though I could be mistaken about that).

On the cover, Spider-Man clutches his head in pain as a bulky blue android reaches out to grab him, and a bald, scowling villainous type manipulates some kind of sinister device. The cover blurb promises, "A NEW Artist! An OFF-BEAT Plot! A DIFFERENT Locale! Plus Many Other Surprises!" On the splash page, a hand reaches out to poke a pin into a voodoo doll of Spider-Man, but it is Peter Parker who winces in pain.

Our story takes us to an ordinary-looking "middle-classs home on a middle-class street in a middle-class section of town"... but inside this ordinary-looking home, the interior decorating is decidedly un-ordinary and eclectic, featuring Egyptian and Hindu gods, jeweled skulls, African devil masks, and gargoyles. The occupant sits in a chair looking at a slide of his intended victim and reflects: "AT LAST! I am READY...ready to execute the STRANGEST CRIME ever attempted! Ready to destroy the victim I do not even KNOW....for, only by completely VANQUISHING the most dangerous man of all... will I be certain that my power is totally and eternally SUPREME! Therefore.....SPIDER-MAN MUST DIE!" Our man of mystery sends circular waves of thought radiating out over the city until they reach our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, who at the moment is lurking on a rooftop, preparing to pounce on a gang of safecrackers he has been trailing. Intent on capturing the crooks, Spidey ignores a sudden feeling of weakness and dizziness--but as he starts his web-swing, he is hit by a real Excedrin headache and smashes into a wall, then crashes through a skylight into the midst of the crooks. The thugs perceive that our hero isn't operating at full capacity and prepare to shoot him; "This is our chance to do a real GOOD DEED! We're gonna make this town SAFE again...for all us hard-working HEIST MEN and BURGLARS!" "Yeah! We'll probably git us a MEDAL the next time the MAGGIA meets!" But Spidey isn't quite as out of it as they think, and he manages to snatch their guns away with his webbing. The crooks then take on Spider-Man "alley-style", with feet and fists, but despite the throbbing pain in his head, he gives them enough of a fight that they flee-- straight into the arms of an arriving police squad.

As the thugs are hauled off, a suffering Spidey stumbles homeward, pondering, "I've never KNOWN such a sensation! It's as though it's coming from OUTSIDE my body! As though it isn't really a PART of me!" Though Spidey has survived, the evil mastermind in his chair elsewhere in the city is pleased, for "The game has begun...but it is only the PRELUDE! The most DEADLY part still lies ahead!" He reminisces how he began as an expert on psychic and ESP powers, but was not content with the abilities such powers gave him. Unable to locate "the legendary ANCIENT ONE and his disciple DR. STRANGE" (just as well for him, Doc would have wiped the floor with him), he seeks training from an Indian guru and then an African witch doctor who teaches him the secrets of "juju". A true renaissance man, he has also mastered technology and created a "psycho-intensifier" to aid him in projecting his mental emanations.

Resuming his Peter Parker identity, our hero staggers back to the apartment he shares with Harry Osborn, only to be struck by a worse headache than ever as the "Sorcerer" applies pressure with a finger to the "juju doll" he has created of Spider-Man. Fortunately, the pain is soon relieved as the Sorcerer puts the doll into a box and mails it to "Spider-Man c/o Special Delivery"-- for he wants the world to know how Spider-Man was destroyed, and he figures the police will eventually open the box and realize that the web-slinger's demise came by the power of the black arts. Still feeling under the weather the next morning, Peter takes the drastic step of calling Dr. Bromwell for a house call, even though "I'm always afraid he'll find some clue SPIDER POWER!" and though he'll miss a scheduled double-date with Harry, Mary Jane Watson and Gwen Stacy. The doctor finds nothing definite wrong, and Mary Jane also diagnoses no fever ("You're cool as a cucumber, Petey-O!" "Yeah...a SICK cucumber, lady!") Gwen offers to stay by the side of the suffering patient, but Peter insists she go out and enjoy herself with Harry and MJ; "All I need is SLEEP!" "Well, if you promise to DREAM of me..." "How could I HELP it?"

But no restful nap is in store for Peter, as the Sorcerer dons the headband of his Psycho-Intensifier and issues a mental command for his victim to travel to the city of New Orleans! Helpless in the grip of an unexplained compulsion, Peter rises from his sickbed, dresses, rides off in a taxi over Harry's protests, and buys an airline ticket to the Big Easy. Once he arrives, the Sorcerer temporarily eases off his compulsion, and Peter takes a hotel room to ponder whether he is going insane and needs a psychiatrist rather than a regular doctor. But as he tries to sleep again, he is roused by the clamor of Mardi Gras revelers, for the annual New Orleans celebration is in full swing. Figuring he'll get no rest, Peter decides to don his Spider-Man suit, in which he will be taken for just another costumed partygoer, and join the festivities. But as he goes down into the street, the pain returns, and so does the mental compulsion, to seek out the Sorcerer's chosen destination. "He must walk towards the prearranged WAREHOUSE! For it is THERE that he will meet the HOLLOW MAN!"

Arriving at the warehouse, Spider-Man finds nothing out of the ordinary except for a ten-foot-tall wooden crate that somehow activates his spider sense. Then a fist smashes through the crate and a muscular, blue-skinned creature emerges. "A GIANT! But a giant WHAT??" It's a giant android, or "Synthetic Man", and it's a tough opponent for our hero, as it has the ability to be rubbery and pliable when Spidey punches it, or rock-hard when it punches him. Not to mention having the power to fire force bolts from its forehead. Still, Spidey probably wouldn't have all that much trouble with the android, were it not that he is still being afflicted with excruciating pain. For several pages Spidey and the android fight, with our afflicted arachnid barely managing to stay out of the Synthetic Man's clutches, while raging at the unseen enemy behind all this; "Whoever you are... whoever is DOING this to me... SHOW yourself! do you HEAR?....You crummy COWARD!"

But the evil Sorcerer is "half way around the continent" and has no intention of showing himself. He does intend to show his power to the world, however, as the Synthetic Man hurls a nearly helpless Spidey outside of the warehouse and prepares to kill our hero in full sight of a crowd of Mardi Gras revelers. But then, fate takes a hand, in the form of the U.S. Post Office.... for, rather than turning the package containing the Spidey juju doll over to the police, the P.O. is merely returning it to sender as undeliverable (since Spidey carelessly forgot to leave a forwarding address). As the postman rings the doorbell of the Sorcerer's sanctum, the sound of the bell somehow "changes the mystic pitch of the Sorcerer's Psycho-Intensifier...changed it just ENOUGH to create a deadly mental FEEDBACK... one which NO HUMAN BRAIN can have the power to withstand...not even the demoniac brain of the Sorcerer!" And as the Sorcerer collapses in his chair, Spider-Man attempts to rouse himself to resist the deadly attack of the Synthetic Man....only to witness the android suddenly go rigid, drop the fruit vendor's cart he is about to hurl at Spidey, and plod mindlessly to the New Orleans docks and then into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. A Ditkoesque final panel depicts a silhouette of Spidey trudging off towards an image of the New York skyline, as the Sorcerer slumps dead or unconscious, and the Mardi Gras celebrants look on puzzled; "I've fought one of the most desperate battles of my life...against a hidden,nameless foe...and in some way that I don't understand....that I may NEVER understand...I seem to KNOW that the victory is...MINE!"

Not a bad Spidey yarn for the period, though it's a bit of a letdown that Spidey wins his victory through the far-fetched coincidence of the doorbell and not through his own efforts... and the New Orleans setting wasn't used to much advantage (in contrast to, say, an atmospheric Denny O'Neil/Irv Novick Batman yarn that appeared a couple or three years later). Ross Andru would get another chance at the web-slinger later on, with a long run on AMAZING in the mid to late 70's, as well as a number of MARVEL TEAM-UP stories.

The rest of the book is taken up with Golden Age reprints, and the highlight is the next story, a Sub-Mariner tale from his mid-1950's run, drawn and probably written by Namor's creator Bill Everett. These 50's stories were decidely off-the-wall, but Everett's art was never better; I wish Marvel would do a book collection of the 50's run, though it probably will never happen, unless maybe the rumored Sub-Mariner movie comes to pass and Namor becomes a hot property. Anyway, on the splash panel Namor finds a gaggle of teenaged sailboaters being pulled underwater, though they appear to be more puzzled than drowning. "Jumping jellyfish! What in the name of Neptune's going ON here?" "Wherein that very strange fellow, Prince Namor, THE SUB-MARINER, finds himself caught in an undercurrent of bizarre mystery, involving a disappearing sailboat, its crew, and a very, very weird sort of female spider!" Investigating the report of the lost sailboat, Namor finds air bubbled emerging from an undersea cave, and is astonished to find a giant wind tunnel leading to an airlock, capable of sucking whole ships from the surface. Namor is knocked out by a rock hurled from behind, and awakens to find himself in the clutches of a shapely white-skinned undersea queen and her blue-skinned henchmen. The queen accuses Namor of being a "spy from another tribe" and orders her chief henchman Mephistios to torture his secrets out of him. But: "You-- you're the SUB-MARINER, aint'cha? I allus wanted t'meet the famous Sub-Mariner! You used t'be my hero when I was just a liddle kid, mister! You allus done such crazy t'ings! I[m supposed to torture ya, but....NAH! I ain't gonna do it! I don't know what you're doin' down here, but I can't torture a guy what used to be my hero!" Elated by his opportune meeting with one of his fans, Namor promises to do some more "crazy t'ings" and then reaches the queen's chamber, where he demands that she show him the whereabouts of the lost sailboat crew. Terrified of being hurt by Namor, the queen releases the teenaged crew from their cells, and then at Namor's insistence she reverses the wind machine, causing the kids and their boat to be propelled back to the surface of the ocean. As Namor drags the queen up to the surface as well, she begs for mercy, confessing that "I can't stand pain-- I had too much of it when I was ALIVE! When I died, I swore I'd get even-- I'd torture every living person I could get my hands on!" "When you DIED? Bah! I don't believe it!" But when they arrive at the surface and a waiting Coast Guard boat, Namor and the onlookers are horrified to find that the once-beautiful woman has become a mass of rotting flesh and bones falling apart in Namor's arms.

Other vintage reprints in the issue included:

-- "The Return of the Human Torch!"-- a 50's tale of the original Torch and Toro, drawn by Dick Ayers, in which the fiery crimefighters investigate twin mysteries of the disappearance of elderly citizens and the sudden appearance of a plague of youthful criminals. The Torch discovers that an aged scientist named Dr. Markov has discovered a way to restore lost youth, and offered it to the senior citizens if they agree to commit crimes for him-- a good deal, he says, since even if they spend 10 or 15 years in jail they will still have many years of life left. But why hasn't he used his device on himself? The Torch threatens to force him into it, and Markov confesses that the device only works for 30 days, then the victims "crumble into dust". Toro's once-aged Uncle Julius, one of the victims of the scheme, fires a gun to destroy the age-converter device, and it blows up in a fiery explosion that only the Torch and Toro can survive.

--"Mercury in the 20th Century", billed as "the very first story that King Kirby ever did for Marvel", though under the pen name of "Martin A. Bursten". Presaging Kirby's much later Thor and New Gods, this tale involves the Roman god Jupiter looking over the mortal world and deciding it needs a godly emissary to thwart the warlike plots of the evil god Pluto. After rejecting other gods, Jupiter chooses his own son, Mercury, the super-swift messenger god. "Let one quotation of modern mortals serve as fighting words son. I want you to lick the pants off that demon Pluto!" "It's in the bag, All Wisest!" Mercury discovers that Pluto has taken the guise of "Hendler", the dictator of "Prussland", who is on the verge of unleashing war on the whole world. Though much tempted, Mercury is not allowed to slay his fellow god, but he stymies the plots of Pluto/"Hendler" by stealing war plans and disrupting military operations, giving the opposing sides a breathing space during which the ordinary soldiers on each side discover they have too much in common to want to fight each other. "He's done it, Minerva! Mercury has found a way to spoil Pluto's game!"

-- A Black Knight story, drawn by Joe Maneely, in which the foppish and timid Sir Percy, who is secretly the heroic knight, foils a plot by the evil Modred to slay King Arthur in a tournament with a poisoned lance. (I wonder if the Black Knight ever ran into DC's Silent Knight, who hung around in the same time and place? He could have given the latter some tips about disguising his voice.)

-- And finally, Captain America in "The Girl Who Was Afraid!", another 1950's yarn drawn by John Romita Sr. in which Cap and Bucky are in Egypt (and back in the U.S. Army) trying to rescue a girl who claims to be trying to escape from a ring of Communist spies, only to find that she herself is the real spy leader... but, of course, she is defeated in the end.

I assume that MSH used mostly 1950's stories for these reprints because Marvel still had the original art rather than having to try to reconstruct 1940's art from old comics (which appears to have been done with the Mercury story or other older reprints).... or maybe Stan thought the 50's stories were closer to modern-day standards and would be more acceptable to readers.