Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Comic Digital Archive - The Spider

Devised to cash in on the encroaching Silver Age dazzle bleeding across the Atlantic, The Spider is still the crown jewel in IPC Fleetway's pantheon of very British heroes. His antics, printed in the weekly Lion, took place in America (primarily the fictional Croy) but there the similarity with the likes of Spider-Man ended. Of uncertain origin (he just appears, even his species is never really confirmed or denied) the character even started off as a villain, a common theme for strips of the period - The Steel Claw started the same way. Immediately he picked up the services of crooked scientist Professor Pelham and dumb safecracker Roy Ordini, who would be the faces of the army of crime he recruited to help carry out his schemes from a castle overlooking the city.

Initially written by Robot Archie co-creator Ted Cowan and always drawn by the superlative Reg Bunn (whose intense cross-hatching technique gave it an atmosphere as unique as the lead) the character was picked as an assignment by Superman creator Jerry Siegel after DC's lawyers chased him for suggesting maybe they could pay him more than $130 for creating their most successful character and effectively kick-starting the whole genre. His Golden Age shock-and-awe scripting worked superbly with the already frantic pace of the 2-4 page British serial instalment and the story rapidly shed its' boring cops and other vaguely realistic trappings in favour of more larger than life elements, all still filtered through the fractured lens of a country that didn't really do superheroes. From the third story he began to introduce what would be a formidable rogue's gallery, starting with Doctor Mysterioso, followed by the Android Emperor and then infallible assassin the Exterminator, who was nullified by being offered a partnership.  After the Spider and the Exterminator had teamed up to take out a group of crime syndicates the former promptly turned on the latter.

At the end of the fifth the Spider decided committing crime was becoming boring and switched to the side of good. Sort-of, at least - rather than rescuing people from burning buildings or anything independently altruistic he took on the challenge of taking down criminals instead to stave off boredom, his character and methods remaining all but unchanged as he matched up against the shape-shifting Crook from Outer Space, the Crime Genie, the Incredibles-prefiguring Spider-Boy and the Sinister Seven (a seven-month long epic that also introduced the Society of Heroes, a group of allies who rapidly turned out to be a selection of paper tigers). Siegel had so much fun writing the Sinister Seven storyline that he actually refused to end it, Lion editors substituting an abrupt conclusion after 31 instalments.

While Siegel stayed onboard for a little longer it was only for two more stories before going to work for Western Publishing. Lion editor Ken Mennell took over for two relatively brief stories after that before the character was dropped from the line-up in April 1969. Concurrent to the weekly appearances in Lion Fleetway had also published Super Library titles starring the Spider from 1967 to 1968. These digest-sized pocket books with card covers contained a complete story; after one issue under the name Fantastic Series (the only one written by Siegel) these continued as part of the retitled Stupendous Series, alternating with the Steel Claw for focus and coming from a variety of staff writers (including Mennell, Don Avenell and David Morton, plus a couple by Cowan) with artists generally drawn from the company's Italian studios, such as Aldo Marculeta and Fransisco Cueta. Other adventures appeared sporadically in the Lion Annual in both strip and text form.

A reprint run of six serials returned to Lion in 1972, most likely in response to The Mighty World of Marvel, bequeathing one last new text story before the first four stories were reprinted in the seminal Vulcan and in 1980 the character was revived for a proto-fanfic run-in with Robot Archie. Since then there was a genuinely dire and insulting one-off revival penned by Mark Millar for the 2000AD Action Special before the character was picked up by Wildstorm as part of the bundle of Fleetway properties. This led to Albion, where the Spider was one of the few characters to escape from Alan Moore's son-in-law with much dignity; an unpaid for (and carefully not named) aged version meanwhile was appeared in Paul Grist's much better Jack Staff. This all lead to the King of Crooks reprint hardcover collecting the first three serials; sadly this didn't sell enough for Titan to follow it up, not helped by copyright issues meaning the character's name couldn't appear on the cover.

This did all help boost interest in the character but despite many efforts scans are still hard to come by. The British comics of the period were generally produced to be read once and binned by both consumers and publishers; Fleetway often destroyed masters when they felt they had outlived their usefulness, especially as greater health and safety awareness made buildings full of dry paper a fire hazard. This means that the only copies of most stories still in existence are in surviving issues, which is a problem - while American comics of the period had gloss covers, contained some semblance of complete stories and were part of a culture that had already sparked a collecting scene as the likes of Captain America and Batman had already been in print for decades the British ones were seen as newspapers for kids; those that weren't thrown out with Dad's News of the World would probably be disposed of en masse when the short trousers went away. The newsprint paper then had to face several decades of fading and falling apart as the British format and collecting scene meant appropriate bags and boards probably didn't appear until well into the eighties. There's then the simple problem of tracking down issues even now - the comics were never numbered and it can be a slog trying to collect issues; the nature of the comic hardly helps. While a 1967 issue of Lion & Champion won't fetch as much as a Silver Age Amazing Spider-Man paying a substantial sum for 2-3 pages of an incomplete serial can be less than fulfilling.

As such this archive basically serves to put the cards I have on the table; containing the first three serials, The Exterminator, the bulk of the Crook from Outer Space and a few scattered episodes, joined by a few Super Library and annual stories. I'm hoping the internet will do its' magic and bring forward some people who know where other material is so we can work together and draw this fantastic character's adventures together so everyone can enjoy them.

Complete Stories from Lion, Vulcan, Super Library, Annuals & Specials:
The Spider; Return of the Spider; Dr Mysterioso; The Exterminator; The Professor of Power; Cobra Island;
The Man Who Stole New York; The Stone of Venus; The Red Baron; Professor Stonehart; Starring the Spider;
The Death-Master; The Spider Meets The Fly; The Molecule Man; Robot Archie v The Spider

Odd episodes from Lion:
The Android Emperor (3); Spider-Boy (3); The Sinister Seven (1); The Snake (1)

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