Great issue with a few glaring faults
The first Spider-Man Annual arguably stands out among the best-remembered 1960s issues of Marvel. For good reason. 41 pages of frenetic action, first story dealing with Spider-Man loosing his powers, the establishment of an actual rogues' gallery for Spidey, the set-up of a relationship between Aunt May and Doctor Octopus, plenty of comical moments featuring J. Jonah Jameson and plenty of interaction between various Marvel heroes. With Steve Ditko delivering some great artwork. Followed in the rest of the issue with presentations of pretty much every aspect of Peter Parker's life as it stood at the time.
I would give it a 5-star ranking if not for some obvious leaps in logic and a finale that only makes sense when studying the rules of the Comics Code Authority. But let us take a closer look at the story. It starts with a symbolic panel introducing the Sinister Six. Which is a new team consisting of familiar faces:
*Vulture makes his third appearance. He previously appeared in "Amazing Spider-Man" vol. 1 #2 (May, 1963) and #7 (December, 1963).
*Mysterio (supposedly) makes his third appearance. He is supposed to have first appeared as a henchman of the Tinkerer in "Amazing Spider-Man" vol. 1 #2 (May, 1963). But dressed as an alien, you would be unable to recognize him. His first appearance in costume is actually #13 (June, 1964).
*Doctor Octopus makes his fourth appearance. He had previously appeared in "Amazing Spider-Man" vol. 1 #3 (July, 1963) and #11-12 (April-May, 1964). He is so far the only villain to have unmasked Spidey.
* Sandman makes his third appearance. He had previously appeared in "Amazing Spider-Man" vol. 1 #4 (September, 1963) and "Strange Tales" #115 (December, 1963). His appearance in this issue is also preceded by a retro story in "Untold Tales of Spider-Man" #3 (November, 1995).
*Electro makes his third appearance. He had previously appeared in "Amazing Spider-Man" vol. 1 #9 (February, 1964) and "Daredevil" vol. 1 #2 (June, 1964). His appearance in this issue is also preceded by retro tales in "Untold Tales of Spider-Man" #7 (March, 1996) and #11 (July, 1996).
* Kraven the Hunter makes his third appearance. He had previously appeared in "Amazing Spider-Man" vol. 1 #15 (August, 1964) and "Tales of Suspense" #58 (October, 1964). He was evidently the most recent villain available when Lee and Ditko started working on the Annual.
The story proper begins within a prison. The authorities have finally figured how to separate Dr. Otto Octavius from his mechanical arms, Informing Otto that he is no longer a super-villain, just a plain prisoner. Otto realizes that they have failed to figure a significant detail about him. He control his arms through mental commands. The distance between them is not important. While this is the first time this little "fact" is established, Otto helpfully demonstrates. With a mental command or two, the arms escape from their storage facility. Then make their way to Octavius' cell. He wields his arms again and makes an escape, significant enough to make the news. Nice to know how much of a cardboard prison a regular cell is for a super-villain.
The following day Spider-Man steals a newspaper issue from the office of J. Jonah Jameson and learns that Doc Ock is on the loose. He hopes that the good doctor goes in hiding instead of looking for a rematch. Wrong. Otto has invited several other foes of Spidey for a meeting. Already in attendance are Ock himself, Electro, Kraven and Mysterio. Maxwell is bored and impatient. But Ock explains they are waiting for two more of them. Outside, Sandman in plain clothes makes his way to the meeting. Vulture arrives last, a few pages later.
Not a bad gathering actually. At the moment there were few other Spidey villais around.
* The Burglar, while frequently appearing in flashbacks, would not return in person until "Amazing Spider-Man" vol. 1 #170 (July, 1977). Which finally gave him a proper motivation. *Chameleon had twice faced Spider-Man before. But would spend the rest of the 1960s facing Iron Man, Captain America, Giant-Man, the Wasp and the Hulk. He would next face Spider-Man in "Amazing Spider-Man" vol. 1 #80 (January, 1970).
*The Tinkerer was effectively a one-shot character. Until his return in "Amazing Spider-Man" vol. 1 #160 (September, 1976).
*Doctor Doom had faced Spider-Man once before. But most of his appearances in the 1960s are Fantastic Four-related. Doom would also face the Avengers and Daredevil, also manipulating events in a memorable Nick Fury storyline. But would not have another crossover with Spidey until "Fantastic Four" vol. 1 #73 (April, 1968), where they don't even meet in person.
* Lizard was still a one-shot character. Curt Connors, his human identity, would return in "Amazing Spider-Man" vol. #1 #32 (January, 1966). The Lizard in all his glory would return in #44 (January, 1967).
*The Living Brain faired even worse. It would not return until "Web of Spider-Man" vol. 1 #35 (February, 1988).
*Big Man retired after a single appearance. Frederick Foswell, his plain clothes identity, joins the regular supporting cast in "Amazing Spider-Man" vol. 1 #23 (April, 1965).
*Fancy Dan, Montana and Ox had faced Spider-Man twice as members of the Enforcers. They next appear in "Amazing Spider-Man" vol. 1 #19 (December, 1964). But they were not exactly established as primary villains. The Ox has his chance at becoming a supervillain in "Daredevil" vol. 1 #6 (February, 1965). He spends several of his next appearances as a foe of the Man Without Fear. Dan and Montana would remain forgotten until "Marvel Team-Up" #39 (November, 1975).
*Green Goblin had faced Spider-Man only once. He would only make his second appearance in "Amazing Spider-Man" vol. 1 #17 (October, 1964) . He went on to become a frequent opponent of Spidey in the 1960s.
But back to the story. Spidey has his own concerns at the moment. It is almost dinner time and he makes his way to the Parker residence at Forest Hills. While approaching, Spidey notices " that the light is on in the attic." Which he finds unusual enough to go to the attic window and check what is going on. He discovers Aunt May going through old photographs and letters of her deceased spouse. Wiping a tear from her eyes. Spidey suddenly realizes that May "never really got over Uncle Ben's death at the hands of that burglar months ago". Nice to know that the death had emotional effects on people other than Peter. The regular issues weren't exactly giving emotional depth to May.
Spider-Man departs silently, contemplating his own unwitting role in the death of Benjamin Parker. His feelings of guilt are not exactly new material. But then he contemplates the tragedy of his powers. That no matter how great they are and no matter what they allow him to do, they do not allow him to either undo his mistakes or manage to forgive himself. His thoughts turn to occasionally hating his powers, longing for the life of a normal teenager. Well, be careful what you wish for. He does find himself suddenly depowered. No super-strength, no extraordinary agility. Just a teenage boy having to make his way down from the roofs and return home on foot. He arrives home hours later. Faced with a new question: "Now,what next? What do I do with my life?" No this a new take on the character.
The scene shifts to the Sinister Six having their first proper gathering and discussing plans. With Stan and Steve trying to give them individual voices for once. Mysterio is all too eager to fight. He wants al six of them to go out, find Spidey and attack. With Vulture pretty much holding the same opinion. Electro voices his doubts, pointing that Spider-Man would probably flee instead of facing all of them at once. Kraven feels that only a solo victory over Spider-Man would grant him proper vengeance. Sandman doesn't really care whether he fights Spidey solo or with company. He just wants a rematch. Doc Ock reveals his own plan. He ensures them that Spidey will be forced to fight them with no chance to flee. He then explains that each of them would fight Spidey in single combat. But each battle "will weaken him a little bit more". Fatigue would cost him the final battle. The villains draw cards to establish the order of facing him. Doc Ock notably doesn't draw anything, establishing himself as the last opponent. Never mind that the other five would do most of the dirty work for him.
As a plan it may not be brilliant. Their strength in numbers is effectively negated. But exhausting your opponent prior to facing him/her sounds sound enough. I would suggest the "Batman: Knightfall" storyline (1993-1994) to see how a proper use of this plan succeeds. Unfortunately, the Annual never has Spider-Man tiring after battles. Which is one of its glaring faults.
The following morning Peter is lost in thought, not even touching his breakfast. May worries that either something is "bothering" her nephew or the boy is ill. Peter soon walks out, claiming he is going out for some exercise. With his head down, hands in his pockets and looking miserable. May is still worried and is bothered that Peter won't confide in her about his problems. "Boys are so reluctant to confide in older people! If only they'd realize we understand more than they think!" The idea of May as a confidant of Spider-Man would be explored by J. Michael Straczynski decades later. But this scene certainly plants a seed.
For the time being, May has a pet theory that Peter has relationship problems with Betty Brant. She has not realized that Peter is more out of it than she thought. Its the morning of a school day. But Peter has forgotten all about school, skipping class for once. His classmates are soon discussing his absence, since this is "the first day he's missed". Flash Thompson is bragging that Peter is scared of him, while lovely Liz Alan looses her temper with him: "Of all the brainless brash conceited boys I've ever met..." This follows an ongoing subplot of Flash and Liz regurarly dating, though Liz has the hots for Peter. Cute scene, though there are issues better exploring this love triangle.
Meanwhile, Peter is walking around aimlessly, trying to figure what to do with his life. His superhero identity is unavailable to him. He figures that his career as a photographer is also over. Since his activities as Spider-Man allowed to take so many "crime pictures". Without his powers, no more great shots are coming. He toys with the thought of revealing everything to Betty. "After all what harm can it do now?" Witnessing Giant-Man and the Wasp finishing another successful adventure, Peter is resentful of being unable to be "in the center of things". Not having his powers has left him arguably miserable. Not too eager for a normal life after all.
Aunt May calls Peter's school to check up on her troubled nephew. She is upset to learn Peter has skipped school. She decides to go ask Betty Brant about it. May arrives at the Daily Bugle just as Betty is stepping out for a coffee break. Good timing. Electro and Sandman arrive at the same time, ready to kidnap Miss Brant. They have no idea who May is. But Electro decides to kidnap the old woman as well. With Jonah the only witness to the kidnapping. He decides to immediately alert Parker.
Naturally, abducting Betty was Doc Ock's idea. Nice touch of continiuty there. Ock has seen Spider-Man rushing to protect Betty Brant back in issues #11-12 and has figured a connection between them. A subplot begins here. Betty has had previous encounters with Ock and clearly fears him. But Otto treats his two hostages as house guests. He is particularly soft-spoken and polite with them, even offering refreshments. May finds him increasingly "charming" and is rather smitten with him by the end of the issue. Treated as comedy material here, this would be explored in later storylines.
In the offices of the Bugle, Peter has trouble believing that his aunt is in the company of Electro and Sandman. But then the Vulture arrives with a message for Spider-Man. He wants Jameson to place a notice in his paper, figuring that Spidey would read about it. The notice reports the abduction and asks Spider-Man to appear at "the Stark Electric Plant, Building #4". Jameson is worried about Betty: "Take good care of Miss Brant! Good secretaries are hard to find!" But Adrian gives something more to worry about. If Spider-Man fails to turn up, the Sinister Six will hold Jameson accountable. As Parker witnesses the encounter and silently leaves the office, the Jameson subplot begins.
Jameson manages to find the number of the Fantastic Four, speaking with Mr. Fantastic. Reed has no idea how to locate Spider-Man. But alerts the Avengers. With only Captain America available at the Mansion, they fail to react. (Cap has never even met Spidey. Contacting him is beyond his powers). Human Torch leaves messages for Spidey all over the skies of New York. But only the X-Men seem to notice them. With the reclusive Professor X deciding "it does not concern us". Back at the Bugle, Jameson isolates himself at his office and tries any method to contact Spidey. Including speaking to actual spiders, figuring they can communicate with Spider-Man. Providing some hilarious reactions from the Bugle staff. Though the idea of communicating with Spiders will be revisited by Straczynski.
But let the battles begin. Ditko again signs in the art department, though the battles are not the staff of legends.
*A depowered Peter Parker puts on the Spider-Man costume and arrives to face Electro. An Electro drawing power directly from an electric plant no less. Spidey is scared for his life. He surprises himself by managing to evade some of Electro's powerful blasts. He realizes that his powers have returned. He has no time to wonder why. He has to form a plan against Electro. He connects himself to spools of electric wire, figuring that any blasts of Electro would transfer electric energy through the wire rather than into his body. Then manages to switch off power in the Plant. When Electro does attack with a powerful blast, energy passes through the wires. In the words of Al Sjoerdsma: " Spidey surrounded by bolts and sparks of electricity and fending it all off as he punches Electro in the jaw with a great "Whop!" " Spidey never looked more impressive. Maxwell is knocked out with a single punch. Spidey learns the location of his next opponent and leaves Electro in the custody of a confused Iron Man, who arrived seconds following the end of the battle.
*The second battle is arguably more impressive. Spidey arrives at what seems to be a forest clearing. Finding himself confronted by Kraven the Hunter and two trained leopards. He is quickly surrounded and realizes he can't focuse on either of his three opponents. Al describes it best: " Spidey knows his only chance is to stop all three of them simultaneously. So, in our second Ditko full-page action scene, Spidey leaps sideways in the air. He pushes down on the head of one attacking leopard with his right hand, effectively shoving the animal into the ground, while using his left hand to shove the other leaping leopard in the chest, keeping his jaws and claws at bay. He also kicks his legs out in such a way that Kraven's powerful punch connects with nothing but air." He uses agilty to evade further attacks. Then manages to note where Kraven keeps the card with the location of his next opponent, tucked right in the belt of the Hunter. So Spidey pulls off an Artful Dodger-tactic. He manages to place his hand on the belt, steal the card and then escape into the distance. Leaving behind a surprised Kraven and two frustrated leopards. So much for forcing Spidey to get the cards. His pickpocketing skills come in more handy than his fighting skills.
*The Mysterio fight is a major disappointment. Spidey has to face robotic look-alikes of the Angel, Beast and Cyclops of the X-Men. Apparently Quentin could not replicate the powers of Iceman and Marvel Girl. Too bad because these two were more visually impressive than the three lesser X-Men that appear here. It soon gets worse. Spidey comments on the "highly developed robots", "almost as dangerous as the originals", etc. Personally I would comment on poor craftmanship and Mr. Beck using subpar materials. The Beast and Angel fall into pieces with a single hit. The Cyclops robot shoots blasts at the rate of a machinegun.But one hit on the head and its down.
**Spider-Man then locates and attacks Mysterio. Mysterio deliver a nice punch to the jaw of his opponent. Then unleashes mists and tries to escape. Spidey remarks "Nice try, Mysterio! But did you forget that my Spider-Sense enables me to find any enemy within reach, even if I can't see him!' Two problems here. Since when is Spidey discussing his Spider-Sense with opponents? Second, Mysterio's previous appearance in #13 established that Mysterio's mists render said Spider-Sense useless. They are "jamming" it, which is why Mysterio is such a dangerous opponent to begin with. Anyway, Spidey acts as if he is knocked out Quentin, While the artwork seems to depict an empty room and mists, probably indicating Ditko figured Mysterio to be an escape artist.
**Here comes the nonsensical part. Spidey finds the card in flames, blaming the blasts of the Cyclops robot. never mind that said blasts of concussive energy were never seen setting anything on fire. Or that the two battles took place in different rooms. New nonsense now. Spidey uses his web-fluid to put out the flames and create an imprint of the card. Somehow the solidified webbing now has obscure markings on it. Spidey uses his Spider-Sense "to detect the message that was written here" Since when does his Spider-Sense work that way? By the way, Doc Ock wrote on the cards. He did not engrave them. What markings is Spidey replicating?
*The Sandman battle is also poorly thought out and resolved. It initially takes place in a walled-up court. Spider-Man delivers a punch to Flint. But it doesn't seem to have any real effect. Hurting a being composed of sand isn't easy. Then Sandman activates a mechanism which traps them both in a solid cage. He forces Spidey to fight in close quarters, leaving him no room to escape. Sandman starts pounding of the walls of the cell, trying to get a solid hit. What ingenious idea could Spidey come up with to escape? None at all. Sandman suddenly collapses. He is suffocating. Spidey figures that the cage is airtight and Sandman has run out of area. But Spider-Man's powers allows him to hold his breath longer than most humans. He casually opens the door, leaves and lets Sandman trying to breathe again.
**Two main problems here. Since when does Spider-Man's powers include not needing oxygen? Two, Sandman was in sand form when collapsing. Not in his human form. Does sand breathe?
The string of battles is interrupted with another Daily Bugle scene. Jameson realizes too late that several New York newspapers have printed extras, alerting the public to the recent activities of Spider-Man. He was too busy looking for Spidey to publish anything. Meaning the Bugle has failed to cover a story that directly involves it and its sales for the day are lower than ever. A disaster treated with much humor.
*The Vulture fight is a bit more challenging. It takes place above the roofs of skyscrapers. With Adrian placing a term before starting to fight. Spidey has to remove his webshooters, The Vulture uses a lasso to tie up one of Spidey's legs. Spidey turns the tables by claiming the lasso and using it to get on the back of the Vulture. He threatens to clip's Adrian's wings if the villain does not surrender. He then reclaimes the shooters. leaving Adrian stuck at distance from the ground. Having to wait for the web to dissolve.
*The battle between Peter and Otto takes place in an old castle, transported there from Europe. With its greatest moments taking place underwater within a giant fishbowl. Ock uses scuba diving equipment to stay in the water for as long as possible. While Spidey struggles for breath and tries to reach the surface. The mechanical arms keep dragging him down. Ock obviously plans to drown him. Running out of air and desperate, Spidey tries using his webs underwater. The web attaches itself to a tentacle. Otto struggles to escape. The end result being a Doctor trapped in a mess composed of his immobilized arms and lots of webs.
If the story ended with the happy reunion between Peter, May and Betty it would be great. Unfortunately a final panel gives us the fate of the Sinister Six. They are all sharing the same cell in some jail. While still wearing their uniforms. There are several glaring problems with this scene:
*First of all, who the heck captured them? Electro and Doc Ock were trapped when last seen and being in prison is reasonable. When last seen, Sandman and Vulture simply had to wait to get back in shape. The first by breathing again and Vulture waiting for the fluid to dissolve. Kraven and Mysterio were never eiher knocked out or trapped. What happened to land them in a cell? I am afraid the answer is in the Comics Code " In every instance good shall triumph over evil and the criminal punished for his misdeeds." Even when it doesn't make sense in the wider narrative?
*Why are they still in that cell anyway. Sandman is next to an open window and couls slip away. Or team-up with Electro to attack the guards depicted standing close to them. Even Kraven is not in chains and could give a good fight. Who was the idiot who allowed Mysterio to keep his costume, where he stores most of his weapons?
Naturally this is not the last time we see the villains.
* Sandman returns in "Amazing Spider-Man" vol. 1 #18 (November, 1964). That issue features Spidey running away instead of fighting him.
* Mysterio returns in "Amazing Spider-Man" vol. 1 #24 (May, 1965). Where he makes Spidey doubt his own sanity again.
* Doctor Octopus returns in "Amazing Spider-Man" vol. 1 #32 (January, 1966). Where he is revealed to be the Master Planner, resolving a mystery subplot of the time. He moves in with May in #54 (November, 1967) and attempts to marry her in #131 (April, 1974). Lets say the relationship of this couple is long and complex.
*Electro faired rather poorly in the 1960s. He is next seen in a cameo in "Fantastic Four Annual" #3 (1965), punching Iceman of the X-Men. His next prominent appearance is in "Daredevil Annual" #1 (1967) as the leader of the Emissaries of Evil. That was it for him in that decade. His next appearance was in "Amazing Spider-Man" vol. 1 #82 (March, 1970). Where he is working for J. Jonah Jameson.
*Kraven next has a cameo in "Amazing Spider-Man" vol. 1 #18 (November, 1964). But his next major appearance is in #34 (March, 1966). Where he is very much obsessed with Spidey: "I must battle and defeat my greatest mortal enemy or else everything that has gone before is but a hollow mockery!"
*Vulture has a cameo in "Amazing Spider-Man" vol. 1 #18 (November, 1964). But is next seen half-dead in #48 (May, 1967). Passing the mantle of the Vulture to Blackie Drago. Then reclaims the identity in #63-64( August-September, 1968), defeating both Drago and Spider-Man.
*The Sinister Six as a group would return in "Amazing Spider-Man" vol. 1 #334 (July, 1990).