About a year or so ago, I spent some money that I'd been saving to buy all "Amazing Spider-Man" issues from #150-#199. (I already have #200-#423.) I hadn't particularly planned on reviewing the issues as I read them, but I was motivated to do so after reading these five issues, since we're dealing with a really interesting period of Spidey's history.
Len Wein starts his run on "Amazing Spider-Man" with issue #151, following in the footsteps of the great Gerry Conway and the conclusion of the Jackal story, now known as the first Clone Saga. In fact, Wein is the one to deal with the aftermath of the story, with Peter dumping the clone's (supposedly) dead body into the now-famous smokestack. (I say "famous" because this moment inspired a storyline in the second Clone Saga that became the moment where that story really ran off the rails.) Issue #151 is also notable because it reintroduces Harry Osborn as a supporting character; he returns after leaving the mental institution where he stayed after his time as the Green Goblin in issues #136-#137.
With Harry's arrival, the "gang" that later comes to define Peter's supporting cast is firmly in place. Peter spends most of his time at Empire State University (ESU) with Harry as well as Flash and Mary Jane; Betty Brant and Ned Leeds also frequently appear in these issues. As a kid of the '80s, I'll be honest that I was surprised by the role that Ned plays in these issues (including the preceding issues under Conway). I always thought of Ned as a somewhat random character that they revived to serve as the fall guy for the Hobgoblin's secret identity. But, he's really an integral part of this cast, and it makes me better appreciate the shock that it must've been for Peter (and, obviously, Betty) to learn that he was the villain. (That said, I also remember being impressed by how dark and difficult his character was in the early 200s, making it easier to believe that he eventually became the Hobgoblin.)
In terms of the "gang," I will say that their characterizations are definitely rougher than they are now, some 40 years later. Flash is pretty much still Flash, though a slightly more gentle version of his previous self. It's Harry and Mary Jane that are...odd. Harry appears like he's had so much shock therapy and/or is taking so many psychotropic drugs that he can barely manage a declarative statement. But, at least it's sort of a reason for his odd characterization. It's really Mary Jane that seems like she's had some sort of personality transplant. Under Conway, she was aloof but determined, whereas Wein portrays her as flighty and mean. She becomes furious with Peter for abandoning her to "go take photos" at Betty and Ned's engagement party in issue #151. In issue #153, she's equally perturbed when Peter talks to Ned instead of dancing with her and later for allowing Harry to "cut in" when they are dancing. In fact, she spends most of these issues refusing to talk to Peter for these affronts, leading to an exchange in issue #153 where it seems that she's quite possibly schizophrenic. She tells Peter that she's decided that it's not worth fighting for him (changing her mind from issue #146), and he begins to leave as a result. But, she immediately calls on him to stay, saying that she's changed her mind (again) and asking him if he wants to share her ice cream. It's bizarre to say the least.
Conversely, a highlight of characterization comes as result of the aforementioned engagement party that Robbie Robertson talks JJJ, Jr. into hosting. JJJ, Jr. hilariously spends the entire party trying to make sure no one breaks any of his valuable tchotchke and "encouraging" his guests to eat and drink the cheaper items. (Interestingly, Peter complains that the waiter gives him a Dr. Pepper instead of something with "a little zing in it," despite the fact that he's currently portrayed as someone that doesn't really drink.)
In terms of plotting, issues #151-#152 are pretty standard, with Peter foiling a fairly ridiculous Shocker plan. It's in issues #153-#155 where it all gets weird.
In issue #153, Ned introduces Peter to a guy named Dr. Bolton. He's a former star quarterback at ESU, and he relates a story about how he fell a foot short of scoring a championship-winning touchdown. (He was apparently trying to run the full 100 yards, and I'd say that any quarterback that thinks that he can run 100 yards better than an actual running back has delusions of grandeur.) At any rate, he went into computers after graduating. He and a colleague, Dr. Smith, have invented the "Worldwide Habitual Offender" (WHO) catalog, a computer that will allow authorities to enter in crime details and find likely suspects. However, some guy named Paine has kidnapped Bolton's daughter and his employer wants Bolton to turn over the final part to the machine. When Bolton does so, Paine tries to abscond with his daughter anyway as "insurance." In one of the oddest moment that I think that I've ever read in a comic, Bolton runs across the football field where they met, just like in his story. This time, Bolton makes it to the goal line and saves his daughter, but not before Paine's men kill him. Who knew that quarterbacks were all secretly superheroes able to (mostly) evade bullets? (Spidey had realized that something was wrong with Bolton, and it's why he left MJ with Harry at the dance. Unfortunately, he arrives too late to save Bolton, but manages to take down Paine.) Despite the somewhat ridiculous premise, it's definitely shocking to see someone actually die in a Spidey comic, particularly in front of his young daughter. The last image -- of his dead body on the goal line -- makes it almost seem like he cared more about making it the entire 100 years than saving his daughter.
However, in the next issue, Wein implies that the incident with Paine isn't an isolated one. The same costumed goons that Paine employed break out the Sandman and deliver him to an unseen employer (presumably the same one that Paine mentioned in the previous issue). He sends him to get a piece of equipment from a research facility, but Sandman calls an audible (to continue the football theme). He activates a Spider-Tracer to attract Spider-Man and, in a moment straight from the 1960s "Batman" TV show, captures him and plans to use the device -- some sort of industrial freeze-ray -- on him. Shockingly, Peter breaks free of the bonds and eventually evades Sandman until he (Sandman) accidentally slides himself in front of the ray. This entire sequence is odd for two reasons. First, I initially assumed that the employer, since his goons were the same ones as Paine's, would have wanted Sandman to collect the piece of the WHO catalog that Paine failed to secure in the previous issue. However, I sort of doubt that the missing piece was a freeze ray. As such, it's unclear at this point if it is the same employer. If it is, does he have some larger plan that would require both the WHO and the freeze ray? If it isn't, is someone running some sort of henchman-for-hire company? Second, Peter initially frets that the freeze ray will kill Sandman if it hits him, but, after it does, Peter announces that he'll be fine once we get to the summer thaw. Seriously, it seems sloppy at this point.
But, it all gets even weirder in issue #155. The District Attorney has invited JJJ, Jr. and Peter to the unveiling of the WHO catalog. However, they instead discover Dr. Smith dead. As Spider-Man, Peter breaks into the office later that night to use the machine to develop a list of likely suspects. However, when none of the names on the list winds up being involved, Peter realizes that it was WHO itself. Smith apparently realized that it had become sentient, and it killed him, leading to the terrible title of this issue, "WHOdunit?" (Get it? Who dunit? WHO dunit.) However, this resolution makes no sense in terms of the developments of the previous two issues. Paine and Sandman are both (again, presumably) working for the same person, as the similarly costumed goons imply. As such, Paine's employer had to be human, since Sandman's was. So, we never learn what he wanted to do with the WHO (or, for that matter, the freeze ray). Did he just want to prevent the police from having such a powerful tool? Put another way, it seems unlikely that WHO hired Paine to get the last piece of equipment needed to complete him (particularly since Smith didn't realize WHO was sentient until after he finished him). As such, we're never given any insight into Paine's employer's motives. I guess that it's possible that he has some master plan that Wein will reveal in a later issue, but, at this stage, it all feels disconnected and odd.
In other words, it's a weird start for Wein's run. He seems to have interesting ideas and a desire to tell larger stories (as the mysterious man that we've seen a few times implies), but he seems to have trouble closing the deal.
Perhaps the most amazing parts of these issues, though, are found in their letter pages. In issue #153, Marvel declares itself so overwhelmed by letters demanding No-Prizes for spotting the legion of inconsistencies in the Jackal story that it's forced to write a narrative explanation to clarify. But, it's Carol A. Strickland of Fayetteville, NC that could've saved us all a world of hurt if someone would've just listened to her. She points out something that honestly never occurred to me in the years that I was reading the second Clone Saga. She observes that Spidey should've fairly easily been able to tell if he was the original Spider-Man, since he'd likely have scars and bruises for years of crime-fighting, something that a newly baked clone wouldn't. Ladies and gentleman, why couldn't someone have re-read her letter in 1994?