In my last review, I called issues #156-#160 "off-beat." Unfortunately, I think that I have to call issues #161-#165 "bad."
I actually had high hopes for these issues. Issues #161-#162 involves a number of firsts. Spidey meets Nightcrawler, and the pair eventually team with the Punisher to track down a mysterious assassin impersonating him. They come to discover that it's Jigsaw, in his first appearance. Cool, right? But, as usual with Wein, we take a number of detours along the way that make little sense and weigh down the story.
To start, issue #161 isn't terrible, but it has a number of logic gaps that resulted in a flood of "No-Prize" requests in a later issue. Overall, the premise works: Nightcrawler has come to Coney Island to investigate the assassination of a friend from his circus days. Coincidentally, Peter is there with Mary Jane, and both he and Nightcrawler witness the assassin striking again: this time, he shoots someone on the roller coaster. Nightcrawler chases the assassin, and we run into our first set of problems. Despite creating Nightcrawler, Wein doesn't seem to have a good grip on his powers. When the assassin locks a door behind him, Nightcrawler simply stares at it instead of teleporting through it.* Spidey arrives on the scene, and the two heroes then engage in that most time-honored tradition of comic books: the mistaken-identity fight. Nightcrawler eventually flees, but realizes that Peter took photos of their encounter. Later, Spidey visits the "Bugle," and Robbie tells him that word on the street is that the Punisher is behind the shootings. However, we learn that it's someone impersonating the Punisher, and Frank is trying to discover the guy's identity, since he's ruining his reputation. Later, Nightcrawler ambushes Spidey as he sits on the Roosevelt Bridge. He wants his camera, since he has to destroy the film so no one knows about the X-Men's existence. (They're apparently not publicly known at this point.) The Punisher then arrives on the scene, because (coincidentally, again) his contact told him that the assassin would be there. He is convinced, as a result, either Nightcrawler or Spidey is the assassin.
Also in this issue JJJ, Jr. receives a mysterious package of photos that shows Peter disposing of the clone's body (from issue #151). Wein is obviously going to milk this "mystery" for a while, but I can't see any chance of me actually buying the explanation. The only person that I could see sending the photos to JJJ, Jr. is the Jackal, but why would he? Ruining Peter's secret identity seems pretty small potatoes. (Plus, he's technically dead.) Also, I'm not sure what JJJ, Jr. thinks (or, more to the point, what Wein wants the reader to think that JJJ, Jr. thinks). Does he think Peter was killed by Spider-Man? That makes sense, but what does he make of "dead" Peter being in a Spidey suit?
Issue #162 is an improvement and, frankly, one of the most solid issues of Wein's run so far. It contains the introduction of not only Jigsaw, but Marla Madison: JJJ, Jr. approaches her, presumably, to build the Spider-Slayer. (I didn't realize that she was the daughter of one of his friends. I'm also surprised, though not in a bad way, by how brusque she is.) Focusing on the issue at hand, the Punisher realizes that neither hero is the assassin when the assassin himself opens fire on them. Frank offers to work with Spidey to track down the assassin, and Peter agrees. Frank's miraculously discovered that the assassin is going to strike a block party (just as he discovered that Nightcrawler and Spidey were at the Roosevelt Bridge last issue). He and Spidey comb the neighborhood, but Jigsaw's men get the jump on Spidey and somehow manage to defeat him in just four panels. (Seriously. Four. It's one hit with a pipe, a strike on the back of the head, and a kick to the jaw.) They deliver the unconscious Spidey to Jigsaw, who politely doesn't unmask him, using him instead as bait for Frank. A fight ensues, and I have to say that it's really thrilling. Wein did a great job building to this point, so, when Jigsaw finally emerges from the shadows, it's definitely a moment. That said, we again have gaps. Jigsaw exposits that he killed four people to get the Punisher to return to New York, but we don't know how he chose those people or how he managed to get the underworld to think that it was the Punisher (since they likely knew that he wasn't in New York in the first place.) One of the better moments was Wein winking at the reader when he has Spidey comment, "This looks like a job for -- Spider-Man!" It's a nod to the recently concluded "Superman vs. Spider-Man" cross-over event that they'd been mentioning every month on the letters page.
In the end, even with the bumps and weaknesses, these two issues were still pretty fun. Even if it was one of the weirdest team-up stories ever, Wein made it work in the end. Unfortunately, I can't say the same for issue #163. In terms of the ongoing story at that time, it's significant, because we finally learn the identity of the villain that hired the goons that we saw in issues #153, #154, and #160. The problem is that we don't have to look any further than the cover to know that it's Kingpin. (Why do they do that? Seriously.) Moreover, the issue doesn't start off that well. With no explanation, we see Spidey riding on the roof of a car in a suburban area. In so doing, he just so happens to observe a helicopter that the aforementioned goons just so happen to be using to steal an armored car. Talk about luck! (Eye roll.) Spidey engages in a mid-air fight with the goons, but they manage to achieve their goal, stealing a device from inside the car. (I have no idea why the couldn't have just stopped the car and gotten the device, since using a helicopter to lift it into the air and then rocket packs to break into it seems...excessive.) The goons flee, and Peter heads to MJ's apartment but she's not there. He soon learns that she's at his place with all his friends: Glory has thrown him a decorating party where everyone brought an item they don't need or want anymore. It's a significant moment, since it introduces the cigar-store Native American statue that stays in Peter's life for a long time. As the party progresses, Peter grows frustrated at Flash putting the moves on MJ, so he flees (apparently right into the plot of "Spectacular Spider-Man" #1). Off-panel, Peter went to Con Edison where they very conveniently pointed out the one building in New York using more power than it should. (Apparently, Peter's glance at the device that the goons stole let him know that it requires a lot of energy. He really is a genius!) Surprise, surprise: the Kingpin is there. He decides that he wants to engage Spidey in combat personally, and he eventually knocks him unconscious. Peter awakens to discover that the Kingpin has him hooked to a machine (once again, conveniently leaving on his mask) and his grand plan is revealed: Kingpin is going to transfer Spidey's life energy to his dying son.
At this point, if I'm not mistaken, the Kingpin has stolen the final component of the W.H.O. computer (issue #153), a freeze ray (issue #154), some furs (issue #160), and the device that he stole in this issue. How the hell is that going to transfer the life essence from Peter to to Richard Fisk, you may ask? If you expected us to get an answer in issue #164, well, you'd be disappointed.
I've been really trying to like Wein here, but the conclusion of the Kingpin story makes it feel like he isn't even trying to make sense. I mean, sure, it's a different time, and I don't expect the same sort of realism in comics from the 1970s that I expect from today. But, Wein doesn't even seem to have a basic grasp of physics here. First, we never learn how the W.H.O. component or the furs are connected to anything. The freeze ray -- or "cryogenic converter" -- from issue #154 makes a lot more sense, because we learn here that Kingpin put Richard into a cryogenic freeze after he died in some ridiculously convoluted fight with the Red Skull in "Captain America." (Maybe the Kingpin needed the furs to stay warm when he used the freeze ray?) But, I think the converter would only help thaw him. I guess we're left to assume that it's the device form last issue that really completed the "vita-drain."
Moreover, assuming even that we accept the fact that such a transfer of life force is possible, the mechanics of the "vita-drain" are bizarre. Wein treats life force like a set of hit points where the transitive property applies. If Peter had 36 hit points and Richard 4 hit points, then the transfer completely reverses those numbers. No, really. Kingpin magically knew that Richard only had six hours to live before the procedure, so he tells Peter that he now similarly only has six hours to live. Of course, Peter high tails it to Dr. Connors, and he takes a stun guy that he had been crafting and magically converts it to a device to reverse the vita-drain. (At this point, don't ask.) Peter tracks down Richard and hits him with it, and I thought that Wein was finally getting somewhere interesting: after all, Peter is essentially killing Richard here to save his own life. But, alas, Wein incorporates a dodge here: Vanessa, the Kingpin's wife (and Richard's mother), exposits that Richard had possession of Peter's life force long enough to "rejuvenate" his body. Um, what now? If he didn't need all the life force to rejuvenate, then wouldn't it also be true of Peter? Eventually, wouldn't he have just...felt better?
[Sigh.] At least we won't see the goons again.
Issue #165 is marginally better, if only because it's more focused. Stegron breaks into a S.H.I.E.L.D. installation to get some sort of device to reanimate dinosaurs, so they can conquer the world and he can rule them. He also kidnaps Dr. Connors' son to blackmail him into creating yet another device, but Connors is unable to complete it because he turns into the Lizard. (Apparently the effects of the explosion from last issue -- when he was helping Spidey -- and the stress of Billy's kidnapping pushed him over the edge.) Meanwhile, Peter confronts Flash about Mary Jane, and he tells Peter that MJ told him that she was a free agent. However, since she apparently isn't allowed to have free will, Flash berates her off-panel for playing games, and Peter and she go on a date this issue. (Did I mention that Peter threatened to give her a fat lip in issue #160? No? That Peter, he's sure a swell guy. That said, I could see why MJ returns to him, because his hair is pretty amazing in this issue. I wish that I could pull off that front curl!) Also, Marla Madison is scanning JJJ, Jr.'s brain for...science? I just don't know.
At this point, the problem is that these issues read more like they're from the 1940s than the 1970s. Wein puts all his faith in various devices that go beyond the usual deus ex machina role. So many villains employ devices that magically achieve their goals here that you have to wonder why Peter just doesn't swing around Manhattan with a device to change people's alignments. (Paging "AXIS.") It's just excessive, and it robs these issues of any natural tension arising from a challenge that Peter or the villain has to overcome to win. Instead, they just pull out a device and their problems are solved! [Sigh.] At this stage, I'm much more interested in Peter's social life, particularly given that we're in that iconic period where he's starting to date Mary Jane. But, given his bro-ish behavior towards her (no matter how time-period relevant), it's even hard to care about that part.