We take a break from our regularly scheduled programming at the start of this next set of issues for a "whodunit" team-up with Nova. (Thankfully, it doesn't involve the sentient computer from issue #155.) If you look to the right of this page, you'll see a section entitled "The Nova Project," where I reviewed Rich Rider's most recent series and the related cross-over events. Needless to say, I was excited about this arc.
In "Nova" #12, Rich has just gotten off the train and is waiting for his uncle, Dr. Ralph Rider, to come get him. When he doesn't appear, Nova heads to the police station to use their phone, where he comes upon a panicked man telling a detective that someone has killed Dr. Rider. Over the course of the issue, the detective discovers that six dudes were at Rider's house at the time of the murder: his research assistant, his butler, three guys there to buy his latest invention (a "transistorized" nuclear device), and Peter Parker! Peter was using Dr. Rider's "world-class" library when Photon burst into the room and killed Dr. Rider. The unusually well connected detective is quickly able to discover unsavory information about the three potential buyers: Franklin Risk is a cut-throat businessman, Harry Daze works for A.I.M., and Jason Dean represents the Maggia. Moreover, Rider had just fired the fairly unhinged assistant, Michael Landon; he doesn't do himself any favors by repeatedly mentioning his desire to kill Rider as a result. The butler apparently observed and overheard information to help the detective, but the detective suspiciously announces that Photon killed him off-panel before he could reveal Photon's identity. I say "suspiciously" in part because we had seen the butler talking to the detective for a while; it's weird that he buried the lead and didn't immediately tell him Photon's identity.
In "Amazing Spider-Man" #171, the story continues as Nova and Spidey track down the suspects after they escape thanks to Risk pulling the plug on a lamp after the detective had assembled them in the same room. (Apparently it's really dark in Long Island and people only use one lamp to light a room.) A.I.M. arrives to help Daze, but it's a reappearing Photon that puts the kibosh on Nova and Spidey. However, rather than killing them, he thankfully goes 1960s "Batman" TV show on them, having A.I.M. tie them to an anchor and drop them into the sea. They manage to escape (surprising, I know) and return to Dr. Rider's house, which A.I.M. agents have under siege as they try to get the device. The duo disables the agents and defeat Photon, revealed to be Dean in the end. It makes sense, since Dean was the one to report the murder to the detective in the first place. Spidey picked up the fact that Dean directed the detective to the library, even though Photon could've gone to a number of rooms in his initial search for Rider; only Photon himself would know that he killed him in the library. The detective came to the same conclusion but for a more ridiculous reason: Rider pulled out the July-December pages of a calendar, spelling out "JASON D." I can't say that it's the best cross-over arc that I've ever read, but it was a fun diversion, convenient developments and ridiculous tricks aside. (Plus, it was weird to see Rich with his '70s hair!)
After the solid Will o'Wisp, Faustus, and Nova stories, I thought that we were on a roll. Unfortunately, we take a detour to Lizard/Stegron land here in issue #172. It starts mid-"confrontation" with Rocket Racer. I put "confrontation" in quotes because the entire four-page chase involves Rocket Racer expositing his powers. Spidey melodramatically thinks to himself that Racer "may just be as great a menace as any I've ever faced before..." only to capture him five panels later. (Yeah, he definitely makes Dr. Doom look like a chump.) Wein then moves onto the next menace, someone that he had in the background last issue stalking Liz Allan. We learn that it's the Molten Man: he sent Liz, his step-sister, to steal chemicals from the hospital, but she's caught in the act and arrested. She calls Peter for help, and he convinces Robbie Robertson to post bail. Peter is worried that the incident will set back Harry in his convalescence. (They had seen Liz hurry past the diner where they were eating the night of the crime, and she didn't respond to Harry's calls to her.) Peter breaks into Liz's apartment as Spidey and, after seeing evidence of burns, realizes that it's Liz's step-brother and entraps him at the hospital, where he's gone to steal the chemicals himself. However, the Molten Man escapes, leaving Spidey on the scene of the crime as the police arrive.
Although it's not the best scripted issue, this issue is interesting to me mainly for its portrayal of Liz. First, this Liz Allan is very different from the one that we've seen running Alchemax in "Spider-Man 2099:" it's probably like reading old "Thor" issues where Jane Foster is a nurse. Here, she's shy, demure, and not a little bit hysterical. But, Wein misses the opportunity to explore her character more. For example, he doesn't even attempt to explain why Allan would go to such lengths to help her step-brother, particularly when it's clear that he doesn't think highly of her, after he refers to her as "imbecilic" in his internal monologue. I get that he's been previously introduced, but it would've helped to remind us why Liz feels such a debt to him that she's willing to steal. Second, it's the first issue where JJJ, Jr. expresses a romantic interest in Marla Madison.
Issue #173 picks up the scene right where we left it, though Spidey is basically reduced to a bumbling idiot. Somehow one of the cops on the scene manages to shoot him in the shoulder (so much for his Spider-Sense), and he barely manages to fend off two hospital workers that then tackle him. (Wein has vacillated between whether people treat Spidey as a hero or a menace throughout his run, but, in this arc, he's definitely viewed as a villain.) Peter eventually escapes while, on the "other side of town," the Molten Man has a technician mix the chemicals that he swiped from the hospital into the formula that'll cure him. It works briefly, and he celebrates becoming Mark Raxton again. However, the cure fades, and he's quickly on fire. For reasons that Wein doesn't totally explain, Raxton reveals that his temperature will keep on rising until he explodes. He decides that he must see Liz again so that he doesn't die alone, and Robbie calls Peter onto the scene to take photos for the "Bugle." Peter enters the building to make sure Liz is OK, but Raxton is beyond gone. He keeps insisting on holding Liz, oblivious to the fact that he'd kill her if he did. Peter fights him, but he eventually loses consciousness due to the pain in his shoulder. It heightens the tension, as Liz is driven to the edge of the collapsing building ("collapsing" because of Raxton's heat). Peter eventually recovers and saves her, and Raxton explodes. Harry tries to comfort Liz, but she flees, saying that she destroys everything that she loves. Wein still doesn't explain why Liz thinks that Raxton becoming the Molten Man is somehow her fault, but we're clearly supposed to believe that Liz leaving Harry (at least in the moment) is going to push him over the edge.
Outside the Molten Man plot, this issue has two significant developments. First, Peter narrates that Dr. Connors bandaged up his arm, an assertion that raised both my eyebrows. I feel like I probably would've asked a student who walked into my office asking for help with a gunshot wound how he got it, but Peter specifically mentions that he didn't ask. Wein almost seems to be implying that Connors knows that Peter's Spider-Man, but I'm pretty sure that it's not true. More importantly, Peter gets a letter from Empire State University telling him that he won't graduate from college because of his failing grades. (As a side note, Liz's last name is misspelled "Allen" throughout the issue.)
I realize at this point that I'm developing a love/hate relationship with Wein, and issue #174 is the perfect example of it. On the love side, Wein continues two hallmarks of his run that I appreciate. First, it's his ability to really embrace comic books as a serial. Sure, the constant appearance of the mysterious goons that the Kingpin hired early in Wein's run got tiring. But, overall, his commitment to assembling stories issue after issue is something I appreciate. For example, here, Peter is still smarting from the gunshot wound that he got last issue, a wound exacerbated by his confrontation with the Molten Man later in that issue. It makes the story more realistic, since it's not like Peter regenerates his body anew every issue like most other authors have their heroes do. Second, Wein reminds us that these stories happen in a larger context by constantly pulling in guest stars. In this issue, the Punisher returns, and we've already seen Nightcrawler and Nova in the last few issues. Moreover, Wein combines both patterns in keeping us updated on the events in the lives of Peter's supporting cast in each issue. Here, Peter's concern that Liz's troubles with the Molten Man will impact Harry comes true: Liz has left him, and Harry attacks Flash when he implies that maybe it was for the better if she didn't appreciate everything Harry has done for her. Again, Wein actually makes sure that actions have consequences, a welcome change of pace, particularly for comics of that era.
Moving onto the actual plot of the issue, the People's Liberation Front (PLF) has hired the Hitman to kidnap JJJ, Jr. to convince him to stop publishing negative editorials about them. Lucky for him, the Punisher had just run into a group of PLF terrorists, and one of them divulged that Jameson was their next target. Plus, Peter had just entered the newsroom when the hostage situation started. Here, we get to the "hate" part. Peter and the Punisher unexpectedly burst into Jonah's office at the same time, and bungling shenanigans (similar to what we saw last issue in the hospital room) ensue. The Hitman is able to escape with Jonah to the rooftop, where he's called his remote-controlled, two-person helicopter. Peter manages to web up his goggles and tries to escape with JJJ, Jr., but Jonah refuses to go with him, giving the Hitman enough time to clean off the webbing. Peter's busted shoulder means that the Hitman is able to overpower him, and we end the issue with the Punisher ill-advisedly opening fire on the helicopter as the Hitman tries to depart with a recaptured Jonah. In terms of the soap opera that is Peter's life, we also learn that the Dean has told him that he can't help him graduate, so Peter'll need to take make-up courses.
Then, we have issue #175. It's...odd. On one hand, it's actually a remarkably solid Punisher story. The Punisher assures Spidey that he's not trying to kill Jonah; he's only aiming at the engine of the helicopter. (That "assurance" seems pretty irrelevant, since Spidey's concern that he's shooting at the helicopter with Jonah in the line of fire is still valid). The Hitman escapes, but Spidey manages to land a tracer on his helicopter. As they follow it, we learn that the Hitman once saved Frank's life in 'Nam (hence why he seemed to recognize him when he burst onto the roof in the last issue). He was later discharged for mental instability, and Frank reveals that he had always suspected him of being the Hitman but wasn't sure until he saw his face. The pair find the tracer at an abandoned barn, and they get the two henchman fixing the helicopter there to reveal that the Hitman and Jonah are en route to the Statue of Liberty. There, we learn that the nutjob running the PLF doesn't want to convince Jonah to stop publishing anti-PLF editorials: he plans to explode the Status of Liberty with Jonah on it as a message to other publishers. Peter and the Punisher arrive in the now-repaired helicopter, and the Hitman takes out the head of the PLF when he pulls a gun on him (arguing that his contract only called for him to deliver Jonah, as he did). The denouement is a familiar one for this period: in the ensuing fight, both Hitman and Jonah are left hanging on one of the spikes of the Statue of Liberty's crown. Spidey is holding Jonah (whose hands are tied behind his back so can't help himself), but his injured shoulder is going. Frank has to decide who to help, haunted by the promise that the Hitman made him make in 'Nam, that he owed him a life. He helps Jonah, and the Hitman gets philosophical as he falls to his death, commenting that he never made Frank promise that it'd be his life that he'd save. Frank is distraught over the Hitman's death, but Spidey hypothesizes that it seemed like he wanted to go and that he was now at peace. Frank comments that the Hitman's war is over, but his war isn't. Separately, during a therapy session, Harry snaps, assaulting Dr. Hamilton.
I said that this issue is odd, because Wein overuses terms like "friend" and "pal." It seems like a minor point, I know, but it's really distracting, as the Hitman, Punisher, and Spidey constantly use it with each other, like a group of fraternity brothers calling each other "brah" while playing hackysack. It's unfortunate, because I think that it's really one of Wein's more solid stories. Everything flows naturally; although the scheme to blow up JJJ, Jr. on the Statue of Liberty is ludicrous, I bought it, because Wein makes it clear that the head of the PLF is, in fact, insane. But, the "friends" and "pals" distract from the grim story that Wein is telling.
At any rate, this issue of series continues a pretty strong streak for Wein. I might have a nit-pick here or there or an occasional issue might be weird (like issue #172, where Wein introduces Rocket Racer). But, most of the stories now are solid, and Wein continues to make the most of Spidey's supporting cast. Overall, we've definitely turned the page since the Lizard/Stegron debacle.