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Meta-Messages – Roger Stern: Not Tarantula’s Biggest Fan

All October long I will be exploring the context behind (using reader danjack’s term) “meta-messages.” A meta-message is where a comic book creator comments on/references the work of another comic book/comic book creator in their comic. Each time around, I’ll give you the context behind one such “meta-message.” Here is an archive of the past installments!

Today, based on a suggestion by commenter trajan23, we look at how Roger Stern expressed some slight dissatisfaction with how previous encounters with the Tarantula turned out (which can, itself, be read as a broader critique of the general level of Spider-Man villains during the 1970s).

The Tarantula debuted in Amazing Spider-Man #134, written by Gerry Conway. The Tarantula was just a very athletic and agile fellow with poisoned-tipped boots. In #134, he manages to hit Spider-Man with his boot…

But the Tarantula is eventually captured (the Punisher showed up).

They next tangled in Amazing Spider-Man #147 (also by Conway), where the Tarantula handles himself well…

Later, in Spectacular Spider-Man #1 (also by Gerry Conway), the Tarantula and Spider-Man once again fight, with the Tarantula giving Spider-Man all that he can handle…

They have a rematch later in the issue…

That takes us up to 1976.

So in 1982, Roger Stern brought the Tarantula back…

I think you could make an argument that Stern is commenting on Spider-Man’s 1970s battles in general, as Conway and then Marv Wolfman would often have Spider-Man lose battles against various opponents (presumably to stress the “every man” nature of Spider-Man – Lee and Ditko did it, too, but generally against stronger opponents like Doctor Octopus. It’s one thing for the Green Goblin to take you down, it’s another thing for Tarantula to do it). I am not sure about that, though. It is pretty clear, though, that Stern did not like how well a non-powered opponent like Tarantula did against Spidey.

In the story, Stern has Tarantula given powers. He ultimately dies, though. Later, a new Tarantula showed up. He was experimented on to give him enhanced abilities so he would be closer to Spider-Man’s level. The new Tarantula was also invented by Gerry Conway.

50 Comments

Ed (A Different One)

October 6, 2011 at 2:08 pm

Conway, Wolfman and even Len Wein always made the same mistake with Spidey – they always felt they had to make him lose to make him relatable. As a result, he lost a lot of his “heroic” flavor in those days.

Stern understood how to make Spider-Man heroic again. Sure, he’s not the super powered freak that Superman is – he’s certainly beatable, but every other writer seemed to forget that he was still “formidable” – especially to the non-powered types out there. Really only Lee, Stern, and to a lesser extent , DeFalco, understood how to balance those qualities in the character. Spidey is a very formidable opponent, and he can still be an “everyman” w/o losing or having trouble with every non/low-powered chump villian that comes along. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want an unrealistic portrayal where he throws Magneto around or anything, but I like my Spidey able to go toe-to-toe with more than your average mugger.

That’s something I wish the new writer’s would emphasize again. The Spidey braintrust and Slott have never erred the way Conway/Wolfman did in making Spidey look like a chump, but man it’s still been a long time since I’ve seen Spidey lay on the “whoop ass” to anyone above street punk territory.

Remember when Stern had Spidey as a formidable match for Hyde? Hyde often bragged of besting Thor in battle. When’s the last time we’ve seen Spidey hold his own against a top notch foe?

Oh, and I love me that early JRjr art. I still wish he would draw an issue or two of Spidey that way again – if just for old time’s sake.

I seem to recall an issue of one of the X-Books in the nineties where Spidey gave the Juggernaut a run for his money. He wasn’t knocking him around or anything, but he was able to cling tight to Juggs’s helmet while the big guy just pounded and pounded on him, refusing to give up until someone with the right powers (one of the psionic/psychic heroes I think) was able to come in and take him down. Maybe not an example of really going “toe-to-toe” with a powerful villain, but at the very least a show of his amazing tenacity and endurance.

I’m blanking on the details unfortunately. Can someone help me out? Late nineties “X-Force” maybe?

Didn’t the new Tarantula end up mutated into a giant spider and commit suicide by jumping off a building in a hail of police gunfire? Or was that the original Tarantula?

The original. After Spider-Man kicks his ass, he tries to get spider-powers, as well, and turns into a giant spider.

Conway, Wolfman and even Len Wein always made the same mistake with Spidey – they always felt they had to make him lose to make him relatable. As a result, he lost a lot of his “heroic” flavor in those days.

Someone on this blog, is it Travis, called those three writers the “unholy trinity” of Spider-Man, the three guys who seemed hellbent on having Spider-Man come off like a total chump at every opportunity. This comic, by the way, was the first comic I could ever remember reading. I remember totally falling in love with JR Jr’s style. I think that was his peak style, and I so wish he would return to it. Frank Cho deliberately emulated this style on his Marvel Knights Spider-Man run to great effect. Cho called it one of his favorite art styles as well. JR Jr said in interviews that he wanted badly to get out of his father’s shadow, which is what caused him to change his style so drastically. It’s an understandable notion, but he really threw the baby out with the bathwater.

I can’t totally knock Wolfman at least because he did take the “heroes constantly losing to people they should have no business losing to” dynamic and made a classic franchise around it, The New Teen Titans. So apparently there was a market for heroes who lose all the time.

TJCoolguy, Spider-man beat the Juggernaut in Amazing #229 (1982). He trapped the Juggernaut in cement.

Sorry it was 229-230.

TJCoolguy: Juggernaut was 229-230 as sandwich eater said. But he was also in an early issue (early 90s) X-Force team-up – a Liefeld special, panels turned sideways, or something like that.
Guest stars! Another X-book! Liefeld! How early 90s can you get?

I think DeFalco went too far in the other direction, like Spider-Man beating up Firelord. Fun 2-parter, but Peter Parker beating up Galactus’ herald? Give me a damn break

I always thought that having him beat Firelord was to show that his powers really had been amped up by the black costume. That’s how I always read it.

I’m pretty sure the second tarantula was eventually killed, too. Although he didn’t turn into a giant spider and then commit suicide by cop. (Boy, that was a weird story.)

I always thought that having him beat Firelord was to show that his powers really had been amped up by the black costume. That’s how I always read it.

You have been reading it wrong. ;)

The black costume he wore against Firelord was not the symbiote.

I’m pretty sure the second tarantula was eventually killed, too. Although he didn’t turn into a giant spider and then commit suicide by cop. (Boy, that was a weird story.)

He was killed off in one of those silly “kill off an established villain to show how tough a new group is” bits. With the Jury.

“He was killed off in one of those silly “kill off an established villain to show how tough a new group is” bits. With the Jury.”

Was that in one of the Venom miniseries? If so, which one?

Yeah, a back-up in Venom: Sinner Takes All.

T. –

I think that was me, I was the one who refered to Conway, Wein, and Wolfman as the unholy trinity of mediocre 1970s Marvel writers.

The only Marvel comic I really like from any of the Unholy Trinity is Tomb of Dracula. And that because in a horror comic it makes much more sense for the bad guy to be much more powerful than the heroes.

The Unholy Trinity had Spider-Man beaten by crappy martial artists all the time. The Tarantula, the White Dragon, the Grizzly…

Hmmm… I definitely wasn’t the one who suggested this. I’ve never read or seen any of these. The 2-part Juggernaut story is the only Stern/Romita Jr. Spider-Man I’ve read (though I plan to read the rest of that run once the Essential volumes catch up to it).

Anyone want to take credit for the suggestion?

Oh!! I’ll take credit! I’ve read some of these issues!

I didn’t actually suggest, though… I just want to be loved!

Pete – Without looking it up, I’m almost positive that the X-Force issue you’re referencing with Spider-Man was #3, because in the 90s Spider-Man was in issue #3 of pretty much every book. It was one of those things where they openly referenced the fact that they always had Spidey guest star in the third issue of a comic, but at the same time kept doing it without irony over and over. And I’m pretty sure the issue was turned sideways. I have to admit, I owned the issue. I bought most of the gimmicky 90s crap that Marvel put out. At least until Onslaught, and I finally wised up and only bought stuff that I actually liked after that.

Aha, I had it written down wrong. It was commenter trajan23 who suggested this one. Thanks for clearing it up!

Thanks for thinking of me, T, but I don’t know enough about the “unholy trinity” to call them that. Undoubtedly it was Rene. I knew you’d comment on this one, though, T., although you were way nicer to Wolfman than I thought you would be…

And TJCoolGuy is probably thinking of that Liefeld/McFarlane Spidey/XForce crossover (Spider-Man 15? and XForce 4?). It sounds approximately like what I remember that story being.

Everybody seems to love the Stern run on Amazing, and with good reason, from what I have read of it. In the ’90s even Wizard would name check it.

The last issue of the original run of Marvel Team-Up had Spidey teaming up (duh) with the X-Men against the Juggernaut and Black Tom Cassidy. Maybe some of you are remembering that story (which I did not read)?

Well, I’m deeply honored that my suggestion inspired a meta-message.

Brian Cronin:”I think you could make an argument that Stern is commenting on Spider-Man’s 1970s battles in general”

I definitely go along with this notion. For example, take a look at Marv Wolfman’s ASM # 194 (Black Cat’s first appearance). In one panel, Spidey (the guy who can jump a city block) is shocked when the Black Cat jumps over his head from a standing start. In ASM # 226, Roger Stern reverses it, and has the Black Cat be amazed over Spider-Man’s leaping ability.

Looking over Stern’s runs (SPECTACULAR and ASM), I think that it is pretty obvious that he felt that Spidey had been seriously depowered by Conway-Wein-Wolfman, and that he wanted to go back to the power levels that were established during the Lee-Ditko-Romita era.

Yes, it was Rene I was thinking of. Sorry.

My favorite part of the story is after getting his ass kicked, when the Tarantula is just sitting around being depressed at what a loser he is compared to Spider-Man.

I remember the Spidey vs Juggernaut one.

I always thought it showed that Spidey is more than his powers, since it’s his brain that stopped Cain.

Which always made the Thunderstrike v Juggernaut more amusing to read

Speaking of Spidey beating up more powerful foes, how about his trouncing the X-Men in Secret Wars #3? Did Jim Shooter go too far with that? He did specify that it was because of the close quarters.

Ed (A Different One)

October 7, 2011 at 10:14 am

@ Lee S

“Speaking of Spidey beating up more powerful foes, how about his trouncing the X-Men in Secret Wars #3? Did Jim Shooter go too far with that? He did specify that it was because of the close quarters.”

That was a little off-putting when I first read it, but one has to realize that that really wasn’t a knock-down, drag out slug fest. That was a “hit & run” gureilla strike by Spidey in what was established to be very narrow quarters. And who is better suited to quck and powerful hit and run strike than someone like Spidey. As was established, if it was out in the open, Storm would have probably handed his ass to him. Also, Spidey was lucky/fortunate that he stunned Xavier at the very outset or he probably would have had the psychic equivalent of a lobotomy performed on him pretty quickly.

I did enjoy him swatting Wolverine aside pretty easily. Don’t get me wrong, I like Logan as much as anyone, but much like the Tarantula example addressed in this post, someone like Wolverine shouldn’t be able to lay a finger on Spidey. I don’t think that Spidey could do any lasting damage to Wolverine due to the Adamantium and healing factor, but it always bugged me when other writers show Wolvie grabbing Spidey by the thoat, pinning him against a wall and putting a claw under his face. It seems to me that Spidey’s spider sense, strength and agility would effectively prevent that from happening in a realistic portrayal (yeah – realism in a mag featuring a human spider and a guy with metal claws built into his knuckles – I know, I know).

Yeah, Spider-Man didn’t really trounce the X-Men, he was just able to elude them (before Xavier caught up to him), and eluding foes is Spider-Man’s speciality.

Logan beating Spidey is just because today coolness = effectiviness. Batman and the Punisher can beat anyone in their respective universes.

Speaking of Spidey beating up more powerful foes, how about his trouncing the X-Men in Secret Wars #3? Did Jim Shooter go too far with that? He did specify that it was because of the close quarters.

I thought it was well-done because first, he had the element of surprise, second he was doing evasion and hit-and-run tactics, which is a style he’s always been good at since he faced the FF in Amazing Spider-Man #1, and third because it was a very short fight that wasn’t carried out to its conclusion. If it carried on and the X-Men had time to adjust to the element of surprise and the close quarters I think it would have turned out differently.

I thought it was an upset, but a plausibly written one.

I haven’t seen Wolverine manhandle Spider-Man in a while. Whenever its happened, its usually been bad Spider-Man writers like Christopher Priest, Todd McFarlane and Reginald Hudlin. (I’m not saying Priest is a bad writer in general, but a bad Spider-Man writer specifically. I think on some level he knows this because he seems to have a serious aversion to writing the character since the 80s, as if he consciously avoids using him now).

the Stern/Romita Jr. run on Spider_Man still my favorite.

That X-Force was also a crossover with Spider-man by McFarlane and was McFarlane’s last issue of Spider-man.

Sorry Stern, I liked Tarantula and thought him whooping Spidey was pretty cool.

You know, Luis, that does sound right… I remember Black Tom being there. Though I can’t recall having ever read an issue of Marvel Team-Up in my life, so who knows?

Well, TJ, Black Tom is there for that Liefeld/McFarlane XForce/Spidey crossover, so it still might be that one. From what Luis is saying, they might have been homaging that Marvel Team Up story.

Man with No Face

October 21, 2011 at 1:03 pm

I liked Spidey trouncing the X-Men in Secret Wars purely because at that time X-Men were everybody’s Flavor of the Month, the k3wlest team around. I imagined dozens of Wolverine fanboys wetting their pants and shrieking, “You — you — you can’t do that to WOLVERINE!”

And Spidey’s dialogue was great too, IIRC. “Not on your best day, Nightcrawler” and “What, ‘hold it’ so you can zap me with your optic beam? In your dreams!”

That Stern/JRJR run is one of my favorites of any comic, and Tarantula turning into a giant spider is definitely a highlight for me.

I guess 70s Spidey was constantly getting his ass beat because he was in a mourning slump after Gwen’s death.
Good thing he didn’t know yet that she cheated on him with Norman Osborn!

I feel like even in the current Marvel 616, Spider-Man’s formidability has been diminished somewhat. Dude can lift 10 TONS…! He took on the entire X-men back in Secret Wars… like they were amateurs. I too became a fan back during JR jr’s inital run in the mid 80’s, and I loved how back then, despite Peter’s personal drama, you felt the anticipation of Spider-man “ascending the ladder”, if you will, as he kept notching tough win after tough win against top level opponents. It was like watching an underdog college football team make a run at the BCS championship.

These days, I feel somewhat ripped off that now Spidey is an Avenger, he hardly has the expected impact. They hardly utilize his abilities to the fullest. I remember during Siege thinking Spidey should be front and center — he should be saving the day against his arch nemesis gone wild. An he get’s one punch of a by-then helpless, babbling Norman Osborne.

Furthermore, because of this inconsistency from writers, I feel his rouges gallery is often diminished as well; any one who can fight Peter to a standstill should be considered VERY tough. Green Goblin, for instance, should be considered a top villain not just in his Osborne-as-Lex Luthor aspect, but as the Goblin himself. I am glad the Ultimate universe tipped the hat to how powerful the Sinister Six should be.

The Tarantula was awesome, that 4 books miniserie from 1982 are my all time favorite from spiderman.

Think about it, YOU can be the tarantula, you just have to train all day, become nuts, and make yourself the best looking around costume of the whole marvel universe, with that retractable pointy-toad boots.

More seriously, i think the fast, one sided fight was to move quickly to the next chapter where a badly injured Rodriguez NEEDS superpowers to be able to kill that more experienced and mature spiderman, and i still think today that the way Stern aproached this was absoultly bad-ass. The ”we can give you the power to be spider man” line from the ‘stache guy is fantastic. I always felt that Stern wanted with this to ”elevate” spiderman powers by utilising the fast beating on the tarantula who himself have beaten spiderman in the past, but i strongly consider your point of view Mr Cronin.

I have given hopes of a spiderman movie rated R with a small role of the tarantula portrayed by a top level martial artist, not really computer assisted or watever. Also it would have been cool of a ”what if” where the experience was a success instead of transforming into the giant tarantula.

Think about it, YOU can be the tarantula, you just have to train all day, become nuts, and make yourself the best looking around costume of the whole marvel universe, with that retractable pointy-toad boots.

That’s EXACTLY why he sucks. It’s the Batman conceit. Many people love Batman because he plays into their narcissistic fantasy that they could be a superhero if they just weren’t so lazy and if they were rich. Me personally, I don’t buy into the fact that I could ever beat Spider-Man, no matter how much training I got or how great a pointy pair of shoes I received. And I’m okay with that. A character that tries to sell me otherwise doesn’t make me feel good about myself, he just insults my intelligence. It makes Spider-Man look bad more than it makes Tarantula look good.

I always felt that Stern wanted with this to ”elevate” spiderman powers by utilising the fast beating on the tarantula who himself have beaten spiderman in the past, but i strongly consider your point of view Mr Cronin.

He wasn;t elevating Spider-Man’s power level, he was just portraying it at its proper level.

You clearly dislike Tarantula and its ok with me, to each its own.

I found more credible a class 10 like spiderman gets surprised ocasionaly by a class 0 like tarantula than a class 10 giving a beating to a class 80 and over like rhino or firelord, which makes really no sense. This is what is insulting my intelligence for me. However, the fight with the powerhouse mr. Hyde was very well done and credible.

Now I understand why Conway had the second Tarantula actually living on a garbage boat, very similar to the above shown (in that story where the new Captain America teams up with the Tarantula).

I found more credible a class 10 like spiderman gets surprised ocasionaly by a class 0 like tarantula than a class 10 giving a beating to a class 80 and over like rhino or firelord, which makes really no sense. This is what is insulting my intelligence for me.

I’m not defending that Spider-Man vs. Firelord story either, believe me.

There’s a lot of joy in Conway’s stand-ins for swearing. “Flash! Come back, you nitwit — this isn’t a freaky football game!”

[…] bush leaguer to someone in Spidey’s class. While I was researching this post, I came upon this great article that takes a look at the Tarantula’s evolution from feared nemesis to minor annoyance. […]

I know I’m years late on this, but people don’t like that era of Spider-Man? Admittedly the villains weren’t as memorable as ones from the ’60s (barring a few, like Black Cat), but Conway, Wein, and Wolfman had tons of brilliant stories. I’d go so far as to say The Night Gwen Stacy Died is my favorite Spidey story ever, and the rest of Conway’s run did a great job building off of it (even if the actual Clone Saga that it culminated in wasn’t too great). I’d probably still say Lee/Romita Sr. had the best run overall, but all three of the creators people are ragging on here were pretty darn close.

I also liked the idea of Tarantula being another country’s Captain America, but evil. I can just buy Cap being a match for Spidey, so I could justify it with Tarantula. It’s not like he was ever treated as one of Spider-Man’s most dangerous villains, he just managed to get a few lucky shots in. If there’s one thing Spidey is about, it’s luck not being on his side.

Ed (A Different One)

February 26, 2013 at 8:01 am

When it comes to talking “Spidey Writers” that I sometimes forget that someone I’m bashing has probably written someone else’s “definitive Spider-Man” at some point. It’s good to step back from time to time and realize that much of this comes down to personal taste and not take it too seriously.

I mean, let’s face it, Conway, Wein and Wolfman are all legendary, Hall of Fame caliber comic writers and creators. Some of the biggest, most influential characters in comics today were created by those guys. I just personally don’t think they excelled at writing Spider-Man, and I do think they all went to the “hard luck Spidey gets bested by a lesser chracter” well a little too often. Like I said in my post way up top – a balance needs to be struck. The fact that Spidey can lose any fight he’s in is one of the things that makes his stories so interesting, but when he’s constantly getting knocked on his ass by non-powered folks (ranging from Tarantual to the Chinese Restaurant owner down the street), then it’s more than Spidey being the victim of a “lucky shot” now and then. It starts to make him look like a chump. I think Stern had to swing the pendulum in the other direction just to balance things out a bit, but he at least made those occasions where Spidey beat a top notch power villian credible (where DeFalco did not with Firelord).

And while “the Death of Gwen Stacey” was expertly written, I can’t help but feel that Stan was still behind the scenes on a lot of that at the time (I think Conway has even complained of as much). And even the clone saga storyline that culiminated that event had an ex middle-aged college professor who took a year off to “train himself athletically” best Spidey in hand-to-hand combat a couple of times.

And, c’mon, you can’t compare Cap to Tarantula. Even though I still have doubts about Caps ability to go toe-to-toe with Spidey, at least he’s a muscle-bound, well-rounded athlete with years of strategic training and a relatively bad-ass shield whereas Tarantula is a guy with pointy shoes, a bushy mustache and a scarf over his head. Wolfman may have ‘told” us that he was another country’s Captain America but he never really “showed” us in any credible way.

But, then again, those guys created Swamp Thing, Wolverine, wrote a historic run of Teen Titans, etc., etc., so I’m sure they won’t be kept up late at night worrying about my comments.

You people act like Lee and Ditko didn’t have Spider-man lose to non powered loser villians like the Circus of Crime and the Enforcers.

Besides making Spidey look bad in the 70’s a lot of his villains started to become jokes.

Plus, how bad does it make someone like Doc Ock look if he still gets his ass kicked by a guy who gets his ass kicked by the Tarantula?

And Dan, the way Lee Ditko did it, it always made the Enforcers look good as opposed to making Spidey look bad.

I’ll admit that the excuses made for Miles Warren ever being able to beat Spidey were cheesy.

Stern Spidey rocks!

LEADER DESSLOK

March 1, 2014 at 1:33 pm

There’s a problem with his assessment of MARV WOLFMAN as one of those who had Spidey suffer from weaker opponents. I would appreciate it if Mr. Cronin would cite where these took place because from what I remember, Wolfman was the one who first helped re-establish the fact that Spidey was a lot stronger than either Conway or Len Wein depicted.

FROM AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 186
I don’t have the material in front of me but I remember being surprised at how much stronger Spidey seemed to become, based on those same Conway and Wein stories:

Human Opponent: It went something like this: “We can take him. He has the strength of ten men and there are more of us than that!”

To which Spidey replied: “No, I have the proportionate strength of a Spider and that’s a heckuva lot stronger than TEN MEN!”

There were also sequences where Peter held his full size refrigerator in the palm of his hand. Black Cat seemed to give Spidey a hard time but only because he didn’t want to hurt her. (When he did, he almost panicked!) Ditto for Ned Leeds who threw a punch with all his strength but Parker did a bad acting job because he didn’t want to give away his secret. Just a bunch of sequences. Under Wolfman, whenever Spidey had trouble, it was usually against a super-powered foe like the Man Wolf and The Fly or if he was injured or somehow stripped of his powers. One can argue if The Kingpin can be classified as “super-powerful” but he”s definitely stronger than The Tarantula!

Conway and Wein were the main culprits when it came to mis-understanding Spidey’s powers (especially his Spider-Sense) but in fairness to Wein, he tried to correct some of his errors as his tenure went along.

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