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CSBG Archive

Left Unresolved – An Odd Spider-Man Murder Mystery

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In this feature, I spotlight storylines that have been, well, left unresolved. Click here for an archive of all storylines featured so far.

Today, based on a suggestion from reader Glenn A., we look at the odd murder “mystery” of Spider-Man’s first encounter with the Fly!

1976’s Amazing Spider-Man Annual #10 by Len Wein, Gil Kane, Frank Giacoia and Mike Esposito (I believe Bill Mantlo is given an errant scripting credit for the issue) has Spider-Man foil a hostage-taker, who seemingly plunges to his death…

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Meanwhile, J. Jonah Jameson was being his typical jerky self, trying to get another scientist to create a superhuman to take down Spider-Man…

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The scientist was interrupted by the aforementioned hostage-taker, whose life is saved by becoming the Fly…

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So Jameson comes by later and finds out that the scientist has been murdered…

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The Fly then kidnaps Jameson and goes by the Daily Bugle to arrange a rematch with Spider-Man…

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Spider-Man shows up to save Jameson, and overhears that the Fly is apparently a killer…

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Go to the next page to see how Spider-Man makes a bold claim that is still unresolved, even though Marvel offered a No-Prize to anyone who solved it!

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46 Comments

Clearly, the real killer was F.A.C.A.D.E.

Police scanner. JJJ went to the police about his dead friend and Spidy heard the APB.

Spider-Man killed the scientist himself!

Finally tired of JJ going after him, he opted to kill the creator in an attempt to stop any more loonies from getting powers.

Farley and Harlan Stillwell’s third brother, Harley, told him?

Almost certainly a plot mistake. There would be something on the web about any speck of comic trivia this old and dusty. But I’m legitimately curious, so I’m gonna stick around and listen to the buzz.

But here’s what I don’t get about the plot mistake position. If Wein (who edited the comic as well as write it) figured out that it no longer made sense, why not just change the dialogue? It’s not like Spidey doesn’t have any reason to want the Fly arrested. You could put pretty much anything in that word balloon (the hostage-taking, kidnapping JJJ, trying to kill Spidey) or just “you’re going down!” or whatever.

I like how being turned into a half-man, half-fly gave him super-yellow-spandex powers. Makes Seth Brundle look a right amateur.

Laurence J Sinclair

March 8, 2016 at 3:37 pm

At this point, JJJ in his own spider-costume has taken the place of Spider-Man, and voicing his own suspicions. As he has no proportional spider-strength, this also means that the Fly’s claim to be stronger than his opponent is true in this instance.

This story is also notable for the fact that notorious tightwad Jonah told someone to keep the change!

I think Mr. Moon nailed it!

Remind me not to kill any scientist when he’s around.

Mark J. Hayman

March 8, 2016 at 4:59 pm

Dude, seriously? JJJ explains that “an employee” gave him the idea to (it’s a bit vague but…) approach the mad scientist brother to create a “hero” to defeat Spidey; clearly the employee was Pete, or Pete overheard whatever conversation that gave JJJ the “idea”. Then, as you point out, he overhears the sort of murder confession AND sort of implication of his origin, put two and two and two and two together and came up with: J’Accuse! We rarely see Pete following up on the mayhem in his wake but it’s possible, and for the sake of this story necessary, that he was aware of the Other Stillwell and possibly of his fly fixation; you don’t work as a freelance photographer for a great metropolitan newspaper with your finger on the pulse of the city and not pick up a smidgeon of journalistic curiosity and the wherewithal to follow up the clues. Just a smidge, mind. Hey, it makes as much sense as turning a dying thug into a Human Fly.

Love Kane and just lurve Giacoia but that’s not either of their finest moments. Not awful, but too far from awesome to not be a bit put off.

I expect nine other posts with similar explanations ahead of this one before I can press…

The only way I could think of how Spidey knew that Fly killed Harlan Stillwell is that he remembered that Harlan’s brother Farley created Scorpion, again at JJJ’s behest, and died trying to reverse the transformation. Once Spidey realized that JJJ was behind Fly’s creation as well, he figured that history repeated itself and Fly must have killed Harlan.

On his way to the fight, Spidey swung by Marvel HQ and read an early draft of the script.

I agree with Buck’s comment. It’s not a plot mistake at all. I looked over the full issue, and I think all the answers we need are right there in the dialogue. Spidey’s listening when Deacon says, “Did you see, Jameson? The man you created me to destroy — your supposed rescuer — plunging to his doom!” Spidey reacts by thinking, “Now things begin to get a little clearer! Poor Jonah! He never learns! He’s pulled this on me before.” So he deduces that the Fly was created under similar circumstances to the Scorpion, and since Farley Stilwell is dead, that leaves his brother in the same field, Harlan Stilwell.

Jameson then says “You’re a filthy killer!” So Spidey knows that Deacon has murdered someone and Jonah knows about it, and since no such murder has been reported in the press (even though the media are covering the story nonstop, according to a bystander on an earlier page), that means the victim must be someone that Jameson and Deacon both interacted with clandestinely. And the story pretty much seems to take place in a single night, so the only logical person that both Deacon and Jameson could’ve interacted with in the hours since the kidnapping is Stilwell. Therefore, he must be the victim.

The icing on the cake is what Spidey says when he takes down the Fly at the end of the fight. “I’ve only got two things to say to you, Fly! The first, Mister — is that you blew it — and the second is that you talk too much!!” Which was Spidey’s way of saying that Deacon incriminated himself by his own boasting in Spidey’s earshot. (Although it serves as a bit of inadvertent commentary from Len Wein about his own extremely wordy and stilted dialogue style. Sheesh.)

^When I say “in the hours since the kidnapping” above, I mean the rescue of the kidnapped heiress and the shootout with Deacon, not the kidnapping of Jameson. Sorry if that was unclear.

and since Farley Stilwell is dead, that leaves his brother in the same field, Harlan Stilwell.

How does Spider-Man know who Harlan Stillwell exists, let alone his name? This is the first time he’s ever been mentioned in a comic book. Why would Spider-Man know that Farley Stillwell had a scientist brother named Harlan?

Nothing in the comic shows that he knows of Stillwell’s existence, and if you want to go BEYOND what’s in the comic, well, then you might as well just say, “A guy on the street told Spider-Man about Stillwell’s death right before the fight. You can’t say that that didn’t happen!” The trick has to be to show how he would know based on what actually happened IN the comic, without presupposing outside facts. Otherwise, it’s not a fair mystery, no?

True, that is the weak link in the deductive chain, but I think it’s the only part where an ad hoc assumption is needed. At the very least, it’s clear how Spider-Man knows that the Fly has murdered his creator, whom Jameson hired just as he did Farley Stilwell once before. The only missing piece is how Spidey knew that said creator was Harlan Stilwell.

But on the other hand, Jameson knew about Harlan, so it’s at least implied that Harlan was known to be active in the same field as Farley. I think it’s reasonable to conclude that this is the explanation Wein intended when he wrote the story, and he simply neglected to fill in that one gap, to set up Spidey’s awareness of Harlan. Writing fair mysteries is hard — you have to try to balance the need to provide all the clues with the need to disguise them. Maybe this one clue just slipped through the cracks.

Could you ask Wein about it? Maybe he initially forgot that Farley was dead already and wrote the story to feature him, then had to revise it with Harlan, and in his haste neglected to fill in the gap about Spidey’s awareness of Harlan.

‘But here’s what I don’t get about the plot mistake position. If Wein (who edited the comic as well as write it) figured out that it no longer made sense, why not just change the dialogue?’

Good point. You usually do due diligence on these, has Wein offered any explanations?

Travis Pelkie

March 8, 2016 at 9:37 pm

Well, maybe that Mantlo credit isn’t in error, and Wein recognized the plot hole, and was calling him out in print? Or maybe Mantlo was the one who pointed out that there was a plot hole, but they couldn’t figure out a way around it before the book was due at the printer?

What a ripoff… Where’s Tommy Troy? right down to the “Fly” uniform and colors… the only thing missing is the ring.

Editing in general at Marvel was a pretty big mess in 1976 I guess. Who knows who actually did what? Wein might have been credited with ‘editor’ and somebody else caught it before print and added the note. Definitely an interesting question.

Another point, not touched on: why did the Fly bother going for his gun instead of just crushing Stillwell with his new power? It makes me wonder if they had a different killer in mind, then decided “ah, screw it” and wrapped it up nice and quick.

“why did the Fly bother going for his gun instead of just crushing Stillwell with his new power?”

My guess would be the phrase ‘new power'; he wasn’t used to it yet, and still playing based on his old paradigm.

But then why would he kill him? He seems perfectly chipper about being a human fly, as opposed to the Noooooo reaction. Yes, it’s easy to explain away but it still feels odd.

Is there a worse idea for a Spider-man villain than the Fly? I realize Spidey fights a lot of animal based foes who aren’t natural prey or enemies of spiders but the Fly seems handicapped from the get-go.

The writers must have been engaging in some reverse thinking here but any 8 year old would think to themselves that spiders eat flies and are never in any danger from them.

It was Norman Osborn.

It was Scourge! Justice is served!

I think it’s rather amusing how quickly he got accustomed to being The Human Fly. I mean one minute he’s a human being, and the next he has these pseudo fly-eyes and wings. That’s a pretty dramatic change for anyone, but it doesn’t seem to faze him at all.

Travis Pelkie

March 9, 2016 at 9:03 am

To quote the Cramps: “I got 96 tears in 96 eyes”.

Good point. You usually do due diligence on these, has Wein offered any explanations?

Wein’s always very helpful when he can be, but he rarely remembers details as obscure as these. I mean, it is thirty years ago, ya know? So I didn’t even bother asking him this time around. I’ll e-mail him today, though.

Also notable in this issue is the reveal of just how good an investigative reporter JJJ must have once been: he knows about Spider-Man’s “spidey sense.” :p

Did the Fly’s costume just appear during the genetic experiment?

Travis Pelkie: As far as the writing credit goes, the dialogue absolutely sounds like Wein’s distinctively wordy, exposition-laden style to me. I’m not familiar enough with Mantlo’s dialogue to know for sure, but I’m fairly confident this dialogue is Wein’s work.

Fraser: Given how stoked Deacon seemed to be about his Fly powers, and how power-crazed he seemed to be in general, I imagine he killed Stilwell because Stilwell was the only person who could potentially change him back to normal, and he didn’t want that. It may also have been to preserve his secrecy, to kill the people who were privy to the facts of his transformation.

Cthulhudrew: Spidey was prone to blab to villains quite freely about his spider-sense back in the early years — there’s an instance of it in this very annual. So it was hardly a secret, though later writers tried to retcon it into one. Heck, in the first few issues, both the Chameleon and Doctor Doom *deduced* the existence of his special spider-senses (it was plural at first) and tapped into them to send Spidey messages.

“But then why would he kill him? He seems perfectly chipper about being a human fly”
Maybe so nobody else could become a human fly afterwards? Maybe?

“I realize Spidey fights a lot of animal based foes”
A surprising number of them African:
Rhino, Vulture, Jackal. Kraven the Hunter wears a lion’s-head costume.
Scorpions aren’t necessarily African, but you could also picture a lot of them in an old adventure serial.

My money’s on O.J. Hell, it took 20+ years just to find the damn knife…

Spider-Man found out during an adventure that accidentally revealed his secret identity to the world at large. Dr. Strange fixed everything with a spell that made everyone (including the reader) forget Spidey’s exploits during that small period of time.

@Mike Elsner: yup, just like Skrulls who always wear that ridicolous green-and-purple oufit (isn’t this portrayal racist? Just imagine all humans pictured as wearing the same clothes) and change it when they change shape. Even in the case of the Skrull who impersonated Wolverine for quite some time and presumaly wore an uniform provided by the X-Men when he was murdered (and it was cut to ribbons), when he was reverted to his original form the tattered remains of his Earthly clothes were transformed into traditional Skrull garb in excellent condition.

A couple of questions…isn’t the fact that JJJ was behind the Scorpion supposed to be a secret? I remember stories where JJJ didn’t want it to come out that he was behind the creation of a homicidal maniac. It seems weird that JJJ is so cavalier and casual about blabbing about his role in creating the Scorpion, or that the other Stillwell even knows about how the Scorpion came to be.

there needs to be an all new Human Fly. Better intelligence, better motivations, better resources. Without the bug eyes.

@Inner Circle
“Even in the case of the Skrull who impersonated Wolverine for quite some time and presumaly wore an uniform provided by the X-Men when he was murdered”

That bugs me every time it happens. You see a long-term shapeshifter, person in a hologram to disquise their appearance, whatever – and they’re still wearing their orignal clothes.
It happens wayyy too often.

T.: I think that JJJ eventually came clean about his role in the Scorpion’s creation and stepped down as editor of the Bugle. I think he was being blackmailed by Hobgoblin and decided to get ahead of it and confess so that Hobby wouldn’t have a hold on him. But that was probably after this story.

Christopher- ASM 250, 1984. One of Roger Stern’s.

Christopher Bennett – that was after this story. The problem is, in this story it’s not even really treated as a secret or something Jameson is particularly embarrassed about even.

@Le Messor: I just remembered that the skrull started impersonating Wolverine in the brown-and-yellow uniform and died in the blue-and-yellow one…

Wein’s always very helpful when he can be, but he rarely remembers details as obscure as these. I mean, it is thirty years ago, ya know?

Depressingly, 40 years ago. :(

@Le Messor- Like scorpions, you can find vultures all over the world.

@Hypestyle- but what makes him the Fly then without the eyes?? That was his one advantage, his own Spider-sense type thing seeing 360 degrees. Though he was pretty lame. I think the Handbook even listed him as not as strong as Spiderman at more the 1 ton range. There needed to be a whole team of Flies, like they did with that team of 3 Vultures for awhile.

And the public is really fickle. JJJ creates homicidal maniac; becomes mayor. So much for negative campaigning that skeleton. (Do we even count all the Spider-Slayers and things he had a part in? Dude should be in prison).

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