Over the years, I’ve occasionally referred to the litany of losers and D-list villains introduced in the Spider-Man universe during the late 1970s/early 1980s as Spidey’s “Bronze Age Bums.” While there were a couple of guys who were created during this period that had some longevity like Jackal and Tarantula, the vast majority of them (i.e., Stegron, Mindworm, Hypno Hustler, Mirage, Cyclone, etc.) failed, and it is easy to see why. Generally these villains are more gimmick than character. In other words, who cares that Mindworm can control people’s minds when he looks absolutely ridiculous and there’s nothing remotely compelling about him as a character that makes me either want to see him get his comeuppance, or sympathize with him.
In fact, part of the overall brilliance with Superior Foes of Spider-Man is how it took all of these gimmicky villains (Hey look, it’s a guy who throws boomerangs who thinks he’s Bullseye) and transformed them into complex characters with interesting backstories and motivations.
But when going back and re-reading Amazing Spider-Man #222, I can’t help but think that Speed Demon, despite all of his gimmicky-ness, somehow managed to rise above the fray and distinguish himself from many of the other “Bronze Age Bums” from this time period. Sure, Nick Spencer and Steve Lieber have undoubtedly made him better in Superior Foes, but I guess I’m surprised to say that Bill Mantlo and Bob Hall gave Spencer/Lieber a worthwhile jumping off point to mold their version of the character from.
Now don’t go taking this blog post as some sort of indication that I think Speed Demon is one of Spidey’s all-time great rogues. But credit has to be given where it’s due. Mantlo and Hall took a very poor man’s version of DC’s Flash character – one of the most iconic heroes in the comic book industry – and managed to write a fun, spirited little one-and-done tale as ASM was transitioning from the mediocrity of the Denny O’Neil run, into the burning hot with awesomeness of Roger Stern’s stint.
For one, they saved Speed Demon, who’s real name is James Sanders, from the indignity of being known as the “Whizzer” for the rest of his comic book career. Yes, in a demonstration that not everything Roy Thomas wrote during his time on the Avengers was gold, in Avengers #69, he introduced a new villain dubbed Whizzer. Commence with the urination jokes in 3 … 2 … 1.
Speed Demon obviously sounds far more exciting and electrifying, despite the fact that it’s still just a character whose superpower is running very, very fast. But Mantlo and Hall do far more than just change the name to at least add a little more credibility to the villain.
One of my biggest issues with most of the other Bronze Age Bums is how creators would try to present this brand new villains with ridiculous powers (Stegron reanimates dinosaur bones – ‘nuff said) as some kind of career-killing/world dominating threat to Spider-Man. For example, Cyclone was going to use his wind producing thingee to dominate the United States and others in the international community who doubted his brilliance and power. And Grizzly was put forward like some kind of powerhouse with strength that rivaled some of Spidey’s mightiest villains.
In ASM #222, Speed Demon presents a challenge for Spider-Man – he actually defeats him in their first encounter. But the overall threat the character poses to Spidey and the rest of the Marvel Universe is well managed by Mantlo and Hall. The character doesn’t have dreams of taking over the world, or becoming the leader of the Maggia crime family. He just wants to use his gifts to steal stuff and line his pockets with money and jewelry. It goes back to that age old scenario with Spider-Man where some of his most iconic villains were basically just guys who randomly got powers (like Peter Parker) and decided to use these gifts irresponsibly. So with that idea in mind, Speed Demon was just another iteration of Doctor Octopus, Sandman or Electro.
Adding to the comic’s drama (and readability) is Speed Demon’s ego and hubris, which provides the character with a distinct personality. Watching him flaunt his powers in front of Spider-Man and taunting his inability to keep pace adds an interesting wrinkle and makes me want to see this new villain get his teeth kicked in.
And the way Spider-Man eventually overcomes Speed Demon involves creativity and forward thinking. Actually, when re-reading this sequence, Spider-Man’s preparedness for Speed Demon inside the shopping mall reminded me of some things we saw with Spider Ock in Superior Spider-Man. Spidey was playing chess, having the entire game board mapped out, while Speed Demon was stuck in a game of checkers, only thinking one move at a time.
It’s stories like this that remind me that despite some recent characterization, Peter is actually a pretty smart guy who’s capable of using his brain to fight crime. P.S., he doesn’t always act impulsively or throw caution to the wind. I can’t even pin these traits solely on Dan Slott because that the current characterization of Peter is the antithesis of what we have here across the board in the Marvel Universe.
Again, don’t interpret my praise for this comic as some kind of statement of ASM #222 being a “lost classic” or an “underrated gem,” but you could also do a heckuva lot worse for a 1981 comic book story. Mantlo, when he toned down the weird, was actually a very gifted Spider-Man storyteller, who knew how to tap in to the “street level” aspects of the character. I’m kinda surprised how after this issue, Speed Demon didn’t get any more burn beyond his eventual inclusion in the Sinister Syndicate (which, by all accounts, was the precursor to the Superior Foes lineup when you consider the Syndicate’s roster). But as it is, I’m thankful that at least this one-and-done story manages to outshine other new villain introductions from the era.
I’ve always liked how “Merry Melodies” the final battle of this issue felt, with Spidey playing the Bugs to Speed Demon’s Daffy/Elmer.