A majority of the Spectacular Spider-Man series remains my most shameful “blind spot” since the title churned out so many quality stories, especially during the 1980s and early 1990s. Some of my favorite all-time writers like Roger Stern and JM DeMatteis had extensive runs on Spectacular, but the title’s overall greatness was more than just those two scribes. In the case of the Owl/Octopus Gang War arc, which for the sake of argument is Spectacular Spider-Man issues #73-79, Bill Mantlo handled scripting duties and managed to craft what is arguably the best Spider-Man/Doctor Octopus battle of all-time. The fact that I went so long without reading this story is probably the Spider-Man fan equivalent of a crime against humanity, and I was glad to recently rectify it since noted continuity buff Dan Slott worked in an Owl/Octopus War reference in Superior Spider-Man #10.
What sticks with me about this storyline is the fact that the actual “gang war” component involving The Owl and Doc Ock battling each other for New York City supremacy is, in my opinion, the least compelling aspect of the arc. Instead, what makes this storyline a legitimate entrant on a “best of” list is Spider-Man’s sizzling romantic chemistry with the recently revived Black Cat/Felicia Hardy, and of course, his two epic victories over Otto Octavius.
It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the Owl/Octopus battle, but their encounter seems to exist primarily to elevate Doc Ock as a first class whacko. Both are vying for an explosive device that could level New York City, but whereas the Owl just wants to blackmail the city for financial gain, Otto wants to destroy everyone and everything to prove his … ahem … “superiority” (his words, not mine).
As he’s more closely associated with Daredevil and his “street level” crime world, I can’t find a reason to take the Owl seriously in this arc. The super-high threat level is always connected to Otto and his increasing insanity. Even the Kingpin, one of Spidey’s all-time greatest foes says he “fears” Doc Ock. During a huge battle sequence in Spectacular #75, Otto is able to dispatch the Owl fairly easily and Spider-Man swings by the defeated mobster and leaves him for his own people to deal with. But Spidey remains laser focused on taking down Doctor Octopus.
That leads to the first of two bonafide “first pumping” moments for Spider-Man during this arc. As Otto waves Black Cat around like a rag doll, promising to kill her off once he dismantles Spidey, Spider-Man becomes a man possessed. While previous Spidey/Otto confrontations had ended with Spider-Man webbing his mechanical arms together, or finding some other way to temporarily disable him, in this story, Spider-Man takes the fight directly to Otto, ripping his four arms off in a moment of such shocking violence, I temporarily forgot this was a Spider-Man comic.
But I totally buy into this total domination and dismantling of Otto for one specific reason: Spidey did it for love. As someone who ranks Spider-Man: Blue as one of my favorite comic book stories ever, I will be the first to admit that I am an absolute sucker for Spidey in love. Maybe because I’m a bit of a helpless romantic myself (who married my real life Mary Jane and have a child without worrying about the drama of the Clone Saga or One More Day to nullify things), I’m drawn to seeing a Spider-Man/Peter having his feelings for a woman be reciprocated. There are countless reasons why the Spider-Man/Felicia romance is doomed to fail (and does), but for the purposes of this story the reader only sees the “good stuff” in their romance. The moment Spidey discovers that she’s still alive after he figured she was dead at the bottom of the river is captured with so much glee and exuberance by Al Milgrom’s pencils that I am completely emotionally satisfied by her revival.
So with Spidey’s jubilation for Cat in mind, I didn’t even blink when Spider-Man is so angered by Otto’s manhandling of Felicia, he snaps and rips his arms off.
At the same time, the moment where Felicia is gunned down by what seems to be 950 different henchman of Otto’s feel’s so deflating and depressing. It’s a total “here we go again,” moment for Spider-Man fans, who at the time this was published (1983) probably thought back to the Brooklyn Bridge and a certain blonde being thrown off the top of it. And unlike Spidey’s past love interests, Felicia was actually someone who could hold her own on the battlefield, making for a very unique romantic dynamic. Fortunately, Black Cat would survive the attack in Spectacular #76.
The end of the gang war and the hospitalization of Felicia set up the second act of the arc, which I think is Spider-Man storytelling at its best. Spidey has to contend with a repaired and madder than ever Doc Ock telegraphing that he’s out for the hero’s blood. Peter is physically and emotionally exhausted from the gang war battle and Felicia’s struggles to hang on and live, that he actually seeks out his friends and family for one last “good-bye” just in case he doesn’t survive his battle with Otto.
Some of my favorite Spider-Man stories are those where Spider-Man initially doubts his ability to overcome the odds – whether it’s defeating the Sinister Six alone, or taking down the unstoppable Juggernaut. I’ve long talked about Peter Parker’s relateability and humanity, and nothing captures that better than him kissing his Aunt May good-bye because he knows Otto, after his latest humiliation at the hands of Spider-Man, is only out after one thing: the death of his greatest adversary. The splash page panel that closes Spectacular #78, Spider-Man leaping out the hospital window to take on Doc Ock with the caption “there is no time for farewells … there is only time for death,” is just phenomenal stage setting by Mantlo and Milgrom.
The despair of the previous issue makes Spider-Man’s eventual victory over Doc Ock in Spectacular #79 an even greater achievement. As has been the case in other classic confrontations (and as an inverse to how he ended things with Otto the last time the met) Spider-Man has to outsmart Doc Ock to avoid becoming roadkill. He lures Otto into a construction zone and then ties up his mechanical arms in a set of steel beams and girders. Otto brings everything down around him in a last ditch attempt to take his enemy out, and ends up being embarrassed by Spider-Man again when the hero saves himself and his adversary.
Then Spider-Man just oozes bad-assery in a way that would almost be jarring for long-time Spidey comic readers if the whole thing wasn’t just so damn satisfying. He warns Otto to never come after him again. These words are spoken with such authority, I’m half expecting Spider-Man to brandish a rifle and whistle “Farmer in the Dell.”
Otto, of course, wouldn’t listen, but unless there’s another major “blind spot” that I haven’t read, this battle feels like the last truly “great” Spider-Man/Otto war until he found a way to switch minds/bodies with Peter last December in Amazing Spider-Man #698. The Doc Ock I first encountered in ASM #296-297 was a sniveling mess who was afraid of the countless beatdown’s he received from Spidey. Obviously, thanks to how I was able to resolve this Owl/Octopus Wars blind spot, my very first storyline as a 7-year-old comic book reader now has context.
All images from Spectacular Spider-Man #73-78: Bill Mantlo, Al Milgrom & Jim Mooney