Out of the Vault – Amazing Spider-Man #165 and 166

Okay, so last year at this time, I covered a Flash story from the 90’s that pretty much hit all the standard Christmas story marks. It had your bad guys ruining the season, a kid in danger, and some heavy-handed “reason for the season” symbolism.

For this year’s Christmas Vault, let’s go back another 18 years before that, to 1975, and see how Spider-Man celebrated Christmas through the efforts of writer Len Wein, penciler Ross Andru and inker Mike Esposito. One of the dangers of monthly comics is that after a while, the stories become simultaneously stale and ridiculously convoluted because the creators keep recycling the same villains and formulas over and over again. Add Christmas to the mix, and this is sure to be a saccharine yawn-fest. So let’s get this over with.

The story, as was normal for Spider-Man at the time, is a two-parter, so the first half, “Stegron Stalks the City,” has barely a reference to Christmas. Spider-Man is on patrol when his Spider-Sense warns him of a crime in progress. He investigates and is attacked by a shadowy figure.

The Andru/Esposito team was never my favorite, because Andru’s contorted anatomy lacked the dynamism and control of someone like John Buscema or Neal Adams, while Esposito’s inks had none of the beauty of Joe Sinnott’s or the gritty detail of Dick Giordano’s. But the chiaroscuro here works really well. Like I say, they were never my favorites, but it was this storyline in particular that made me appreciate the things they did well.

Turns out, the guy Spidey fought had just robbed this place, which is a secret S.H.I.E.L.D. lab. What did he steal? We never actually find out. But as the title says, the guy who did the robbing is…

Stegron, the Dinosaur Man! And he has kidnapped the son of one-armed biologist Dr. Curt Connors in order to force Connors to work on a secret project (with the stuff he stole from S.H.I.E.L.D. perhaps?). Later, Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson have a lovers’ quarrel, while J. Jonah Jameson is having his brain scanned for some secret project to destroy Spider-Man. But who cares, right? Because there’s a dinosaur man on the loose.

And even better, he’s bringing dinosaur skeletons… to life!

Spider-Man fights Stegron, but he and the skeletons get away. Meanwhile, a new menace rises to battle Stegron, but then, you knew this would happen as soon as I said the name Curt Connors, didn’t you?

Which brings us to the Christmas issue, dated March 1976, titled in the holiday spirit, “War of the Reptile-Men!” This being before the current warm-blooded dinosaurs theory gained popularity.

So Spider-Man goes to see his old friend, Dr. Connors, because Stegron was once Connors’s lab assistant, so if anyone should know how to beat him, it should be Connors.

Except that the doctor is out, and in his place is The Lizard. After a brief battle, the Lizard escapes and Spider-Man learns about the kidnapping of his son. And after a little housekeeping to set up future plotlines involving J. Jonah’s mind-controlled Spider-Slayer robots and Peter’s failing love-life contrasted against Harry Osborne’s impending marriage, we get down to the reason why we even bought this issue: Christmas dinosaur rampage!

You see, Stegron’s gun doesn’t just reanimate the skeletons. By turning it up, he can put the flesh back on them and bring them completely back to life, after which Dr. Connors will perfect a process to clone an entire army of them to conquer the world. Oh, why oh why couldn’t Jurassic Park III have used this plotline?

Except Dr. Connors is now The Lizard and much more interested in kicking Stegron’s scaly ass! Or, you know, tail.

Spider-Man shows up just as the re-fleshed dinosaurs are beginning their rampage through Central Park!

I don’t know which is funnier, the fact that Spider-Man’s plan is to induce panic in the dinosaurs or the fact that he thinks a couple of police cruisers will be able to stop them.

So Spider-Man confronts Stegron and The Lizard, and things look bad for him, caught between the two of them. For about a second, anyway, until he uses his web-shooters to dose The Lizard with a re-Connors-fying serum, while Stegron flees out into the park. Which leads to this…

Seriously, this has to be a contender for one of the ten most awesome single comics panels from the entire decade of the 70’s, and it so perfectly captures the “anything can happen” spirit that drives comics at their most appealing.

Unfortunately, there isn’t enough room  in the issue for anything but a perfunctory ending, so Spidey saves Billy, Curt Connors reverses the polarity on Stegron’s gun to revert the dinosaurs to lifeless skeletons again, and as Stegron is making his escape, he (being cold-blooded) succumbs to the cold and tumbles into the freezing river to drown while lamenting that he should have waited till Spring. Ya think?

So the city is saved, and the Connors family is back together to exchange presents by the tree, and Spider-Man delivers a final Christmas greeting.

You know, I probably wouldn’t hate Christmas quite so much if we got more Christmas stories like this. Like if Santa’s sleigh was pulled by dinosaurs! How cool would that be?

Merry Dino-Spider-Christmas from Digger and me!

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