By Jim Dandeneau

For years back when I was in high school, there was a beat-to-hell copy of Spectacular Spider-Man #200, crumpled foil cover and all, sitting in the vanity in the bathroom my siblings and I shared. It was weirdly compelling even though I wasn’t much of a Spider-Man guy beyond the cartoon – and the Maximum Carnage Sega Genesis game. It was the climax of a story I hadn’t read anything of, and while the creative team did a great job of giving readers all the information we needed to pick it up and run, I still can’t say with any certainty that the story mattered all that much to me. For some reason, though, it did compel me.

Decades later, going back to read a random issue of the series – a tie-in to an X-Men crossover event that I still haven’t read all of yet, with 15 years of semi-pro writing about comics under my much larger belt – I think I figured it out. 

Sal Buscema scares the shit out of me.

Now, Buscema can draw normal quite well. The issue is bookended by mundanity: Flash’s apartment at the beginning of the story could be the inside of any apartment building during a serious weather event – the power cuts in and out, the windows are boarded up, and Flash even scolds Betty for using a gas powered space heater inside (mark that one, though – it’s Chekhov’s Public Service Announcement). And the issue wraps with Betty and Flash out on the street, celebrating the end of the crossover with a hug and a laugh. Buscema (being the pro that he is) plays the framing sequences completely straight. The panel angles are straightforward, the sequences conventional, the figures compact and realistic. The way Betty hangs on Flash at a few points in these sequences has a positively romance-comic feel to it.

It’s in the middle sequence where things get surreal, and Buscema’s art takes a leap into greatness. You see, Spectacular Spider-Man #148 is an Inferno tie-in (the Madelyne Pryor/Magik one, not the Moira/Destiny/Mystique one), and it’s ideally constructed for an editorially-mandated tie-in issue from a series completely unrelated to the main point of the crossover. Spider-Man had nothing to do with Limbo, its demons, its rulers, or the twisting Summers family tree, so Gerry Conway and Buscema wisely decided to focus this issue on Betty Brant and Flash Thompson… as New York City quite literally goes to hell around them. Betty takes shelter in Flash’s apartment, and two random demons decide to screw with them. To play with their food, if you will.

Flash and Betty draw the attention of these two nobody demons who decide to go after them as a little snack, and to add a little flavor to their meals, the demons take the forms of two beings who will torment their food the most. Flash’s demon took the guise of the person he admired most: Spider-Man. Betty’s demon appeared to her in the form of the rotting corpse of her recently deceased husband, Ned Leeds (who’s the Hobgoblin, but you don’t really need to know that for the story to work). “Ned” comes tapping at Flash’s window; Betty loses it; and Buscema kicks things up a notch. There’s something completely unhinged about the way he draws people in emotional crisis. And I mean this in an almost literal sense. 

While Flash is onto his demon as an impostor almost as soon as he sees him, “Spidey” cracks him across the face and webs him to an antenna on top of the building. Flash manages to use a screwdriver to cut his way out and jump the impostor – but when Flash pulls the mask off of his assailant, he reveals… well, it can only be described as a cool experiment in what Venom might have been. His jaw tears apart under Buscema’s hand. Imagine Venom’s expressive Spider-Man silhouette, mouth and eyes – only with Spider-Man’s traditional coloring. And instead of the symbiote’s fangs and long tongue, the design offers only a negative space for the mouth and eyes. It’s weird, even for a comics reader accustomed to demons and aliens with vaguely human outlines, but that’s why it works so well. 

Sal Buscema is probably, like, eight people’s favorite Spider-Man artist. This is perfectly okay: Spidey’s artistic alumni include some hitters, and Smilin’ Sal is definitely no Ditko, Gil Kane, or John Romita. But he does something that no McFarlane or Martin or Ramos ever really pulled off – he makes psychological horror really work here. When Betty sees undead Ned at the window her pupils contract to dots and her jaw seemingly disconnects as she runs screaming from the zombie crashing through the window. When Buscema turns to showing Betty’s terror, it feels surreal: the proportions of her body all stretch, the camera angles skew, and everything gets a hurried sense of movement. That is, when he’s not showing a momentary flash or abject fear in his character work. Betty runs, and you feel as unbalanced as she must. She tumbles down the stairs in a terrified, cluttered manner, all carefully conveyed by the artist.

In fact, if you go back through his other work at Marvel, you see conscious choices by Buscema everywhere in this issue. I knew him from his work on these old issues of Spectacular, but I really grew to love him when he stepped in as the artist on the back half of Walter Simonson’s justifiably beloved run on The Mighty Thor. He quite ably fills Simonson’s artistic shoes at the end of that epic story, bringing all the creative energy and vivid angularity that Simonson had on his solo issues. But even at the end of that story, as he captures Loki’s face at the moment when Thor snaps his arm, Buscema doesn’t do the same distended expressions that he does when he’s showing someone’s tenuous grip on their own reality as in these Spidey issues. It’s unique, and considered.

Having said that, there’s one artistic decision which doesn’t seem to work especially well in the issue – and that’s how Buscema designed the demons in their base form. They’re very bland. Yet on further reflection, I think that also might be the point. Inferno is about S’ym and Na’stirh attacking Earth with the help of the Goblin Queen, and the X-Men and New Mutants fighting back to try and save their friends and loved ones (and past versions of themselves uh…spoilers I guess). Limbo’s not about Spider-Man, it’s not about Flash Thompson or Betty Brant, so why should the demon lackeys of the main baddies be anything other than unmemorable? 

It works really well that the only time these two do anything worth a moment’s consideration is when they reflect something back at the characters we’ve known for, at this point, 30 years-worth of Spider-Man stories. Buscema is a thoughtful enough creator that I feel like we can give him credit for an artistic choice, here. 

Towards the end of the story Betty eventually talks herself out of her panic and becomes the real hero of the issue, and Buscema shows that transformation beautifully. She decides to take control of her situation, the artwork going from dotted pupils hid behind distended fingers to an attack eyebrow set that – were you to put them on a real human – would send everyone in her path scurrying for cover. She is pissed.

Just after demon-Spidey and Flash crash in through the window, she stuffs the conspicuous space heater into Zombie Ned’s arms, grabs Flash and runs before carbon monoxide (or the random occult candles that Zombie Ned lit around the apartment) get them all. Boom. This issue of Spectacular ends a tiny bit after Inferno does – the sun rises, the “white noise” of crying babies (a very nice touch in the narration) ends, and the Empire State Building stops trying to eat people. 

And so Betty and Flash regain their normal proportions and walk off arm-in-arm into the sunrise, presumably to find the one diner that stayed open through the whole thing. It’s compelling though: for a minute there, Spectacular Spider-Man was the scariest book Marvel was publishing.


Spectacular Spider-Man #148 “Night of the Living Ned!”
Written by Gerry Conway
Art by Sal Buscema
Colors by Bob Sharen

Letters by Rick Parker


Jim Dandeneau has been writing about comics and nerd culture for 15 years, most recently for Den of Geek and as the co-host of Open World Chat, a podcast about all things nerd. When he’s not talking about Legends of Tomorrow or hatchet orders for extremely complicated superhero comics, he spends most of his time being mildly belligerent and vaguely nonsensical on Twitter here!


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