Marvel Madness

That Time Spider-Man Had a Mental Breakdown

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I don’t know what it is about Spider-Man, but the guy really lends himself to some truly fun and goofy stories. It may just be the dynamic between Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, it could be the power-set of the titular hero, or it could be because he fights some of the silliest villains in the Marvel Universe, but whatever the cause, Spider-Man is usually a good source of fun Marvel stories. I’ve been re-reading the classic Lee/Ditko run lately, and I’ve kind of reached a point similarly to the one I’ve been having in my read of the various Doctor Strange series’. They’re kind of all ridiculous, and could easily all be installments of Marvel Madness. I mean, things like Spider-Man defeating the Sandman by sucking him up with a high-tech vacuum were happening basically every issue. But every now and then some story pops up that so utterly delights me that I can’t help but bring it to you. And today is one such story. Because this issue has a whole lot of things that are relevant to my comic book interests. We have Spider-Man dealing with the tremendous strain of being Spider-Man, we have nonsensical Peter Parker relationship drama, we have a twist villain, we have some prominent J Jonah Jameson, and most importantly, we have a shockingly convoluted plot. Just toss in Doctor Doom and the Juggernaut and you would have the perfect Marvel comic. To me at least.

Now, there is some context that we need to establish before we get into the main plot of this issue. Because for the last couple of issues surrounding today’s story we’ve had to deal with Aunt May’s increasingly feeble health. She had a heart attack while Peter was battling the Green Goblin, and since then he’s become convinced that she’s going to die at any moment. And this has led Peter to be very cautious as Spider-Man, running away from fights with Green Goblin and Sandman because he’s worried he’ll be hurt and unable to take care of Aunt May. And this rash of seemingly cowardly behavior has not gone unnoticed by those who want to hurt Spider-Man, especially J Jonah Jameson. So things are pretty stressful in the life of our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, which isn’t helped by the fact that all of Aunt May’s medical expenses has resulted in them being in even tighter financial straights than normal. And, because it’s his only consistent source of money, Peter decides to put on his costume and find some trouble to photograph for the Daily Bugle. And, as luck would have it, he quickly stumbles across some criminals in the middle of a robbery, and after setting up his camera, he begins to battle them.

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Peter gets some pretty decent pictures, but it’s all ruined when he gets a surprise visitor. A recently re-hired reporter for the Daily Bugle named Foswell arrives on the scene to write about the crime. Foswell was previously arrested by Spider-Man for committing some crimes himself, and Peter is really wary of the man. Not to mention the fact that he can’t sell these pictures to Jameson now, since Foswell would know that Peter wasn’t on the scene. So the whole event was a wash, other than stopping some crime, and Peter decides to head over to the Bugle offices instead to flirt with his kind-of girlfriend Betty Brant. But things aren’t going well there either, because Peter notices that Betty is still corresponding with a former Bugle reporter named Ned Leeds who is on an extended trip to Europe. This fills Peter with self-doubt regarding his relationship with Betty, just adding to the pile of anxiety that he’s accruing.

Peter then heads out of the office while we stay behind and check out the office of J Jonah Jameson, possibly my second favorite Marvel character of all time. Jameson is less than thrilled with the story Foswell gives him about the minor robbery, but is impressed by the antipathy that Foswell feels toward Spider-Man. Which gives him the idea of letting other people write weekly columns about how much they hate Spider-Man, instead of just him. And to get that material he sends out some reporters into the streets of Manhattan, asking them to badmouth Spider-Man as much as possible. Which has a couple effects. First, the reporters earn the ire of Flash Thompson, Peter Parker’s biggest bully and Spider-Man’s biggest fan. Flash yells at the reporters and just generally tries to sabotage their job while complaining about how much he hates Peter Parker. And second, it gets the attention of a renowned psychiatrist named Dr. Ludwig Rinehart. And why is Rinehart interested in these reports? Well…

 

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So yeah, Dr. Rinehart has become convinced by Spider-Man’s erratic behavior of late that he’s about to have a total and complete mental breakdown, possibly because he thinks he actually is a spider. Jonah finds this all perfectly logical, and decides to help Rinehart out. Rinehart wants to study Spider-Man so that they can be perfectly sure of his diagnosis, but to do that they’ll need to track down the mysterious crime fighter. So Jameson agrees to post a whole story in the Daily Bugle about Rinehart’s visit, and requests that Spider-Man approach him for some therapy.

Peter obviously reads this, and is pretty thrown off by it. At first he finds it insulting, and just assumes that it’s Jameson messing with him. But then he starts thinking about how terribly his life has been going, and has to admit that there may be something to it. Things feel like they’re kind of losing control, and Peter decides to see what’s going on with Rinehart. So he quickly runs out of his house, ready to head down to the Bugle when a farce begins. Flash Thompson is convinced that Peter is trying to steal the affections of Liz Allan, the girl he intimidates into liking him, and he decides to follow Peter. Obviously Peter’s spider-sense picks Flash up, and he decides to throw him off by planting one of his Spider Signals, making Flash follow it like a crow who saw something shiny. But with Flash off his tail he’s able to change into his Spider-Man costume and swing to the Bugle offices. Which is when something a little shocking happens.

 

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Spider-Man was just swinging along when an oddly silent Doctor Octopus came flying out of nowhere to attack him. Peter didn’t exactly have time to think about what was going on, and immediately starts attacking Doctor Octopus. But when he throws some punches the figure disappears as abruptly as it appeared. Which is a little confusing. And, to make matters worse, before Peter can get his bearings Sandman comes pouring out of the ground below him, ready to attack. Once again Spider-Man has to use his agility to dodge out of the way, only for Sandman to vanish as well. Which really starts to freak Peter out. He knows that these figures weren’t there, but they seemed so real at the time. But with no answers available he starts to continue his trek, when the Vulture appears out of nowhere and attack him.

But this too appears to be a hallucination, and Peter decides to abandon his whole trip. He lands safely on a rooftop and begins to panic. He has no idea what’s going on, and because of the article about Rinehart he starts to worry that he may actually be going insane. And because he’s terrified that he’ll imagine some random bystander as one of his villains and attack them, he’s afraid that he’s unsafe. So Peter returns home to think about what’s going on. He gets to his house, and changes out of his costume, only to find himself pale, drenched in sweat, and looking insane. This clinches it for Peter, and he decides that the only thing he can do is go to Dr. Rinehart. So he puts the costume back on, and heads out into the night, heading for the address that was posted in the paper. And when he gets to Rinehart’s home he finds the door open, waiting for him, and something shocking inside.

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That’s less than ideal. Spider-Man has walked into the office of Dr. Rinehart, and everything appears to be upside down. Spider-Man flees from the room, trying to figure out what’s going on, when Dr. Rinehart calls him back. And this time Spider-Man is shocked to find that the room is the right-side up, and Rinehart is very confused. This is the last bit of convincing that Peter needed, and as he heads into Rinehart’s office he begins spilling everything. He doesn’t give away his secret identity, but he tells him all about the strain he’s been under, and the hallucinations he’s been having. And, just on cue, visions of Doctor Octopus and Sandman reappear, freaking Spider-Man out. But Rinehart manages to calm Spider-Man down, and the begin talking.

However, things are happening back at the Bugle office that are going to make things awkward. Turns out Jonah just got word that Dr. Rinehart’s credentials are fake, and the man is a fraud. Whoops! This throws Jonah into a rage, worried that his credibility will be damaged, and he storms out of the offices to find Rinehart. And, as luck would have it, Flash Thompson happens to be walking by at the same time, and when he recognizes Jameson as the newspaper mogul who hates his hero, Flash begin following Jameson and heckling him. Jameson is obviously not a fan of this, but he’s so focused on finding Rinehart that he just lets Flash follow him to Rinehart’s house. And as the pair burst into Rinehart’s office, they’re shocked to find Spider-Man going through a therapy session. Rinehart yells at Jameson, telling him that he was about to get Spider-Man to reveal his identity and quit being a hero, but Jameson is too mad about the lying to care. He tells Spider-Man about Rinehart’s lack of credentials, and the “doctor” flees into the house. Spider-Man gives chase and realizes that the whole house has been set up with projectors and rotating rooms, all designed to make him look insane. And there’s only one person who could pull of crap like this. Mysterio! Spider-Man is able to capture Rinehart, and remove all of his makeup, revealing him to actually be Quentin Beck, the former special effects artist who became the criminal Mysterio. Beck then spills the beans, explaining that he had been reading in the Bugle that Spider-Man seemed to be emotionally unbalanced lately, and came up with this plan to drive him over the edge. And he would have gotten away with it if it hadn’t been for that meddling J Jonah Jameson! So, everything wraps up nicely. Mysterio is caught, Spider-Man isn’t insane, Jameson is mad that he botched a plan to defeat Spider-Man, and Flash Thompson got to see his hero in action.

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This story is a whole lot of fun. Like I said earlier, it checks off a lot of my interests in regards to Spider-Man comics. I’m always a fan of the ridiculous and soap operatic drama that Peter gets entangled in with all of his various romantic sub-plots, and this issue manages to stick a whole lot of that in. Likewise, I’ve always been a big fan of the idea that Flash Thompson hates Peter Parker with the passion of a thousand suns, but is also the biggest fan and defender that Spider-Man has, and I’m stunned that this dynamic has never been worked into one of the films before. Similarly, I’m a huge fan of Mysterio as a villain, and would love to see him in a movie some day. But until then I can just appreciate the fact that basically every Mysterio comic is totally goofy and insane, and well worth your time. But I think the real draws here are the presence of J Jonah Jameson, hatching yet another scheme to destroy Spider-Man, and the all-encompassing theme of “life sucks when you’re Spider-Man.” J Jonah Jameson is legitimately one of my favorite comics characters of all time, and I love that these old stories so often feature him going out of his way to give money or press to lunatic who want to kill Spider-Man. He’s fantastic. And the whole premise of this story feeds so tremendously into the ongoing narrative of Spider-Man’s struggles. I’ve talked about it before, but one of the key ingredients to great Spider-Man stories is him overcoming the fact that his life sucks. Peter Parker has had a horrible couple of weeks by the beginning of this story, but he’s still being Spider-Man. He legitimately gets convinced that he’s having a mental breakdown, but even that doesn’t stop him. He’s resigned to the fact that he has great power, and thus great responsibility, so he’s going to keep being Spider-Man, no matter how horrible that makes his life. And that ethos is one of the things that I most love about this character.

 

The Amazing Spider-Man #24, “Spider-Man Goes Mad!” was written by Stan Lee, illustrated by Steve Ditko, and lettered by Sam Rosen, 1965.

 

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Poor Simple Flash

 

 

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