Spectacular Spider-Man #194-196
Issue(s): Spectacular Spider-Man #194, Spectacular Spider-Man #195, Spectacular Spider-Man #196
This begins with Dr. Kafka continuing to work with Vermin, who is reverting between his monster and Edward Whelan forms with greater frequency, which Kafka says (correctly, it will turn out) is a good sign because it means that the Vermin personality knows that it is on its way out.
You can see the very overt psychological aspect in the scan above. Whelan created the Vermin persona to protect himself from the trauma in his life (as we saw in Vermin's previous appearance, it was trauma that pre-dated Baron Zemo).
However, the therapy sessions are interrupted by a horde of Sal Buscemonsters.
Both Vermin and Kafka are taken by the monsters. We learn that the monsters are actually the other people that Baron Zemo experimented on in the story that revealed that Vermin was a creation of Zemo. Many of the mutates were slaughtered by SHIELD in that story, before Cap told SHIELD what they were, and the rest were taken in by SHIELD so that they could be cured. But SHIELD failed, and they escaped, and they've gone to Vermin and others, trying to unite all the mutates so that they can work together.
And they want Vermin to lead them.
Spider-Man investigates the attack on Kafka's medical facility (which is located at NYU). He also gets an earful from police lieutenant Angela Cairn, who disagreed with keeping Vermin at NYU instead of sending him to the Vault, and who expresses the view that Vermin should just have been shot.
Meanwhile, we check in on Baron Zemo, who also has mommy and daddy issues.
He burns his mask.
By the way, i have a pretty strict rule about not reading any narration written in cursive, but i gather the gist of it is that for this story Zemo is rejecting the idea of following in his father's footsteps as he did for so long. Unlike Vermin, Baron Zemo got more adoption in the larger Marvel universe, so while DeMatteis (sort of) created him (or more accurately, majorly overhauled the character after his one prior appearance), he's not as personal a character. I think Zemo is more defined by his appearance in Roger Stern's Masters of Evil story (certainly that was the basis for his subsequent Thunderbolts appearances). So i don't pay as much attention to what DeMatteis is doing with Zemo as a character as i do with Vermin. (In any event, the narration is really from Kafka, writing in a journal, not Zemo.)
Spider-Man comes across the mutates stealing from a grocery store, and he attacks. Vermin attacks him back, but when Spider-Man demands to know where Kafka is, Vermin changes back into Whelan. But Spider-Man is overwhelmed by the mutates and taken prisoner. At least he's brought back to Kafka. The mutates decide to kill Kafka and Spider-Man, but Whelan convinces them not to. Whelan and the other mutates share some kind of psychic bond, so they are willing to listen to him.
Unfortunately, Baron Zemo shows up.
Zemo is able to control the mutates (i guess through the same bond that they share), and he orders them to kill Kafka if Spider-Man won't surrender.
Not content to delve into the psychological depths of Vermin and Baron Zemo, DeMatteis takes the opportunity of Dr. Kafka being threatened to show us the psychological traumas in her backstory. She had a neglectful mother and a deformed, mentally handicapped sister, Norma. She took care of the sister because the mother wouldn't, and that's what led to her becoming a psychiatrist.
Zemo forces the mutates to remove Spider-Man's mask. But he doesn't seem to look at Peter's face. He's more interested in wearing Spider-Man's mask himself.
At this point Vermin manages to reject Zemo's mind control. But he does it by giving in to the Vermin side, which tries to go too far and eat Zemo.
Spider-Man tries to stop him, but ultimately it's an appeal from Kafka that gets Whelan back in control, and that is the final action that results in the "death" of Vermin.
Zemo is defeated, and Whelan says that he's going to give himself up and stand trial for his crimes. Kafka starts trying to help the mutates, and Whelan will assist.
DeMatteis created Vermin, so i'm not going to say what the character should be. But DeMatteis has been doing an examination of all of Spider-Man's villains since he started this run, and it feels like he's taking what worked well with his acclaimed Kraven's Last Hunt story and just applying it down the line. Kraven was mentally ill, Green Goblin was mentally ill, Puma was mentally ill (or something), and now Vermin is mentally ill. And in Vermin's case, he could have just been a tragic figure because he was turned into a monster by Baron Zemo. We didn't necessarily need a deeper psychological explanation than that, especially when you look at it as the latest in a string of "Who's crazy now?". Looking back, though, it's really not that bad. Harry Osborn's mental instability was established long ago. DeMatteis' examination of the Vulture breaks the pattern. And this is really just a continuation of what DeMatteis started with Vermin at the start of this run. And it does (at least temporarily) provide some closure for Vermin, allowing him to overcome his own problems instead of, say, just getting cured by Mr. Fantastic. The fact that Edward Whelan will later revert to Vermin, making him another character like Lizard and so many others that constantly struggles with their super-villain side, shouldn't be held against this story. I think if DeMatteis had his way, Whelan would just have continued to show up as a civilian, maybe working with Dr. Kafka to try to help other villains. And that would have been a nice direction for the character.
I also love that the story gives Sal Buscema an opportunity to draw tons of his trademark ghoulies and goonies. Buscema's depiction of Zemo, however, is too cartoony.
Quality Rating: B-
Chronological Placement Considerations: This arc starts pretty soon after the previous one. I showed there that Peter and MJ were having a fight. This one opens with Peter having filled their apartment with flowers to make up for it, on the same night.
At the very end of the story, Mr. Fantastic is said to be outside Kafka's office with equipment from SHIELD. And Mr. Fantastic has spoken with Matt Murdock, who has agreed to take Whelan on as a client. So Mr. Fantastic and Daredevil are listed as Characters Appearing.
Continuity Insert? N
My Reprint: N/A
Inbound References (2): showAshley Kafka, Baron Zemo (Helmut), Daredevil, Mary Jane Watson, Mr. Fantastic, Nocturne (Angela Cairn), Spider-Man, Vermin
Hmmm...Baron Zemo is a comic fan...wonder if he's gotten to read any Citizen V appearances yet? Could give him some ideas.
Posted by: Ataru320 | April 22, 2016 9:28 AM
This storyline was practically a horror comic when I was a kid between the grotesque monster people and Zemo's mutilated face.
Posted by: Red Comet | April 22, 2016 10:25 AM
I finally watched Amazing Spider-Man 2 the other week. Their Dr. Kafka was the thing I hated most about it.
Posted by: Berend Boer | April 22, 2016 3:03 PM
As I've mentioned before, I'm a fan of the work that J.M. DeMatteis & Sal Buscema did on SSM. These three issues are among my favorite.
Even though DeMatteis utilized Vermin semi-regularly, this three issue story really feels like a proper sequel to the character's introduction in Captain America a decade earlier.
It's also an effective use of Baron Zemo. For the last year or so, with the Vermin storyline, Zemo has been name-dropped on a few occasions as the individual who caused his transformation. That nicely builds up to Zemo himself finally showing up here. It's a dramatic appearance, as at the time I really didn't even expect that Zemo would be allowed to appear. Yes, DeMatteis was the writer who took the semi-obscure one-off villain "Phoenix" and revamped him into a major adversary. But I figured that the Captain America and Avengers books had a lock on Zemo, meaning he wouldn't show up in a Spider-Man story. So it was definitely a surprise when he *did* show up here.
Zemo's appearance also had an impact since he wasn't wearing his mask, and Buscema drew him with a face that almost resembled raw hamburger. Between that, Buscema giving the Mutates much more grotesque designs than they had previously appeared, and the generally atmospheric quality of his art at this time, all created a really unsettling story. As was noted by Red Comet above, this was practically a horror comic.
Posted by: Ben Herman | April 22, 2016 4:46 PM
This comic was quixotically in my elementary school library for some reason, and it scared the shit out of me.
Posted by: MikeCheyne | April 22, 2016 5:52 PM
This question keeps popping up in my head: why was Herb Trimpe ordered to emulate the Image style, but not the other remaining 1960s artists? Especially Sal Buscema, the guy who was drawing Spider-Man, the character that put Todd MacFarlane in his place to cofound Image to begin with?
Posted by: Mark Drummond | April 22, 2016 9:03 PM
Whelan would be briefly reverted to Vermin a couple of times during DeMatteis's run by Judas Traveller but only for a few pages.
Posted by: Michael | April 22, 2016 10:59 PM
In Alter Ego #137 describing his 1990s stint at Marvel, Roy Thomas basically claims the opposite. According to his narrative, Mike Rockwitz bragged of demanding that Trimpe change his style or get fired.
Considering that Trimpe also repeatedly said that his Image-derived work was the best art he'd ever done, I have to wonder if both statements were calculated in the hopes of getting Marvel to hire him again.
Posted by: Mark Drummond | April 23, 2016 12:09 AM
correction: Alter Ego #136.
Posted by: Mark Drummond | April 23, 2016 12:13 AM
By the way, I agree with fnord that it would have been wonderful if this really was the absolutely final Vermin story, with Edward Whelan permanently cured for all time.
That's the thing with character at Marvel (as well as DC). It's very difficult to permanently change the status quo of nearly all of them, to kill someone off for good or have a villain genuinely reform or be cured. Even back in 1992, before I fully appreciated how important the illusion of change was to Marvel's titles, reading this story I half-expected that at some point some future writer would bring back Vermin.
fnord has commented on other examples of this in recent entries, such as the Constrictor's desire to reform quickly being overturned, or the Absorbing Man & Titania's plans to retire from crime after they get married constantly hitting one roadblock after another. Even the Sandman, after well over a decade as a genuinely reformed character, was eventually made evil again. I really think that the only lasting examples of villains reforming have been a few of the Thunderbolts. Even there, there's always half a chance that eventually someone at Marvel is going to decide to have Songbird or Mach-VII go bad again.
Posted by: Ben Herman | April 25, 2016 9:04 AM
DeMatteis is picking up Zemo just where he left him, way back int he "Death of the Red Skull" arc that was DeMatteis's swan song on Captain America. In that story, Zemo decides to move past his father's legacy by the end, but he ends up getting brain-blasted by Mother Superior (later called Sin).
Then Stern had Zemo turn up, still seeking revenge for his father's death, and that became Zemo's default characterization in the wider Marvel Universe. DeMatteis seems to be ignoring all that here and proceeding with his original plans for the character.
Posted by: Omar Karindu | April 25, 2016 4:26 PM
If you think Trimpe's style was bad in the 90s you need to go back and look at Iron Man #39 where he handed in some truly atrocious artwork. The capacity was there long before.
Posted by: Nathan Adler | April 26, 2016 12:27 AM
Considering we have no idea what deadline pressures Herb Trimpe was under, citing Iron Man #39 or any other individual issue in isolation is harsh criticism. He worked in comics for 30 years and unlike people like Frank Miller or Walt Simonson, did fill-ins throughout his career. He also doesn't deserve being slammed for an art style that his editor obviously expected him to work in. Since this is the wrong page for Trimpe to be taking a beating in, I'll end my defense now.
Posted by: Brian C. Saunders | April 26, 2016 3:00 AM
@Ben- there's Emma Frost.
Posted by: Michael | April 26, 2016 7:55 PM
@Michael - I regard Emma Frost as more of an anti-hero than someone who is completely reformed. But, yes, she has never gone back to the out-and-out villainy that she displayed during her time as the White Queen.
Posted by: Ben Herman | April 26, 2016 10:00 PM
I never knew Dematteis used Zemo again in his Spectacular Spider-Man run. You can put me down as one of those disappointed in Zemo's depiction here. This is definitely the Zemo as Dematteis last used him and not the one we've seen in Stern's and Gruenwald's stories. Dematteis needed to do a better job incorporating the latter stories characterization in order to make it work. The Stern Zemo is just a much better villain than Dematteis's Zemo, and what we see here just weakens that.
Posted by: Chris | February 26, 2017 2:22 PM
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