Web of Spider-Man #40-43
Issue(s): Web of Spider-Man #40, Web of Spider-Man #41, Web of Spider-Man #42, Web of Spider-Man #43
Flash Thompson is apparently openly dating Betty Brant now, to the point where he's worried when she's standing next to other guys.
Friendly? Are you sure?
"Several weeks later", Peter tries to pay Betty a visit, but finds that the place is up for sale (and gets to hear the real estate agent mock the lamp Peter bought Betty as a gift, ha ha!).
Peter gets a card from the realtor and then, as Spider-Man, comes across Flash beating up radial flame head guy, saying that Betty has been missing for two weeks. Spider-Man breaks up the fight, slipping a spider-tracer on the guy in the process, and takes one of his pamphlets to Kate Cushing, who, it turns out, is familiar with the guy's organization - or rather, "religious cult" - which is called the Students of Love. Kate's older sister joined the cult and disappeared when she was in her early twenties. Kate calls in Urich to follow up on the realtor, who she suspects works with the cult.
Meanwhile, Flash tails the cult guy, but winds up getting led into a traaaaaaaap.
That's where the spider-tracer comes in handy.
Spider-Man lets the guys run, and he traces the pamphlet guy back to the cult's grounds.
He apparently hasn't seen this movie already, so he waits until nightfall and then approaches Betty, thinking that she'll go with him. But instead she screams and the other cultists show up. In the fight that follows, Betty manages to pull Spider-Man's mask off, and he has to hide in a vent shaft before she recognizes him. This allows him to eavesdrop on a conversation with the cult's "Teacher", and also overhear a conversation from the realtor, who had a visit from Urich.
Spider-Man being semi-trapped at the cult makes him unable to go home, and in the meantime, MJ has a friend over.
Probably shouldn't keep the spare Spidey costumes in the hallway closet.
The friend, Lorraine, winds up sleeping over, and is seen sneaking around the apartment at night.
The next day, Lorraine suggests that Mary Jane do some "revealing" photos.
I know we have to adjust for inflation, but it seems inconsistent for Mary Jane to be so excited about $5,000. In every other book at this time she's being depicted as being such a rich and famous supermodel that you wouldn't think that money would be a motivating factor for her to do something she didn't otherwise want to do. If she wanted to do it but Peter disapproved, that's different, but it's money that seems to be the factor here.
Also the next day, Flash shows up at the Bugle looking for Cushing.
She hands him off to Urich.
I love the little touches in the dialogue, like the "he's Parker's friend alright" and the references to Flash being a Hobgoblin suspect.
Urich brings Flash along while investigating his next lead. He makes Flash his cameraman. "With a name like 'Flash', you're a natural."
Urich's lead is Reverend Tolliver, who we saw in Peter David's original Sin-Eater arc. Tolliver explains how the Teacher performs his miracles, even as Peter, disguised at this point as a cultist, watches it in realtime. (Note also Flash's evil twin brother joke, a reference to Roger Stern's original intentions for the Hobgoblin.)
Now, we see Peter being taken in by this. And of course, Spider-Man has experienced plenty of supernatural stuff - Dr. Strange, the healing power of Zsaji in Secret Wars, etc.. - so there's no reason for him to become susceptible to a cult leader just because of that. Peter David tries to address this by acknowledging that Peter has seen supernatural stuff and that's exactly why he believes that it could be true, and that he has no right to take Betty away from it. But just because a guy can heal people doesn't mean that they should form a cult where people give up their friends and family and identity. Let the guy work in a hospital if he wants to heal people.
Maybe these thoughts would have all gone through Peter's head, but he's interrupted when he notices Betty talking to Kate Cushing's sister and then called out by the Teacher.
Based on recent comments elsewhere on this site, it occurs to me that the Teacher is probably meant to be Middle-Eastern, not simply the victim of a coloring mishap or perhaps secretly the Purple Man.
The Teacher just walks Spider-Man off the compound.
Marvel has been doing this plot for a long time, but that's because the subject of cults was topical for a long time, and it's all about how you do it. Peter David takes a more serious approach than, say, Steve Gerber on Howard the Duck, and a less super-villain-y approach than the various appearances by The Word, Nekra, and the Man-Beast. In fact, Peter David makes that point.
But i find Peter Parker's credulousness a bit disappointing, and his handling of the situation when he tells Kate about her sister is just awful.
This could be another invasion of Newspaper Spider-Man into the comic world again. Peter is equally douchy talking to Mary Jane. MJ decided against the risque modeling assignment at the last minute.
But when Peter finally calls, after having been missing for a day, he rushes her off the phone (granted, he's being rushed too, but why is he using that lady's desk phone?!).
So this happens.
And meanwhile, Spider-Man goes to Flash and tells him that he's not going to do anything about Betty, because she's happy there. Obviously Flash doesn't take that well. But Flash is currently working at a youth center with some kids, and with him is a cop that overhears the conversation and happens to know where the Students of Love compound is (in Jersey, of course). Flash then goes to Reverend Tolliver, who has deprogrammed Love cultists in the past, and asks if he'll do it for Betty if Flash kidnaps her. It turns out Tolliver knows some people that run a surprisingly sophisticated, if violent, operation.
But Spider-Man hasn't completely given up on the cult, despite appearances. He pays a surprise visit to Dr. Druid (who, like in Solo Avengers #10, is ramping up his publicity appearances).
And Dr. Druid clues him in.
But by now Flash has already kidnapped Betty. Flash calls Peter over to his apartment to help with the deprogramming, but Betty appeals to him to make them let her go. But Peter relents after Tolliver asks him if he ever broke any laws for the greater good.
So the deprogramming starts. I honestly haven't been thinking much about Alex Saviuk's art so far. It's solid but not spectacular. But the deprogramming sequence is pretty cool.
The deprogramming has progressed pretty far when the cultists show up en masse.
Including these scans for the "cookie" joke. I'd like a cookie.
Peter has to surrender when the cultists hold a knife to Flash's throat. Tolliver gets away and calls the Bugle (not the police, since what they were doing was illegal). And then it all ends with a fizz. There's a running subplot about a pyromaniac cultist (whose behavior was not in anyway encouraged by the Teacher) and he ultimately sets the cult building on fire, allowing Peter to escape with Flash and Betty. The Teacher is shown to be a hypocrite (which we already knew) by pulling a gun on Peter during the fire and then trying to leave his students behind, although he dies in the fire anyway. We're left with the tragedy of Kate Cushing meeting her still brainwashed sister, who doesn't recognizer her...
...and a still rattled Betty Brant. Nothing bad about the ending it's just all exactly how you expect these things to end, and i usually expect the unexpected from Peter David.
I do like that Peter David covers the bases regarding Spider-Man's prior supernatural experience and the "why not contact Dr. Strange?" type of questions. I may not agree entirely with the way it's handled, but we're not left with the standard "we should be able to ignore the rest of the Marvel universe if the story requires it" type of response. And it's still a well told story with lots of David's characteristic humor along the way.
Oh and here's how the MJ photo plot ends.
Don't make Aunt May dock you, pussy-willows.
Quality Rating: C+
Chronological Placement Considerations: As with the Solo Avengers appearance, i think it's ok for Dr. Druid to appear here even if he's subconsciously under the influence of "Nebula". For the Spider-cast, the MCP puts this in the same "two weeks" during Amazing Spider-Man #304 as Spectacular Spider-Man #140-142, but note that there's also a "Several weeks" gap in this story, so there's lots of overlap going on.
Continuity Insert? N
My Reprint: N/A
Inbound References (2): showAunt May, Ben Urich, Betty Brant, Dr. Druid, Flash Thompson, Kate Cushing, Mary Jane Watson, Rev. Jackson Tolliver, Spider-Man
I guess marriage did change MJ. We know, or at least Ben grimm knows, that MJ has a pretty sordid past, appearing on the cover of a nudie magazine.
Posted by: kveto from prague | July 10, 2014 3:24 PM
"Also the next day, Flash shows up at the Bugle looking for Cushing."
Posted by: JSfan | July 10, 2014 4:19 PM
Thanks, JSfan. Fixed it.
Posted by: fnord12 | July 10, 2014 4:22 PM
This issue presents an sensationalized '80's view of cults and brainwashing, complete with deprogrammers as the good guys. Brainwashing was first introduced as a term after the Korean War. During that war, in the initial period, a third of the American POWs in North Korean and Chinese custody died. Afterward, conditions improved but many American POWs made pro-Communist statements, confessed to crimes, etc. The term brainwashing was applied to explain why they turned against everything they believed in, although of course what happened was that most of them were acting as a result of fear and duress- less than 20 defected to China at the end of the war but the vast majority returned home and told anyone that would listen how badly they were treated by the Chinese and North Koreans.
Posted by: Michael | July 10, 2014 8:28 PM
Michael, thanks for that post. The Manchurian Candidate was perhaps the ur-example of the 'Commie Brainwashing' concept in popular culture; the warmed-over version became grist for the schlock talk-shows of the 80s (and oh my God were there many, almost all of them posing as "thoughtful" and "important" - Morton Downey, anyone?) Cult-mania was part of the pervasive culture of fear and othering in the 80s.
That said, cults - in the sense of hierarchical, exploitative organizations that condition people to believe and behave a certain way, with harsh consequences to defectors - were also a non-negligible concern in this era, from Hare Krsna to EST.
My uncle was a former cult member who later became a member of the Cult Awareness Network and did a lot of work dealing with individuals and families struggling with these organizations. I showed him these comics at the time of release, and while he thought it was neat that the subjects were being tackled, he similarly pointed out that abductions and "deprogramming" as such were a crude tactic rejected by the mainstream of the movement at that point.
Posted by: Cullen | July 10, 2014 11:10 PM
I added the end scene with Kate's sister (or not).
I think PAD is a little more ambiguous about the deprogrammers, at least in the sense that those guys in the stormtrooper outfits sure don't look or act like heroes.
Thanks for the link to PAD's page. I actually think the situation with MJ comes across pretty clearly anyway, with the understanding that this is a Code book.
Posted by: fnord12 | July 11, 2014 10:20 AM
How on earth did MJ get hold of the negatives? Any professional glamour photographer would have to be utterly incompetent to let that happen.
Posted by: Mark Drummond | July 12, 2014 10:46 AM
You don't actually see any negatives in those scans. She's really just humoring Aunt May - "Sure I got rid of the negatives (wink, wink)".
Posted by: clyde | July 13, 2014 3:00 PM
"...it occurs to me that the Teacher is probably meant to be Middle-Eastern, not simply the victim of a coloring mishap or perhaps secretly the Purple Man."
In one of these issues, Spidey calls Teacher a "reject from The Karate Kid," so I think Teacher is meant to be Asian and was the victim of a coloring mishap after all.
Posted by: TCP | September 10, 2014 9:17 PM
I don't think that gray skin tone is a coloring error. I believe that was an industry standard skin color for Middle Easterners back when these issues were coming out. I remember Middle Eastern characters from John Ostrander's Suicide Squad at DC being colored the same.
Posted by: Red Comet | March 5, 2016 3:40 PM
It's not so obvious from the interior art, but the cover of #42 makes it clear that the cheesecake photographer is modeled after editor Jim Salicrup. Compare the photographer's face on the cover to the caricature used for "Salicrup's Section" on the letters page.
Posted by: Tony Lewis | May 22, 2017 4:08 PM
Comments are now closed.
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