TREASURY OF BRITISH COMICS WEEK! My first encounter with perhaps the most enigmatic character in the history of UK British weekly comics was in the pages of the slick 1970s reprint comic Vulcan. The Spider was admittedly a mystery to my childhood self – a criminal mastermind who was the star of his own strip, a baddie who was the lead. The Spider’s origins however went much further back to 1965 and the pages of Lion where his misadventures first began courtesy of writer Ted Cowan and artist Reg Bunn. There the anti-hero star burst onto the New York scene, recruiting henchmen with promises of building a criminal empire that would lead to “crime on a scale that no man ever dreamed.”
What first strikes the reader on revisiting these early The Spider strips is that however pantomime his illegal exploits are, somehow he retains a sinister and unnerving air on the page. The Treasury of British Comics have compiled the first 1960s stories under different titles for the British and US markets. In the UK we have The Spider’s Syndicate of Crime but for readers in the States this premiere volume is instead titled Jerry Siegel’s The Syndicate of Crime. A nod to the Superman co-creator’s contribution to the character, starting with the third serialised story.
It’s fair to say that none of the tales herein are masterpieces of plotting, characterisation and narrative structure. However, each and every one is a thoroughly enjoyable romp, full of unlikely criminal schemes, fantastic gadgets and epic, grandstanding action sequences. The Spider assembles his syndicate with (not to be) trusted second-in-commands safe-cracker Ray Ordini and mad scientist-type Professor Pelham. Opposing him in his plans are police detectives Gilmore and Trask. As the stories progress The Spider finds himself in conflict with other garish crimelords like the illusionist Mirror Man, underworld rival Doctor Mysterioso and the time-displaced Android Emperor.
As Siegel’s influence on the strip comes to the fore it becomes noticeably more outrageous than the early noir melodrama. In fact the final serial here is gloriously ridiculous and all the more fun for it. Reg Bunn’s art has presumably been remastered for this edition and, once again in a Treasury collection, the visuals have never looked as crisp and as stunning as they do here. Bunn’s intricately shaded panels give the New York of The Spider an unsettling, unpredictable feel that matches the serial’s capricious protagonist. The sense of jeopardy and peril in his action sequences in the early stories is epic in its scope, and the Spider himself is an otherworldly, almost demonic physical presence throughout.
We’ve spoken a lot this week in our Treasury of British Comics Week coverage about examples of astonishing comics craft or genius visual storytelling. But it’s equally important to acknowledge that sometimes we just want some good old-fashioned escapist fare to immerse ourselves in and shut out the world for an hour or two. You won’t find a better example of that in the Treasury catalogue than The Spider’s Syndicate of Crime. This is the first in a projected four-volume series and will be an essential purchase for anyone interested in the history of UK weekly comics.
Ted Cowan and Jerry Siegel (W), Reg Bunn (A) • Rebellion/Treasury of British Comics, £14.99
Review by Andy Oliver