Remembering Alan Kupperberg, and the Denny O’Neil Amazing Spider-Man days
As I was vividly recalling each page of one of my childhood possessions, Amazing Spider-Man #221, I realized Denny’s run, save for the Deb Whitman subplot, seems very episodic, like television at the time. This simplicity might be one reason his ASM’s not as widely critically regarded, yet I recall his work distinctly. He’s very obsessed with time- the costume change and the trip back for the antidote come to mind-in a way that helps set the drama in detail. He’s blessed with longtime Spider-Man inker Jim Mooney, who keeps things consistent despite numerous fill-ins over an already-promising John Romita, Jr. I think the last time a cover declared the blurb “Crisis On Campus!”- back in ASM #68, was it?-Jim was often inking John Romita, Sr. or Don Heck.From Alan's Custom Comics work
One of those fill-ins featured Alan Kupperberg, whose work I want to remember today to mark his passing from this world on July 17th, 2015. I remember his name and work on Amazing Spider-Man #221 very clearly. Always a handy utility artist, Alan caught the agility of the wall-crawler, hand springing and kicking his opponent Ramrod, staying a step ahead of the very punk-rock-looking bruiser. I remember his sweaty Dr. Kissick and his sinister Ramrod along with his great Spider-Man figure work. The issue was briefly the only comic book I owned, surviving the ravages of my childhood ownership, so from the day Mom let me get it at North Broad Produce Market, I read it dozens of times. It became one of six comics from 1981 I got in real time. I rarely got to visit that Market, but I loved its citrus smells and would later see Iron Man #169’s dramatic tease about the new Iron Man- but we’ll get to Luke McDonnell July 19th, since that’s his birthday!
He had a good Black Cat you can find in issues of Peter Parker, and kind of excelled in the kind of parodies and cartoon humor with which his professional career began. Just look for Spider-Ham back-ups in Marvel Tales! He also took over the Howard the Duck newspaper strip after Gene Colan. In 1987, he drew the Peter Parker Honeymoon annual and the infamous ASM #289, where Ned Leeds is finally killed as the apparent Hobgoblin in flashback. Blue Devil, Firestorm, JLA, Warlord- his list afterwards at DC is a busy one!
What we’ll do here, though, is spend a few minutes over that one of many art jobs Alan probably spent a couple of weeks knocking out, ever reliably. Spider-Man was still in the long-standing pattern, only briefly messed with by Marv Wolfman when he finally decided Peter ought to at least graduate college, where the company really didn’t want to change his status quo and had a reasonably successful formula to keep pumping out adventures of their busiest trademark. Character studies and short story ingenuity become the episodic recourse. One can only take their best shot at saying something meaningful, like the colorfully-titled “Blues For Lonesome Pinky!”
I remember many times trying to ape Alan’s able splash page, where Spidey soars over Empire State University campus. His ESU phase as a Master’s student in physics and teaching assistant is usually handled over in Peter Parker, referenced in our Roger Stern Spectacular Spider-Man overview. His relationship with Debra Whitman, a secretary at the college, and rivalry with Biff Rifkin over her is, like his Daily Bugle dealings, usually Amazing’s province, under Denny. We’re swept into Dean Sloane’s office for a quick rundown on his status as T.A. and student. But a big creep’s leaning on a Doctor Kissick, nearby, blackmailing the professor for a poison.
Peter consents to a bluegrass bar visit at the behest of his neighbor, the Kinky Friedman-styled country warbler Lonesome Pinkus, who’s become a fixture in recent issues, his goofy lyrics resounding off-key throughout Parker’s apartment building.
Here, the arm of coincidence stretches, with Debbie showing up on a date with her returned ex-husband Biff, and Peter settling on a glass of milk before a wretched Lonesome Pinky performance ends with erratic behavior worthy of a punk rock riot. Why? The beer’s poisoned...and Spider-Man clashes with the spiked patrons. But now, we get O’Neil’s human interest touch: Pinkus tries singing, desperately laying down some blues. This somehow quiets the bar, so as I recall, Spider-Man swings back to ESU campus to consult Dr. Kissick.
His grilling leads to a dose of antidote set aside to complete Ramrod’s ransom scheme. Spider-Man’s moving fast, again gracefully rendered, clock ticking. The pulse-pounding race, however, comes across a hurdle I’ll bet doesn’t surprise you much: Ramrod’s posed masterfully outside, to check out his crime scene. Would you believe he picked this bar because they told him he couldn’t sing and would give him a gig? A guy with an endo-skeleton like his would be a natural for heavy metal. Insults. Hopping. Wall-crushing. But a few mighty thumps from Spidey just aren’t slowing him down, and time’s running out for the bar patrons. Meanwhile, Lonesome Pinkus delivers the performance of his life, eschewing the corny country and western act for some apparently improvised painfully-real blues. I think it makes a subtle cultural comment on country’s new-found pop turn of the times compared to less-put-on, more sincere songwriting of the kind that made Greenwich Village famous, as quintessential 60s kid O’Neil would doubtless know. Lonesome’s expressions by Alan Kupperberg stay with me as much as Spider-Man’s kicks and bounces; facial expressions are his strength.
The junkyard finale actually takes a humorous turn. Ever the wise ass, Spider-Man makes good use of puns and used tires to set Ramrod up for a coup de grace. What do you do with a man with a metallic skeleton and skull who just won’t stop being antisocial? You stick him to a crane-mounted salvage magnet! O’Neil’s been good at finding non-Rogue’s Gallery types Spidey can’t just punch out; he even smushed together his new Hydro Man with the similar classic Sandman to make a mud creature you don’t want to muck with, in ASM #218. I loved Spidey’s immobilization of his bullying metal-enhanced foe.
But where the team goes for the extra-special touch is the depiction of Pinkus grasping his throat. He’s been begged to stay in the Spidey-turned spotlight and keep the crowd in check, because if they rampage elsewhere they may never be cured in time. His harsh rasp gives out just as the wall-crawler arrives in the nick of time to play bartender, a role we’ve never seen anywhere else. Debbie, Biff, everyone’s saved by the elixir-enhanced beer, but unnoticed, unheralded in a way we usually associate with Spider-Man himself, Lonesome Pinkus wanders off after the show of a lifetime...one his crazed audience will find impossible to remember.
And so memorably did Dennis and Alan and company tell this over-looked tale, I can tell you, all these years later. It’s the unsung heroes, like Mr. Pinkus, that keep the grind of recurrent trials going, pouring maybe a little special something of themselves into these crevices between the concrete of earth-shaking canon events. It’s the dreamer who comes for that forgotten turn in the spotlight that keeps the club there through good months and bad. Sometimes, they leave a little flower of beauty, struggling to survive in its natural way of finding life, noticed by the humble random passerby.