This installment of Strange Comic Books, my occasional look at the more odd & offbeat comics in my collection, was indirectly inspired by the recent news that the original artwork for two complete Amazing Spider-Man issues drawn by Steve Ditko had resurfaced after nearly half a century. Specifically, those two stories are “The Coming of the Scorpion” from ASM #20 and “The Final Chapter” from ASM #33. That later issue features the iconic sequence by Ditko & Stan Lee where Spider-Man struggles to lift up the massive pile of wrecked machinery that he is buried under. This, in a very roundabout way, brings us to Marvel Tails #1 and only, published by Marvel Comics in 1983.
Marvel Tails #1 saw the introduction of probably the most famous, as well as clever, Spider-Man pastiche ever, namely Peter Porker, the Spectacular Spider-Ham. This porcine parody of Spider-Man was devised by Tom DeFalco and Larry Hama. DeFalco would, of course, soon after become well-regarded for his work on the actual Amazing Spider-Man title, as well as Thor and the long-running cult classic Spider-Girl. But Spider-Ham was one of his earliest associations with all things arachnid. As for Hama, though best known for his writing on G.I. Joe and Wolverine, he is also a huge fan of Carl Barks’ work, so it’s quite natural that he was involved in devising Marvel’s first funny animal character.
The title Marvel Tails is itself a pun on Marvel Tales, a long-running series which reprinted the Silver and Bronze Age Spider-Man stories. In the days before Marvel had any sort of trade paperback program, Marvel Tales was the best way for younger readers such as myself to get caught up on the Spider-Man comics of the 1960s and 70s.
“If He Should Punch Me” is written by DeFalco and edited by Hama, with artwork courtesy of penciler Mark Armstrong and inker Joe Albelo. In addition to introducing Peter Porker / Spider-Ham, we meet Steve Mouser, aka Captain Americat, and their boss, curmudgeonly Daily Beagle publisher J. Jonah Jackal. Porker and Mouser are sent by Jackal to cover the story of the Masked Marauder, a mysterious figure who is sabotaging the massive Video City arcade. There they meet Bruce Bunny, the arcade’s chief electrical engineer. While Peter and Steve are busy touring Video City, the Masked Marauder locks Bruce Bunny inside a broken “Gamma Gambit” video game. The rays from the game transform Bruce into the Incredible Hulk-Bunny, who bursts out and embarks on a rampage.
The exploding video game attracts the attention of Peter and Steve, who slip into their Spider-Ham and Captain Americat costumes. Cap comes across the Masked Marauder, while Spidey tangles with the Hulk-Bunny. During the battle, the Hulk-Bunny knocks out a support beam, causing a bunch of video games and soda machines to topple onto him.
And, yes, this is where that sequence by Ditko from “The Final Chapter” comes into the picture. DeFalco, Armstrong & Albelo give us a playfully humorous parody of that classic scene, as Spider-Ham, pinned down by the huge pile of rubble, is inspired by his sense of responsibility and finds the strength to free himself. Of course, in this version of events, after lifting up all of that wreckage, the weight causes the floor under him to collapse, dropping him on top of Captain Americat. (Click on the above scans to enlarge for maximum humorous effect.)
The story soon wraps up, as the Hulk-Bunny is defeated and the Masked Marauder is, well, unmasked. I won’t give you all the details, since it’s worth reading the story for yourself. Marvel Tails was collected in the Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man digest-sized trade paperback published in 2010. So go get it.
Rounding out Marvel Tails is a five page back-up starring the supernatural cyclist Goose Rider written & drawn by cover artist Steve Mellor. It’s a ridiculously bizarre yet humorous set of gags that make absolutely no sense, but in a good way.
A year and a half after Marvel Tails hit the newsstands, Spider-Ham graduated into his own ongoing series. Peter Porker, The Spectacular Spider-Ham ran from May 1985 to September 1987, lasting 17 issues. After that, Spider-Ham became a periodic back-up feature in, appropriately enough, Marvel Tales. And then there was the story in What The–?! #3 which featured Spider-Ham facing off against Raven the Hunter in a send-up of “Kraven’s Last Hunt.” More recently Spider-Ham and his daughter Swiney-Girl showed up in Spider-Man Family, and there was a 25th Anniversary Special in 2010.
For an in-depth look at Spider-Ham’s creation and publishing history, I recommend picking up Back Issue #39 published by TwoMorrows and edited by Michael Eury. Incidentally enough, Eury was one of the writers of Spider-Ham during his time in Marvel Tales. BI #39 is topped off by a cool cover penciled by the late, great Mike Wieringo and inked by Karl Kesel.
I don’t think the first Spider-Ham TPB sold especially well, since there unfortunately haven’t been any subsequent volumes. In the absence of further collections, I think that Spider-Ham is definitely worth tracking down in the back issue bins. It was a funny, clever series that offered some witty, good-natured Marvel self-parody.
By the way, getting back to our starting point, you can view scans of the original Ditko artwork from Amazing Spider-Man #20 and #33 on the website of Mike “Romitaman” Burkey. It’s really fantastic to see.