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King of Crooks
by Jerry Siegel, Ted Cowan & Reg Bunn
Titan Books, 112pp
Pubished: November 2005

I recently binged through a bunch of old Fleetway annuals from the seventies and reminded myself just how much I loved 'Thunder', with comic strips like 'Adam Eterno', 'Black Max' and 'Steel Commando'. Adam Eterno, an alchemist's apprentice from the 16th century, is cursed to live forever until killed by a weapon of solid gold; Black Max is a German flying ace in World War I who has bred a flock of giant bats to hunt alongside him; and Steel Commando is a British robot getting up to comedic shenanigans behind enemy lines during World War II.

I have three 'Thunder' annuals but I've never even seen a copy of the actual comic book they celebrated. Apparently that's because 'Thunder' didn't last long as a comic, published for only twenty-two weeks in 1970 and 1971 before being merged into 'Lion'. And it's 'Lion' that provided my favourite strip in the 'Thunder' annuals: 'The Spider'. Googling 'The Spider' to try to find out who the writers and artists were, I found that Titan Books had published the first three Spider stories in hardback, so I snapped up 'King of Crooks' immediately.

"Arguably the greatest villain in British comics" states Dave Gibbons on the cover and he's hardly a minor name in the industry, having drawn 'Watchmen' for DC. What's odd is that, while the Spider was certainly a villain at this point, vying for the imagined ego-driven title of the King of Crooks, what I read in 'Thunder' annuals were reprints of different eras of his career and, like a wrestling heel turning face, he came to fight on the side of law and order, albeit with just as much bizarre style.

He's a real character and the most bizarre aspects of his nature are left to our imaginations. We're never given a name and there's no explanation of why he has such prominent facial features, like a beaklike nose or pointed ears. A striking widow's peak makes him sometimes resemble Nosferatu! He clearly has means, as he lives in a Scottish castle he had shipped over to the U.S. stone by stone, but we're not given any explanation of why. The origins of his amazing gadgets are similarly obscured, including a gun that fires webs like Spider-Man and a spider-like helicar.

This book includes the Spider's first three serials, originally published in 'Lion' in the ten months from June 1965 to March 1966 at the rate of a pair of pages every week. I'd read the first one, simply titled 'The Spider', in a 'Thunder' annual but the other two, 'Return of the Spider' and 'The Spider vs. Dr. Mysterioso' were new to me. The first two were written by Ted Cowan, who had created the Spider, but I was shocked to discover that the third is the work of Jerry Siegel, the famed creator of Superman. He wrote the Spider for the next four years.

In this book, the Spider is emphatically a villain, a rampant egomaniac who plans to build an empire of crime and metaphorically wear the crown of the King of Crooks. He starts out by acquiring a couple of cohorts: Roy Ordini, a legendary safe-cracker, whom he spirits away from sure capture after his latest job; and "Professor" Pelham, a scientist he breaks out of a maximum security prison. Then, without even a pause to take stock, it's off to the Torado State Fair to perpetrate the crime of the century - after telling the police first. He's nothing if not ballsy, the Spider.

I adore the otherworldliness of the Spider. He's clearly unlike anyone else, whether criminal or just human being, and he lives wholly on his own terms, answering only to his own moral code. While he often talks like an outright villain, looking down on the masses of the world from the lofty heights of a genius intellect, his crimes aren't just for the money; they're for the art of it all. Imagine a Professor Moriarty who has replicated the abilities of Spider-Man through engineering skill but has no interest in hiding behind a mask, challenging the authorities at every turn.

In many ways, the Spider is an anti-hero. We're kind of on his side, caught up in the glory and the passion of it all. However, we're also firmly on the side of Bob Gilmore and Pete Trask, the detectives consistently tasked with capturing the Spider. They're good guys through and through and we're happy when they're given something to show for their efforts, even if it isn't the Spider. Sometimes they foil one of his crimes, though he slips through their fingers. Sometimes their failure to net the Spider is mitigated by capturing another major criminal, often one of his rivals.

And here's where I really want to continue on past these three stories. The first is an origin story of sorts, if not for the Spider then for his team, and it serves as an able introduction. The other two pit the Spider against other supervillains: the Mirror-Man in 'Return of the Spider' and the title character in 'The Spider vs. Dr. Mysterioso'. Further stories would pit the Spider against such a wild and wonderful string of characters that I ache to discover who they were and what made them special.

It should be mentioned here that not everything is as original as it seems. There was a pulp called "The Spider" that was first published in 1933, and, while there's little here from the pulp, the vampiric look of this Spider is perhaps borrowed in part from that Spider's common disguise of Tito Caliepi. The abilities of this Spider are scientific in nature but aren't light years away from those of Spider-Man, who had debuted three years earlier in 1962.

However, flipping that around, I was struck here by how much of 'Spider-Man: Far from Home', the 2019 movie, was in 'Return of the Spider'. Mirror-Man is a master of illusions, projecting them on a grand scale so well that they're easily mistaken for reality. At one point, the Spider boards a bullion ship at sea only to discover that it's merely an illusion. At another, a herd of dinosaurs attack New York. It's just like Mysterioso conjured up in the film and hey, who's the very next Spider supervillain? Ah yes, Dr. Mysterioso. I do see that Mysterioso debuted in 'Amazing Spider-Man' in 1964 but, reading up on his exploits, I don't see anything like this until the 2009 movie.

And, if anything, these supervillains only get wilder as the Spider ran on. I've read one later story in the 1974 'Thunder' annual, when he takes on a master criminal called the Ant (and his faithful servant, Tadpole), who live in a deliberately damp mansion. I don't know any antecedents for that idea!

So, Titan Books, it's been fifteen years since you brought the Spider back to our attention with 'King of Crooks' and, incidentally, Alan Moore brought him back to life in the pages of his mini-series 'Albion'. Now let's see the rest of his adventures in print again! ~~ Hal C F Astell

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