Monday, November 7, 2016

The Spider #14: Death's Crimson Juggernaut

The Spider #14: Death's Crimson Juggernaut, by Grant Stockbridge
November, 1934  Popular Publications

Norvell “Grant Stockbridge” Page delivers a rather muted Spider which once again sees driven hero Richard Wentworth suffer great injury. Last month he was shot more times than rapper 50 Cent; this time he gets dosed with poisoned tear gas that almost permanently blinds him. But as ever Wentworth doesn’t sweat the small stuff, and goes in with dual .45s blasting.

In the most minor of mentions to that previous volume, we learn here that Wentworth has fully recovered from his gunshots, and as a bonus he got to spend a lot of “quiet time” with ever-suffering fiance Nita van Sloan, who by the way has yet to achieve the narrative importance as in later volumes. Nita here is still reduced to spending the majority of the novels off-page, usually seeing to some menial task for Wentworth. The same can also be said of Wentworth’s loyal servants Ram Singh and Jackson, who also go nearly the entirety of Death’s Crimson Juggernaut unseen, each of them relegated to a sentence or two.

It’s all Wentworth’s show, once again, and by page one he’s already deep in the latest threat to New York City. People – men, women, and even children! – are being stripped and hammered to crosses in tenement buildings in the grungier areas of the city, left to die in misery. This horror element will ultimately go away – as most such elements usually do in the Spider novels I’ve read, replaced by endless action sequences – but the story begins as Wentworth is saving a young woman who is about to become the latest victim of these “Torture Killers,” as Wentworth dubs them.

For once in his Spider costume – ie the cape, hunched back, and ghoulish face – Wentworth makes short work of the would-be crucifiers. The girl he’s saved is Caroline Davis, pretty young blonde granddaughter of a man who has been wrongly jailed as the leader of the Torture Killers. This subplot will quickly be lost in the shuffle of the breathless narrative, which for the most part follows Page’s usual format: Wentworth will take on the threat early, chase down various red herring leads, be unjustly accused of the crime himself, lose contact with his friends and associates, become handicapped in some fashion, and finally pull it all together and kill everyone, exonerating himself. 

One thing missing here is the memorable villiain. I’m beginning to miss the whackjob costumed Spider villains; it’s been a while since we’ve gotten a good one, and the last costumed one was The Fly, who I didn’t really even like. Even though Wentworth, as is his wont, starts coining his own name for the mastermind of this latest threat – The Masterkiller – we don’t actually see such a character, and Page as usual forgets all about it. Toward the end he introduces the idea that the bad guys have their own Spider, and while this guy does appear in the final few pages, he isn’t properly exploited. This volume really could’ve benefited from a more visible villain.

It does though have a bit of a shudder pulp vibe, at least in the opening pages; when Wentworth finds poor Caroline, she’s nude and about to be hammered onto a cross, and here Page briefly recounts the gruesome fates of other women in the city, all of whom were nude and mangled and crucified. But as mentioned this stuff goes away and it’s on to business as usual, with Wentworth in his Spider getup gunning down hordes of gangsters; as ever the “Torture Killers” have a veritable army at their disposal, and it’s up to Wentworth alone to stop them.

Given their penchant for crucifixion, the Torture Killers don’t have the mass carnage-dealing attributes of the typical Spider villain. Page takes care of this posthaste, with the escaping gangsters blowing up a train track. Periodically Page will inform us of the villains committing greater misdeeds, even sinking steamers with all hands on deck, but these bastards really don’t reach the height of villainy of previous enemies. But as usual they already know Wentworth is the Spider, even if old pal Commissioner Kirkpatrick only suspects it; gangsters even try to kill Wentworth in his penthouse suite, leading to the John Woo-esque moment of Wentworth hurling a grenade into an almost-closed elevator and pulping the men inside.

Speaking of Kirkpatrick, he’s already fired as commissioner a quarter of the way through, for no other reason than warning Wentworth – again per the norm, the Spider is wrongly accused of the crucifixions and the bombs going off in the tenement district, with many witnesses even coming forward. Strangely, the cops all seem quite aware that Wentworth is the Spider this time, even though usually it’s more of a cat and mouse thing. Anyway an assistant DA named Harry Boise takes over Kirkpatrick’s job, and becomes one of the many people Wentworth supsects of either being the false Spider or the leader of the Torture Killers.

Kirkpatrick gets a chance to save Wentworth, midway through; our hero as mentioned becomes blinded by poison tear gas or somesuch, and gradually loses his sight. But this isn’t enough for Page, who as ever just keeps piling it on our hero. Blind, surrounded, Wentworth finds himself in a just-bombed tenement building and must escape without sight. Then he runs into a child, who pleads that her mother is about to be burned alive but won’t wake up, overcome by the smoke. Wentworth struggles with his own convinctions in a sterling sequence – how many times has he been willing to sacrifice Nita, he asks himself, despite her being the love of his life? If so, then what does some stranger and her daughter matter? But within moments he’s already forcing his way into the room and hoisting the unconscious woman on his shoulders, spiriting her and her child to safety with his silken web – yet another stirring moment in a series full of them.

Posing as a streetside violinist (one of his favored disguises), Wentworth briefly meets with Nita, and then is saved by Kirkpatrick, who pulls him out of yet another trap and hooks him up with his own private doctor, who gradually fixes Wentworth’s eyes. But meanwhile the fight goes on, thanks to Nita’s loyal Great Dane, Apollo, who has a bigger part here than normal, serving both as Wentworth’s seeing-eye dog and as a soldier, even ripping out throats! Once Wentworth gets his sight back, the story loses a bit of its manic pace and becomes more of a plotting-counterplotting bit, Wentworth drafting the aid of an old millionaire named Meriwell who has been caught up with the Torture Killers.

The finale is a bit underwhelming. Wentworth’s big plan is to get himself and Meriwell on a steamer, to act as bait for the Torture Killers, whom we learn have been bombing the tenement areas so as to clear out land to build on! But the plot backfires and the crew has been replaced by gangsters; somehow it all ends up with Wentworth and Kirkpatrick both bound on a reef while various gangsters with machine guns come to kill them. Here the false Spider finally appears, but he doesn’t do much other than shoot down one of his fellow villains. It’s up to Apollo to once again save the day; even the false Spider is given a cursory sendoff, his fake Spider Web unable to keep him from falling to the rocks as he tries to scale a steamer.

What makes Death’s Crimson Juggernaut enjoyable is Wentworth himself, who is especially unhinged this time, at least in the opening. He pulls off several goofy acts, my favorite being when he mimicks a young woman’s voice when the cops find him standing by the latest victim of the Torture Killers. The cops immediately assume the Spider has just nailed the woman to the cross, but after a brief firefight Wentworth mimics a female voice and fools the cops into thinking the woman’s still alive, insisting they leave so he can help her down! Even crazier is later on when Wentworth, surrounded, brands his own head with his Spider mark and throws himself out into a corridor, flopping onto the ground like a dead body. When the ruse is foiled, he then takes the only recourse possible – he pretends to be a zombie!! And Page goes all the way with it, with the dumb gangsters cowering and running as Wentworth staggers toward them.

Oh, and the cover has absolutely nothing to do with the story, which is a pity. I was looking forward to reading about a little greenish-gray dude trying to pulverize the Spider with a tank.


David Hanson said...

I've gotta start reading these books. They sound insane!

As an aside, I read the other day that the Punisher has apparently killed 48,500 people. I'd love to see a comparison of all these "The +(scary noun)"-type guys to see how they compare; to see who the GOAT is.

Because, like Highlander, There Can Be Only One!

Steven Johnson said...

Even given all the explosions, how the heck does the Punisher get anywhere near 48,500 kills?

As I recall, in the average issue he kills maybe 5-10 guys. More in a big issue, of course, like one at the end of a story arc. But still ... how?

10 guys times 12 issues a year = 120, plus maybe 30 for a big finish.
150 guys times 45 years ... oh, dang. I see where you got those numbers. That's about 7000.

Long-running series heroes might rank higher, of course. Mack Bolan's been in 300 books ... but the Death Merchant literally never does anything else but kill. He could have been called the Death Accountant.

Steven Johnson said...

Oh, wait ... at one time, Marvel had like THREE Punisher books running concurrently. And in some of them, there wasn't a lot of story, just gunning guys down non-stop.

It wouldn't take more than a few years of that to be pushing five figures.

David Hanson said...

I saw that stat in a youtube video called something like "10 Things You Don't Know About The Punisher", which I think is pretty recent, but the figure iself is from 2011! Ol' Frank's been icing people for another five years since. Jesus, Castle, leave some for the rest of us.

I would consider a series called Death Accoutant an absolute must-buy.