Art: Reg Bunn
Original Printing: Lion 26/06/1965 - 04/09/1965 [10 parts]
Reprints: Vulcan 01/03/1975 - 05/04/1975; King of Crooks 2005.
The no-nonsense approach taken by Lion veteran Ted Cowan with The Spider is best summed up by the first two-page episode. No origin in sight, the title character just appears on the second page, declaring his ambition to become the uncrowned king of crime to the reader, just like that. It can be something of a culture shock to those new to the Fleetway comics just how much is jammed into these episodes. The whole story has a lower page count than a single issue of an American comic, and yet there's an awful lot of ground covered.
Each page is packed with twists, and there are as many as ten frames per page, which means a tremendously compact narrative. The plot is simple - The Spider engineers a prison break to recruit criminals, while Detective Lieutenant Bob Gilmore and Sergeant Pete Trask try to stop him, generally failing at every turn. The serial starts off with the Spider saving "ace safecracker" Roy Ordini from a police dragnet, and just cranks up the pace. At this point, the set-up of having a whole army disguises the pointlessness of Ordini and the other regular, 'Professor' Pelham, which is a good thing. Gilmore and Trask are standard boys' comic cops - clean-cut, brave and about as cunning as bricks. While anti-heroes weren't new in British comics (The Steel Claw started out by trying to blow up New York, for example...), the way the Spider is smarter than his pursuers is interesting.
The two cops suffer a little from bland characterisation, with most of the focus - thankfully - falling on the Spider. Because he's very, very interesting. An arrogant egomaniac with the smarts and abilities to back it up, his drive and charisma mean there's more than breakneck speed to the story. In some ways, Cowan's Spider is even more fascinating than Jerry Siegel's later material, seeing as the Spider's abilities and arsenal remain fairly consistent. He's pretty moral too, not killing cops, guards or soldiers who are simply doing their jobs. It's clear even at this early stage that it's a game for him, a way of testing his wits against the law (though the spoils of victory aren't an irrelevance either).
This doesn't mean the serial is low on action, however. The complexities of the Spider's plan are mindbending (he blows up a segment of the US Navy to create a diversion for a prison break, for Christ's sake!). The climactic showdown at the Torado State Fair is gripping too, keeping the reader guessing as to the outcome. Eventually, of course, law does win out, but only due to 'Prof' Pelham being an idiot, and the trio get a suitably sequel-hunting exit.
"The Spider" is a great introduction to the character, and stands up well to rereading - no dull origins or leaden explanations, it just hits the ground running and doesn't let up, a smashing debut story.