Overlooked Gems #2: “Tombstone”


Due to the positive and eager responses to my first article, let’s jump into the next! This time we will be taking a look at Tombstone in SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN vol. 1 #139-142 by Gerry Conway and Sal Buscema from 1988.

While writer Gerry Conway’s first stint on the character in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN vol. 1 #112-149 is often (rightfully) lauded as one of the best runs in the character’s history, I was always surprised at just how little recognition his later work received. Perhaps it’s because none of his future stories were ever able to live up to The Night Gwen Stacy Died (a high bar indeed), but his work on SPECTACULAR in the late 1980s is rarely ever spoken of despite containing some rather stellar stories; Tombstone chief among them. In fact, I’d even go as far to say that this is one of the best Spidey tales of the entire decade. That is no small feat as the ’80s are often considered to be one of the greatest eras in the character’s history.

Despite taking place in SPECTACULAR, the story technically begins with this scene from WEB OF SPIDER-MAN vol. 1 #36:

This is an excellent page that creates immediate intrigue for this future plot line. Who is this Tombstone character? What is he doing in New York City? And most importantly, what exactly is Robbie Robertson’s connection to him? This next scene in SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN #137 shines a little more light on what exactly that connection might be:

Apparently Tombstone is a hired killer who threatened Robbie’s life years ago over a certain case he was investigating. But is that all there is to it? Not quite.

Robbie later records a confession detailing his history with Tombstone (whose real name is revealed to be Lonnie Lincoln) and leaves it for Peter Parker to find due to his supposedly unbiased position as a freelancer. Through this tape, we discover that Robbie’s history with Tombstone dates as far back to high school. At this time, Robbie was editor of the school newspaper and was planning to write a story on how Lonnie viciously beats other kids who don’t pay insurance money. As you might imagine, Tombstone didn’t take too kindly to the prospect of his criminal activities being outed.

Much to his shame and humiliation, Robbie ends up spiking the story out of fear of Tombstone. He then vows to never back down from a story again no matter the reason. Unfortunately, he isn’t able to keep such a bold promise.

Years later, Robbie becomes a reporter for a big newspaper in Philadelphia. One night, he receives a phone call from one of his informants who claims to have information on a recently murdered mob boss and arranges a meeting with Robbie at the docks. But once Robbie gets there, he finds his informant dead at Tombstone’s fingertips. Tombstone has since become a high profile hit-man for the mob and is silencing anyone who dares speak out against him.

Naturally, Robbie flees in utter terror. Later that night, he receives a phone call at his own house from Tombstone who subtly threatens him and his loved ones if he continues pursuing him.

The tape recording then reveals that Robbie has had a detailed folder of evidence on all of Tombstone’s heinous crimes over the past thirty years, but never reported any of them out of fear of what Tombstone might do to him and his family. However, he has finally had enough of cowering from this monster and plans to confront Tombstone once and for all. Knowing that this won’t end well, Peter takes off as Spider-Man in an effort to save his friend.

Will he make it in time? Will Robbie finally stand up to his life-long tormentor? Or will Tombstone show Robbie why you don’t cross him? And what exactly does The Punisher have to do with all of this? Read the story to find out!

What makes this arc so effective is its handling of Robbie. Robbie has been a long-time supporting character in the comics, debuting in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN vol. 1 #51 in 1967. He has always been an intelligent and reasonable man, often offsetting J. Jonah Jameson’s hot-tempered personality. Peter would often ask Robbie for advice, viewing him as a very wise and knowledgeable individual. Here though, he is portrayed as scared and uncertain, a side of the character that readers aren’t used to seeing. Tombstone clearly terrifies Robbie and leaves this usually determined, ethical reporter at a loss on how to proceed. It’s rare to see Robbie so vulnerable, with Peter even having to give him advice at one point. Robbie is and always has been a very likable character, one that we want to see succeed and make the right choice. However, we are constantly questioning throughout the story whether or not Robbie will in fact make the right choice and stand up to Tombstone, making for a very compelling read. This is easily the best development Robbie has ever had and even one of the greatest arcs any Spider-Man supporting character has ever received.

On the other end of the spectrum, Tombstone/Lonnie Lincoln is a fantastic villain that keeps you on edge throughout. He is a remorseless and cunning killer who never speaks above a whisper, making him all the more terrifying. As if his albino appearance wasn’t unsettling enough, he also possesses a playfully sadistic personality. Most interesting though is his relationship with Robbie. He consistently refers to Robbie as “friend” and “pal” (or “Robbie-pal”). Instead of merely coming off as mocking and taunting, you do get the impression as the arc progresses that Lonnie actually does consider Robbie his friend in some twisted sense. In spite of all the beatings, threats and intimidation, Lonnie really does seem to genuinely like Robbie in his own sick manner, making for a unique dynamic and rivalry.

Tombstone is easily one of Spidey’s most underrated foes (maybe even his most underrated), so it’s a shame that future writers have never really given him the respect he deserves. Nowadays, he is often portrayed as an incompetent C-grade villain who doesn’t pose much of a threat. Even his creator, Gerry Conway, doesn’t seem to have much love for him as this scene from his more recent Spiral arc demonstrates:

This is a real shame because when used effectively, Tombstone is easily one of Spider-Man’s most compelling adversaries.

You can track down the individual issues or look for the Tombstone TPB that was recently released.

This is an excellent story that deserves to be ranked among Conway’s best, so don’t let it slip through your fingers!

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(5) Comments

  1. Joshua Nelson - Post author

    @AndrewC -- I agree that it was nice to see Tombstone appear in SUPERIOR FOES, but nothing will ever quite measure up to his first appearance. @hornacek -- I hate when that happens to promising villains. I understand writers making jokes out of goofy villains like The Kangaroo or The Gibbon, but Tombstone and The Shocker (who has also become quite the punchline) aren't anywhere near that category as far as I'm concerned. And yes, that TANGLED WEBS story was ridiculous. @Brad Douglas -- I agree completely. I'm still baffled at how future writers managed to make such a cool and threatening villain into such a pushover. Just take a look at Charles Soule's current run on Daredevil for a recent example of this. I'm also disappointed that his relationship with Robbie is never really brought up anymore. I still think there's a lot they can do with that.

  2. hornacek

    I remember when Chris was still on the podcast and he reviewed/discussed an issue where Tombstone was either defeated in 2 panels or off panel, and he described how "This is how B-level villains become D-level villains - when they were legitimate threats in their earlier appearances, but easily dispatched and treated like a joke in later appearances by other writers."

  3. AndrewC

    I agree. Extremely underrated arc and villain. He oozed a real sense of menace in this first arc. Liked his cameos (and his father-daughter relationship with the new female Beetle) in the recent ‘Superior Foes of Spider-Man.’

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