With the new Spider-Man movie coming out I thought I'd do this edition of Midlife Crisis about the villian de jour, Mysterio. If you’re interested in seeing what I’ve said about Spider-Man in the past, check out my previous MLC article over at Trouble City.
Mysterio is pretty high up there on Spider-Man's list of bad guys. A master illusionist and a charter member of the Sinister Six, Mysterio has secured a spot as one of Spider-Man's top rogues. You would never know he secretly sucks. Let's start at the beginning....
When Mysterio first appeared in Amazing Spider-Man #14 his origin was pretty straight forward. He was a disgraced special effects artist who tried to make some coin as a costumed criminal. He used his special effects knowledge to do a whole manner of cool tricks. This, by the way, was all using practical special effects since -- you know -- you can't perform crimes using CGI.
However, the writers at Marvel apparently were not satisfied with Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's basic origin story. No, it needed more wrinkles than Stan's decomposing nut-sack.
Aliens are involved - sorta
Let me backup for a second and talk about Amazing Spider-Man #2. Stan Lee and Steve Ditko decided to do not one, but two stories about Spider-Man fighting senior citizens. In the second story he fights the Tinkerer whose superpower is being and old man who is good at fixing radios.
The story was your typical Cold War propaganda piece with a twist. The Tinkerer was planting spy devices in the radios owned by prominent scientists and government officials. Only instead of helping the Soviets the web-head was led to believe that the Tinkerer was the leader of a failed alien invasion.
That brings us to In Amazing Spider-Man #160 when Spider-Man finally caught up with the Tinkerer. He learns that the Tinkerer was not an alien invader, just an old man who was good at fixing radios. Seriously.
If that wasn’t enough of an explanation someone was like "well who were the aliens he was with then?" Which brought us to Peter Parker #50-51. They were actors. Can you sleep easier now? I know I can. Taking it a step further, we learn that one of the "aliens" was Quentin Beck, the bowl-cut wearing asshole who became Mysterio. It was his special effects skills that pulled off the whole convincing alien invasion angle. Somehow they were able to bamboozle Spider-Man with rubber suits is laughable. I would wonder if the UFO noise was actually wax-paper and a comb, but this story was written in 1963 and that Simpsons reference didn’t exist back then.
Troubled Childhood? Check!
This that not going back further enough? I bet you’re wondering what kind of childhood Mysterio had. Well even if you don’t, they did it anyway.
To this end, they had J.M. DeMattis write up the story that delves into Mysterio’s childhood. DeMattis is famously known for taking all your favorite Spider-Man characters and make them depressing as fuck. He’s the writer who wrote “Kraven’s Last Hunt” that made you wait 100 pages to see Kraven the Hunter shoot himself in the fucking head.
If you wanted all of the joy absolutely squeezed out of a character and make them a whiney, miserable, depressing person, J.M. was your boi. He penned a Mysterio story in Webspinners: Tales of Spider-Man #1-3 and it took a peek into Mysterio’s life. More on that later. Like a really morose one-trick-pony, DeMattes gave us this:
Which is not exactly a revolutionary backstory since by this point every Spider-Man villain was given a backstory involving abusive alcoholic parents.
More “before Spider-Man was a hero” filler than you can shake a stick at
After all that, I bet you’re thinking “Man, I wish they could tell just one more story about Quentin Beck meeting Spider-Man before he became Mysterio” don’t worry, they got you covered. Flashforward a few decades and Spider-Man writer Dan Slott thought the Mysterio origin wasn't specific enough. That was in 2014, when Marvel had a boner for issue numbers with decimal points. As a result, when they rebooted Amazing Spider-Man, Slott decided to use his decimal issues to tell a story around the time Peter Parker first became Spider-Man. Because that is a theme that has not been done to death.
Anyway, credit where credit is due, instead of doing sloppy retcons, Slott pulled an Untold Tales of Spider-Man and told the story between the story. Fleshing out the early days of Spider-Man with some modern day shit, to answering such questions as "Hey, Peter's Uncle Ben just died and he is bullied, wouldn't he be angry?" And answering it without a Peter Parker opening up in Flash Thompson and the other bullies with a TEC-9. This also fit in-between the stuff that Lee and Ditko wrote over 50 years prior.
Anyway, this was all during a period where Spider-Man was still using his powers to make money. It's a magical period after he caught his Uncle Ben’s killer but that whole "Great Power, Great Responsibility" lesson hadn’t quite sunk in yet. In that time, Peter was still doing TV appearances and who was developing the death-traps for Spider-Man's stunts? Quentin Fucking Beck. The stunts go wrong and Spider-Man (barely) saves the day. Is this a moment where Beck gets fired and that fuels his seething hatred for Spider-Man, thus becoming Mysterio? Nope. He just tell’s Spider-Man’s agent that he ain’t responsible for shit and walks away.
Motivation Unclear. Try Again Later.
So what is Mysterio’s big motivation for becoming a costumed criminal? Well, that’s something the writers can’t keep straight.
Back in Stan and Steve’s day, Mysterio was like “I totally decided to imitate Spider-Man to make a quick buck”, that’s pretty basic right?
Well in the 80s, Marvel fleshed it out his origins when they did up a profile for Mysterio in the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe (That was an encyclopedia for nerds before the internet) It went something like this:
Now we all have had one of those moments where we suggest to a friend that they murder someone and take over their identity (right?), but for someone to actually go through with it?
But even that wasn’t enough. Apparently not, because when Nick Spencer recently took up the reigns of Amazing Spider-Man in 2018 he decided to add a wrinkle to Mysterio’s origin story…
So he went from doing it for the kicks to being a disgruntled special effects man, a failed actor, and now also a failed writer. If they keep on adding all the things Quentin Beck failed at before he became Mysterio I’m looking forward to reading comics in 2025 and hearing about how Mysterio failed a 9th grade Algebra test. If they were trying to telegraph the fact that Quentin Beck was a loser they are hitting the knob with a sledge hammer by this point.
However, this wasn’t the only motivation. As in Web of Spider-Man #4 (2010) shows, another reason why Beck became a criminal after getting blacklisted after one of his stunts nearly immolated an actor.
Why a Fishbowl?
Going back to Amazing Spider-Man #13, I cannot stress how straight-forward Mysterio’s origins were back then. Lee and Ditko summed it up all on one page.
When Fred Van Lente wrote the Mysterio story in the aforementioned Web of Spider-Man #4, he decided that Mysterio’s origin story didn’t have enough Satanic demons and fixed that problem right away.
In that story — after getting blacklisted by Hollywood and deciding to frame Spider-Man for crimes — Beck couldn’t figure out how to do one specific stunt: clinging to walls. Since his mentor, special effects master Ray Bradhaus, pulled it off in one of his movies he tries to figure out how it was done.
When Bradhaus is not forthcoming, Beck puts on his costume, gasses Ray and goes looking for the secret. Instead he finds a for-real demon and his reaction is… well…
Surprisingly, Mysterio manages to slay the demon with some special effects and leaves considering himself a master. Plot twist, his buddy Ray was about to introduce him to Doctor Strange who could have taught him a ton of different tricks.
Oh, and where did he get the name? He took it from the title of the movie that Ray did his wall-crawling stunt in.
Phew. That’s a lot of stuff and we didn’t even get into the part of Mysterio’s history where he constantly gets his fish-bowl smashed by people in long underwear!
Well come back soon when I pick things up and we talk about Mysterio’s most ridiculous schemes and hilarious defeats!