In the first column, I suggested a list of acclaimed Spider-Man stories from different eras that would give new readers a good sense of the character. There is a counterargument that this was bad advice, and that a new reader should instead start with a particular era. If so, which era is best? This would also be a period of Spider-Man comics worth checking out in greater depth for anyone who started with the basics and wants to go further.
If the last list was the introductory course to Spider-Man, this is a class that can function as the second semester of the program or as an alternate introduction. It could be better for some new readers to stick to related and interconnected stories until they have a sense of the mythos. Otherwise, readers jumping around might end up getting confused. It’s not just about changes from Point A to Point B, but what happens if someone pick up lots of comics with different status quos (Points A, B, D, H, N, P and S.) The previous list included stories that had an impact on what came next, so there is a sense of continuity and an ongoing narrative. But there can be some confusing elements. A supporting character who tried to kill Peter in one story is his friend in another. Spider-Man gets married, something that’s reversed in the current comics. One of the stories was built on the emotional impact of the death of a character who doesn’t appear in any of the other tales. And then there’s the alternate universe of Ultimate Spider-Man.
Thinking back to how I became a Spider-Man fan, a big help was that the Fox animated series and the comic strip provided the equivalent of jumping into a Spider-Man run. Because of the marriage, the majority of readily available back issues (this was around the time the clone saga started) featured a relatively stable status quo, with Peter Parker as a happily married photographer. Things are a bit different now. The comic strip isn’t as widespread. The current cartoon covers a status quo that never existed in the comics. Peter Parker’s a CEO, working with characters introduced in the last few years. On the bright side, reprints and digital copies are abound from multiple eras and universes. The films do arguably serve as a decent introduction to the mythos. Wikipedia also makes it easier to figure out backstory; all I had was trading cards in the 1990s.
Recommending a stretch of issues isn’t necessarily the same as insisting that new readers should start in the very beginning rather than dive in at some other point. But in the case of Spider-Man comics, the beginning probably is the best place to start. These are the stories that have shaped the public’s perception of the character, and it was early in the series’s history that the writers and artists were able to take interesting risks. They had yet to seriously commit to the Illusion of Change approach, which may have been necessary to preserve the series for another few decades, but did mean that much of the remaining material just wasn’t as consistently exciting.
David Brothers of Comics Alliance loved this period.
The first 140-odd issues of Amazing Spider-Man are my Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four. There’s a purity there that I greatly enjoy, and the first fifty issues tell the story of a boy becoming a man even while they show us what happens when a boy becomes a hero. We see Peter Parker at his most sour and most vibrant, and when he puts that costume back on, we understand exactly why. We see him grow up over the course of four or five years, long enough for being Spider-Man to become second-nature and long enough for Peter Parker to grow into a fully-realized adult. He goes from zero to hero, and that happens slowly, almost in real-time, instead of in his debut issue.
That initial run of Amazing Spider-Man is one of the few series in the pantheon of great comics, and the one that functions the most like we expect a comic book series to function. Unlike MAD, or glory-years Fantastic Four, or the first volume Love and Rockets, that run of Amazing Spider-Man gains strength from things that usually make series worse: creative-team changes, collaboration, commercial restrictions, the occasional very special episode. It’s a miracle that they’re as fun as they are.
In Write Now #14, Gerry Conway answered the question “What’s the appeal of Spider-Man that made him so popular for so long?”
As originally conceived and written for at least the first ten-to-fifteen years, he was a true reflection of the inner life of the adolescent.
These first 150 issues can essentially be split into four chunks. Here’s what you get by following up the Spider-Man 101 list with the remaining stories from the first thirteen years.
More Lee/ Ditko
The entirety of the Lee/ Ditko run (Amazing Spider-Man #1-38, Annuals #1-2) is worth checking out. he stories that weren’t significant enough to make first list introduced Marvel Universe mainstays like the Vulture, Sandman and Electro. Even the least significant character from these issues tends to show up again at some point. The Living Brain has popped up in Superior Spider-Man, and Looter’s made at least seven appearances. Even fifty years later, these stories remain the official version of Spider-Man’s first year. It hasn’t been retconned, so these are defining moments for the characters, forming a rich part of their backstory in subsequent appearances.
One of the major differences between Silver Age Marvel and the Distinguished Competition was the way things changed for Marvel heroes. Over the course of the first 38 issues, Peter Parker meets a girl, comforts her during a family tragedy, loses the girl, gets a job, graduates high school and enters college. Events in one story tend to have consequences in later issues. When Peter loses his Spider-Man costume, he has to rely on a store-bought imitation for the next two issues. An ill-considered blood transfusion in one story results in a medical emergency two years later. There’s a different appreciation for this kind of stuff when you read the run as it unfolds.
It also makes it easier to follow along with Kurt Busiek’s Untold Tales of Spider-Man run, but that’s a different story.
More Lee/ Romita
The parts of the Lee/ Romita run (Amazing Spider-Man #39-67, Annual #3, Spectacular Spider-Man Magazine #1-2) that didn’t make the first cut are also quite good. “Disaster” (Amazing Spider-Man #53-59) is a particular highlight. For a little while, I was convinced that this was the best Spider-Man story I’ve ever read, and it’s only fallen a little bit in my esteem. There’s just fun stuff that goes against the expectations for superhero comics, as Peter Parker wonders whether insurance can pay for damage caused by Doctor Octopus, and later has to explain to friends and family why he had disappeared for several days while Spider-Man seemed to lose his memory.
These stories feature the introductions of rogues gallery mainstays Rhino and Shocker, as well as the most famous romantic triangle in the series’s history, with Peter having to choose between Mary Jane and Gwen Stacy. He gets some father figures in the form of Captain Stacy and Robbie Robertson, and manages to become friends with Flash Thompson and Harry Osborn, who he didn’t get quite get along with in the Lee/ Ditko days. Readers get to see the awkward high school student coming out of his shell.
More Stan Lee (And Some Roy Thomas)
Romita soon became an irregular presence on the book, and the quality dipped a bit, even with the great Gil Kane on art. Amazing Spider-Man still had some major moments with the Tablet of Time Saga, Harry Osborn’s drug problems and the first appearances of the Prowler and Kingpin’s son. Even stories that weren’t particularly memorable could still have an impact. Amazing Spider-Man #95, with Spider-Man versus terrorists in London, may just be the worst of the the first 100 issues, but it inspired J. Michael Straszynski to deal with contemporary topics during his run on the series thirty years later.
Roy Thomas’s brief four issue run (Amazing Spider-Man #101-104) introduced Morbius, and featured Spider-Man’s trip to the Savage Land with Gwen Stacy, as well as the first appearance of a monster that would reappear in Erik Larsen’s 1990s run, and the memorable visual of a six armed Spider-Man. Stan Lee returned to the series for another seven issues, before turning over the reins to Gerry Conway, who at nineteen was essentially the same age as the college student superhero.
More Gerry Conway
Much of Conway’s run had a long-term impact on the series, as he developed Peter’s relationships with Mary Jane, enemy-turned-friend Flash Thompson, and friend-turned-enemy Harry Osborn. Amazing Spider-Man #112-115 introduced Hammerhead, and began a long-running subplot with Aunt May moving in with Doctor Octopus. Amazing Spider-Man #124-125 introduced the Man-Wolf, a major development in Spider-Man and J Jonah Jameson’s conflicts. Amazing Spider-Man #141-149 tied up Conway’s run, with the first clone saga.
One way to determine the significance of these issues is to look at the effect of one that isn’t well-regarded. In Comics Buyers Guide #1600, incidentally the same issue in which Amazing Spider-Man #1-50 and #68-77 (the Tablet of Time saga) rated as some of the “1600 Comic Books You Need,” James Mishler reviewed the Amazing Spider-Man issues from 1974. 40+ years later, most of these matter. #127-128 were as much about Mary Jane as it was about Peter Parker, the first time this happened, but not the last, setting up her role as co-lead in the Raimi films that would beat Star Wars Episode II like a drum in the box office. #129 introduced the Punisher and the Jackal. #130-131 introduced the spider-mobile, and featured the wedding of Doctor Octopus and Aunt May, a silly, but much referenced, development. #132-133 had the return of Liz Allen after over a hundred issues away. It also revealed her connection to the Molten Man, which has become a defining attribute of both. #134-135 introduced the Tarantula, brought back the Punisher, and had Harry Osborn go off the deep end. #136-137 featured Spider-Man’s battle against the Harry Osborn Green Goblin, a culmination of an year long narrative that’s been used for two films (so far.)
The last issue of the year, the debut of the Mindworm from Amazing Spider-Man #138, got half a star out of five stars in Mishler’s review.
It’s stories like these that make you glad ASM stories had gone from 20 pages to 17 — three more pages would just add to the misery. Where did this piece of cowflop come from? It makes the issues with the Man-Wolf seem veritable classics by comparison. Mindworm? Sheesh, you’d think Conway was getting desperate… What’s next, “The Teddy Bear?”
So this could be a test case for whether something that wasn’t acclaimed is actually worth reading 40 years later. Mishler wasn’t alone in trashing that comic. Al Sjoerdsma of Spiderfan called it “an otherwise silly, forgettable one issue story that serves as filler between the first defeat of the Harry Osborne Green Goblin and the start of the big push by the Jackal that eventually becomes the first clone story.” However, this much denigrated issue still adds to an understanding of Spider-Man. Mindworm pops up again in two notable runs: Bill Mantlo’s Peter Parker the Spectacular Spider-Man (making two appearances in the black and white Essential Spider-Man TPBs), and one of Paul Jenkins’s single-issue stories, so even the most maligned villains from this era tend to resurface. The story also has Peter Parker dealing with the aftermath of Harry Osborn’s arrest. There’s a scene where he and Flash Thompson bond with one another and have an hours long conversation, which cements their friendship.
And it’s referenced in other ways too. It can be an inside joke among comic fans. Gerry Conway is asked about the parts of his run that weren’t successful. It also helps understand the minor controversy in 2011, when Marvel acknowledged Gerry Conway as the creator of Mindworm, although the gesture hadn’t been done with a better known Marvel character who had a skull T-shirt and made a debut in Conway’s run.
The 150th issue was an epilogue by Archie Goodwin and Gil Kane, which was also an important part of Peter’s relationship with Mary Jane, the first time his love for her kept him going. It marked the end of an era as writers and editors took a different approach to Spider-Man. Len Wein’s run would have major developments for supporting characters, with even J. Jonah Jameson finding love, but Peter Parker ending it in the exact same place he started it. Marv Wolfman would institute an “illusion of change” approach, where there would be changes that could be reversed (Peter leaving the Daily Bugle) or that wouldn’t alter the energy of the series (Peter going from undergrad to Grad School.) There would be some later periods with significant developments for the character, but those tended to be reversed (See “Revelations” and “One More Day”) in a way that events from the first 150 issues would not. There’s a view that as Peter Parker got older, the series was no longer about what made it unique: the travails of a young superhero.
There’s plenty of good stuff in later issues. If you stop with #150, you miss out on the Black Cat, the Hobgoblin and the symbiotes, as well as new crime bosses like Tombstone and Mr. Negative, allies like the Spider-Man of 2099, to say nothing of the art of Todd Mcfarlane, Mark Bagley, and Marcos Martin. You can see the Spider-Man comics reflecting contemporary issues, like disco pants, the end of the Cold War, and modern culture. Some of those stories will be very good. Plenty of the readers think the most important thing about Spider-Man is that he’s young, but that we see him grow up.
There are dissenting views on whether the first 150 issues are a good place to start reading Spider-Man comics. J.R. Fettinger’s top ten list doesn’t feature anything from Amazing Spider-Man #146 or before. He explains why he’s not including anything from the Lee/ Ditko run. He didn’t think the Silver Age comics were all that good.
Cumulatively, this was truly Spidey’s greatest era as his personality is established and his most famous villains are created (they are still his core rogues gallery 30 years later). But, let’s admit it, the stories themselves now seem dated and unsophisticated relative to today’s storytelling. Even the dramatic first confrontation between Norman Osborn and Peter Parker unmasked in Amazing #40 reads like traditional comic book camp now.
Silver Age comic books have their charms, but the best way to get into a superhero title is by reading contemporary stories first and moving backward. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s early Avengers issues are appropriately bombastic for the time, but probably too exaggerated for any fans being introduced to the characters through the more realistic film.
It is a matter of personal preference. Often, the earlier work has its charms, but it may just be too dated to be an introduction. It’s usually a good rule to avoid early stuff until you’re more familiar with the characters, but Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s run (or the Lee/ Romita follow-up) is just too good and too fun to not be included in any selection of accessible and good Spider-Man stories. If Silver Age comic books are like silent movies, this is The General, the rare old-fashioned work that can be recommended without reservation. But there are plenty of good later comics to check out for someone who just got into Spider-Man, as we’ll learn next time.
Best of Spider-Man Watch
These issues tend to appear on the lists of the greatest Spider-Man stories. It’s a smaller list than before, since the best-regarded stories were in the previous list. But there are advantages to reading it all in one sitting, and rereading other stories in context, as subplots unfold and characters develop.
So just to confirm that this is the conventional wisdom, here’s the breakdown of those lists, not including comics mentioned last time.
- 50. The Crime Master VS The Green Goblin (Amazing Spider-Man #26-27)
- 48. The Original End of Spider-Man (Amazing Spider-Man #18-19)
- 46. The Horns of the Rhino (Amazing Spider-Man #41-43)
- 42. Doc Ock Wins (Amazing Spider-Man #53-56)
- 31. The Spider or the Man (Amazing Spider-Man #100-102)
- 15. Harry Osborn is on Drugs! (Amazing Spider-Man #96-98)
From the spidermanreviews.com Top 50 (Full disclosure: I was involved in this one, along with Stillanerd)…
- 50. To Become an Avenger! (Amazing Spider-Man Annual #3)
- 37. The Green Goblin Lives (Spectacular Spider-Man Magazine #2)
- 36. The Original End of Spider-Man (Amazing Spider-Man #18)
- 34. The Madness of Mysterio (Amazing Spider-Man #66-67)
- 29. Doc Ock Wins (Amazing Spider-Man #53-56)
Another metric is whether these runs were ranked on lists of the best in the medium. In Comics Journal #210, the Lee/ Ditko run of Amazing Spider-Man was one of two Marvel comics to make their 2000 list of the best comic books of the 20th Century. Comic Book Resources readers voted the Lee/ Romita run of Amazing Spider-Man as the 37th best comic book run ever, and the Lee/ Ditko run as the sixth. The Atlas Comics list of Top 100 artists had Romita, Kane and Ditko in the top twenty.