In previous editions, I considered where readers can start with the Spider-Man comics. First, I picked the stories and issues that were the right combination of significant, well-regarded and good. Then, I made the case for the first 150 issues of Amazing Spider-Man as part of a distinct era that will provide a strong understanding of the character. There have been plenty of other great comics in the decades since, with a common problem being that the stories are often good, but better if you understand the references to prior comics. If you’ve checked out the other lists, this is the place to go to after consuming the obvious choices. And if you’ve been a Spidey fan for a while and haven’t read some of these issues, it’s the stuff you should really seek out.
These are comics that have stood the test of time. The most recent have been out for at least a decade, which may freak out some of you who remember where you were when it came out.
Trade Paperbacks, One-Shots and Single Issues
We’ll start with stories that are available as standalone volumes. The idea of MARVEL KNIGHTS SPIDER-MAN #1-12 was brilliantly simple, although Marvel only did it once. The plan was to give A-list creators twelve issues to do their take on Spider-Man, and leave without any encores. The first time around Marvel had the good fortune to get Mark Millar at a time when he was practicing what he preached on shorter comic book runs, believing that if writers stuck around too long, their work would have diminishing returns. The result was essentially a distillation of everything that is good and great about the wall-crawler. Millar, Dodson and Cho reconciled the disparate aspects of the character: the geek aware he’s married to a woman outside of his league, the reckless superhero who picked fights with the Avengers, and the nice guy who will do a tremendous favor for one of his greatest villains. We also get a sense of the how brutal Spider-Man’s job is−something that has previously been more effectively conveyed by the movies−thanks to the edgier tone of the series. The story had some new revelations about one of Spider-Man’s greatest enemies, and a change in Venom that has come to define that villain.
Dan Slott and Ty Templeton’s SPIDER-MAN/ HUMAN TORCH #1-5 explored the relationship between the two Marvel icons in different eras from the title: the Lee/ Ditko high school days, the Lee/ Romita college days, the aftermath of Spider-Man’s greatest tragedy, the Alien Costume saga and a present-day team-up that would come to change Spider-Man’s partnership with Marvel’s first family. That wouldn’t matter much if these stories weren’t really good; in fact, these were typically better than average for the era being revisited. This was essentially Dan Slott’s sample for the Spider-Man gig.
Torment collects Todd McFarlane’s SPIDER-MAN #1-5, the first issue of which was the best-selling Spider-Man comic ever. It’s one of the few stories that I read when I was really new to Spider-Man that still holds up, although others may disagree. It’s Mcfarlane’s debut as writer, but I think it mostly works, with a naturalistic take on Spidey in the early issues, before everything goes to hell, and the wallcrawler gets into one of the most vicious fights of his life. Mcfarlane’s SPIDER-MAN had one of the most interesting hooks of any Spider-Man satellite title, essentially turning it into a monster book. The first volume certainly met that criteria when a C-list villain essentially turns the Lizard into a mindless, savage zombie. It’s not about winning and losing for Spider-Man; it’s about survival.
The anthology series TANGLED WEB is particularly useful for self-contained stories, and most of it is worth hunting down. The general idea was to get unconventional talents to tell the stories of people affected by Spider-Man. TANGLED WEB #4 by Greg Rucka and Eduardo Risso was the perfect realization of that, with the story of a Kingpin employee who has to meet with the boss after Spider-Man busted a multi-million dollar shipment. Darwyn Cooke popped up for TANGLED WEB #11, showing what Valentine’s Day is like for Spider-Man as he deals with the aftermath of a fight with the Vulture. With TANGLED WEB #20, Zeb Wells and Dean Haspiel tell the origin of J. Jonah Jameson with a combination of humor and pathos. TANGLED WEB #22 capped off the series with a look at a police invesigation seemingly hampered by Spider-Man’s intervention. The twist ends up working on multiple levels.
There are a few other scattered single issues worth hunting down. AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #153 by Len Wein and Ross Andru makes you care about someone who would usually be a peripherary character: a widowed college football coach suddenly dragged into a crime drama when his young daughter is kidnapped. It’s a reminder that Peter Parker is relatively safe as far as the writers are concerned, and there are limits on what can be thing to supporting characters, but that nasty things can happen to those unlucky enough to be dragged into Spider-Man’s world. AMAZING SPIDER-MAN Annual #15 features a clash between the Punisher and Doctor Octopus, and a look at the inner workings of the Daily Bugle. It’s probably the best Spider-Man work by writer Dennis O’Neil and obscure artist Frank Miller.
PETER PARKER THE SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN #65 marked the first appearance of Cloak and Dagger, as Spider-Man encounters two young heroes with a different moral code. PETER PARKER THE SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN #127 may just be the definitive Lizard story. WHAT IF? #88 is another personal favorite, showing a Peter Parker who was affected in a different way by the spider bite, and fears that he has cursed his only son.
The Return of the Burglar
Marv Wolfman was the fourth regular writer to tackle AMAZING SPIDER-MAN. His first year or so were solid, but not exceptional. But then things got really good. AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #191-192 featured the unlikely team-up of Spider-Man and J. Jonah Jameson, combined with a dying villain seeking revenge, a story beat that transformed one of the B-listers from the Lee/ Ditko run into a man with nothing to lose.
The Burglar saga from AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #193-200 had Spider-Man pushed to the limit in the greatest series of challenges the hero had faced, with Wolfman and Keith Polland depicting defeats and triumphs for the wall-crawler. Each chapter was consequential. It featured the first appearance of the Black Cat, the the Kingpin mulling retirement (before he went on to become more of a Daredevil foe), the apparent death of Aunt May, the return of Mysterio after 100+ issues, as well as the rematch between Peter Parker and the man who killed Uncle Ben. The Human Fly also beats up Spidey, although this shouldn’t be held against this arc.
The first Spider-Man satellite book was MARVEL TEAM-UP. It was initially supposed to feature Spider-Man and the Human Torch, although it would later include encounters with other heroes. The first issue by Roy Thomas and Ross Andru brought back Sandman as a Spider-Man foe after he had spent a few years as a Fantastic Four baddie, and showed a gentler side to the villain that would come to define him in later issues. It also had a cameo appearance by a future Marvel icon. MARVEL TEAM-UP #56 by Bill Mantlo and John Byrne served as a prologue to the Avengers/ Thanos showdown in AVENGERS ANNUAL #7 and MARVEL TWO-IN-ONE ANNUAL #2. Jim Starlin wrapped up his Warlock saga in the story, which Joss Whedon described as his favorite Avengers tale. Call me crazy, but it seems possible that a story in which Spider-Man teams up with the Avengers against Thanos may have a small influence on the AVENGERS: INFINITY War films, which will feature Spider-Man teaming up with the Avengers against Thanos.
Chris Claremont had a significant run on the title, with UNCANNY X-MEN collaborator John Byrne joining him for over a dozen issues. When the guys who did the best run of any Marvel title ever also spent some time on Spidey, it’s worth checking out the results. In MARVEL TEAM-UP #59-60, a team-up with two of the founding Avengers gets a little bit crazy when it appears that one of them has died fighting the bad guy. MARVEL TEAM-UP #65-66 is probably their most significant storyline from the run, introducing Marvel villain Arcade and bringing Captain Britain to American audiences for the first time. MARVEL TEAM-UP #79 shows Spidey completely out of his league, as the poor wallcrawler has to deal with the revenge scheme of a centuries old sorceror, and Mary Jane gets possessed by Red Sonja. Claremont worked with other artists on the book, notably Frank Miller in MARVEL TEAM-UP #100, where future new mutant Karma possesses Spider-Man to pit him against the Fantastic Four.
More Roger Stern!
In the 101 section, I noted the highlights of Stern’s Spider-Man run, limited mainly to the stuff that belongs on lists of the best comic book stories. I didn’t say best comic Spider-Man stories; those were some of the best comic book stories. However, the entire run (AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #224-227, 229-236, 238-251) is worth hunting down, either in omnibus format, or in the single issues (which aren’t that expensive if you get reprints of the early Hobgoblin appearances.) It may just be the most consistently excellent run in the series’s history. Material I hadn’t covered in the earlier list includes the first partnership between Spidey and the Black Cat, the origin of the Vulture, the Foolkiller coming to a hilarious conclusion, and the return of Mary Jane after several years away. Stern’s stories were dense, with more good moments per page than almost any other comic book you could read at that time, or any time. He and Romita Jr. had as close to a fully realized take on Peter Parker as we’ve ever seen.
In the introduction to the Wizard Masterpiece Edition Spider-Man hardcover, Brian Michael Bendis praised a Hyde/ Cobra two-parter (AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #231-232).
At first glance (it) reads just like any good Marvel comic – fun villains, great art, etc. – but, it is, at second glance, a truly great Spider-Man story. It is quintessential Spider-Man. By that, I mean, the tone of it, the language of it, the energy of it, can only be found with Spider-Man. Any long-lasting superhero icon has a signature feel to it, and Spider-Man is no different. And this story is exactly what the Spider-Man feeling is: quirky, funny, scary, neurotic, epic and intimate…all at the same time.
Once you get past the obvious legendary Spider-Man stories (origin, Gwen Stacy bridge toss, etc.) this story is one of my favorites.
Stern would return to the title a few more times. The most significant of those efforts was THE HOBGOBLIN LIVES #1-3, as he, along with artists Ron Frenz and George Perez, finally revealed the true identity of one of Spider-Man’s greatest enemies.
Bill Mantlo’s Owl/ Octopus war from PETER PARKER THE SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN#72-79 occurred at the same time as Stern’s run. It featured some of the most memorable confrontations between Spider-Man and his greatese enemy, as well as major developments with the Black Cat. This was the story that turned her into one of the great loves of Peter Parker’s life, just as Doctor Octopus nearly beats her to death. It’s the high point of Mantlo’s multiple Spider-Man runs.
Tom DeFalco and the Alien Costume Saga
The first eight issues of Tom Defalco’s AMAZING SPIDER-MAN run (Issues 252-259), with the Alien Costume saga are worth reading. DeFlaco and Ron Frenz would introduce three new antagonists Black Fox, Rose and Puma, who would go on to torment Spider-Man again throughout the decades. The alien costume would go on to be one of the most significant additions to the series, although this story had some major developments with Mary Jane, as the readers learn her backstory and her greatest secret. Later adaptations take the story in a slightly different direction (the suit doesn’t make Peter angrier/ more liberated as it did in cartoons or film) but it’s good stuff. The coda includes one of the great gags in the comics, with the introduction of the Amazing Bag-Man.
WEB OF SPIDER-MAN #1 by Louise Simonson and Greg Laroque, would feature an epilogue to the Alien Costume Saga, with a clash between Peter Parker and the symbiote that has been adapted into film, television and the ultimate comics. DeFalco would also write a few excellent stanfdalone issues. AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #265 introduced the Silver Sable, a hero for hire who would carry her own title for 30+ issues, and be a mixed blessing for Spidey. AMAZING SPIDER-MAN#271 revealed the fate of Crusher Hogan, the wrestler from Amazing Fantasy #15, and it had a gut punch of an ending. WHAT IF? #105 (later reprinted as SPIDER-GIRL #0) featured the origin of the Mayday Parker, Spider-Man’s daughter from an alternate future. She who would go on to have 130+ issues of her own title, with DeFalco in the drivers seat.
More Peter David!
Peter David was an irregular presence on Spider-Man in the 1980s, sometimes filling in for writers on other titles. But his work includes several highlights for the series. The commuter saga from AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #267 has Spider-Man deal with the menace of suburbia, as he chases a petty crook out of city limits. WEB OF SPIDER-MAN #13 had a great take on Spider-Man’s conflict with J Jonah Jameson, as Peter gets upset at the latest of the Daily Bugle’s misrepresentations. The return of the Sin-Eater in PETER PARKER THE SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN #134-136 has Spider-Man dealing with the consequences of one of his victories, as he sees the effect of one of his beatings on a disturbed but physically ordinary man. This backfires when it results in him holding back against one of his greatest enemies.
Peter David’s longest run would be on an unusual spinoff exploring that world of Marvel in the late 21st Century. SPIDER-MAN 2099 #1-3 featured the origin of the Miguel O’Hara, that world’s Spider-Man. Rick Leonardi provides the art, exploring Spider-Man’s impact on a BLADE RUNNER style future. The SPIDER-MAN/ SPIDER-MAN 2099 one-shot featured Miguel’s first encounter with Peter Parker, as they team up against their greatest enemies.
David Michelinie wrote AMAZING SPIDER-MAN for about eight years, so he had quite a few notable stories, aside from just the introduction of Venom. The wedding from AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #290-292 and Annual # 21 was an important part of the series’s history. Technically, only the last few pages of it have been retconned.
“The Return of the Sinister Six” from AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #334-339 was artist Erik Larsen’s magnum opus on the title, and marked the Sinister Six becoming a regular presence in the title after a 25 year absence. A long-standing member of the supporting cast would end up as the casualty in that conflict. Carnage was introduced in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #361-363, which also featured the first team-up between Spider-Man and Venom.
JM Dematteis and Sal Buscema’s Spectacular Spider-Man
JM Dematteis’s 23 issue run on SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN #178-200 with artist Sal Buscema features the best-written mega-arc in the series’s history, as Harry Osborn becomes the Green Goblin once again. He’s not defeated at the end of the first storyline, so Spider-Man and his family have to deal with a menace who knows his secret and is willing to violate all the usual rules. The ending was adapted rather faithfully for SPIDER-MAN 3. In other highlights from the run, the Vulture deals with the consequences of a bad thing that he did during “Return of the Sinister Six,” the Rhino makes a mistake, Spider-Man visits a good psychiatrist, and Peter deals with an old trauma. Peter Parker is given with a level of psychological depth that might not have been surpassed in superhero comics.
Clone Saga (Extra Credit)
One of the most significant Spider-Man stories was the Clone Saga, which dominated the four Spider-Man titles for just over two years. This was the story where a clone of Peter Parker returned, and turned out to be the real Spider-Man. The response was mixed, with some fans preferring the clone Ben Reilly to Peter Parker, and others viewing it as a low point in comics. To give a sense of that, the website Topless Robot split the worst Spider-Man stories into two categories: The 12 Dumbest Spider-Man Stories Ever (Besides the Clone Saga) and The 13 Dumbest Spider-Man Stories Ever (Just From the Clone Saga.)
Whatever you think of it, there are a few issues worth sampling, although these are also chapters of a 120+ issue saga, so it may not be very accessible. AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #400 features the death of Aunt May by JM DeMatteis and Mark Bagley. Later retcons don’t take away from the power, as Aunt May and Peter discuss his greatest secret. SENSATIONAL SPIDER-MAN #8 is a good showcase for the Ben Reilly Spider-Man, and marked the beginning of Todd DeZago and Mike Wieringo’s well-regarded run on the title. It’s a fun standalone story in which the Looter goes on a crime spree using the tools of other villains. SPIDER-MAN #75 brought it all to a close with the return of one of Spidey’s greatest enemies after a very long absence. Howard Mackie and John Romita Jr depicted the Halloween that ended up being the night of the Goblin.
The first nine issues of J. Michael Straczynski and John Romita Jr’s AMAZING SPIDER-MAN (Volume 2 #30-38) are well worth hunting down. Morlun (bad guy) and Ezekiel (a new kind of good guy) are introduced, Peter Parker gets a new job, and someone learns his secret identity. It also features one of Spider-Man’s greatest battles, a question that shakes the series to the core, as well as Spider-Man’s response to the greatest tragedy in New York’s history. It ends with the most uncomfortable conversation the character has ever had.
In other highlights from the run, AMAZING SPIDER-MAN Volume 2 #50 features the reunion of Peter Parker and Mary Jane, after they were separated for several years. AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #506-508 ties up the Ezekiel saga, as Spider-Man is betrayed and an ally pays the ultimate price. The Happy Birthday arc from AMAZING SPIDER-MAN Volume 2 #57-58, 500, 502 features glimpses of Spider-Man’s future, as he is also forced to relive his greatest tragedies and triumphs.
Paul Jenkins and Mark Buckingham
At around the same time, British duo Paul Jenkins and Mark Buckingham did character based stories in the satellite book. With PETER PARKER SPIDER-MAN #20, 21 and 33, they explored explored Peter and Uncle Ben’s relationship in greater depth than any other writer, as Peter sought guidance in the aftermath of a great tragedy. PETER PARKER SPIDER-MAN #30-32 pit Spider-Man against Fusion, a nasty villain who seemingly had the powers of everyone in the Marvel Universe, along with a reason for hating Spider-Man, and a willingness to kill hundreds to get his revenge.
For a variety of reasons, writers and editors like exploring Spider-Man’s early days. Kurt Busiek and Pat Oliffe’s run of UNTOLD TALES OF SPIDER-MAN functioned as a satellite title to the Lee/ Ditko run. Highlights include #13, in which Peter feels guilty for a classmate’s death, and #17, an encounter with Hawkeye, set in the days when Marvel’s archer wasn’t a good guy. The painted mini-series AMAZING FANTASY #16-18 was the first exploration of the brief period between AMAZING FANTASY #15 and AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #1, as Spider-Man takes on organized crime for the first time, makes his first superpowered friend, and realizes that the world isn’t as simple as he hoped, even for a guy with his powers. It’s highly recommended for anyone looking for a good Spider-Man: Year One project, which is probably anyone reading this list.
Another highly recommended standalone mini-series is DEATH & DESTINY #1-3 by writer/ artist Lee Weeks. He focuses on the immediate aftermath of one of Spider-Man’s greatest tragedies. JR Fettinger praised it in his 2000 Year In Review.
D & D is as perfect a “reimagining” as one can get. For one, it tells a completely different story relative to the death of Captain Stacy between Amazing Spider-Man #90 & 91, without contradicting or mitigating Stan Lee’s original story. The only negative was the overused “Jonah as hostage” subplot. The story fit seamlessly into the established continuity, but allowed us to look at the characters in a new light since we know what later happened to them, such as oblique references to Harry’s drug use, Peter’s debating on leaning on Professor Warren as a father figure upon the death of Stacy, as well as the latter’s suspicions about Mr. Parker (Peter claims to be calling from Aunt May’s house, but Warren’s pager shows that the call is coming from an auto body shop where Spider-Man has just clobbered a bunch of thugs), and foreshadowing of Gwen’s death – with Peter promising Captain Stacy that he’ll take care of her – a promise we all know that he was unable to keep. Where was this guy when the regular title assignments were being handed out?
Years later, I still consider Death and Destiny to be the best Spider-Man mini-series in the post-reboot era. And I still wonder why Lee Weeks hasn’t been given another Spider-Man assignment to flex his creative writing muscles.
Coming Up Next…
I may make a slight digression in a piece about the significance of ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN #1. But I’ll soon finish the recommnedations series with the best of recent Spider-Man (ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN, Civil War, Brand New Day, The Big Time, SUPERIOR SPIDER-MAN and Spider-Verse.) This one was long enough as is.
Best of Spider-Man Watch
These issues tend to appear on the lists of the greatest Spider-Man stories. So just to confirm that this is the conventional wisdom, here’s the breakdown of those lists.
Reprinted in “The Very Best of Spider-Man” (Circa 1994)
- “Whatever Happened to Crusher Hogan?” (Amazing Spider-Man #271)
- “” (Spectacular Spider-Man #189)
- 70. Marvel Two in One Annual #7
- 68. Amazing Spider-Man Annual #21
- 65. Spider-Man: The Clone Saga
- 3. Caught in the Act (Amazing Spider-Man #231-232)
From Spiderfan.org’s list published in Official Playstation Magazine #56
- 9. The Clone Saga
- 7. The Gift (Amazing Spider-Man #400)
- 43. The Conversation (Amazing Spider-Man Volume 2 #38)
- 41. The Wedding (Amazing Spider-Man Annual #21)
- 40. I’m With Stupid (Spider-Man/ Human Torch #1-5)
- 39. Return of the Burglar (Amazing Spider-Man #198-200)
- 38. Return of the Sinister Six (Amazing Spider-Man #334-339)
- 37. To Have and to Hold (Sensational Spider-Man Annual #1)
- 36. The Commuter Cometh! (Amazing Spider-Man #267)
- 35. Down Among the Dead Men (Marvel Knights Spider-Man #1-12)
- 23. The Second Hobgoblin Saga (Amazing Spider-Man #259-261)
- 17. The Owl/ Octopus War (Peter Parker the Spectacular Spider-Man #72-79)
- 14. The Alien Costume Saga (Amazing Spider-Man #252-258)
- 13. Coming Home (Amazing Spider-Man Volume 2 #30-35)
- 12. The Gift (Amazing Spider-Man #400)
- 10. The Harry Osborn Saga (Spectacular Spider-Man #178-200)
- 25. Down Among the Dead Men (Marvel Knights Spider-Man #1-12)
- 23. The Conversation (Amazing Spider-Man Volume 2 #38)
- 21. The Wedding (Amazing Spider-Man Annual #21)
- 17. I’m With Stupid (Spider-Man/ Human Torch #1-5)
- 13. The Commuter Cometh! (Amazing Spider-Man #267)
- 8. The Harry Osborn Saga (Spectacular Spider-Man #178-200)
From the spidermanreviews.com Top 50 (Conflict of Interest report: I was involved in this one)…
- 48. I’m With Stupid (Spider-Man/ Human Torch #1-5)
- 32. The Commuter Cometh! (Amazing Spider-Man #267)
- 15. Happy Birthday! (Amazing Spider-Man #498-500)
- 13. The Wedding (Amazing Spider-Man Annual #21)
- 6. Down Among the Dead Men (Marvel Knights Spider-Man #1-12)