In the previous entries on the recommendations for new readers, I looked at Spider-Man comics that had demonstrated staying power. Now it’s time to determine which of the more recent stuff is worth checking out first.
This is likely to be the most controversial of the entries, since there are many people reading this who don’t like the recent comics.
Two writers have dominated the last decade or so of the Spider-Man books, and neither seems to be in any hurry to leave. Dan Slott has been the writer of the main Spider-Man title for the last five years, following a period in which he had just been one of several writers contributing to the book. The main alternative has been Brian Michael Bendis, who has about 200+ issues on the Ultimate books. If you don’t like their work, you’re going to have a tougher time finding Spider-Man material. If you discover that you do like their work, it may end up being hard on the wallet.
Best of ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN
While the entire 150+ issue run of ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN is worth getting, and quite accessible to newer readers—It’s a book I’ve shared with my younger brothers and college roommates—someone interested in the highlights (after the first year) should check out several smaller volumes. ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN #29-32 may just be the best story in which Spider-Man is framed, a common trope in the series. Elements from the story were used in the AMAZING SPIDER-MAN film, as Peter Parker sought his girlfriend’s help when dealing with a gunshot wound. It’s a reminder of how nasty Spider-Man’s world can be, and how it would affect those in his circle.
ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN #33-39 reimagines the origin of Venom. It was the basis for the ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN video game, and sets up the mystery of Peter Parker’s parents, which has much better payoff here than in the Marc Webb films. The usual alien origins of the symbiote has a more terrestrial origin this time around, and Peter’s experience with it is compressed into one chaotic night. This form of Peter Parker is unambiguously a teenager who tries to see the best in everyone, but naively trusts the wrong person.
With the clone saga from ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN #97-105, Bendis and Bagley mine the worst stories of the 90s to find some gems, and reminds readers that this is a series that can got in a different direction than the classic Marvel Universe. Dead characters return, secrets are revealed, and we get a very different take on Spider-Woman.
Bendis had a few spinoff projects with Ultimate Peter Parker. ULTIMATE MARVEL TEAM-UP featured different artists for every story, and encounters between the teen superhero and new versions of classic characters. The Ultimate Punisher arc (#6-8) with Bill Sienkiewicz is the highlight, with a take on the character seperated from the increasingly anachronistic Vietnam war. Spider-Man gets involved in a fight between the Punisher and Daredevil, and realizes that there are some situations where he is just completely out of his league. The series ends with ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN SUPER SPECIAL, a jam with numerous artists, as Peter considers whether he’s ready to be Spider-Man. Publishing realities dictate a particular answer, but he comes to it in an interesting way.
The greatest impact of the Ultimate books might be the introduction of Miles Morales, a kid who takes over as Spider-Man. First, ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN#156-160 takes Peter Parker out of the picture, in a final stand against Norman Osborn and the Sinister Six. Ultimate Fallout deals with the aftermath, as supporting characters and Marvel heroes try to make sense of a catastrophic loss.
ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN Volume 3 #1-13 covers the origins of the Miles Morales Spider-Man, introducing his supporting cast and motivations. SPIDER-MEN is the first crossover between the Ultimate Universe and the Classic Marvel Universe, as the classic Peter Parker arrives in a world where he has a very different reputation, encounters Miles Morales and learns that one of his enemies has been coming to the Ultimate world for a long time. Meanwhile, the Ultimate Peter Parker’s friends see the guy he would have grown up to be.
During his Spider-Man run, J. Michael Straczynski had hinted at a future in which Spider-Man’s secret identity was public, and Peter Parker was a wanted fugitive. This ended up happening with AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #529-538, depicting Spider-Man’s perspective of developments in the event book CIVIL WAR #1-7. Peter had become Tony Stark’s protege just as the world goes to hell, and a clash over a law about registering superheroes divides the Marvel Universe between Iron Man (on the side of security) and Captain America (on the side of liberty.) Peter realizes that he might be on the wrong team only after he reveals his deepest secret to the public. I hesitated about including these issues since many of the developments in this story were quickly retconned—hell, that was the point of letting the genie out in the first place—but recent announcements suggest its impact will be boosted. Peter’s relationship with Tony Stark is going to influence the debut of the Marvel Cinematic Universe Spider-Man in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR. And Mary Jane is going to join the cast of Brian Michael Bendis’s INVINCIBLE IRON MAN.
For the half year between Civil War and One More Day, Spider-Man’s identity was public knowledge. Matt Fraction and Salvador Laroca’s “To Have And To Hold” from SENSATIONAL SPIDER-MAN Annual #1 is a great standalone story from this particular era, although your brain may explode trying to figure out how all of that got reversed. Peter and MJ are at a crossroads, remembering where their relationship started, as an old flame tries to get MJ to turn on Peter, just as he’s trying to find a way to turn himself over to the authorities. It was an excellent look at their relationship, and enduring love for one another, several months before the break-up.
With J. Michael Straczynski’s departure, Marvel went in a new direction for the comics. The format changed, as the monthly title became a thrice-monthly with a rotating creative team. There was a back to basics approach with the status quo, as Peter Parker’s marriage was erased, his identity was a secret once again, and his best friend was revealed to have faked his death.
The change in direction remains controversial, but there have been some acclaimed storylines, and this will likely have an effect on the Spider-Man mythos. New Ways to Die (AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #568-573) by Dan Slott and John Romita Jr. pit the wall-crawler against the Thunderbolts, a “superhero” team that happens to include two of his greatest enemies. Flashbacks (AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #574) by Marc Guggenheim and Barry Kitson had some life-changing developments for Flash Thompson, who tries to consider “What Would Spidey Do?” when facing trouble in Afghanistan.
Unscheduled Stop (AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #578-579) introduces a significant supporting character, and marks the moment Marcos Martin was essentially accepted as one of the best artists in the industry. Spider-Man is trapped in a dangerous situation thanks to one of his oldest enemies, a somewhat familiar situation but with the added problem of keeping a group of innocent bystanders alive. The Return of the Spot (AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #589) is a one-shot which shows what happens when one of Spider-Man’s least respected enemies starts using his powers in vicious ways. It also features one of the most memorable punches in comics.
The Gauntlet mega-arc came towards the end of the run, with the common theme of upgrades to Spider-Man’s greatest enemies. Joe Kelly and Max Fiurama featured a shake-up for the Rhino (AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #617, 625) transforming him from a punchline to a tragic figure, as a new Rhino tries to get him back into the supervillain business. Nastier stuff happened to the Lizard in Shed (AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #630-633) by Zeb Wells and Chris Bachalo, as villains with access to prophecy manipulate events to change what would otherwise be a standard encounter between Spider-Man and one of his oldest foes into the worst possible outcome. Both stories end with an understandably gutted and emotionally devastated Peter Parker. The Gauntlet culminated with a few significant returns (AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #634-637) in Grim Hunt, as various spiders unite against the masterminds, but there are some casualties.
Shed has been particularly controversial. It was panned by every panelist on the podcast, but has its fans as well. David Uzumeri of Comics Alliance was eager to praise it.
Yeah, it’s shocking, it’s violent, it’s emotional. But it hits honestly and brutally in a way that isn’t manipulative, other than the heartstring-tugging that any story has to try to pull off to create an emotional connection. In the hands of almost any other team, a story with this mandate — to take the humanity of the Lizard and have him attack his family — would be laughable dross, but here Wells and Bachalo elevate it to a pretty harrowing story that never loses the tone of a Spider-Man book.
After Brand New Day, the series shifted once again with the Big Time era. Dan Slott became the main writer, the book went to a twice-monthly schedule, and Peter Parker gained a new supporting cast as he gets closer to achieving his potential as a scientist at Horizon Labs. The Big Time (AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #648-651) introduces a new Hobgoblin, and the cast of Horizon Labs, as Peter Parker gets access to cutting edge technology. No One Dies (AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #655-656) deals with the aftermath of a tragedy, as Spider-Man makes an impossible promise right before the arrival of one of his nasteist enemies. The first issue is an artistic tour de force, with a ten page silent sequence by Marcos Martin, followed by Peter reliving all the tragedies he’s had to face as Spider-Man.
Spider Island (AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #666-673) showed what would happen if Spider-Man’s powers became a lot more widespread, as Peter struggles to find his own identities when others suddenly seem to have the same abilities he did. It’s particularly fun to see supporting characters like Mary Jane and J. Jonah Jameson with the powers of Spider-Man. This was also a story in which the Jackal was a villain, with relatively minimal clone involvement, paving the way for future appearances. The story had multiple tie-ins, the most significant of which was VENOM #6-9 as the Flash Thompson Venom deals with a family tragedy during the outbreak.
Another interesting spinoff was the Scarlet Spider monthly, as Kaine—the most tortured and aggressive of Spider-Man’s clones—learned about power and responsibility in Houston. It’s material that could have been terrible, but worked due to the action sensibilities of Christopher Yost, the Spider-world art debut of Ryan Stegman, and the joy of seeing the typical Spider-Man story with a temperamentally different lead. The opening arc was SCARLET SPIDER #1-2.
During the Marvel Now! launch a few years back, most of Marvel’s writers essentially played a game of musical chairs, as several major years-long runs wrapped up at the same time, leading to a shuffling of creative teams. The one exception was the Spider-Man books as Dan Slott stuck around to show what happened if Spider-Man’s powers are in the wrong hands. Dying Wish (AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #698-700) set up the Superior Spider-Man era, with the final clash between Doctor Octopus and Peter Parker. Doc Ock’s body is hours from death, but he’s swapped bodies with Peter Parker, so everything’s going well for him. Things aren’t so rosy from Spider-Man’s perspective.
SUPERIOR SPIDER-MAN was kind of the comic book equivalent of a cover song. You have some familiar elements, like the power set, supporting cast and the rogues gallery. But there’s a twist to it. This version of Spider-Man would use his abilities differently, even if he’s trying to do the right thing, albeit with a very different understanding of the world. In the same setting with the same tools, he’ll respond to supporting characters and guest stars in ways that Peter Parker never would. A sampler of the era would include SUPERIOR SPIDER-MAN #1-5 with Spider-Ock’s first adventures, and SUPERIOR SPIDER-MAN #9-10 with a showdown in Peter Parker’s mind.
Peter Parker came back, and took over as Spidey once again in one of the best-selling comic books of the 21st Century. But there would be another clash between him and Spider-Ock in Spider-Verse (AMAZING SPIDER-MAN Volume 3 #9-15) as the two team-up with spider characters from different universes to fight against an interdimensional enemy. I’d make the case that the most significant trend of the Spider-Man comics in the last five years has been the incorporation of alternate universes into the mythos. I get the argument that this is a sci-fi trope that just doesn’t belong in a series that’s supposed to be more grounded, although with a character as well-developed as the original Peter Parker, there’s a fun in having him see how things could have been a little different.
The story has significant immediate impact. There are multiple spinoff titles, including WEB WARRIORS, about a team of alternate universe Spider-Man, and SILK, showing the experiences of a young woman who was also bitten by the radioactive spider. EDGE OF SPIDER-VERSE #2 introduced a world in which Gwen Stacy became a superhero, Peter Parker was her greatest tragedy, Mary Jane is one of her bandmates, and Matt Murdock’s trying to get her dad killed.
One of the most acclaimed Spider-Man spinoffs had been Nick Spencer and Steve Lieber’s SUPERIOR FOES OF SPIDER-MAN #1-9/ 12-17, focusing on what it’s like to be B-list villains in the Marvel Universe. Oliver Sava of the AV Club is one of many who has nice things to say about the run.
Since debuting The Superior Foes Of Spider-Man in July of last year, writer Nick Spencer and artist Steve Lieber have made the title one of Marvel’s most captivating ongoing series, balancing humor, crime, and superhero genres in a way that made the book feel fresh every month. Spotlighting the five team members of the Sinister Six—a clever way of showing how the team is always falling below expectations—the series has offered a hilarious perspective of Marvel’s street-level landscape, downplaying the fantastic elements of the supervillain lifestyle and focusing on how these rogues connect to each other on a personal level.
The purpose of these reading lists has been to provide a survey of the Spider-Man comics. But certain things will always be in flux. While good comics will remain good comics no matter what, this has been one of Marvel’s top brands for a long time, so they’ve been able to get an impressive array of talent for the various series. As a result, the bigger difficulty is in seperating the great comic books from the merely good, as well as the good and significant, from the good but inconsequential. Determining importance with the older material is slightly easier since we have a good idea of what stories have strong reputations, and we can trace the impact over the decades. However, there can always be changes. If Hypno Hustler is the villain of a well-regarded ten issue epic, his first appearance is suddenly going to be seen as much more essential. If Spider-Man hooks up with the Black Widow, MARVEL TEAM-UP #82-85 is going to matter a lot more. If Jon Watts decides that SPIDER-MAN LOVES MARY JANE is a good template for the next Spider-Man movie, that run’s going to have a bigger reputation. On the other hand, if Darwyn Cooke does one of the best Spider-Man mini-series ever, there’s slightly less appeal to his TANGLED WEB issues.
We know even less about what’s going to stick around with the recent comics. It could be like Grant Morrison’s NEW X-MEN, with later writers mining the run for years to come. It might all be ignored as the book’s taken over by creative teams who haven’t read a new Spider-Man comic since Maximum Carnage. There may also be cycles as stories fall out of favor, and are rediscovered.
While this entry has been an attempt to give a primer on the most important recent comics—as of this particular moment—there are different ways to read the books than just going for specific selections. If you have a tablet and a decent internet connection, you can read most of these issues on Marvel’s Digital Comics platform. Since there’s no difference in cost whether you read one comic or two hundred, that does change the calculus of what stories to read and how to appreciate the material. It might be better to read the stories in order, and enjoy it as it unfolds.
While I’ve listed hundreds of interesting Spider-Man comics, and exhausted much of your patience, there’s more material available. These lists give a sense of the character’s history, and the background referenced in later comics. But if you’re reading this, you probably like reading comics. There are plenty more stories that I could recommend—and I might if I run out of ideas for future columns—but the obvious tip is to find material similar to what you like. If JM Dematteis turns out to be your favorite Spider-Man writer, he had two runs of SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN, as well as one on MARVEL TEAM-UP, so there’s going to be plenty to enjoy. If you really like Erik Larsen’s art in Return of the Sinister Six, you’ll probably enjoy it in his other Spider-Man comics. If you find Ben Reilly to be a compelling lead, you’ll probably enjoy much of the rest of the Clone Saga. If you find yourself liking material from a particular era, it’s probably worth checking out other titles from that time.
Best of Spider-Man Watch
These are the stories that 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. The numbers are kinda low this time around, although a major reason for that is that much of the material is too recent for consideration.
- 75. Death of Spider-Man (Ultimate Spider-Man #156-160)
- 46. Amazing Spider-Man #700
- 2. Civil War
- 33. Venom (Ultimate Spider-Man #33-38)
- 32. New Ways to Die (Amazing Spider-Man #568-573)
- 29. Unscheduled Stop (Amazing Spider-Man #578-579)
- 28. Spider-Island (Amazing Spider-Man #666-673)
- 27. Death of Spider-Man (Ultimate Spider-Man #156-160))
- 19. No One Dies (Amazing Spider-Man #655-656)
- 20. Rage of the Rhino (Amazing Spider-Man #617 and 625)
- 19. Venom (Ultimate Spider-Man #33-38)
- 18. Ultimate Fallout
- 14. Shed (Amazing Spider-Man #630-633)
- 12. No One Dies (Amazing Spider-Man #655-656)
- 5. To Have and to Hold (Sensational Spider-Man Annual #1)
From the spidermanreviews.com Top 50 (Conflict of Interest report: I was involved in this one)…
- 28. No One Dies (Amazing Spider-Man #655-656)
- 17. Death of Spider-Man (Ultimate Spider-Man #156-160)
- 14. To Have and to Hold (Sensational Spider-Man Annual #1)