It’s the 30th anniversary of what is widely considered to be the best year in comics. The Spider-Man comics would deal with the impact of two of the year’s most significant Marvel storylines, and feature an important debut.
DC was doing well in 1986. The year started with BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, and the conclusion of CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS. The Silver Age Superman’s story came to an end with “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” while John Byrne headlined a well-received revamp of the man of steel. The only better regarded origin story was Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli’s BATMAN: YEAR ONE. Jack Kirby finally got to finish the Fourth World/ NEW GODS saga with the Hunger Dogs graphic novel. The British 1986 Batman annual featured Grant Morrison’s first take on the character. Alan Moore continued his run on SWAMP THING, with the conclusion of the American Gothic epic, although that didn’t get the same level attention as his maxi-series WATCHMEN.
Marvel didn’t do too shabby, either. While Apocalypse made in his debut in X-FACTOR, the Mutant Massacre crossover was arguably the highlight of the X-Men comics, although there was also the debut of CLASSIC X-MEN, with back-up stories highlighting the individual experiences of Marvel’s mighty mutants during the early days. John Byrne shook up the Hulk. The sci-fi series Strikeforce Morituri was a critical success. The Punisher mini-series showed Frank Castle’s potential as a lead, while ELEKTRA: ASSASSIN did the same with Daredevil’s ex-girlfriend. Roger Stern and John Buscema’s AVENGERS run kicked off its most acclaimed storyline: Under Siege. But the general consenus is that the highlight of Marvel’s output was Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli’s DAREDEVIL: BORN AGAIN.
In independent comics, acclaimed ongoing series included Mike Baron and Steve Rude’s NEXUS, and Howard Chaykin’s AMERICAN FLAGG. The first issue of DARK HORSE COMICS PRESENTS represented that publisher’s debut. Chester Brown’s YUMMY FUR became an ongoing series. Matt Wagner wrapped up Mage: The Hero Discovered. LOVE & ROCKETS published the story Heartbreak Soup. Cerebus was in the acclaimed Church and State storyline (granted, it was nearly sixty issues so several years could take credit for that one). Eclipse had started collecting Alan Moore’s Miracleman, paving the way for the conclusion. A story serialized in the anthology series Raw, was collected in a trade paperback, allowing MAUS to become the first comic book to make the New York Times bestseller list.
91. The Man of Steel #1-6
83. Elektra: Assassin #1-8
56. Cerebus: Church and State
27. Avengers: Under Siege
19. Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?
10. Crisis of Infinite Earths
6. Batman Year One
5. The Dark Knight Returns
3. Daredevil: Born Again
So, what was going on in the Spider-Man comics? Peter David was writing most issues of PETER PARKER THE SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN, although his most acclaimed storyline—the Death of Jean Dewolff—had come in the previous year.
WEB OF SPIDER-MAN ended up being the most consequential title. The best of the 40 or so Spider-Man comics that year was likely WEB OF SPIDER-MAN #13, a fill-in issue by Peter David and Mike Harris, where Spider-Man got upset at J. Jonah Jameson following a particularly egregious Bugle writeup. It ended with a riff on the ending of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #10, this time with a reminder that Jonah could be a lot worse.
There was an unconventional crossover between the titles in the middle of the year. Spider-Man went missing in the aftermath of a fight with the supervillain Magma in WEB OF SPIDER-MAN #17. The other books would deal with his sudden absence, leading to issues of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN and PETER PARKER THE SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN where the lead did not appear. As a result, the protagonists ended up being Silver Sable and Black Cat.
The next issue of WEB OF SPIDER-MAN would reveal what Peter was up to. The cliffhanger of that would end up having a significant impact on the Spider-Man comics.
The scene is now understood to be the first cameo appearance of Venom, although it would be more than an year before we saw what he actually looked like.
AMAZING SPIDER-MAN did show what Spidey was up to during some of the biggest Marvel comics. In #277, Peter learns about what the Kingpin did to Daredevil in “Born Again.” It essentially serves to explain why he won’t go after Fisk to protest Murdock’s honor.
In #283, he has a fight with the Wrecker and Lady Titana, while they’re taking a break from the horrible beating they gave the Avengers in “Under Siege.”
The battle with the Avengers is referenced several times throughout the issue.
As a side note, the graphic novel Hooky did have some gorgeous art by Berni Wrightson.
And significantly more breast than the typical Spider-Man comic.
The critic Peter Sanderson wrote a series on the comics of 1986. He compared it to 1939 in film.
Why was 1939 so rich in great films? Is this abundance merely a coincidence? Or were there reasons why the film industry reached this creative peak in that particular year?That is a subject for a book on film, but one might observe that 1939 came a decade after the film industry shifted over from silent films to “talkies.” It took a few years for Hollywood to cope with the new demands that sound films presented, but the film industry rapidly adjusted, and within ten years had achieved such a high level that 1939 seems to present an endless list of classics and masterpieces.
So too the outpouring of innovative and important work in comics in 1986 did not happen by mere chance. There must be reasons why 1986 proved to be such a watershed year.
It wasn’t a perfect year for comics. The Howard the Duck film was a bomb. Jim Shooter’s New Universe was a flop, and some of his former Marvel colleagues claim that he wanted to cancel every existing Marvel title to make way for it, which would have been bad for the Spider-Man books. So it’s possible that the most notable thing to happen to Spider-Man that year was outlasting that close call.
Were you guys aware of the reputation 1986 had in the comics field? What’s your favorite book from the year? And are there any Spider-Man comics you remember fondly from the end of Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz’s AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, the second year of Peter David’s SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN or David Michelinie’s brief WEB OF SPIDER-MAN? Alternatively, is there anyone for whom this namedropping is complete and utter gibberish?