Tangled Webs: What is the best “typical” Spider-Man story?


Hembeck funnyFor many of these articles, I’ve looked at the most acclaimed Spider-Man stories. And some of those have been the kind of stuff that can’t happen any issue. It’s often material that is consequential or stylistically daring. It can be the first appearances of villains like Venom, the Kingpin or the Hobgoblin. It might include the death of a long-standing character like Gwen Stacy, Jean Dewolff, Ned Leeds or Harry Osborn. It might be something that’s formally inventive like a 22 page conversation between Peter and a supporting cast member about his secret identity, a twelve page encounter between Spider-Man and a fan, or a series of one-shots covering Spider-Man’s friendship with the Human Torch across different eras. Finally, it could be a story where Spider-Man is pushed to his limit in an iconic way like “Nothing Can Stop the Juggernaut,” Kraven’s Last Hunt, the Morlun saga or the Master Planner Saga.

This leads me to wonder about the stories that don’t wouldn’t fit that criteria. These are the “typical” Spider-Man tales, which technically should be a majority of the material.  These are the stories that appear to be fairly normal as far as Spider-Man comics go, but are just told really really well.

So which are the best?

I’m kind of cheating here in that I don’t have a perfect answer to the question. I have seen comics pros praise three different stories as exemplars of what’s best about the series.

A sometimes cited example is “Caught in the Act” from AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #231-232. WIZARD magazine had a love affair with this story. Andrew Kasdan rated it as the third best Spider-Man comic ever. Editor Brian Cunningham listed it as his favorite comic ever. They reprinted it in the Marvel Masterpieces Edition hardcover. In an introduction for the volume, Bendis said the following about this two parter… 

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.

Whether or not you agree with how well-regarded that particular story is, it’s an interesting criteria to consider. In a Friday Night Fights podcast on that particular story. George described it in the lead-up.

It’s a double edged sword. Because you look at Spider-Man today, and all the problems we have, and you read these just gold stories from just a legendary run on this title.I remember taking these out and reading them and think “This is how Spidey should always be.” There are a lot of people, who when we say negative things about the current run on the book, and people are like “Well, you can’t be old fuddy duddies. It can’t be all like they were back then and it’s just a different style and whatever” and I’m like “No, you should never settle, just because of what’s being done now. You should always hold it up to that same standard,” and Roger Stern set the bar for Spider-Man writers.

There are some recent stories that do get similar levels of praise. Mark Waid and Marcos Martin’s “Unscheduled Stop” from AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #578-579 is one example.

Amazing_Spider-Man_Vol_1_579

Tom Beland (artist/ writer of the series True Story, Swear to God, and writer of a few Spider-Man one-offs) lauded  it in a post on the now-defunct Bendis Board…

Amazing Spider-Man #579…
… is the greatest issue of any comic this year.

I’ll tell you something. It’s no secret what a boner I’ve had for this character my entire life. There’s a reason. He was a character I was instantly drawn to because he had such a great personality to him and the stories took me away, to this awesome place of fun and action.

This is the first book in over twenty years that pulled me back to those exact same emotions and feelings I got from back in those early days. Every page of this book is a time machine for me. The great humor, the put-downs that made me do spit takes and what happens on page 21 is a complete classic. And I mean CLASSIC.

And there’s no doubt about it. Marcos Martin is the greatest Spidey artist since the days of Ditko and Romita. His Jonah J. is perfect. Spidey in a ruined costume, page 21… man… it has to be a dream to work with this guy.

Anyhoo… really check this book out. And for guys my age… pour yourself a big bowl of Cocoa Puffs, put on your old baseball cap and enjoy a wonderful comics glow that you haven’t felt in years.
Awesome time.

I’m a bit torn on Unscheduled Stop in this category. It’s a great story, but it can also be an example of an arc where Spider-Man is pushed to his limits. It’s referenced in a similar sort of way in later comics, popping up in scenes where Spider-Man recalls his greatest accomplishments. It was also the first appearance of someone who came to be a significant supporting character.

On the other hand, Spider-Man seems to deal with the crisis in a more matter of fact way, using a combination of brains and ability. His task is difficult, but not presented as insurmountable. Rather than struggling with one giant problem, he deals with several smaller problems. Plus, Spider-Man struggling with a great weight has been done a lot to the extent that a generic take wouldn’t exactly be a milestone. Part of why J. Jonah Jameson Sr stuck around is that he was compelling from his first appearance.

One counterpoint is that praise for Unscheduled Stop is often in comparison to recent comics. It’s seen as a return to form, but that doesn’t make it better than the originals. That does mean that it’s going to be less dated, so some readers can have a different interpretation of that, appreciating the combination of a classic tale with modern storytelling.

Amazing_Spider-Man_Vol_1_25

As for old comic books, Fred Hembeck listed AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #25 as the perfect example of what makes the series work.

Generally, I shy away from these heavily detailed plot regurgitations–unless I’m using it as a forum to make fun of said plot, of course–but in this one rare instance, I felt the need to relive my pure joy of rereading this classic tale with all of you. Because, y’know, it’s perfect, just out and out perfect! Not a panel is wasted, not a line of dialog rings hollow, not a single plot twist lacks believable motivation. And perhaps most surprisingly, this issue is the first to give sole credit for the story’s plot to artist Steve Ditko (though it may well not have been the first such instance of this division of labor between Lee and his penciller, just the first to be branded as such). Face it, one doesn’t think of Steve Ditko as the master of the French farce (pardon me–is that “freedom farce” now?), but all the classic ingredients are there–the wacky mix-ups, the hero who cooks his own goose, the divergent storylines that dovetail perfectly come the finale, and that one last gag to punch things home! Solid! Matching exquisite line-work with superior storytelling, “Captured By J. Jonah Jameson!” would’ve been a minor classic even before Stan Lee lent his considerable talents to it, but after he did–YOW!!

Every word coming out of the mouths of every character hits just the right note. Even JJJ’s seemingly inappropriate “Hel-lo dere!” works because of how it’s led up to. A lesser writer might have had the bombastic boss man spout such inanities from the get go, but Lee slowly builds up to it, saving it until almost the end, where it effectively demonstrates the mounting (over) confidence of the crusading publisher–and where, after forty years, it still never fails to get a laugh out of me!! The whole episode amuses me so thoroughly because everything occurs organically. The Jameson/Spider-Man rivalry had been the back-burner storyline for the feature’s entire previous existence, and when it finally came center stage, it was developed in a natural and satisfying manner. After all, let’s face it–why exactly is our arachnid powered pal fighting folks like the Vulture, Electro, the Green Goblin and their ilk? Because, oh, I don’t know– they’re bad guys and they want to steal stuff? Okay, I suppose that’s motivation enough for a comic book, even a rarefied gem like the Lee/Ditko Spider-Man one, but in opposing Jameson, for once a truly believable grudge match was being played out! And for all the inherent humor successfully mined from the situation, Ditko’s expert staging of the relentless chase across the city’s rooftops excels in excitement!! Bravo, gentlemen, bravo!!

I’ve long considered AMAZING SPIDER-MAN ANNUAL #1 to be my all-time favorite comic, and, with it’s double-length lead story, jam packed with villains and guest stars alike, topped off with pages and pages of pin-ups, special features, behind-the-scenes info–all new, all Lee, all Ditko–maybe it still is. But if I had to pick one standard length story from the entire early Marvel canon, one that I felt clearly demonstrated how they were brilliantly transporting comics into fresh, new realms, it’d have to be this issue, hands down. If you haven’t ever read it, dig out a copy somewhere if you can, because believe me, once you do, it’ll wrap its steel tendrils around you and capture your heart too!!…

A personal favorite is “Doc Ock Wins” from AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #53-56. For me, it crystalized what made the series different form any other. I liked the combination of little moments like Doctor Octopus attacking a Stark Industries building and hiping to pick a fight with Iron Man, or Peter trying to figure out if insurance is going to pay for the results of damage from a fight with supervillains, combined with numerous clever challenges for both Spider-Man and Peter Parker. It did an effective job of mixing his private life with his identity as a superhero. It marked the first appearance of Captain Stacy, as well as Peter’s first meeting with Joe Robertson. It was the series’ first four parter, and ended with a cliffhanger after Doc Ock was beaten. So, it might not be eligible by my own standards. 

One of the mantras of discussing art is that it doesn’t matter what the story is about as much as how it’s told. This is something i generally believe, so trying to figure out what the best told Spider-Man stories are is going to be a priority of mine. However, there can be arguments that there is really no such thing as a typical great story. Something that’s good tends to be remembered later, and is more likely to be consequential. If Venom or Hobgoblin’s first appearances were awful, these wouldn’t be major first appearances. Good writers and artists are also inclined to be formally inventive. Higher stakes, like a character being pushed to their limit or a supporting character dying, can stir the creativity of writers and artists and will often result in memorable sequences. There are some exceptions. Live and Let Die featured a new villain, along with the death of a supporting character. The less said the better.

Readers will also remember the major touchstones better. Perhaps most of us have a favorite typical Spider-Man story that just happened to affect us for whatever reason. It might have the perfect idiosyncratic combination for you, the distillation of what you like about the character. You might also have just read it at the right time. But its impact to the comics community gets split among the dozens of Spider-Man stories that are well-told but not particularly consequential.

So, what say you? Do you have a favorite typical Spider-Man story? Or is coming up with one a goal that just isn’t feasible, since the things that make it good make it atypical?  

(9) Comments

  1. Al

    @#7: I’m not saying execution of a story is irrelevant. Far from it. But there bad ideas and having a good idea you execute well is the most important thing. A bad idea told well is still a bad idea. His marital status wasn’t important to the story, my point was more that it was another case of a story which could’ve been told pre-OMD as well. And I still think it was very derivative of stuff we’d seen before.

  2. Thomas Mets - Post author

    Thanks for the responses. @#1- I'm not sure the best Jenkins/ Buckingham stories would be considered typical. In the stories with supervillains, Jenkins pushed Spider-Man to the absolute limit with Fusion seemingly snapping Spider-Man's neck, and the Robot Master getting Peter to talk to Aunt May about euthanasia (I could probably write a future article about how this ties to British writers.) The single issue stories he's fondly remembered for tend to be structuraly daring because it's not how Spider-Man comics are usually told. @#2- I'm not sure it matters for Unscheduled Stop whether Peter's marital status was essential to it. I can appreciate the argument that Marvel has incentives to promote the story because it elevates the reputation of the post-OMD comics. I think what the story is about is still relevant, especially in extreme situations . How it's told is generally more relevant, especially since it's not very common to have a story that can't be told well. Granted, you might have a different take on the character, and consider mote items off limits than I do. @#3- Very interesting to see two votes for DeFalco's Hobgoblin. These are stories I may have to reread. @#5- I love that story, and I'm currently in the middle of rereading it. It's the distillation of what makes Spider-Man great, but I'm not sure it's typical given the high stakes, major changes and the numerous villain team-ups. Although that might get to the heart of the problem with coming up with a best possible typical story: Once something is good enugh to qualify, there are going to be all sorts of reasons it's not typical.

  3. Cheesedique

    I nominate Millar's "Marvel Knights". It has all the usual ingredients of a typical Spider-Man story: the strong supporting cast, interesting subplots, great art (by the Dodsons and Cho), and villains, villains, villains. The epic nature of it even elevates it into something more. I was just getting back into comics after a long stretch of not reading them, and I remember sitting up in my bed while reading the hardcover, laughing at how good of a read it was. It may be the best typical Spidey story. I don't doubt Millar got out everything he wanted to say with Spidey by writing that arc.

  4. ryan3178

    Great article and I agree, I have enjoyed done in one and a Day in a life type of stories with Spider-Man for years. Even having DeFalco/Frenz reunite for the Identity Crisis story involving Peter and Mr. Hyde. Which was a very classic type of Spider-Man story in the late 90s. The ones that have been mentioned above a great tellings. I remember "Even the Ghost Fears the Night" as being a great story I read just before I got out of comics in the late 80s. I was a fan of the Red Ghost and this story was very well done.

  5. Iron Patriot

    Another one from more recent years is ASM #589, The Return of the Spot. Fun downtime issue, set in between Character Assassination and Face Front, two fairly major stories. The Spot comes back somewhat more threatening, but still gets played as a bit of a joke. There's some funny moments in it, most notably Spidey punching himself and thinking "Son of an Osborn!" as well as making a Batman joke. Paolo Siquiera provides some nice Todd McFarlane-esque art. Overall a really fun story from my earliest days of collecting.

  6. Bill

    Like Iron Patriot, I too am a huge fan of the Defalco / Frenz era of Amazing Spider-Man (it is definitely my favorite run of the book). And my personal favorite Spider-Man story is ASM #260-261 in which Spidey returns to his classic costume (after wearing the black suit for several issues) and then battles the Hobgoblin in an awesome 2-parter that is just chock full of action and humor! A great example of a "typical" Spider-Man story that is just incredibly well done. It should be on everyone's top 10 list, IMHO My favorite single (one and done) issue of Spider-Man is ASM #255, (also by Defalco and Frenz) in which Spider-Man (sporting the black alien costume) battles the Red Ghost and his Super Apes. There is just something about this story that I absolutely love. To me, it's one of the most perfectly crafted Spider-Man stories of all time. (And again, it's a pretty typical "just another night in the life" kind of Spider-Man tale). But it's also just all kinds of awesome. Also during the Defalco / Frenz run is ASM #269-270 where Spidey has an epic battle with Firelord. This is kind of the Defalco / Frenz version of "Nothing Can Stop The Juggernaut". Tons of excitement, humor, twists and turns, and action action action. Another great Spider-Man tale that doesn't always get the credit it deserves. I could go on and on, but I'll restrain myself. Man, I really miss good Spider-Man comics. Ah well, nothing lasts forever I suppose.

  7. Al

    I feel Unscheduled Stop is incredibly overrated as is the Hyde story. I think they are right in so far as it’s a great exemplifier of a typical Spider-Man story in many (but no means all) ways, but I don’t think that qualifies it as the best of the best or one of them. Unscheduled Stop I think has problems although some of those are not inherently it’s own fault. Part of the dilemma is existing in the Post-OMD status quo which had to justify itself and the story truly didn’t. Not only because outside of one scene (which could’ve still played out if it’d been tweaked) nothing required us to go through what we’d gone through to get to a story like that. The bulk of the story could’ve worked in the Michelinie run or the JMS run because it was mostly “Spider-Man fights Shocker and rescues train passengers trapped underground whilst referencing the MP trilogy.” It was well executed for what it was and made great use of a classic character/B-villain and given the lowered standard of the BND stories up until then I think that made it hit bigger than it actually deserved. I mean let’s be brutally honest it’s a very basic story outline and relatively difficult to screw up. The other thing about it which was a detriment was the debut of Jameson Senior. Really the problem with him was how he was used and where he went after this story, although his presence retcons Jameson fantastic origin by Zeb Wells which was much better than what we got in BND. I do not see what precisely about Jameson Senior was so compelling either beyond the shock of meeting Jonah’s father. Beyond that I think it got a lot of praise for being overly nostalgic. Okay that’s cool but honestly Spidey/Torch and Untold Tales had been there and done that and done it much better. I respect that Beland was writing from the heart and he can’t help how he feels but I don’t think he was being particularly objective. And as for Marcos Martin as one of the greatest Spider-Man artists since the 1960s....lol...no. Look, art is much more subjective than writing can be. And I respect that Martin evokes Ditko a lot. Buuuuut...Ditko was a genius. Honestly he was and probably still is. He wasn’t just someone who knew how to draw the story but plot it too. He was a master of his craft and the quirks and symbolism he evoked with his art runs rings around Martin. You are talking about the man with the visual flair to create Spider-Man’s costume itself. And it’s rather insulting to ALL the other artists who’ve worked on the character since the 1960s. Marcos Martin>Ross Andru/Gil Kane/Sal Buscema/Alex Saviuk/Romita Junior/Mark motherflipping Bagly are you serious!!! I wholeheartedly reject the notion that what the story is about is irrelevant. Storytelling should be good ideas well executed. Case in point was killing Doc Ock a valid story to do despite it’s good execution? No. As for favourite typical Spider-Man story I think there is too much that goes into who Spidey is and too much stuff that changes throughout the eras for there to be one that captures everything. MAYBE the Lucky Lobo story from the Ditko run

  8. Iron Patriot

    This is a great topic. One of the reasons I can't really get behind Kraven's Last Hunt is that Spidey doesn't really figure into it, and that it's not that typical of a Spidey story.(Though that definitely is part of the appeal of this and stories like it, I recognize) I'm a huge fan of the DeFalco-Frenz era of the ASM(it might even by my favorite, truth be told) because it wasn't the most groundbreaking series, just well-crafted entries in the life of Spider-Man. The various Hobgoblin arcs from that run are stories I'm fond of, despite not being as earth-shattering as the Stern stories. And it's precisely for these reasons that it's forgotten in terms of the larger comic fandom. Would Paul Jenkins and Mark Buckingham's Peter Parker stories be considered typical? Because they have the action,humor and heart that Spidey's known for, but they're more sitcom-y than anything.

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