While there are current controversies about R-rated superhero movies, with the financial success of DEADPOOL, Netflix’s slate of Mature Audiences Marvel shows and the upcoming R-rated Directors Cut of SUPERMAN VS BATMAN, Spider-Man generally has a reputation as one of the most kid-friendly comic book series. But there have been some interesting exceptions.
The most famous is probably Stan Lee’s decision to ignore the Comics Code of Authority for AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #96-98 when he and Gil Kane did a three part storyline dealing with drug addiction. The success of this project coincideded with a weakening of the Comics Code. A few issues later the end of the prohibition on vampires had led to the introduction of Morbius (although he was still a science-based villain rather than a supernatural one.)
This wasn’t the first time Spider-Man comics were done without the Comics Code.
During the mid 1960s Stan Lee and John Romita Sr released the first Spider-Man spinoff, meant to be a quarterly magazine. The first two issues have now been collected in Marvel Masterworks Volume 7, as well as the Lee/ Romita omnibus. It’s good stuff, although not as well-known as Lee/Romita’s AMAZING SPIDER-MAN work.
What isn’t appreciated is how these comics took advantage of the fact that they were published without the code.
As Pierce Comtois wrote in MARVEL COMICS IN THE 1970s (about a comic book published in 1968; it made sense for thematic purposes)…
Editor Stan Lee remained eager to escape the comic book spinner rack and reach out to to the older readers he was increasingly identifying with at speaking engagements and visits to college campuses. But how to do it while retaining the comics format that seemed to have intrigued the counter-cultural element who were as likely to visit a head shop as they were to drop in at the corner tobacco store? Lee’s solution was to create a comic book that didn’t look like a comic book magazine.
And Lee added material that the Code could hae vetoed.
Keeping to his plan to gear the book to an older audience, Lee teamed with artist John Romita to tell a street-level story about a political campaign and corurption in high places… a subject frowned upon by the Comics Code, which as a magazine, Spectacular Spider-Man was able to ignore.
The second issue had a memorable encounter between the Green Goblin, and Spider-Man, with references to psychedlic drugs, as Spider-Man suffers a hallucination after exposure to a special pumpkin bomb.
Spider-Man beats the Green Goblin by exposing him to the same material. It ended with a promise that the next issue will show the TV Terror. But it was discontinued due to low sales, as newsstand dealers weren’t sure how to sell it, and fans had trouble finding it.
Lee did make an effort at a similar project just after he had launched MARVEL TEAM-UP. This series, named SPIDER-MAN MYSTERY, was meant to cater to the 1960s underground comics movement, so Lee paired writer Nicholas Meyer—a younger newcomer to comics—with artist Frank Thorne, and gave them an unprecedented level of flexibility. The two immediately decided to sex things up, as the cover to the first issue demonstrated.
We saw more of Gwen on the covers of this comic than in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN.
The fifth issue featured Peter Parker, suffering from brain damage following a fight with the Shocker, attacking J Jonah Jameson because he had assumed that he was having some kind of affair with Gwen.
There were other beautiful women in the comics, including the Spider Queen. Paul Jenkins would bring her back for his Avengers Disassembled tie-in, and Dan Slott would utilize her in Spider Island.
For anyone who thinks the series focused too much on sexy ladies, the series’ final storyline had Namor.
The series was cancelled after seven issues. The sales just weren’t there, and Stan Lee had worried that it was hurting the Spider-Man brand. This may be why the series took so long to be reprinted in the United States (although it had been collected in digests in Great Britain for years.)
The next month Gwen Stacy was killed off in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #121. I think it could have been interesting to see the aftermath of that in a book meant for older readers, although there’s the argument that the death of Gwen and Norman in the regular comics made this title redundant.
Writer Nicholas Meyer would leave comics for novels and film. He’s probably best-known as the writer of the even-numbered Star Trek films Wrath of Khan, The Voyage Home and The Undiscovered Country. He was recently announced as one of the producers for CBS’s upcoming Star Trek series. Frank Thorne became best-known his work on Red Sonja, although some of his later work was pretty much straight-up pornography.
Stan Lee would make one more go at attracting the independent comics crowd in the Mid 1970s with COMIX Book, edited by underground comics pioneer Dennis Kitchen. That was not a hit.
Meyer and Thorne did some interesting stuff in this series. They never did get around to introducing the TV Terror70.
If anyone’s interested in more material on the ill-fated SPIDER-MAN MYSTERY, youtube user Richard Paul has a humorous series where he covers it all in-depth.