The Top 50 we’ve been running in the Tangled Webs/ Cobwebs columns for the last few weeks, based on lists assembled from Crawlspace contributors for several months, has come to an end. Here are the Crawlspace’s selections for the five greatest Spider-Man comic book stories. Each of these issues is available on Marvel’s Digital Unlimited program.
5. The Final Chapter (Amazing Spider-Man #31-33)
Writers: Stan Lee & Steve Ditko, Artist: Steve Ditko
The story is best known for a single sequence in the third issue, which is one of the most famous in comics (and deservedly so), but there are a lot of other great things to enjoy about it. The highlights of the first chapter include Peter’s college orientation, (shown perfectly in less than a page, including his reunion with Flash Thompson- the one Midtown High classmate sticking around the supporting cast), his panic when he discovers Aunt May’s sick, Peter repeatedly ignoring Gwen Stacy (an attractive girl who is interested in him) and others who want to be his friends, all because of his mind is preoccupied with the health of the most important person in his life (an excellent example of the Parker luck in action and something that comes to bite him in the ass afterwards), Spider-Man searching for crime so he can take pictures for the Daily Bugle and finding nothing, Spider-Man using his scientific expertise against new enemies, a mysterious master villain and a tragic cliffhanger.
The highlights of the second issue include Peter realizing how he’s responsible for Aunt May’s illness, pawning everything of value, getting angry while at the Daily Bugle (and probably jeopardizing his romantic relationship with Betty Brant), the return of Curt Connors (I knew there was some way to add a Lizard story to the list), the failure of a plan to save the sickly Aunt May, a really angry Spider-Man looking for information, a brief but excellent battle with one of his greatest foes, and an excellent cliffhanger. I’ll admit when I first read this story I was disappointed by the brevity of Spider-Man’s battle with the enemy of the piece, mainly because I read on a trading card that it was the villain’s greatest battle, but I now doubt there would have been a better way to tell the story.
The highlights of the third issue include an endlessly copied scene with Spider-Man under a weight the size of a locomotive (the most famous scene in perhaps all of Spider-Man), further problems for him after surviving that ordeal, the realization he has more thugs to fight, resting while taking a beating, not realizing he’s won, being unable to do anything but wait for good or bad news on Aunt May (although I’m pretty sure everyone here knows how that’s going to end), realizing why he can’t be with his girlfriend, Peter finally standing up to Jonah, and a beautiful final sequence illustrating how Peter Parker you guys expect to be Spider-Man..
This may be the single most important story to read if you want to understand the character of Spider-Man. The beginning of the third chapter is one of the most iconic Spider-Man moments ever, and something that has been copied in obvious and not-so-obvious ways. When Roger Stern pit Spider-Man against the Juggernaut, he saw this as his version of the great weight scene. This story also marked the beginning of Peter’s college career, and featured the first appearances of both Gwen Stacy and Harry Osborn.
This story has appeared on quite a few “Best of” lists. It was #6 on Watchmojo’s list of the top ten Spider-Man comics you should read, #9 on MTV’s top ten, #2 on CBR’s Top 50, #9 on IGN’s Top 25, #8 on Complex’s Top 25, #9 on Wizard’s Top Ten, and #35 on Marvel readers’ selection of their 75 favorite Marvel comics. It appeared in Spiderfan/ The Official Playstation Magazine’s top ten. It got a combined 37 points from our own system.
Stan Lee declared Amazing Spider-Man #33 one of his five favorite comic books ever. (If I’m not mistaken the other four stories were The Kid Who Collected Spider-Man, an issue of Thor where Thor lectures to hippies, a Daredevil story where Daredevil helps a blinded African-American police officer, and Watchmen.)
4. The Death of Jean Dewolff (Peter Parker the Spectacular Spider-Man #107-110)
Writer: Peter David; Artist: Rich Buckler
Peter David had only been writing comic books for a few months when he penned this classic. At the time, Jean DeWolff was a popular supporting cast member (although I suspect she’s now mostly known for her death) who died four pages into the story, a twist on the traditional comic book death. The killer isn’t really a supervillain, but an ordinary psycho with a shotgun. Daredevil becomes involved when the killer targets one of his friends, and this story really demonstrates the differences between him and Spider-Man. Things go badly with the webswinger, as a bystander is killed in the battle by a shotgun blast he dodges.
As a murder mystery in comics, it’s second only to Watchmen. There are plenty of twists, including Peter Parker taking on a crazed gunman in the Daily Bugle. There are great scenes with J. Jonah Jameson, especially his calling out a black preacher who is surprised to find a white man knowledgeable about the civil rights movement, and his reaction to the chaos at the Bugle. There’s a great new character in sympathetic cop Stan Carter, who decides to help Spider-Man against his better judgment. The subplot involving Ernie Popchik, a World War 2 veteran who takes drastic action after being mugged is excellent. There are some awesome interrogation scenes featuring a pissed off Spider-Man. And in addition to clever writing by Peter David, and capable art by Rich Buckler, there’s this great exchange that highlights how surprising sudden the death is.
Cop: By the way, did you hear about Jean Dewolfe?
Spider-Man: Yea, that joke about Jean and the Miami Dolphins? Yeah, I…
Cop: She’s dead. Someone blew her away.
It all ends in one of the most violent battles of Spider-Man’s career. Against Daredevil.
If you don’t know how it ends, Amazing Spider-Man #300 and Spectacular Spider-Man #134-136 (the excellent follow-up to this story), spoil the big twist, so I highly recommend reading this story before those.
This issue obviously killed off supporting character Jean Dewolff, and marked one of the defining tragedies of the Spider-Man comics. Daredevil and Spider-Man learned each other’s secret identities, which remained in place until One More Day.
This story has appeared on quite a few “Best of” lists. It was an honorable mention on Watchmojo’s top ten, #4 on CBR’s Top 50, #4 on IGN’s Top 25 (I’m sensing a pattern here), #11 on Complex’s Top 25, and #7 on Wizard’s Top Ten, It appeared in Spiderfan/ The Official Playstation Magazine’s top ten. It got a combined 37 points from our own system.
3. Spider-Man (Amazing Fantasy #15)
Writer: Stan Lee; Artist: Steve Ditko
If you see lists of the best (and I’m talking about best, not the most influential) X-Men stories ever, X-Men #1 is usually not mentioned. Likewise Detective Comics #27 usually doesn’t appear in lists of the best Batman stories. But, if you see lists of the best Spider-Man stories ever, this one is usually somewhere near the top. And it’s not because the other Spider-Man stories are worse than the other X-Men or Batman stories. If this issue was the only Spider-Man story ever published (which it could have been, if fans weren’t so immediately taken by the character), Spider-Man would still be a great character. It was groundbreaking to be sure (I don’t think there were any superheroes who used their powers for selfish reasons before) but that’s not why it holds up today.
It’s a bit of a shame that the story’s become so famous that everyone who reads it probably knows how the story ends. But there are other great moments. What better way is there to show how weak Peter Parker is by having his elderly uncle say to Aunt May “I can hardly outwrestle him now!” Doesn’t it make sense that someone with Spider-Man’s powers would become a media sensation? Don’t you love the scene with the little boy who sees a man crawling on the side of a building? Has there been a better reason for someone to become a superhero?
This is without a doubt the most significant Spider-Man comic book ever. It introduces Peter Parker, as well as much of the supporting cast (Aunt May, Flash Thompson, Liz Allen.) It features Spider-Man’s power-set and his origin. This was the lead story of a sci-fi anthology series that was on the way towards cancellation, mainly because Stan Lee figured this was the way he could get away with an unconventional superhero story. If it flopped, it didn’t matter as much, since the series was on its way out. It sold out, and the rest was history.
We can also consider the significance of the story in the context of the comics industry. This marked the first appearance of Marvel’s most popular character. But it was groundbreaking in other ways, introducing a superhero who struggles with bills and getting any sort of social life, and doesn’t fit the typical heroic mold. If you put Ditko’s Spider-Man in silhouette, you are not going to mistake him for Superman. This was a teen hero who wasn’t anyone’s sidekick or a member of a superhero team. While the character has gotten older in the main comics, he remains the best and most successful of the teen heroes.
This story has appeared on quite a few “Best of” lists. It was #10 on Watchmojo’s top ten, #1 on MTV’s top ten, #5 on CBR’s Top 50, #10 on IGN’s Top 25, #2 on Complex’s Top 25, #4 on Wizard’s Top Ten, and #10 on Marvel readers’ selection of their 75 favorite Marvel comics. On a separate occasion, Wizard voted it the ninth best comic ever, right between X-Men’s Days of Future Past and Sandman’s Seasons of Mists. It appeared in Spiderfan/ The Official Playstation Magazine’s top ten. It got a combined 47 points from our own system, selected by eight Crawlspace contributors as one of their favorite Spider-Man comics.
2. The Night Gwen Stacy Died (Amazing Spider-Man #121-122)
Writer: Gerry Conway; Artist: Gil Kane
The story begins quickly with Spider-Man coming home from Canada, and finding out that Harry has OD’d on LSD (a comedy it ain’t). Peter tries to visit Harry, but Harry’s father Norman orders him, Gwen, and MJ out. Meanwhile everything’s crumbling around Norman’s life. Peter realizes he has the flu, and Jonah kicks him out when he returns with pictures of the Hulk, in a funny and characteristic scene. Norman snaps, and remembers that he’s the Green Goblin, while Spider-Man’s so sick that he enters his house through the window, even though he knows Gwen’s probably inside. What he finds sends him on a desperate search as his spider sense leads him to the Brooklyn Bridge. This is the Psycho of comic books, in that I don’t think there’s ever been anything more tense in the medium, even if you know how everything’s going to end. Spider-Man has his best battles against the Green Goblin in both chapters of this issue, (although they may just be elevated by the quality of the rest of the issue.) There’s so many brilliant scenes, like Gwen wondering what’s wrong in Harry’s life, while the Green Goblin’s at the window, and of course, perhaps the most famous death in comic books. And there’s still a controversy over what was responsible for the death, all because of a single sound effect that Gerry Conway didn’t even realize that he left into the script.
And of course there’s still the second issue, which more than maintains the quality of the first. You get to see a traumatized, pissed off Spider-Man getting shot at by a cop, while his partner yells “Shoot to Wound, blast it! Shoot to wound!,” a really angry and inhuman looking Peter Parker (ably drawn by Gil Kane), Peter choosing between revenge and helping a friend (he doesn’t pick the friend), Spider-Man VS. J. Jonah Jameson, an excellent battle between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin, the best death scene of any villain, the set up to Harry Osborn becoming the second Green Goblin, and the set up to Peter’s relationship to Mary Jane.
It’s weird just how good this story is. I knew about what happened in it before I read it, but there’s so much to appreciate. Even after forty-five years, it has remained timeless by not mentioning outdated technology, or other stories (the preceding and following stories had a subplot with Aunt May living in Doctor Octopus’s house, which didn’t have the best payoff, but that’s mercifully ignored here). I don’t know if it’s even possible to write a better Spider-Man story, although I hope the writers of the future try.
This is another of the the most significant Spider-Man comic books ever. The death of Gwen Stacy became the other defining tragedy in Peter’s life, the flipside of the lesson he learned with Uncle Ben, as someone he loves gets killed because he makes a difference as Spider-Man. Norman Osborn also died, and stayed dead for about twenty-five years, and this story paved the way for Harry to become the next Green Goblin (and for Goblins to be legacy villains.) In the context of the comics industry, there is a legitimate argument that this story marked the end of the Silver Age. It also inspired a novel: The Night Gwen Stacy Died by Sarah Bruni.
This story has appeared on quite a few “Best of” lists. It was #1 on Watchmojo’s top ten, #4 on MTV’s top ten, #3 on CBR’s Top 50, #1 on IGN’s Top 25, #1 on Complex’s Top 25, #2 on Wizard’s Top Ten, and #1 on Marvel readers’ selection of their 75 favorite Marvel comics. It appeared in Spiderfan/ The Official Playstation Magazine’s top ten. It got a combined 47 points from our own system, selected by nine Crawlspace contributors as one of their favorite Spider-Man comics.
- Kraven’s Last Hunt (Web of Spider-Man #31-32, Amazing Spider-Man #293-294, Peter Parker the Spectacular Spider-Man #131-132)
Writer: J.M. DeMatteis; Artist: Mike Zeck
Slightly appropriate for a crossover with Cobwebs, the top story ends up being a crossover between the three main Spider-Man titles of 1987. When Spider-Man is shot and buried in Web of Spider-Man #31, readers of Amazing Spider-Man aren’t comforted by seeing him survive an encounter with another bad guy. Instead. Spider-Man’s wife tries to find out what the hell happened to him, and the man who put him in the ground seems to have taken over his identity.
There are a lot of reasons that this story’s compelling. It begins with Peter coming to terms with his own mortality in the aftermath of the death of a stoolie (a character who had been in DeMatteis’ Marvel Team-Up). Kraven the Hunter then beats him in almost the worst way possible, buries him, and impersonates him. Kraven goes on to try to prove that he can be stronger than Spider-Man, going so far as to go into the sewers, and attack Vermin, a monster Spider-Man had previously only been able to defeat with the help of Captain America.
Mary Jane has possibly her strongest moments, as a newlywed searching for her missing husband, and having absolutely no one to turn to. Spider-Man of course survives the story, and it’s what he does afterwards that’s so memorable. This story perfectly shows the hero at his angriest, most traumatized, and still willing to do what is right. And I’m not sure if any Spider-Man villain’s ever had a story as compelling as Kraven does here. Small details (Peter’s hallucination of a giant spider, Peter remembering the death of Ned Leeds without remembering that Ned was the Hobgoblin) make the story fit well in the aftermath of retcons in JMS’s Amazing Spider-Man and Roger Stern’s Hobgoblin Lives mini-series.
Spider-Man being buried alive is one of the most iconic deathtraps the character has ever faced. The story established Kraven as one of Spider-Man’s greatest enemies, which became complicated to follow-up on since it ended with his death. This was one of the first Spider-Man crossovers, demonstrating to Marvel that readers of one title were willing to pick up the other books to get the full story. It established DeMatteis as one of the best Spider-Man writers, following a decent but relatively undistinguished run on Marvel Team-Up, paving the way for two runs on Spectacular Spider-Man, and a stint as writer of Amazing Spider-Man (the results of which have been highlighted earlier.)
This story has appeared on quite a few “Best of” lists. It was #3 on Watchmojo’s top ten, #5 on MTV’s top ten, #1 on CBR’s Top 50, #6 on IGN’s Top 25, #5 on Complex’s Top 25, and #3 on Marvel readers’ selection of their 75 favorite Marvel comics. It appeared in Spiderfan/ The Official Playstation Magazine’s top ten. It got a combined 48 points from our own system, selected by nine Crawlspace contributors as one of their favorite Spider-Man comics, earning it the #1 spot.
The best way to read this story is probably the Marvel Premiere Classics hardcover edition.
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