With Marvel celebrating Spider-Man’s 50th Anniversary last year since first appearing in Amazing Fantasy #15 (August 1962) and March being the 50th Anniversary of Spidey getting his own comic book with Amazing Spider-Man #1 (March 1963), I wanted to take a look back at my favorite Spider-Man stories over the years. Spider-Man has long since been the heart of the Marvel Universe for being the one character that almost any reader can relate to. He is not some millionaire or living legend, he isn’t a mutant or god-like being, and even though he is imbued with radioactive powers from a spider bite, he is, for all intents and purposes, just a regular guy who struggles to balance his life as a private citizen with that of a responsible superhero. Out of everyone in the Marvel Universe (and I know it’s been said a million times before) Peter Parker is the everyday character that we all relate to. When he was first created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko back in 1962, I don’t know if that was an intentional character aspect or something that developed completely on accident, but looking at the Marvel Universe through the eyes of Peter Parker or Spider-Man gives you the clearest look at that marvelous world than any other.
New writer J. Michael Straczynski infused some new life into Spider-Man and some new thoughts on how and why Peter got his powers and why he has amassed the villains gallery that he has. Some interesting and new ideas got tossed around in this story, as well as introducing the characters of Ezekiel, a mysterious stranger with powers similar to Peter, and Morlun, a villain with vampiric-like powers who feeds off of the energies of people like Spidey who have totemic origins. It was new, it was bold and it actually made sense – in a weird Spidey kind of way. But despite all that happened between Spidey, Ezekiel and Morlun, the biggest shocker came at the end of the first story arc when Aunt May finally discovers Peter’s secret…again.
Everyone remembers their first love. For Peter Parker, that happened to be the lovely blonde Gwen Stacy. Unfortunately, Spidey and Gwen weren’t separated by any normal means – instead, Gwen was killed by the actions of one of Spidey’s greatest enemies, Norman Osborn, also known as the Green Goblin. Through one of the most trying ordeals as a hero, Spider-Man battled the Green Goblin atop the George Washington Bridge when he shoved Gwen off the bridge. Spider-Man managed to snag Gwen before she completely fell but the fall had already killed her – either from the shock of being thrown off or, as the panel suggests, from her neck snapping after being snagged by Spidey’s own web.
After Norman Osborn was thought to have been killed, his son and Peter’s best friend, Harry Osborn, took up the mantle and continuing grudge against Spider-Man. For years, Peter and Harry battled each other under the respective guises with pains felt on both sides due to their ongoing feud. All of it came to a climax during this story where Harry has Mary Jane and his son Normie in a building that he has set a trap for Peter in. Forcing Spider-Man to face him inside the booby trapped building, Harry realizes that Mary Jane and his son are still in it as he sets off the detonators. He rushes to rescue MJ and Normie but his conscious gets the better of him and rushes inside to rescue Spidey, whom he had drugged. Collapsing from his illness, Spidey stays with Harry in the ambulance and watches his best friend die in front of his eyes before more help can be reached.
Before The Gauntlet storyline took place, this was Spider-Man’s greatest challenge. The psychotic Cletus Cassidy, in control of the Carnage symbiote, goes on a murderous rampage along with several other of Spidey’s most menacing foes including the Doppelganger, the Demogoblin, Shriek, and Carrion – terrorizing the citizens of New York. Even with the aide of Venom, Captain America, Black Cat, Iron Fist, Cloak & Dagger, Firestar and a slew of other heroes, the battle is long and hard fought with civilian casualties mounting with each passing moment. In the end, it is down to Spider-Man, Venom and Carnage and the final battle between the connected trio leaves you with a gaping mouth in awe at the absolute carnage (pardon the pun) that was just unleashed in a Spider-Man storyline.
When I say that Spider-Man is the everyday man in the Marvel Universe, it is because of stories like this one that make it so. In the aftermath of 9/11, a lot of people felt they needed to say something or do something to explain, alleviate or just make sense of what had just happened. J. Michael Straczynski took the bold approach (and kudos to Marvel for going along with it) by mirroring the events of 9/11 in canon Marvel Universe with this issue of Amazing Spider-Man. In this issue, Spider-Man is left feeling helpless having witnessed what had just occurred and was powerless to stop it from happening. He shows the reactions of heroes and villains alike and their disdain and disapproval at the senseless loss of innocent lives. More importantly, through Spidey’s perspective, he shows that the real heroes of New York aren’t the ones who costume up and fight super villains, but the regular men and women who regularly risk their lives in the defense and rescue of their fellow man.
Pushing Spider-Man to his limits like he has rarely been pushed before, the story of The Gauntlet was made for one reason and one reason only – for the Kraven family to enact their revenge on Spidey in the most grueling and tortuous way possible. Spidey must confront almost every major villain from his past, and some of these encounters leave scars on the psyche of Peter Parker more than on his body. From the deaths of Madame Web and Mattie Franklin to the ultimate transformation of Dr. Curt Connors into the Lizard, a transformation that permanently marks the end of Connors’ control over the beast, The Gauntlet tested Spidey in ways no one had dreamt, and all that was just a prelude to an even darker story to follow – though The Grim Hunt wasn’t as entertaining as The Gauntlet was.
On Valentine’s Day, Peter Parker is left feeling a bit sad, years after the death of his first love, Gwen Stacy. To try and resolve some of these feelings, Peter recounts his life and adventures with Gwen, Harry and Mary Jane in a tape recorder to kind of put things in perspective. While there is some action in the series, it is the personal revelations that come out of the story that make this series one of the best and most introspective Spidey stories ever written. The insight as to what has pushed Peter on, how Mary Jane helped him learn to love again, and how Peter never quite knew how to say good-bye to Gwen all help make this story one of the most realistic stories of all the Spider-Man tales I have ever read. Even the end of the story, when MJ catches Peter’s confessions to Gwen, leaves you with a heavy heart and shows just how compassionate, understanding and important MJ is to Peter’s life.
After his inability to defeat Spider-Man finally drives Kraven insane, he hatches a plot to ultimately prove he is better than his foe. He manages to defeat Spider-Man and buries him in a grave. Kraven then dons a Spider-Man suit and sets out to prove that he is a superior Spider-Man than the real one by brutally beating and capturing thugs and villains. Spidey ultimately breaks free of his confines and tracks down Kraven who unleashes Vermin on Spider-Man, stopping the villain before he delivers the final blow to Spidey. Kraven boasts victoriously that he has proven his point to Spider-Man and allows him to chase Vermin and recapture the criminal. As Spidey manages to capture Vermin, Kraven looks content at what he has done and in a final act of insanity ends his life with a self-inflicted rifle round. This was the first time that Spider-Man was brought to the brink of defeat and the humanity that is displayed by both Spidey and Kraven is enough to make this one of the most “must read” Spider-Man stories ever.
How can you not include the story that introduces readers to Spidey in the first place? You simply cannot. There is so much of Spidey in this issue, and I am not talking about the heroics, but the personal issues that ultimately make Spider-Man who he is that to leave out this issue would be a crime. From the introduction of Peter Parker to the death of his Uncle Ben and the lesson he learns about power and responsibility, Amazing Fantasy #15 lays down the groundwork for storylines 50 years later. Everything that makes Peter and Spidey who they are can be found here and it was here that readers first connected with Spidey, not because of his heroics, but because of his flaws and how they were able to relate to what he was going through.
1) It’s a TIE!!! Can you believe that!? A tie! Well, that is because two of the best Spider-Man comics I have ever read both focus on the man beneath the mask rather than the hero. So without further ado, here are my two picks for number 1 – and I am willing to bet that one of them is going to shock you as to why I chose it…
Spider-Man and Captain America have had some great moments together, none better than when Cap gave Spider-Man that inspiring speech about standing your ground during the Civil War story in Amazing Spider-Man #537. But when it comes to Peter Parker and Steve Rogers, look no further than this issue. When Peter finds out that Cap was a young writer and artist before the onset of WWII, he believes that there is finally a sense of connection between him and Rogers. Peter tries his hardest to get Rogers to acknowledge his past “nerdiness” by trying to appeal to him during several scenes in the issue until finally Rogers dashes his dreams by telling Peter that he grew out of that phase and does not wish to return to it. Dismayed, Peter is about to throw away something very precious to him when Cap stops him and converses with him about how he should go about reconnecting with that old passion of his. Rogers may have unintentionally hurt Peter before but his realizing of that fact led him to reconnect with his old passion himself and the two are last seen at a table working on Rogers’ drawings. Created as a tribute to Joe Simon who passed away months before, this issue was all about the personal connections between two well-loved characters and who it is they are beneath their mask than the heroes the world knows them for.
I don’t care how many times I have read this story, it makes me weep every single time I do. While it may have just been a back-up story to the main one of the issue (after all, who cares about the villain Thunderball), Spidey visits a young boy name Tim Harrison late one night. During his visit, Tim shows Spider-Man all the memorabilia he has collected of him over the years including numerous clippings from The Daily Bugle. They trade stories and notes about Spider-Man’s exploits and how it was that Spider-Man came to be. It is here that Spidey surprisingly removes his mask and shows Tim who he really is. He tells Tim about the fateful events that led to him donning the costume for good and the tragedy that made him realize his destiny. This story is really more about who Peter Parker really is rather than Spider-Man and it is because this is a story about Peter that it really hits home with the readers. In no issue is it more apparent that Spider-Man is the everyday guy than in this one. He is the hero here not because of the villains he fights of the lives he saves, but because of his ability to simply be human and allow himself to be vulnerable that makes him the true hero that he is. As Spidey leaves Tim’s room, we see the last piece of the Daily Bugle article that brought Spidey to Tim in the first place. Tim is sick with leukemia and has just weeks to live and the Bugle was focusing on Tim as Spider-Man’s biggest fan. Every time I get to the last line in this issue, the waterworks just start but I don’t mind because this is the issue that reminds me the most why it is I love Spider-Man.