Monday, 1 October 2012

Top Ten Spider-Man stories – Part One

Okay, listen up True Believers. Earlier this year I had to channel my inner Stan Lee to work on Spider-Man Year by Year: A Visual Chronicle, just published by those good folk at DK. The talented Matt Manning was my partner-in-crime for the project. Planning the book gave me the excuse to read just about every Spidey comic ever published (or reread in most cases) and I figured I’d share my love for the webslinger – not to mention excitement about the book’s release – by revealing my own top ten Spidey stories…

1. Amazing Fantasy #15

Spidey’s first appearance has to be on any list of classic stories. Stan Lee and Steve Ditko crafted the perfect super hero origin story in Amazing Fantasy # 15 – and did so in just eleven pages. Everyone knows the basics – bookish teenager bitten by a radioactive spider, gains super powers, uses them for selfish reasons before learning that “with great power comes great responsibility”. It’s the archetypal super hero origin, a modern day fairy tale. At the time Stan Lee, Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby were busy inventing a whole new way of storytelling and making comics more acceptable to a wider audience than ever before. In Spidey’s origin, Lee and Ditko not only introduced the truly original Spider-Man to the world but also provided him with a great supporting cast. Aunt May, Flash Thompson and all the other cool characters would prove to be just as important as the crazy and brilliant super villains in making Spider-Man’s comic a story-telling revelation. The first Spidey tale was grounded in the real world (radioactive spiders apart). In fact, these days any self-respecting teenager would do exactly what Peter did after gaining superpowers – head straight to the nearest TV station and try to become a star! The fact that the story works as well today as it did in 1962 says a lot about how good Lee and Ditko were. Although I’m sure these days scientists wouldn’t let school kids anywhere near dangerous experiments. Especially at Horizon Labs…


2. The Amazing Spider-Man (Vol. 1) #42

I always think Spidey’s success was down to John Romita Snr. as much as Steve Ditko. Both artists are amazing talents but it was Romita Snr. who gave Amazing Spider-Man a more hip and happening feel – and put the comic at the heart of the pop culture movement of the 1960s. He also designed Mary Jane Watson, one of the greatest female comic characters. While Amazing Spider-Man #42 featured a so-so fight between Spidey, the Rhino and an empowered John Jameson (the astronaut son of J. Jonah Jameson), it’s the last page that makes it essential for any Spidey-fan. Mary Jane’s first appearance isn’t just classic comic book history but as good a piece of pop art as you’ll find hanging in any art gallery. Give me the original art of this page over a Lichtenstein anyday. It’s also a little known fact that any self-respecting comic fan will instantly fall in love with anyone who uses the phrase “Face it, tiger – you just hit the jackpot!” when they first meet.

3. Amazing Spider-Man (Vol 2) #30-35

The late 1990s and early 2000s weren’t kind to Spidey. There were a few cool moments but for the most part the webslinger’s adventures became repetitive and predictable, with Mary Jane becoming increasingly dull, while the return of Aunt May from the dead (Spider-Man #97) annoyed me way more than the later Mephisto-annuls-Spidey’s marriage story (One More Day). When Joe Quesada took charge of Marvel, he brought in a number of new creators, including writer J. Michael Straczynski (creator of the Babylon Five TV show). Straczynski joined forces with artist John Romita Jnr. and, from their debut on Amazing Spider-Man # 30 (June 2001), produced one of the most powerful and original runs on the title. They turned Spidey’s origin on its head by introducing Ezekiel, a ‘hero’ with similar abilities to Spidey who suggested that there was a totemic aspect to their powers. While the main concepts and big stories were great, it was the character-based material where the new creative team really shined. Peter returning to teach at his old school gave the book a connection with the Lee/Ditko glory days while also made the reader feel the stories were moving into new territory. Straczynski did great work on the book and Romita Jnr’s art was better than ever. It’s almost good enough to make me forgive Straczynski for his later story “Sins Past” where he rewrote history and turned Gwen Stacy into a slapper…

4. Spectacular Spider-Man Vol 2 #27

Writer Paul Jenkins and artist Mark Buckingham created one of my favourite runs on any Spidey title. They crafted some great stories – the best of which (at least for me) were the more personal tales, dealing with the emotional life of Peter Parker and his friends. When Jenkins finally bid Spidey’s adventures farewell, he teamed up with Mark Buckingham for one last tale. This is the Spidey comic to give people who don’t like Spidey comics. A beautiful one-off Christmas story in which Peter Parker visits the grave of his Uncle Ben and talks through his career as Spidey. It’ll have you in tears from page two. Jenkins is brilliant with dialogue and Mark Buckingham simply one of the best artists around (his work on Fables would later take graphic art to a whole new level). The illustration of Peter’s dream that ends the issue (and Jenkins’ run on the title) featuring a young Peter on stage at school with all Spidey’s future villains taking a bow is simply stunning. It’s Jenkins and Buckingham at their very best.

5. I Killed Tomorrow (Amazing Spider-Man #678 and 679)

I’ve been a fan of writer Dan Slott since he worked on She-Hulk, producing the best take on the character to date. Like a lot of Spidey fans though, I’d given up reading Amazing Spider-Man after the Mephisto ‘quickie-divorce’ of Spidey and Mary Jane. I’m a bit of a continuity buff when no one’s looking and hated the repercussions of that particular story, even though it was well told. So I missed a whole bunch of issues. My loss. The “Brand New Day” stories that kicked off Spidey’s new era (following the strange end of his marriage) were great. They were the freshest Spidey tales for a long time and, in retrospect, the decision to make Peter single was good one. It definitely made Mary Jane an interesting character again. Luckily by the time Dan Slott took on the book full-time, I was hooked on Spidey’s adventures once more. A good job too as Dan Slott’s run on the title is (in my humble opinion) the best since Stan Lee’s day. The two issue “I Killed Tomorrow” pretty much has everything I love about Slott’s writing on Spidey: action, humour, great characterisation, Mary Jane and a brilliant conclusion - plus it’s a cool time travel story to boot as Peter tries to prevent the destruction of New York. It’s drawn by Humberto Ramos, whose stylistic work is a great match for Slott’s writing. A lot of Dan Slott’s stories could have made my list but when people ask me what’s so cool about Spider-Man after fifty years, this is the story I give them.

To be continued…

For more on the above and details on hundreds of other comics featuring Spidey, check out Spider-Man Year by Year: A Visual Chronicle on sale now!