Spider-Man is Marvel’s greatest character and probably my favorite comic character of all time. Like so many nerds of my generation, I grew up reading Spider-Man comics, and along with Superman and Batman, his were the first comics I remember reading. This first Spider-Man volume of Marvel’s magnificent Epic collections collects Amazing Fantasy #15, Amazing Spider-Man #1-17 and Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1. I’ve read most of these stories before in various reprint editions, but it’s great to have them restored, recolored and in order.
|From Spider-Man's Debut in Amazing Fantasy #15|
Spider-Man debuted, of course, in Amazing Fantasy #15. Like all tales in this edition, the stories are by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko (could we pause a moment to genuflect while saying the names Lee and Ditko?). AF #15 recounts Spider-Man’s origin, the story of Peter Parker being bitten by a radioactive spider, Uncle Ben’s death, the burglar, blah, blah. I’m not avoiding the story’s spidery goodness, but chances are you are familiar with how Spider-Man came to be. It’s what comes next that blows comics out of the water.
Spider-Man #1 briefly recaps Spidey’s origin and gets right to the Jameson hate. These early ASM issues had two shorter stories instead of single-issue tales. The first one is the beginning of Daily Bugle Editor (and Peter Parker employer) J. Jonah Jameson’s editorial tirade against what he considers the menace of Spider-Man. Just when Spidey thinks he will bask in the glory and gratitude of the folks he saved, people start throwing cans at him because of Jameson’s articles. Even when Spider-Man saves the life of Jameson’s astronaut son he can’t catch a break. Of course Jameson accuses Spidey of sabotaging the rocket launch in the first place. It takes until ASM #10 for Jameson to truly admit why he hates Spider-Man so much. It’s a powerful scene and well worth the wait. The second story introduces the Chameleon, the international master of disguise. This is also when Spider-Man tries to join the Fantastic Four, thinking their huge salaries will make him comfortable while he fights crime. When he finds out that’s not the case, and they don’t want him anyway, he’s kind of a jerk about it. Peter Parker can be a petulant teenager.
|Spider-Man vs. The Vulture|
Stan and Steve were on a character-creating tear in this first year of the book. Issue #2 introduces the Vulture and the Terrible Tinkerer to Spidey’s rogues gallery. Ditko begins each issue with a full page of Spider-Man engaging the main villain, and those splash pages are spectacular. Issue three is the first issue-length story, as one of the great Spider-Man arch-villains is introduced; Doctor Octopus. Ditko goes nuts with Spidey acrobatically bouncing off walls while fighting this six-armed monstrosity. There’s also a fun Human Torch guest appearance (who appears too late to help with Doc Ock, natch) beginning the mostly friendly rivalry between the two characters. Spidey is obviously jealous of the Torch and lets it get the better of him sometimes. Lee is slowly developing the character of Peter Parker here, letting him be human and have real emotions; anger, jealousy and envy included.
|Spidey vs. Doc Ock|
Issue #5 debuts the Sandman, who Spidey fights in the hallways of his own high school and cleverly defeats him. Issue #6 is a rather famous confrontation with Fantastic Four villain Dr. Doom, as Doom nabs Spidey’s #1 fan (and Peter Parker’s #1 tormentor) Flash Thompson in a Spider-Man outfit. Spidey leaps into action to save him with more tremendous acrobatic artwork from Ditko. Spider-Man #6 brings the Lizard, a villain, like most of these brilliant characters, still used today. The Vulture returns for a sky battle in issue #7, with Peter’s confidence growing and people noticing, especially his classmates. Flash’s best girl Liz Allen develops a crush on him, which Peter does not reciprocate. Issue #8 is incredibly fun, as the action returns to Midtown High and Spidey has to stop an out-of-control robot, which is tougher than it sounds. This is also the issue where Peter and bully Flash Thompson have a boxing match to settle their differences. Peter has to hold back, but still clobbers a flabbergasted Flash, who struggles to find excuses as to why he lost to “puny” Parker. Lee is brilliantly in control of his characters at this point.
|J. Jonah Jameson Confesses|
|Spider-Man Meets the Green Goblin|
After introducing characters such as Electro in issue #9 and The Enforcers in issue #10, Doc Ock returns in Amazing Spider-Man #11, and succeeds in unmasking Peter Parker in issue #12 (which of course Peter wiggles out of). Peter has been dating Betty Brant, who has more problems than a desperate housewife. Issue #14 is the first Green Goblin. It’s a good story, but I don’t think even Lee and Ditko knew how important the character would become in Spider-Man’s history. There’s also a fun guest appearance by the Hulk, who Spidey punches full in the face to no visible effect. The Marvel Universe is building piece by piece with guest stars and crossovers galore. Issue #15 is the first Kraven the Hunter, another exceptional character that will go out with an explosive bang 25 years later. Speaking of crossovers, Spidey teams with Daredevil (in his original costume) in issue #16 to fight yet more remarkable villains, the Ringmaster and the Circus of Crime. The Ringmaster’s hypnotism doesn’t affect the blind Daredevil, which sets up an amusing battle with the mind-controlled Spider-Man. Issue #17 features Spidey and the Human Torch battling the Green Goblin and some nice character work as Liz Allen and Betty Brant meet and battle over Peter Parker. Lee has fun putting Peter through his paces—now he’s becoming a little too popular, and has no clue how to handle two women fighting over him.
|Spider-Man Annual #1|
Finally, there is one of the finest comics ever published—Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1. What I would have given to buy this off the stands and devour it as it first came out (the book is before even my time). Stan and Steve pull out all the stops. This is the first appearance of the Sinister Six, as they team up to fight Spidey. Spider-Man has barely defeated Doc Ock, Sandman, the Vulture, Mysterio, Electro and Kraven one on one, but the vicious villains combine to create a plan to take him down together. On top of fighting his six most dangerous foes, Spider-Man’s powers intermittently stop working, finding him powerless at the worst possible times. The bad guys end up making a fatal mistake in their plans, but come close to ending Spidey.
The art, storytelling and dialog of this Annual all come together perfectly. Lee & Ditko are at the absolute height of their powers. Spider-Man’s confidence is shot because of his power loss, his greatest enemies are teaming up to kill him, and he still has girl trouble. Wrap that around some of the finest Spider-Man art ever created by Mr. Ditko and it ends up as one of the best Spider-Man stories ever told. The extras of the book are stunning. There are Who’s Who-type entries of all the villains who have appeared in the series so far, several “Secrets of Spider-Man!” pages featuring Spider-Man’s powers and equipment, and features devoted to Spidey’s supporting cast, house in the suburbs and superhero guest stars. The icing on the cake is a hilarious three-page behind-the-scenes story titled “How Stan Lee and Steve Ditko create Spider-Man.”
These stories brought back in full force how much I love Spider-Man and his world as created by Ditko and Lee. Peter Parker was as realistic a character as had ever been portrayed in comics up until that time. A real, relatable teenager who was a good person but by no means perfect. He was bullied. He could be sullen, petulant and quick-tempered. Through the years he grew into the man we all hoped he would be. The stories and art still hold up as incredibly entertaining and one of the greatest collaborations in comics history.
Rating: ***** out of 5 stars. Comics don’t get any better than this.