For the third time in 15 years, Sony (and now Marvel Studios) decided to start over the Spider-Man franchise with a much younger lead actor, a much younger Aunt May, and a new cast of supporting players and villains. Thankfully, Spider-Man Homecoming didn’t kill Uncle Ben for the umpteenth time, but Peter Parker is back in high school and again beginning to come to terms with his great power, as well as the responsibility that it comes with. The producers and directors of the Spider-Man films like sending the pop culture icon (he’s practically the Mickey Mouse of Marvel Comics) back to high school even though the main universe version of Peter Parker graduated over 50 years ago in 1965’s Amazing Spider-Man #28, which also introduced the unfortunately (and alliteratively) named villain, Molten Man.
I think the reason for this is that some of the greatest Spider-Man stories came in the pages of Brian Michael Bendis, Mark Bagley, Stuart Immonen, and others’ Ultimate Spider-Man, which featured a teenage Peter Parker and ran from 2000 to 2011. This series skillfully used the superhero genre to tell a coming-of-age story focused on Peter’s relationship with his family, friends, and eventually other heroes, like Human Torch and Kitty Pryde, instead of just having him punch and “thwip” at things. It even successfully and powerfully killed off Peter and replaced him with the Black/Latino teenager Miles Morales, who is currently Spider-Man alongside an older Peter Parker in the main Marvel Universe.
Honestly, you should just drop everything and pick up a copy of Ultimate Spider-Man “Power and Responsibility” from your local library, bookstore, or Comixology if you want to get into Spider-Man, but if you prefer stories of Spidey’s college or young adult days from a variety of eras, including some groovy stories by his creators Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, here are ten comic book storylines you should check out before watching Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 for the millionth time:
10. “The Night Gwen Stacy Died” from Amazing Spider-Man #121-122 (1973)
“The Night Gwen Stacy Died” is a crucial two-part storyline not only for the character of Spider-Man, but also for superhero comics as a whole. Written by Gerry Conway (who was only 20 at the time.), penciled by Gil Kane, and inked over by John Romita Sr and Tony Mortellaro, it features the triumphant return of the Green Goblin/Norman O, the only supervillain who knows that Spider-Man and Peter Parker are the same person. Armed with this knowledge, he kidnaps Gwen Stacy and drops her off the George Washington Bridge. Spider-Man tries to save her with his webs, but ends up snapping her neck in the process in one of the saddest uses of sound effects in comics. The next chapter is dedicated to a quest for revenge against Green Goblin while he ignores his friend, Harry Osborn, who is all alone and withdrawing from LSD. Spider-Man engages in a brutal battle with the villain and almost kills him, but the Green Goblin ends up being impaled by his own glider in a scene that appeared in the 2002 Sam Raimi Spider-Man, and Spidey walks away empty, sad, and alone.
You can feel superhero comics growing up overnight in Amazing Spider-Man #121-122 as Gerry Conway and Gil Kane make the red and blue spandex-wearing, joke-cracking Spider-Man the vehicle for his girlfriend’s death. In previous storylines, Stan Lee and Kane had killed off Gwen’s father, George Stacy, but he was a police officer in the line of duty. Gwen’s death was senseless and sudden, and led Spider-Man to behave more violently and callously, starting with assaulting his cop buddy instead of having his usual friendly chat. Kane, Romita, and Mortellaro depict the fight between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin in harrowing close-ups, with the hero confessing his love for Gwen after every punch. You can feel bones cracking with each rage-filled blow, and after the battle, Spider-Man looks like the sad figure that Steve Ditko originally drew him as, instead of John Romita’s big man on campus. What makes this “final” fight scene even more brutal is the fact that Spider-Man is recovering from the flu, and is barely at half strength.
However, what makes “The Night Gwen Stacy Died” a dated storyline is that Gerry Conway and Gil Kane killed Gwen Stacy solely to increase Spider-Man’s man-pain and add some darkness to his heroic, soap operatic journey, as well as possibly set up a romance with the vivacious redhead, Mary-Jane Watson. Gwen barely speaks in the storyline, and she is just there to play the role of victim. Her death opened up the potential for darker superhero stories with life and death stakes, but also set a bad precedent for killing off female characters to further a male hero’s story.
Luckily for fans of Gwen Stacy (whether in the old comics or Emma Stone’s performance in the Amazing Spider-Man films), there is now an alternate universe of her affectionately known as “Spider-Gwen,” co-created by Jason Latour and Robbi Rodriguez. Spider-Gwen has her own comic book and is a superhero in her own right with a really rad hoodie costume.
9. “Torment” from Spider-Man #1-5 (1990)
For better or worse, Spider-Man in the late 1980s and early 1990s is defined by the work of Canadian writer/artist Todd McFarlane, who would later go on to create Spawn and co-found Image Comics and McFarlane Toys. In 1990, McFarlane was such a popular artist at Marvel Comics that he got to write and draw his own title simply called Spider-Man. The first issue of the title sold 2.5 million copies, as McFarlane attempted to marry the hardboiled narration and grim cityscapes of Frank Miller’s work on Daredevil and The Dark Knight Returns with his personal interest in horror stories. What follows is an intense, style over substance, and “edgy” story called “Torment,” where McFarlane tells of Spider-Man tracking down one of his old villains, Lizard, who has become a beastly serial killer manipulated by Calypso, a mysterious sorceress. Also, Mary Jane Watson-Parker hits the club while this is going on.
Even if the storyline drags on for an issue too many, McFarlane’s artwork has a unique style to it. There’s also no real resolution to the plot, and it’s more of a “dark night of the soul” mood piece showing what Spider-Man’s life would be like if he was separated from his friends and family. It’s obvious that McFarlane hates drawing human beings, but loves monsters and cool architecture, so he spends most of the time showing Lizard stalk the streets of New York like a reptilian killer in a slasher flick. There is a retelling of his origin about midway through the arc, but there is no trace of Curt Connors, or any kind of humanity, in the Lizard. McFarlane’s take on Spider-Man is more arachnid-like than that of his predecessors (except for Steve Ditko), so it’s fitting that “Torment” centers around a primal ritual conflict between two humans that have adopted the identity of or (in Lizard’s case) become animals. McFarlane’s art and rat-tat-tat captions bend and flow as Spider-Man is infected with Lizard’s poison. Any time Spidey uses his webs in combat or to swing around New York City with his big eyes popping is poster worthy, and he knows it.
If you want to know what comics were like in the 1990s without drowning yourself in bullshit X-Men or Youngblood continuity, “Torment” is worth taking a look at. It’s also just exciting to see Spider-Man transported from the sunny streets of New York and quip-filled battles with colorful supervillains to being dropped smack-dab into a New York City horror wasteland, caught up in a battle to survive after he spends Spider-Man #1 acting super confident in all aspects of his life. This edgefest pairs well with The Crow soundtrack if you want a double dose of 90s dark superhero nostalgia. Todd McFarlane definitely succeeds at putting his personal stamp on an iconic character that often defaults to a “house” style.
8. Spider-Man/Human Torch #1-5 (2005)
Dan Slott has been the lead writer on Spider-Man’s flagship title, Amazing Spider-Man, since 2008, but arguably some of his best work with the webslinger came in this fun miniseries that focused on the relationship between Marvel’s first two teen heroes, Spider-Man and the Human Torch. Each issue is drawn by Ty Templeton (Batman Adventures), with help from inkers Drew Geraci, Nelson, Tom Palmer, and Greg Adams, who do an excellent job pulling off the different art styles of Marvel Comics, including the work of Fantastic Four co-creator Jack Kirby and Spider-Man creator Steve Ditko. Each issue is set in different time period for the characters, and it’s fun seeing Spider-Man going from being a student in high school to actually teaching it, while Human Torch hasn’t gained a single ounce of responsibility to go with his great power.
Spider-Man/Human Torch has its serious moments, like when Spider-Man is dealing with the death of Gwen Stacy, but it’s flat-out funny too. The characters are in on the joke, like when Spider-Man busts out laughing when he faces Paste Pot Pete, who was Human Torch’s nemesis in his not-very-high-selling solo series that came out in the 1960s, or when Torch cracks wise about a lot of Spidey’s rogues being senior citizens, like the seriously decrepit Vulture. If you’ve flipped through old comics from the 1970s, Spider-Man/Human Torch #3 is a heck of a hoot, with a plot centered around the Spider-Mobile and Hostess fruit pie ads that ends with Spider-Man and Torch being utter trolls and doing donuts on the side of the Daily Bugle. As the series progresses, Spider-Man and Human Torch go from laughing at each other to laughing together, although the practical jokes persist into adulthood. Who can resist the old web or flame on the hand trick?
Spider-Man/Human Torch is a fun way to learn about the history of Spider-Man and Marvel Comics in general without digging through hundreds of old back issues or Wiki summaries. Each issue has a thrilling action plot, from stopping Cold War super apes from sabotaging Mr. Fantastic’s lab, to helping Black Cat pull off a tenderhearted heist to get her dad’s lucky lockpick back, and there’s plenty of banter between Human Torch/Johnny Storm, Spider-Man, Peter Parker (who is usually in the background as a photographer), and their supporting casts, including Human Torch’s legion of girlfriends (I totally forgot he dated She-Hulk for a while in the 1980s). With a winning sense of humor and clean, expressive art, Dan Slott, Ty Templeton, and company turn decades of Marvel continuity into a tasty comic book treat and a heartwarming story about how friendships develop as people age. It also might make you miss the Fantastic Four comics…
7. “Nothing Can Stop the Juggernaut” from Amazing Spider-Man #229-230 (1982)
One thing that makes Spider-Man such an endearing superhero is his underdog status. He might have the proportional strength and speed of a spider, as well as genius intellect, but Spider-Man has money problems, constantly gets his ass handed to him by supervillains, and can barely hold down a job. In other words, he’s a lot more relatable than a guy who dresses up like a rodent and has a butler. A classic story that shows Spider-Man’s determination in the face of unbeatable odds is the two-parter “Nothing Can Stop the Juggernaut” from writer Roger Stern, artists John Romita Jr and Jim Mooney, and colorist Glynis Wein. In the comic, the Juggernaut and his accomplice, Black Tom Cassidy, are looking to forcibly add the psychic, clairvoyant Spider-Man supporting character Madame Web to their criminal gang. Because all the other superheroes are otherwise occupied, Spidey is the only one standing between and the total destruction of New York City.
“Nothing Can Stop the Juggernaut” is basically a fight comic with a few simmering Daily Bugle subplots to keep the story down to Earth (Peter Parker has a rival photographer named Lance Bannon who is stealing his assignments, and is quite the misogynistic douche). Romita Jr, who would later draw the universe-shaking World War Hulk, excels at showing the sheer extent of destruction that the Juggernaut wreaks on New York. Three-ton wrecking balls, old collapsing buildings, and even a gas tanker truck are no match for the Juggernaut, who snaps Spider-Man’s webbing like it’s flimsy string. Until the final few pages, where he happens upon an ingenious solution to finally defeat the Juggernaut without the help of a last-minute Professor X psychic blast, Stern, Romita Jr, and Mooney put Spidey on the defensive, which is just good for drama.
If Home Alone were a superhero movie, it would be “Nothing Can Stop the Juggernaut,” although Spider-Man has a sense of responsibility to go with his traps and jokes. The comic is the triumph of creativity and heart over brute force, and Spider-Man’s everyman nature is on full display as he quickly runs to the Daily Bugle to get a voucher for some photos after being brutally beaten by an unstoppable villain. Roger Stern easily balances Spider-Man’s life in and out of costume, while John Romita Jr is a true master of making disaster movie-type situations personal, so this story holds up 30+ years later. Plus, there’s the general novelty factor of seeing one hero defeat a villain that the whole X-Men lineup could barely beat.
6. “Confessions” from Ultimate Spider-Man #13 (2001)
As I mentioned earlier, writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Mark Bagley’s Ultimate Spider-Man series is the gold standard for Spider-Man comics, but if you only have time to read one Ultimate Spider-Man, it should be this standalone story that single-handedly sold me on the romantic pairing of Peter Parker and Mary-Jane Watson after Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst had less than searing chemistry in the Spider-Man films. In this issue, Peter tells Mary-Jane, who is his best friend and soon-to-be girlfriend, that he’s Spider-Man, and also that he has feelings for her. It’s more of a slice of life story than a superhero one, filled with awkward teenage dialogue and facial expressions (the comic gets even more awkward when Aunt May almost gives Peter “the sex talk”), but there is also the pure joy on Mary-Jane’s face when she realizes that her friend is a freaking superhero. Sure, the Daily Bugle doesn’t like him, but wouldn’t it be exciting if someone close to you could cling to walls, swing from building to building, and avoid rush hour traffic in New York?
I really like Bendis and Bagley’s approach to Spider-Man’s dual identity in “Confessions.” As Peter says in this issue, he wears the mask so that Aunt May and his friends aren’t targeted by his enemies, and so that he isn’t nabbed by the U.S. government as an experimental super soldier or something. He wants to help everyday people in his own way. However, being a teenager is tough enough without compounding it by keeping such a great secret from everyone, so it makes sense that he would confide in someone he cares about. Mary-Jane is totally okay with him being Spider-Man, and is happy that he is upfront with her after bailing on a date with her for secret superhero reasons. There is a real honesty and self-awareness to Bendis’ writing, and he definitely cares about Peter Parker the person just as much as Spider-Man the hero. He also relaxes the quips a little bit and uses silent panels and beats to let Peter and Mary-Jane process this big moment in their lives.
Ultimate Spider-Man #13 is one of the finest pieces of character-driven superhero writing, and the entire plot is Peter Parker having a conversation with Mary-Jane, then Aunt May. It’s a shining example that Spider-Man is at his best when his stories have some slice of life to go with the webslinging and supervillain fights. Ultimate Spider-Man isn’t just a great teen superhero comic – it’s a damn good teen romance book too, and Peter Parker’s relationship with Mary-Jane as a friend and/or girlfriend throughout the series is often more exciting than his fights against Doc Ock or the Green Goblin.
10 Best Spider-Man Comics You Should Check Out
The best of the best when it comes to comics you should read to catch up on Spider-Man.
The countdown to the best Spider-Man comic stories continues with some classics from his co-creators Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, as well as some modern storylines.
5. “If This Be My Destiny” from Amazing Spider-Man #31-33 (1966-1967)
One thing in the 1960s that set Marvel Comics apart from its Distinguished Competition was that they did multi-part, serialized storylines decades before the “graphic novel” was ever thought of. One of these classic storylines was “If This Be My Destiny,” from artist/plotter Steve Ditko and scripter Stan Lee. Spider-Man is looking for the Master-Planner, who has been stealing various radiation-type devices, while Peter Parker is beginning college, dealing with some relationship issues, and worst of all, the poor health of his Aunt May. The comic’s most iconic moment happens in Amazing Spider-Man #33, where an exhausted Spider-Man is stuck in slowly rising water beneath the wreckage of the Master Planner’s base, and must will himself to dig his way out and get the serum to cure Aunt May, who has radiation in her blood because of a transfusion she got from Peter in an earlier storyline. It’s an image of individual strength and willpower
“If This Be My Destiny” is an excellent story because Steve Ditko skillfully ties together the most pressing issue in Peter Parker’s life (Aunt May’s sickness) with a thrilling tale of supervillains and subterfuge. Ditko puts Spider-Man through the wringer in this comic in an epic “snatch a defeat from the jaws of victory” moment when the Master Planner’s men steal the special ingredient that Spider-Man and Dr. Curt Connors (formerly the Lizard) were going to use to make the cure for Aunt May. This incident causes Ditko to foresee Frank Miller’s Daredevil with a montage of brutal beatdowns, as Spider-Man shakes down every criminal in the city before happening on the Master Planner’s base almost by accident. Ditko’s depiction of a deadly-serious Spider-Man is a little frightening, as he sidelines the clever web tricks for pure strength.
Even though Lee and Ditko have Peter Parker behave dickishly around fellow Empire State University students Harry Osborn, Gwen Stacy, and Flash Thompson because he is so consumed by his concern for both his studies and his sick Aunt May, Amazing Spider-Man #31-33 presents Spider-Man at his most admirable. Spidey pushes through physical pain and utter exhaustion to grab the serum and save his aunt, and Ditko puts his bruises on display when Peter Parker visits May and gets some money from J. Jonah Jameson for getting exclusive pictures of the Master Planner’s real identity as Dr. Octopus. Because he doesn’t want the people he loves to meet a similar fate as Uncle Ben, Spider-Man pushes through pain, ridicule, and makes any sacrifice possible to save them. “If This Be My Destiny” is a shining example of this characteristic in him, and Steve Ditko and Stan Lee weave together Spider-Man’s life in and out of costume to tell a compelling story with real human stakes in the midst of bright costumes and villain lairs.
4. “Kraven’s Last Hunt” from Web of Spider-Man #31-32, Amazing Spider-Man #293-294, Spectacular Spider-Man #131-132 (1987)
Some long-time Spider-fans are definitely going to say that “Kraven’s Last Hunt” is too low on this list. In this six-part crossover from writer J.M. DeMatteis and artist Mike Zeck, Kraven, a leopard skin wearing joke of a jungle-themed supervillain, is re-cast as one of Spider-Man’s greatest foes. He defeats Spider-Man in combat, takes his costume, and buries him alive, then becomes a “superior” Spider-Man, using more brutal methods to keep the streets of New York safe and singlehandedly capturing the cannibal serial killer, Vermin. However, Kraven doesn’t realize that the “man” part is more important than the “spider” part of Spider-Man.
“Kraven’s Last Hunt” is like a poem in comic book form, with recurring images, symbols, and words, as well as repeated allusions to William Blake’s “Tyger, Tyger.” It’s one of the most visually beautiful and terrifying Spider-Man stories, with some gruesome sequences, like when Kraven buries himself and eats spiders so that he can defeat Spider-Man in combat. The comic also shows the limits of dark superheroes, because at the time Spider-Man was wearing his black costume – not the classic reds and blues. Without his relationship with Mary-Jane Watson, the Daily Bugle staff, and his kindness even towards disgusting creatures like Vermin, he would just be a dark vigilante with a spider motif – like Kraven in this series. The power of these relationships to give Spider-Man strength and motivation is captured by Mike Zeck in a splash page where Spider-Man claws out of his grave with the caption “I love you,” as his love for Mary Jane helps him overcome death.
“Kraven’s Last Hunt” is evidence that even the most lightweight villains can be compelling and interesting, as J.M. DeMatteis and Mike Zeck depict Kraven the Hunter as a man of honor and madness, someone who wants to defeat his greatest foe before he dies. He is such a classy fellow that he leaves a “confession” saying that he impersonated Spider-Man in lieu of a suicide note, and realizes that it’s Spider-Man’s humanity and empathy that makes him a great hero, not his powers.
3. Spider-Man Blue #1-6 (2002-2003)
You never forget your first love, and Spider-Man Blue is proof that Peter Parker never forgot his –namely, the blonde, hair tie-wearing Gwen Stacy, who was cruelly killed in “The Night That Gwen Stacy Died.” Writer Jeph Loeb and artist Tim Sale of Batman: The Long Halloween and Superman For All Seasons fame craft a love letter to Silver Age Spider-Man and the stories of Steve Ditko, Stan Lee, and John Romita Sr. in this timeless miniseries. The book uses a clever, emotional framing device of Spider-Man recording his thoughts about Gwen into an old tape recorder, which allows for honesty and perspective as the older Peter looks on his early days as a college student and crime fighter. Most of the book is dedicated to the supreme awkwardness of the love triangle between Peter Parker, Gwen Stacy, and Mary-Jane Watson, who infuses the story with a real energy when she sashays into Spider-Man Blue #2 and immediately calls Peter “my guy.” There is also an overarching plot with a shadowy foe sending various bad guys to fight and test Spider-Man, all in an effort to deduce his secret identity in an homage to the serialized narratives that Lee and Ditko brought to Amazing Spider-Man even in its infancy.
Like all his work, Tim Sale provides some gorgeous full and double-page character-defining spreads, like Gwen and Peter riding a motorcycle together, Spider-Man shaking off a cold to fight two Vultures, and a solemn image of Spidey leaving a rose on the George Washington Bridge in honor of Gwen’s death. He’s an excellent storyteller too, and turns the joke villain – the Vulture – into a creature of the night, as he lurks in the shadows and defeats Spider-Man when he least expects it. Sale also expertly juggles the spindlier, more individualistic art style of Steve Ditko with the confident, romance comic-inspired work of John Romita Sr throughout Spider-Man Blue. His men and women are gorgeous, for the most part, but they are sometimes creepy, like when Harry Osborn starts mentioning his father or hints at his drug problems. Sale’s greatest achievement is creating amazing chemistry between Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy through glances, touches, and eye flutters that culminate in a well-earned and damn sexy kiss on Valentine’s Day. This proves that Spider-Man stories work best as romantic comedies that just happen to feature some punching in the background.
However, for all its heroic flourishes, perfectly-timed Spidey quips from writer Jeph Loeb, and clever action scenes (like when Spider-Man uses a tip from Gwen in science class to take down the formidable Rhino), Spider-Man Blue is a melancholy read. Spider-Man Blue #6 is all about how Spider-Man wishes he spent less time fighting jerks like Kraven the Hunter, and more time talking to, laughing with, and smooching Gwen, especially in light of her untimely passing. The final issue of the series is framed against a house warming party for Peter and Harry Osborn’s apartment, and that is where Spider-Man wishes he was. It looks at the inner conflict between Peter Parker wanting to have a normal existence with a girlfriend/wife and social life, and fighting crime so that no one ends up like his Uncle Ben. Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale definitely fall on the “should have spent more time with his loved ones” side, closing with a scene where Peter Parker and his wife Mary Jane realize how much they miss Gwen. I definitely felt blue after re-reading this great Spider-Man story, and maybe you will too (the caption where he talks about not expecting to bury Gwen before Aunt May is super painful).
2. “Death of Spider-Man” from Ultimate Spider-Man #156-160 (2011)
If Tom Holland ever starts acting like a diva, the suits at Marvel can always wave these comics in his face. But, in all seriousness, “Death of Spider-Man” is the perfect ending to Peter Parker’s 11-year journey in Brian Michael Bendis, Mark Bagley, and some other artists’ run on Ultimate Spider-Man. The story begins when SHIELD is stupid and bureaucratic as usual, and the Green Goblin breaks himself and the Sinister Six out of containment. Dr. Octopus wants to retire and be a scientist, so the Goblin kills him. Over the course of “Death of Spider-Man,” Spider-Man fights the Sinister Six by himself, takes a bullet for Captain America, and gets left to bleed out. In the final battle, he fights and defeats the Green Goblin, who has stolen power from the Human Torch. It is an unrelenting series of battles, and inker Andy Lanning cleans up Bagley’s pencils, showing how much Peter means to his friends and family. He isn’t the only hero in this story, with Aunt May shooting Electro, and Mary-Jane running over the Green Goblin with a van she stole.
The Ultimate Universe (the alternate universe where these stories took place) was a bleak place, with a racist, jingoist Captain America, an Iron Man who was constantly drunk and recorded a sex tape with Black Widow, a Wolverine who liked 18-year-old girls, and much more. Spider-Man was much too good for it, and gets badly hurt when he accidentally ends up in the middle of a firefight between the Ultimates (this universe’s Avengers) and Nick Fury’s black ops team. Instead of taking him to a hospital or somewhere to patch him up, Captain America and company continue to fight a futile battle, and Spider-Man uses his webbing to keeps his organs in. This is especially ridiculous, as Cap told Spider-Man that he had doubts about him going into action right before he got the call to fight Fury’s team. Bagley’s battle scenes aren’t fluid and stylish, but full of pain and punishment as Spider-Man absorbs hit after hit without getting any kind of medical attention.
“The Death of Spider-Man” ties up Spider-Man’s arc neatly and tragically as he dies at the hands of the man who genetically engineered the spiders that give him his wonderful abilities. He also sacrifices himself so that Aunt May, Gwen Stacy, and his superhero roommates, Human Torch and Iceman, don’t suffer the same fate as Uncle Ben. Forgotten by the adult heroes who were supposed to train him, and pursued by raving psychopaths, Spider-Man becomes the ultimate superhero, never giving up even if that means his life. His sacrifice inspires the young African-American/Latino teenager Miles Morales to become a new Spider-Man, and Miles currently stars in the comic simply titled Spider-Man, which is still written by Brian Michael Bendis.
1. Amazing Fantasy #15 (1962)
In the final issue of a struggling anthology comic previously called Amazing Adult Fantasy, a pop culture icon was born thanks to Steve Ditko and Stan Lee. The original incarnation of Spider-Man was truly more spider than man, with pages of him leaping and crawling over rooftops while frightening passer-bys instead of his smooth swings through New York. The plot of this comic is known to anyone who has seen Spider-Man, Amazing Spider-Man, or any of the various films. A nerd goes to a science exhibition, gets special abilities from a radioactive spider, finds fortune and fame on TV with his powers, lets a robber go one day, his uncle is murdered, and his killer is later revealed to be the same burglar. With great powers come great responsibility, and there’s an origin story for you.
Except for his depressing origin and loving relationship with his Aunt May and Uncle Ben, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s original Spider-Man/Peter Parker isn’t a likable fellow. He’s always telling people about his scientific knowledge, and brags to himself when he creates his own web fluid to swing from walls. In one thought bubble, he even says that he doesn’t care for any humans other than Aunt May and Uncle Ben, and Peter wears that glasses-at-the-end-of-his-nose-perpetual-scowl-face that Steve Ditko would return to throughout his career.
However, Amazing Fantasy #15 is an innovative superhero origin story, as it is one of the first to feature a solo teen superhero, someone who wasn’t a sidekick of an adult hero (Human Torch was a member of the Fantastic Four at the time). It also has an arc to it, as Peter Parker must learn to be a hero after his uncle’s death, beginning as a selfish daredevil and ending with vowing to be more responsible with his great powers. Like most of us, Spider-Man doesn’t immediately stop purse snatchers after getting superpowers, and uses his superpowers for his own gain until a personal tragedy forces him to change his ways.
Getting Spider-Man Right Takes Great Power and Responsibility
“With great power….” — yeah, we all know what comes next. It involves a paternal figure, a science experiment, and one of the weirdest looking costumes in superhero history. The friendly neighborhood Spider-Man has become a legend in his own right, and deservedly so. After 57 years, he’s been in numerous live-action movies, dozens of cartoons and video games, and an insurmountable amount of comic books. With the monstrous growth in superhero movies, there have been three distinct live-action adaptations, each with their own voice and style. It makes sense that his character would change depending on the creators and the social and political climate; each brought their own flair, and everyone has their own opinion to who is the best one. The obvious answer is Tom Holland’s, but the other two aren’t without their merit.
It’s also not enough to focus on Spider-Man alone — a lot of attention needs to be put on Peter Parker as well. Spider-Man is a witty, confident man of action; he saves babies from burning buildings, mocks his rogues gallery, and simply acts like a smart-ass. Peter Parker (depending on the writer) is best known for his mild-mannered and demure personality. He’s the kind of character that can’t catch a break, who with every step taken is pushed back two. He’s meant to represent that individual in each of us who just wants to be safe in his own world. Spider-Man was designed so that it could be anyone under the mask, especially the person reading the comic. This duality makes the character memorable, and special. That’s why, as of now, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is currently the best Spider-Man movie.
However, the most important thing to note is that the actor can only bring in so much to the role of Spider-Man. A fantastic actor can portray the character poorly, while a fairly unknown actor can create something iconic; a lot comes from the writing and production teams. If the stunts or the visual effects are boring, or if the dialogue is too filled with exposition, then the movie may not be successful. On the other hand, if rewrites are required midway through the production, then the actor’s hands would be tied. That being said, even a good script can’t help an untrained actor, or someone who doesn’t give it their all. It’s a team effort, and everyone needs to do their best.
Tobey Maguire in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Men Universe
Sam Raimi proved that Spider-Man can be done in live-action without changing a lot from the comics. He didn’t alter the costume, and took elements from the Ultimate universe — which was at the height of popularity at the time.The battles and drama are operatic and silly, perfectly simulating a live-action comic book. Tobey Maguire comes out swinging, looking the part (he was your average 27-year-old high school kid). His generic and unnoticeable appearance make him suitable for a background actor, and the perfect portrayal for Peter Parker. Despite being smart and generally a sweet kid, he still fails constantly; he never seems to catch a break. His co-stars are also amazing, and help make him look good. That being said, his Spider-Man is…underwhelming. He has the occasional lame quip, and his cockiness doesn’t seem genuine, sounding more like it’s written by someone who read one-liners from a goofy book. His version of Spider-Man has the power and ability, but lacks that key ‘fake confidence’ that this particular superhero always needs.
Andrew Garfield in Marc Webb’s Spider-Man Universe.
Andrew Garfield’s performance is the mirror opposite of Tobey Maguire. Garfield is an obviously good-looking, brooding, smart, skateboarding high schooler with a degree of fashion sense. Unlike the lame and unremarkable Peter Parker in Raimi’s universe, Garfield’s Parker lacks the awkwardness that the character needs. Though he does have his problems and fails a lot, he just isn’t convincing enough to be that dork. His Peter Parker has enough confidence that it isn’t a grand leap to become Spider-Man. However, as Spider-Man, he knocks it out of the park. His quips are funnier, his power level seems more threatening, and his confidence comes off less stale than Maguire’s. Unfortunately, the character suffered when the production company tried to build a MCU-style universe too fast. The sequel tried to add too many villains and plot points that didn’t help the story.
Tom Holland in the MCU.
Not only did they get someone this time who looks like he’s in high school, but they got themselves the best live-action Spider-Man and Peter Parker. This is primarily due to getting a talented team of writers, directors, actors, and production teams. Tom Holland wasn’t superstar before he got this role, but he nailed his audition and proved that he can do both parts. As Spider-Man he is agile, confident, making light of the danger. He makes it look as though there’s nothing to worry about, even though deep down he’s terrified, mocking his aggressors and finding creative ways to use his abilities. As Peter Parker, he’s the typical dork — bullied, awkward around girls, likes LEGO, and stutters his way around trouble. He’s smart, but is in constant turmoil to prove himself worthy. When he’s out of that suit, he’s simply a terrified child.
This is where Tom Holland proves he can do both. His introductory scene in Captain America: Civil War perfectly encapsulates Peter Parker and Spider-Man. His goofiness when Tony Stark discovers his secret shows that he’s not all snark. His quipping and fighting in the airport scene sums up Spider-Man to a tee. However, there are two scenes in Spider-Man : Homecoming that can take these two distinct personalities and find the link between them, bringing them closer to one. The first is when Tony Stark, acting as a father figure and mentor, scolds Peter Parker for acting irrationally, just like Iron Man would have in his own start to heroism. After a failed attempt at stopping arms smugglers, Tony Stark confronts Peter Parker, and the following exchange happens:
Peter Parker: “This is all I have. I’m nothing without the suit.”
Tony Stark: “If your nothing without this suit, then you shouldn’t have it.”
Unlike previous iterations, Tom Holland’s Peter Parker shines, knowing his own inability and lack of confidence. Until he got the suit, he simply felt weak and helpless, and losing it is like losing one piece of his soul. The exchange is powerful, thanks to the actors and writers who knew what Peter Parker was meant to be. The second scene is when he’s in his old suit, and The Vulture traps Peter Parker under enough debris to take out the top-level Avengers. He’s afraid, alone, and has no way to communicate to get help. This beautiful homage to Steve Ditko’s Amazing Spider-Man #33 is the perfect choice. In the movie, he sees his face in the pools of water, and Tony Stark’s previous words fill his mind. After a few breaths to calm his nerves he says “Come on, Peter” and then immediately changed to “Come on, Spider-Man.” This is not an indication that Peter Parker is weak, but that he sees himself as Spider-Man. There’s no distinction between the two entities; he is Spider-Man. It’s a haunting and beautiful scene that gives resonance to the role.
Spider-Man and Peter Parker are very different, but aren’t complete opposites. They share a common thread of fear, which one hides by blending into the crowd, while the other shows off with theatrics and jokes. Whatever team is taking over the role needs to play both parts as different characters, but with a thread still binding them together. No live action representation has done it better than Tom Holland’s. Throughout every movie he has grown as a character, and though he may not be as cocky or as frightened as he once was, this Spider-Man truly knows what it means to have both power and responsibility.
The Poetry of ‘Watchmen’ Still Burns Bright
Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons probably didn’t intend their story to have the impact it did, and wrote a mock article in Watchmen about owls and birds that inadvertently illustrates the influence this graphic novel would have on the world of western literature
“Is it possible, I wonder, to study a bird so closely, to observe and catalogue its peculiarities in such minute detail, that it becomes invisible? Is it possible that while fastidiously calibrating the span of its wings or the lengths of its tarsus, we somehow lose sight of its poetry?”
Daniel Dreiberg, also known as the second Nite Owl, believes this to be true. Dissecting every part of an owl into facts and figures takes away from the mystery of these marvelous creatures. He adds that he doesn’t believe that facts and sciences should be eradicated or ignored, but admits that approaching a situation without poetry is detrimental. The same can be said for Watchmen.
Watchmen is one of the most — if not the most — prolific graphic novels in the world. There is nothing about the comic that hasn’t been analyzed by historians, literature majors, and sociologists. It’s been on lists of must-read books, and for the longest time was one of the only graphic novels to be on Time Magazine’s 100 best novels. It won numerous accolades, and will most likely never go out of print, much to the chagrin of Moore. It spawned a live-action movie that divides audiences, numerous prequels written by people other than the creators, and inspired an HBO series. It’s safe to say that if anything, Watchmen is revolutionary.
Watchmen was originally intended to use the recently DC-acquired Charlton Comics characters, but Moore and Gibbons’ intent didn’t jive with the top brass. They wanted to break them apart, or even outright kill them off. The publishers weren’t happy with this, thinking that their characters were far too valuable to end so abruptly. Moore reluctantly obliged (probably with a guttural growl), and created brand-new ersatz characters far too similar not to be homages. With this artistic freedom he was able to take recognizable archetypes and have free will to do whatever he wants to them without worrying about retcons, reboots, or other publisher oversight to the main universe. Thus, the Crimebusters and the Minutemen were born. Instead of creating a simple superhero story set in the 1980s, the artistic duo created a beautiful allegory about politics, philosophy, and ethics. In the past years, this closed world opened its doors, and not only did other creators add to it, but it’s starting to seep into the DC universe with Doomsday Clock.
Watchmen was written at the apex between the Bronze Age and Modern Age of comics. Some people consider this time to be the ‘Dark Age’ of comics, where stories were geared to older audiences, exploring themes such as guilt, political scandals, drug use, vigilantism, and the self. A lot of Frank Miller’s work falls in this category, while Chris Claremont also dabbled in it every so often, just enough to wet his toe. Watchmen stands out because it was the main trendsetter for the grim and gritty reality to be the standard. Unfortunately, the grittiness of reality soon became the norm, and ironically morphed into an unwilling parody of itself. Concepts of morality went to the extreme, ethics needed to be shattered, and lives were torn asunder, while havoc reigned upon the extremes of black and white. Today, this type of teeth-clenching, rain-soaked cynicism is looked on with eye-rolls for being a little too out of touch.
For those who never read this masterpiece, Watchmen takes place mostly in 1985, in an alternate timeline where superheroes and vigilantes are deemed illegal, with the exception of government-issued, costumed fighters. The USA won the Vietnam War, and Richard Nixon’s scandal never came to pass. This unfounded success was primarily due to the interference of Doctor Manhattan, an omniscient being of infinite power who sided with the Americans. The USA became a terrifying powerhouse, and knew that with him in their pocket, nothing could stand in their way. Though the story primarily takes place in 1985, it occasionally flashes back to other decades, during a different political climate.
The story starts off when on a typical New York night, a middle aged man is murdered, defenestrated from his high-rise apartment. When the police arrive, they discover his sordid history, and can’t piece together either the motive or who would be able to defeat someone with his physique. The victim, Edward Blake, is an unknown to most people, but to the paranoid detective vigilante, Rorschach, he is The Comedian, a government operative and former superhero. While Rorschach investigates his murder, the lives of his contemporaries are put into jeopardy.
Watchmen broke boundaries and changed the medium. Alan Moore’s writing is impeccable, as the 12-issue mini-series uses new mediums besides comic book dialogue. Most chapters focus on a single character or moment in history, and ends either in an essay, an interview, or excerpt from a book. This format was different from the norm; however, it doesn’t distract from the story, and instead uses it as a brilliant form of exposition. The setting, which takes place mostly in New York, is full of life and character, and it’s all thanks to the creators who found a way to rebuild a world without spelling it out to the audience. A lot of credit is given to Moore, but most people forget that this is collaboration between him and Dave Gibbons. Gibbons isn’t simply the artist, but helped build the characters and the world alongside Moore. They ensured that every page, panel, and transition matters.
Watchmen‘s success is founded in the unique nine-panel grid format. Its geometric simplicity is devoid of chaos, and is sincerely beautiful. Every placement of industrial steam to scrap of old newspaper flying across the midnight sky is not simply put there haphazardly, or to cover empty space. Every detail serves a purpose, either as an allegory to the current theme of the chapter, or as a repeating symbol hidden across every page. This mesmerizing symmetry is done no better than in Chapter V, entitled “Fearful Symmetry,” which to its best possible efforts is mirrored near perfectly from the first panel to the last, using this iconic moment as the turning point.
Watchmen deconstructs the superhero story. It brings them into a world where people behave like people, limiting the soap-opera drama and mannerisms. The trench coat-sporting investigator Rorschach is a workaholic with the creed of “never compromise.” As badass as this sounds, his anti-social and paranoid antics are off-putting, especially when he doesn’t take care of his own hygiene or shows little empathy towards his friends. A brilliant character, but one who only sees in black and white; the world is ever changing, but he refuses to play that game. To him, there is good and there is evil — no compromise. Other characters, though they may see the world in a similar matter, don’t go to his extent. Nite Owl II is incomplete without his suit, and is literally and figuratively impotent in his own world. Doctor Manhattan can literally do anything, but sees humans as simple creatures at best, and at worst, they’re ants. Characters like these make Watchmen memorable. They’re complex and faulty, have conflicting ideologies, and make mistakes. Watchmen didn’t invent or reinvent this deconstruction — it simply did it best.
It’s infamously known that Alan Moore dislikes what Watchmen has become, and its treatment by the publishers. But Moore is also famously known not to like a lot of things. This doesn’t change the fact that Watchmen is a masterpiece and a best seller. With the amount of detail put into every panel, and seeing how every word and name is picked so carefully, it’s impossible to absorb everything in the first read through. Though those jaw-dropping moments may not have the same impact the second or even third time around, they overshadow the smaller and intrinsic details that went unnoticed, simply because they weren’t blatant Chekov’s guns. In its entirety, Watchmen can be reread an infinite number of times, and every new read through will bring in something new. It will remain timeless as long as we don’t forget its poetry.
HBO is releasing a Watchmen series in Fall 2019
Watchmen is widely available at most if not all bookstores, comic bookstores, and online.
‘Brightburn’ Explores Being Born Evil
Is evil is born or made? ‘Brightburn’ shows what could happen if a Superman-like being didn’t share the same amount of compassion.
A common Superman Elseworld story premise asks: “What if Superman turned evil?” Typically, he would be a devastating threat that obliterates his surroundings; he’d crown himself overseer, and decimate anyone who opposes him. This is one reason Lex Luthor condemns the alien, and in Zack Snyder’s DC universe, it became Batman’s reason to fear him. Snyder’s Superman not only destroyed a major city in Man of Steel, but also murdered one of his greatest nemeses. Unfortunately, Superman’s morality wasn’t very well explored in the recent live-action movies. Supposedly, Snyder wanted to put Superman in a situation where he would need to kill, while the production and writing team wanted to deconstruct superheroes (something Mark Waid already did when he wrote Irredeemable, a superhero book published by BOOM! Studios). Still, though the idea of Superman turning to the dark side is not a bad idea, it’s not what Superman is all about. But what would he do, and what would be the cause for his face-heel turn? David Yarovesky and the Gunn Siblings explore this question in the superhero horror film Brightburn.
Brightburn is an unsubtle homage to Superman. Two small town Kansas farmers find a spaceship crash on their farm; when they approach it, they find a baby. The couple considers him a gift given to them, since they have thus far failed to conceive. So, Tori and Kyle Bryer adopt the child, giving him an alliterative name: Brandon. They hide his origin from him by locking his spaceship in their barn, and just like with Superman, Brandon is raised with typical, wholesome family values: work hard, and be kind. However, unlike Clark Kent, who is an extroverted and compassionate kid, Brandon is a little introverted, doesn’t socialize much, and also gets bullied a bit for typical kid behavior. Through it all, his parents still love him.
The moment he hits puberty his powers start to manifest. One night, Tori discovers Brandon in some kind of trance, trying to pry open the barn door protecting his ship. The ship emits an eerie red glow, and projects an alien message into his brain. Once he realizes his strength, he begins to fight back, and his ideals change. His stint into puberty comes with opposition to authority, such as his family and teachers. Similarly to young Superman, Brandon will cordially ask the person to back off; the only difference is that one is using the words as a warning that he will protect his surroundings, while the other implies a threat for selfish gains. As the movie progresses, Brandon goes on a rampage, taking measures into his own hands.
So, despite both aliens having a similar upbringing, what makes Brandon more villainous than Superman? Brightburn proposes that it’s simply his nature, and his upbringing only stifled those innate cruel intentions.
The most popular instance when Superman turned evil was the video game adaptation of the Injustice comic series. Superman, abused by the Joker and other villains, accidentally killed Lois Lane under the influence of Scarecrow’s fear toxin. Frustrated with the politics of the world, he decided to no longer support truth and justice, but become judge, jury, and executioner.
Another instance when Superman chose a less than heroic ideology was with Mark Millar’s popular story Red Son. This story asked what would happen if Superman landed in Russia instead of America. Though he was more power-hungry than evil, it successfully explored what Superman could be like if he took a step away from the good alignment. Both these instances have Superman change based on an outside force, pushing him to break his moral code; he needs to be broken before he will actually reconsider his moral quandary.
Even Batman, who’s vigilantism is more morally grey than his famous counterpart, hasn’t turned into a full-time villain until he’s broken. The exceptions happen when his thirst for revenge takes over. Both these characters are not inherently evil — they are pushed into adaptation a new state of mind.
That may not be the case with Brandon Bryer. His parents aren’t perfect; they bicker about his upbringing, as well how to handle his troubles in school, and they aren’t violent or abusive — they are simply afraid that maybe their son is actually very different. They love him, and only realize what he is when it’s too late. He isn’t bullied to the extent where he snaps, like in typical Robert Cormier novels, and he’s generally a sweet boy. He smiles, shows curiosity, and likes his family. The biggest outlier is his calling. The nightmarish messages he gets implies that his arrival may be more than coincidence. If Superman was programmed at an impressionable age to take control, then perhaps he too he would end up differently.
Another factor is personality. Both Clark Kent and Brandon Bryer were taught small-town values and etiquette. They weren’t brought up with any hate in their mind, and besides a tongue-in-cheek reference in an essay called “The Fall of Truth and Justice in Modern Society,” there are no real societal problems permeating Brandon’s life. But Brandon isn’t as sociable as Clark. They both feel that they’re different, but while the latter could stand up for his principles, the former is still unsure what to do with this new knowledge. So, he does what he thinks is right — and that is to get what he wants, as well as stop the people who are after him.
The superhero genre tells tales of morality. Just like the myths of old, they are templates for heroes and their adventures. Family is important, love can conquer all, and being good will triumph, while revenge will slowly poison. They delve into melodrama, and can be outright soap operas. Zack Snyder attempted to bring in morality by attacking the paragon of good’s moral essence; Brightburn takes a different route, looking at morality less as an outward force while asking if people are born outright evil, subverting the story of power and responsibility. Being different doesn’t mean you will always find a community, and a person’s growth may not prioritize nurture over nature.
What Makes Free Comic Book Day So Special
The beginning of May is the catalyst for many different things. First, it’s the harbinger of summer, which a lot of people in colder climates appreciate. The fourth is also Star Wars Day, as in “May the fourth be with you”. There’s also another special day that needs to be shared: Free Comic Book Day. The first Saturday of May, many comic book shops honor comic books and graphic novels by giving away free books. A lot of publishers give comics to the stores so they can hand them out to loyal and new customers. On occasion, some stores will have additional sales, and other activities for customers to enjoy. What makes this year’s FCBD even more special is that it actually falls on Star Wars Day. It’s a double whammy for geeks everywhere. It’s the perfect time to get into comics with Game of Thrones coming to an end and with the release of Avengers: Endgame. Free Comic Book Day is the perfect reasons to start reading comics.
Free Comic Book Day does not mean every comic in the store is free. Every year, publishers and distributors create special comics particularly for this day, and ship them out to retailers. These stores then will give out those comics for free to everyone who walks in their store. Every year the companies create single self-contained issues that can be read without needing to know much about the comic book universe. This gives new people the opportunity to have a safe place to jump in. The wide variety of comics that are given out go from one end of the spectrum to the other, ensuring that the event is not exclusive to any particular audience or fandom. There will always be a few superhero comics, but they’ll have some manga-related material, as well as comics based on popular TV shows, and video-games. Free Comic Book Day even ensures that there are comics for a younger audience. The goal of the event is to spread the wonderful world of comics to everyone. All the different publishers participate, and the only requirement is to walk in the store with a smile and a good attitude. Free Comic Book Day opens up a whole new world for people who may not be familiar with the industry and are curious about what it holds.
Comic books are for everyone, but some people still think it’s solely a superhero club. With the surge and profitability of the superhero genre, comic books are starting to get a lot more attention, but there is also the other side to the popularity. The two big publishers, Marvel and DC, take up a lot of the industry, but they are not the only ones creating material. By simply looking a little to the side of the genre, new stories and characters are waiting to be read. There are wonderful crime and detective stories, tales of fantasy and adventure, and a whole slew of revenge plots. Some comics are sweet and kind, while others are epic and bombastic. Assuming that comic books are just superheroes is assuming that there are only superhero movies out there. Superhero stories are exciting, and they offer a lot, but there are other stories. It may come across like that with when these movies obliterate box-office records. New stories are being written every day, and sometimes they are high-concept pieces, and other times they are grounded in reality. There’s no limit to what comic books can offer. It may be a daunting task, but the best way to know what’s out there is to ask a comic book store employee and see what they can offer.
It can be difficult to know where to start, the medium is enormous, and the best way to navigate this path is to start directly with a comic book store. Find one with a great atmosphere and go directly to the person behind the counter. They know their work, and can offer which books are the best superhero story, and which ones to avoid. They will find the book out there for you. If diving deep into a long-running series is too much to handle, then there are comics that finish with fewer issues. Most comic book retailers don’t want to give their customers something they don’t like, otherwise, they won’t return. They want to encourage their customers to read new stories by opening new doors, but they don’t mind keeping them in their comfort zone. They might not share the same tastes, but they are knowledgeable enough to know what’s best for the customer. Free Comic Book Day is the best day to explore this new world, and it won’t even cost a cent to start.
The weather is getting nicer, and summer is coming up. Take some time to visit a comic book store with friends, family, or go solo. Find the closest store and retailer and ask them if they are celebrating Free Comic Book Day. Find out what they’re doing, and what they have available. Every store will have different policies, but they will have a good portion of comics to pick up. Stay a while in the store, and look around to see what other things are there because the comic book world is beautiful.
The catalog for Free Comic Book Day 2019 is here.
A good start is to look at the Eisner Comic Industry Award Nominees here
Goomba Stomp is the joint effort of a team of like-minded writers from across the globe. We provide smart readers with sharp, entertaining writing on a wide range of topics in pop culture, offering an escape from the usual hype and gossip.
Contact us: Editor@GoombaStomp.com
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