Aug 11, 2011

Back Issue Ben: Spider-Man

Back Issue Ben is a column written by Ben Smith for the Comics Cube! See his archives here.

by Ben Smith 

The next stage in my comic book evolution was an important one, and it could very well mean the difference between life and death for you. That’s the importance of this blog. Consulting your personal physician will do nothing to alleviate the effects of the utter despair and sorrow you will feel from declining to participate.

I’ve previously relayed information to you on how I became a lifetime comic book fan, through the means of a Marvel comic book called THE TRANSFORMERS. The astute reader will also recall how a Marvel character called Spider-Man had guest-starred in the third issue of that particular series. Though the impact and personal interest of this guest appearance would not be immediate for me, it would later serve to birth me head-first into the larger world that is the Marvel universe.

If there are 18 things I know about comic books, one of them is that it is unwise to roll naked in a pile of comic books (not without proper protection), and another is that Spider-Man is the single greatest comic book character ever created. Some would choose to dispute this fact, citing opinions and relevant environmental factors involving upbringing and social status, but they would be wrong. Dead wrong! If you don’t like it, you can kiss my Giant-Size Man-Thing.

While I cannot specifically recall the first Spider-Man comic I ever read, I can tell you that I collected them with a voracious appetite. The level of appetite usually only seen in those lost at sea with no food or water, or some kind of prison-type scenario. Elaborate on that in your own mind however you would like.

I can, however, using advanced mathematical formulas and theoretical physics, guess at what comics I was picking up as a younger lad, as they are probably the same ones that resonate the most with me to this day.

Amazing Spider-Man #238-289

Primary writers: Roger Stern and Tom DeFalco.

Notable artists: John Romita Jr., Rick Leonardi, Mike Zeck, and Ron Frenz

I had no way of knowing this at the time, but this was a part of what I consider to be the third-best ever run on the title. More on that designation later. Roger Stern had started as writer of the title some time before this, and those issues were just as excellent, but I would not read those until much later on. Looking back on the run, all the familiar problems of Spider-Man were present. Money troubles, new villains, friends in danger, his girlfriend was only interested in his superhero identity, even his costume was against him! Notable aspects of the issues included:
  • The introduction of the mysterious Hobgoblin, a powerful and dangerous new foe whose true identity would remain a mystery for the next 50 issues. The Hobgoblin was a cunning and capable enemy in these original appearances, showing none of the unpredictable insanity of the Norman Osborn Green Goblin. This Goblin’s attempts to entrench himself in the world of organized crime did harken back to the original Steve Ditko Green Goblin stories. Needless to say, he was my favorite villain as a younger lad.
  • The Kingpin, the mysterious Rose, and other street-level crime was a fixture of the series during this time period. This really established the versatility of Spider-Man, as he was equally capable of handling the more colorful supervillain types along with the more street-level crime figures.
  • The introduction of the black costume, both the original alien symbiote version and the eventual cloth version. In true Spider-Man fashion (ha, fashion! Pun!) what seemed initially like a blessing to make his life easier would actually be an alien creature trying to bond with him permanently. The design of the costume was sleek and simple, and though Spider-Man’s outlook on his world has never been particularly dark, it fit the character. Mike Zeck created the design of this outfit, and it’s yet another reason to bow down to his greatness.
  • "Gang War" was also a standout for me, featuring brilliant Mike Zeck covers. It detailed the conflict between all the various crime families that had been populating the title up to this point, and featured quality guest-appearances by Daredevil and the Punisher.
  • This run was punctuated with the reveal of the Hobgoblin’s identity, and for many fans it was an unsatisfying result, prompting Roger Stern to return 10 years later and “fix” the Hobgoblin identity reveal. A legendary era on the book, it’s no secret this is the version of the character and his world that would cement itself in my mind.

Spider-Man vs Wolverine
Writer: Jim Owsley

Artist: Mark Bright

Another all-time favorite of mine. This story would pit my two favorite characters (at the time) against each other. While I still firmly believe Spider-Man would mop the floor with Wolverine, this particular clash ended in a draw, with it perfectly highlighting the differences between the two. Wolverine will kill to get the job done, Spider-Man will not. The entire story had a darker tone to it, including the death of longtime Spider-Man supporting character Ned Leeds. Looking at it now, it definitely seems like Spider-Man guest-starring in a more typically Wolverine-type of story, but it worked for me.

Amazing Spider-Man #121-122
Writer: Gerry Conway

Artist: Gil Kane

This is Spider-Man at its best. High stakes action against his deadliest enemy, with personal consequences for the world of Peter Parker. Many cite this as the end of the Silver Age, as rarely before had a hero so resoundingly failed to “save the girl” like this. Gwen Stacy had her ups and downs as a character. Her initial appearances depicted a much more fiery character than most fans remember her as, a character with an attitude, confused as to why this Peter Parker wasn’t falling all over her as other guys do. As Peter and Gwen began to progress as a couple, the creative teams fell into a bad cycle of endless whining and crying over Peter’s safety and odd behavior. Gerry Conway was able to turn this around to the point that he found himself at a dilemma: marriage was the only ending point. Except that he would come up with another solution, carried through in these issues. This was and still is my all-time favorite comic book story. It’s arguable that Gwen may be more powerful as a symbol than she ever was as a character, but what a symbol she is.

Amazing Fantasy #15, Amazing Spider-Man #1-50
Writer: Stan Lee

Artists: Steve Ditko and John Romita Sr.

It goes without saying the beginning of the series by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko is not only outstanding, but is the blueprint for Marvel Comics as a whole. When John Romita replaced Steve Ditko as penciller on the book, there couldn’t have been a more drastic change in style between artists, but it still worked. The quirky style of Ditko matched the tone of the series at it’s beginning, with the bullied and nerdy Peter Parker still an outcast from society, and the focus more on street-level crime as well as the supervillains.

Romita’s run upped the romance and superheroic action of the series, with Peter growing out of his nerdy shell. To call them the two-best Spider-Man creative teams is understating the importance of their work. Both approaches have been copied many times, and both work equally as well. Spider-Man is a character that cannot be ruined, not for very long. (Despite what the naysayers might have you think).

Spectacular Spider-Man #75-100
Primary Writers: Bill Mantlo, Al Migrom

Primary Artists: Al Milgrom, Jim Mooney, Greg LaRocque

This stretch of stories focused more on the budding relationship between Spider-Man and the Black Cat, which had been teased since all the way back to the Cat’s first appearance. These comics were definitely in the Ditko mold, featuring quirky artwork and the focus on crime bosses like the Kingpin and Silvermane. It would begin with the war between Doctor Octopus and the Owl, featuring an excellent issue of Peter saying his goodbyes in preparation for his final battle with Ock. Cloak and Dagger made frequent appearances during this time, and it’s little surprise that they are still favorites of mine too. Peter Parker revealed his true identity to Black Cat during this time, the first time he had ever done so willingly to a love interest, with expectedly disastrous results. The newly introduced Hobgoblin would cross over into this series, where he would finally utilize the Goblin serum to give himself powers. Not to be forgotten is the classic story of the Punisher completely unhinged, murdering committers of minor crimes like jaywalkers and litterbugs. Another all-time favorite selection of Spider-Man stories.

That’s it for this time kids. Go and read all these comics and be ready with your 5-page essays next time, detailing how completely correct I was about all of this information I expunged at you in my usual disjointed and incomprehensible manner. Or if you just want to write an essay detailing how awesome I am, I’ll show it to my wife and maybe she’ll start believing me. One of you though, please do an essay on pornography. With pictures. Better yet, just buy me a video.

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