A History of the Marvel Universe – Spider-Man

With the third film coming to DVD and Blu-Ray this Tuesday, we’ve got the Spider-Man chapter of the “History of the Marvel Universe” series on tap today. I’ll take this opportunity to rave about GIT Corp’s DVD-ROM collections of Marvel Comics, which make this series of columns possible on my budget. (The bulk of the research was completed by reading this set. Similar sets will be used to research the forthcoming Hulk and Iron Man columns.)

Highlights in the history of Spider-Man

Spider-Man is probably Marvel’s most recognizable character, with the most actual comics published in his name. He’s also got what may well be the best rogue’s gallery at Marvel, so I’ve only included the villains that were in or strongly considered for feature film adaptation. There are a whole heck of a lot more.

The Choices

  1. Amazing Fantasy #15, 1962 – Cover dated August, with indicia dates September, the first appearance and origin of Spider-Man was the lead story in the final issue of this anthology series. (The other stories in the issue, titles “The Bell-Ringer,” “Man In The Mummy Case” and “There Are Martians Among Us” were one-shot stories outside of Marvel continuity.) For the first time, the teenager was the hero, and not the sidekick. Even further, this was a hero who was capable in a fight, but who was more likely to save the day when resorting to his chemistry set than when he was resorting to his fists.
  2. Amazing Spider-Man #1, March, 1963 – Spider-Man gets his own series. This firmly establishes the interconnectivity of the Marvel Universe by opening with a marketing gimmick: Spider-Man pays a visit to Marvel’s best selling title when he tries to join the Fantastic Four. The success of the FF was hoped to boost Spider-Man sales, and I’m betting it worked, since virtually every new character created between 1970 and 2000 would run into Spider-Man at one point or another (and not just in Marvel Team-Up, the title created specifically so that the lesser selling characters could team up with Spider-Man.) This also features his first supervillain, the Chameleon, the first appearance of J. Jonah Jameson, the first appearance of astronaut John Jameson, and the “flagpole catapult” trick that was later used in the first film adaptation.
  3. Amazing Spider-Man #2, May 1963 – The first appearance of the Vulture, who was Sam Raimi’s choice for villain in Spider-Man 3. (It was Avi Arad and Fox executives who forced Venom on him instead.)
  4. Amazing Spider-Man #3, July 1963 – The first appearance of Otto Octavius, and his origin as Doctor Octopus.
  5. Amazing Spider-Man #4, September 1963 – The first appearance of Flint Marko, the Sandman, who attacks Spider-Man’s school. Spider-Man quickly takes care of him with one of the school’s vacuum cleaners.
  6. Amazing Spider-Man #11, April 1964 – The invention and first appearance of the Spider Tracer, a radio homing device that became a staple of Spider-Man’s gadget bag.
  7. Amazing Spider-Man #14, July 1964 – The first appearance of the Green Goblin. The identity of the man under the mask wouldn’t be revealed for some time.
  8. Amazing Spider-Man , February 1966 – In a desperate attempt to get medicine to Aunt May in time to save her life, Spider-Man manages to lift a massive pile of equipment off his back before the underwater chamber he’s trapped in floods. A likely inspiration for a moment near the end of the second movie, and a really, really fun issue and memorable moment.
  9. Amazing Spider-Man #37, June 1966 – The Green Goblin is revealed to be Norman Osborn. Rumour has it that Spider-Man artist and co-creator Steve Ditko disapproved of this choice, and that it was the main reason he left the title, making room for John Romita Sr. to step in and make his mark.
  10. Amazing Spider-Man #42, November 1966 – For the bulk of the series to this point, there had been a running gag about Aunt May trying to set Peter up with her best friend’s niece. (May’s best friend’s name was sometimes Watson, and sometimes Watkins, depending on the issue.) Peter, naturally, spent much of his time going out of his way to avoid such a meeting, as anyone his aunt was trying to set him up with was bound to be a dog. In this issue, he had just defeated a superpowered and irrational John Jameson, and was too tired to make another excuse. Imagine his surprise when, after months of build-up, he opens the door on John Romita’s excellent rendition of Mary Jane, whose first line of dialogue is “Face it, Tiger… you just hit the jackpot!” This is, undoubtedly, my favourite character reveal in all of comicdom.
  11. Amazing Spider-Man #50, July 1967 – In a major inspiration for the second film (right down to Raimi’s use of the cover image as a part of the film), Peter gives up on his life as Spider-Man, leaving his suit in a garbage can in some random alley. The first appearance of the Kingpin (who wouldn’t migrate to Daredevil’s rogue gallery for over a decade) inspired Peter to pick up the webs once more.
  12. Amazing Spider-Man #65, October 1968 – Spider-Man “helps” out in a jailbreak, in one of my favourite issues of the title ever.
  13. Amazing Spider-Man #90, November 1970 – Doctor Octopus kills Peter’s potentially father-in-law, Police Captain Ned Stacy. With his last words, Captain Stacy reveals that he knows Spider-Man is really Peter Parker under the mask.
  14. Amazing Spider-Man #96-98, May – July 1971 – The United States Government recognized that the age group most prone to drug use was the same age group that read Amazing Spider-Man. They came to Stan Lee at Marvel, and asked him to write a storyline that reveals the dangers of using drugs, and Stan Lee accepted. In this three part story, Harry Osborn uses LSD, and very nearly dies. Although this would eventually lead to Harry’s assumption of the Green Goblin mantle, the issues had a far bigger impact on the comic industry as a whole than they did on this one title.

    In 1954, Dr. Fredric Wertham published a novel blaming comic books for the corruption of the youth at the time. (This seems to happen every 20 years or so. The 1930s gangster movies were blamed at the time, leading to the formation of the MPAA. In the 1970s, it was Dungeons and Dragons, and in the 1990s, it was first person shooters. Any bets on next decade’s “corrupter?”) As a direct result of Wertham’s novel, the major comic publishers for the Comics Code Authority, a self regulating board that restricted what could be published with their logo on the cover. For years, the only comics that would appear on store shelves were those bearing the CCA mark. Well, the CCA prohibited depictions of drug use in any capacity, even if it was a strongly anti-drug story written at the behest of the United States Government. So, Stan Lee and Marvel took a chance, and published the issues without the stamp on the cover.

    Retail sellers still carried the issue, and put it on their shelves.

    This was the industry’s wake-up call, which told publishers that the market would once more accept material of a more adult nature. It was several years before anyone but the small independent publishers took advantage of it, but it was the critical step that opened the doors for Sandman, The Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, and hordes of others since, including the next landmark in Amazing Spider-Man itself.

  15. Amazing Spider-Man #121, June 1973 – This was a major landmark for the title and the industry as a whole. Armed with the knowledge that readers would accept a more mature storyline, and apparently saddled by Peter’s developing relationship with Gwen Stacy, the Marvel offices made one heck of a gutsy decision. In a clear inspiration for the end of the first film, the Green Goblin (fully aware of Spider-Man’s identity as Peter Parker) took Gwen Stacy to the top of a bridge and dropped her. Spider-Man caught her with his webbing, but unfortunately, the webbing was just a bit too rigid, and Gwen’s neck snapped under the sudden stop. Her death served multiple purposes in the title. First and foremost, it eliminated the chance at happiness that the writer felt was opposed to the tragic core of the character. Second, it opened the door to develop fan favourite Mary Jane into a deeper character and potential love interest for Peter. Thirdly, it set up the confrontation with Spider-Man and the Green Goblin accurately reproduced in the first movie, and witnessed by a drug-relapsed Harry Osborn, whose irrational mind blamed Spider-Man for Norman’s death. This is commonly considered to be a major step away from the glossy Silver Age of comics and into the grittier Bronze Age.
  16. Amazing Spider-Man #136, September 1974 – Harry Osborn takes up the mantle of the Green Goblin, again serving to inspire the film franchise.
  17. Amazing Spider-Man #149, October 1975 – In this, the first clone saga, we learn that Peter’s college biology teacher cloned both Peter and Gwen when he assumed the identity of the villain The Jackal. This single issue story left the fate of the Gwen Stacy clone unresolved, an idea which would germinate and produce what is likely the most infamous period in Spider-Man’s history.
  18. Amazing Spider-Man #194, July 1979 – The first appearance of the Black Cat, who would become a major secondary character for the next few years, only to lose footing when Peter and Mary Jane married.
  19. Amazing Spider-Man #224, January 1982 – The first issue in my favourite creative run on the title. Written by Roger Stern and penciled by John Romita Jr., this kicked off a period that retained Peter’s pathos and tragedy without ever losing sight of the fact that it’s got to be just plain fun to web-sling your way across the city. In my opinion, it was this team that best captured the spirit of the character at his best.
  20. Amazing Spider-Man #252, May 1984 – The first appearance of Spider-Man in his black, alien symbiotic costume. At the time, he had no idea the suit was intelligent. Moreover, the readers hadn’t even known where it came from. This was a part of the Secret Wars crossover. At the end of their April 1984 issues, several of Marvel’s heroes entered a teleporter that they felt drawn to in Central Park. In their May 1984 issues, they returned, having survived the entirety of the Secret Wars, with all of the results and implications on full display with no explanation. Spider-Man readers saw him enter the teleporter in the familiar red and blue, and emerge in the black suit which had limited chameleonic properties. By the time the suit’s acquisition was revealed in issue 8 of Secret Wars (Peter misidentified the machine containing the symbiont as the costume creator that other heroes had told him about), readers of Amazing Spider-Man knew that the suit was actually an alien intelligence trying to take over his body.
  21. Amazing Spider-Man #257, October 1984 – The issue ends with a fateful conversation between Peter and Mary Jane. Someone had tried to attack Peter at home while Mary Jane was there. He managed to lock her away safely before she saw anything that was going on. When he time he returned to the apartment, the following exchange took place:
    Mary Jane: Peter–! You’re back! You’re safe–! All that crashing and shouting–! I thought I’d go out of my mind!
    Peter: Everything’s all right, MJ! Those sounds you heard were only, er, only…
    Mary Jane: You don’t have to make up another one of your phony excuses, Peter! Not now–! I’ve known your secret for years! Up until today, I always thought I could cope with it if I ever had to experience it firsthand–but I can’t! I can’t–! I just can’t cope with the fact that Peter Parker is secretly Spider-Man!
    As you can clearly see, people in 1984 spoke with lots of hyphens and exclamation points.
  22. Amazing Spider-Man #257, November 1984 – With the help of Reed Richards, Peter manages to remove the symbiont from his being. However, as the symbiont also provided his clothing for him, he was left without a mask or costume, which the Human Torch gladly provided. On his way home, Peter foiled a robbery wearing an old bootless Fantastic Four uniform, black gloves, a brown paper bag with eyeholes for a mask, and a “Kick Me!” sign on his back.
  23. Amazing Spider-Man #259, December 1984 – Mary Jane reveals her past. That portion of the story was very recently reprinted in the final issue of Friendly Neighbourhood Spider-Man, which serves as the second part of the “One More Day” story that leads into the tri-monthly schedule for Amazing Spider-Man that is just around the corner.
  24. Amazing Spider-Man #266-267, July and August 1985 – Peter David wrote these two fill-in issues, which are probably the funniest two issues the title has ever seen. In the first issue, titled “This Man… This Frog!” Spider-Man is trapped between Toad Man and Leap Frog, who aren’t getting along. In the second, “The Commuter Cometh,” he is forced out to suburbia, where there are no building tall enough to websling from.
  25. Amazing Spider-Man Annual #21, 1987 – Peter and Mary Jane get married.
  26. Amazing Spider-Man #299, April 1988 – In this issue, a jilted Eddie Brock joins with the alien symbiont to become Venom in time for the landmark issue 300.
  27. All Spider-Man titles (Spider-Man, Amazing Spider-Man, Web Of Spider-Man, Peter Parker the Spectacular Spider-Man, Spider-Man Unlimited and Sensational Spider-Man) from October 1994 to December 1996, as well as numerous one shots and specials within that time frame – The intention was to write a 12 issue story that would resolves the hanging thread of the Gwen Stacy clone. It sold really well. At the time, Ron Perelman owned Marvel, and allowed the marketing department to dictate to the editorial department about which stories to write. The early issues in the new Clone Saga sold very well, so writers and artists were forced to extend the story a little past the original plan. Two years and 116 issues later, readers had learned that the Spider-Man who had existed since the original Clone Saga from issue 149 was the clone, and not the original. Furthermore, the real Peter Parker had survived being dropped unconscious down a smokestack several hundred feet tall, been replaced by a charred corpse of another clone, and lived out his life elsewhere. Assuming the identity of Ben Reilly, this individual became the Scarlet Spider first, and then took over the mantle of Spider-Man while working as a short order cook during the day. This story is generally not well regarded by fans today. Management changed hands, and the story came to an extremely abrupt end with the revelation that Ben Reilly was, in fact, the clone, who sacrificed his life in a very heroic way, opening the door for the original Peter Parker to resume the role. For further details, check out The Life Of Reilly, a 35 part summary of the story filled with behind the scenes details.
  28. Amazing Spider-Man Vol. 2 #30, June 2001 – The first issue of the J. Michael Straczynski run, which will come to a close at the end of the current “One More Day” story arc. There are numerous noteworthy issues and events in the run, but their long term importance won’t truly be known until we see how often the forthcoming writers use and refer to these events. Take note of issue 36, from December 2001, which is an excellent tribute to the events of September 11 and the actual, living, breathing heroes involved in the endeavour.
  29. New Avengers #1, January 2005 – Kicking off the new roster of the Avengers, including Spider-Man, a status quo change which is still in place.
  30. Civil War #2, August 2006 – On national television, Spider-Man unmasks and reveals to the world that he is Peter Parker. This may eventually be undone, but that’s probably not going to happen easily or soon.