Three Essential Spider-Man Stories: Power and Responsibility
There’s a very good reason Peter Parker, aka the Amazing Spider-Man, is one of the most popular and enduring comic characters of all time. Despite having superpowers and fighting some of the most bizarre criminals imaginable, Peter’s struggles have always remained relatable to his fans. Granted, most of us have probably never beaten up a guy dressed as a rhino before, but a lot of us know what it’s like to try and juggle several major commitments at once. While Peter’s battles as a superhero are what makes him spectacular, it’s his human side that really draws people in and turns them into lifelong fans of his. With a string of successful blockbuster films already released and a sequel, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, on the way, the wall-crawler is arguably even more popular today than he has been in the past. However, given that Spidey’s been around since the 1960s, it can be quite difficult to know where to begin with his stories, and which ones are particularly worth a reader’s time!
Before we start looking at my personal favourites, however, it probably wouldn’t hurt to give Spider-Man’s history a quick glance. First appearing in August of 1962, Spidey was originally conceived as a superhero that younger audiences could identify with, in contrast to the more traditional “inspirational” heroes that were the norm back then. Marvel already had something of a tradition of creating unconventional superheroes by this point, as the Fantastic Four had debuted just a year before the wall-crawler himself had. However, Spider-Man was intended for a teenage audience, arguably much more so than Reed Richards and company were. In his initial run between 1962 and 1963, Spidey appeared in the Amazing Fantasy comic series. This allowed Marvel to test the waters with the character, who’s creators – Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, for reference – admitted later that they were taking a gamble in publishing such a story. Thankfully, their metaphorical dice roll paid off; Peter Parker proved so popular with readers that on March of 1963 his first solo series was published, titled The Amazing Spider-Man. Sales were so strong, in fact, that this series ran until November 2012! Nowadays, he’s one of Marvel’s flagship heroes, recognisable the world over, and it’s all thanks to the quality of writing found within those pages. Of course, that still leaves us with the question of which Spidey stories are especially worth a look, and with the background information out of the way, we can get right down to the first entry on this list!
3. Kraven’s Last Hunt
No Spider-Man collection should be considered complete if this absolute classic isn’t part of it. Kraven’s Last Hunt is an absolutely stunning piece of work and getting hold of it is easily one of the best decisions a comic book connoisseur could make. Telling the story of Kraven the Hunter and his final attempt to defeat Spider-Man, the book examines what might happen if a villain ever actually defeated the hero they’d battled against for so long. The result is simply incredible. J.M. Dematteis’ writing is stellar in quality, injecting raw human emotion into the tale and exploring themes people might normally not expect to find in the four-colour world of comic books. Despite Kraven’s increasingly apparent insanity – not to mention his cruelty – the reader ends up feeling honestly quite bad for him by the end, and the exploration of how Spidey’s enemies actually see him is particularly interesting. Dematteis stated in an interview that this was indeed his aim, although he also noted that he wanted to provide a somewhat satirical examination of the grittier and darker reinterpretations of other heroes that were coming out at the time.
Kraven, of course, does not understand what it means to be in Peter Parker’s position. How could he? However, he believes he does, and it’s this flawed perspective and the way it informs the villains’ actions that is so interesting. Arguably, few works explore a villains’ dark and twisted interpretation of their rival to such a great extent; in that light, Kraven’s Last Hunt stands as unique now as it did when it first came out. There’s also much to be said for the art throughout the story. Mike Zeck’s depictions of the action border on the hyper-realistic while still maintaining some semblance of comic book incredibility, and it’s a style that compliments the darker visceral action and heavier themes so very well. Kraven himself looks utterly menacing throughout the story, and the scenes the reader is supposed to react to provoke horror or even pity on occasion – and believe it or not you will come to pity Kraven by the end! Kraven’s Last Hunt is in almost every way a seminal example of how a serious superhero story can be told, and thanks to Marvel releasing it as part of their Masterworks collection it’s relatively easy to get hold of, too.
2. If This Be My Destiny…!
If This Be My Destiny…! is perhaps the most predictable choice to appear on this list, though it is so for very good reason. Written by Stan Lee himself and drawn by the excellent Steve Ditko, If This Be My Destiny represents the kind of story fans flock to superhero comics for. Let’s set the stage; Aunt May is desperately ill, and the only thing that can cure her is an isotope. That isotope is coveted by the mysterious new villain to be plaguing Spidey, the Master Planner. Of course, this story is excellent on it’s own, but what makes it so special? For the most part it’s the standard story one might expect from the Lee/Ditko team, and while that’s an excellent standard indeed, it is for the most part just another comic story – except that it’s not. Arguably, If This Be My Destiny is the issue-by-issue comic story and the example by which issue-writing should be held to, particularly when it comes to it’s climax. The scene is by now famous in comics; Spider-Man has tracked the isotope and the Master Planner and engaged him in battle, only to discover that he is actually Doctor Octopus. He loses the fight and Dock Ock manages to trap him under a pile of debris.
It’s too large for Spidey to ordinarily lift and, with a broken arm to boot, things look bleak indeed. Of course, a superhero story can’t very well end like that! Peter considers simply giving up, knowing that he can’t lift the debris trapping him, then ruminates on the fate of Aunt May should he do just that… and lifts the weight through sheer willpower and determination not to give in. Even now the page gives me shivers to read, and the drama and sheer emotion of the scene has held up incredibly well. Unlike Kraven’s Last Hunt, there’s no official trade paperbacks dedicated solely to this story, but it can be found in the pages of Marvel Masterworks volume 16. As a result this excellent story can be read by generations of new comic aficionados with relative ease.
1. The Night Gwen Stacy Died
This it it; the one that changed it all. Written by Gerry Conway and illustrated by Gil Kane and John Romita Sr., this particular tale is incredibly important within the framework of Spider-Man lore. It must be noted that the kind of story that The Night Gwen Stacy Died represents is now an all-too-common one in the world of comics, and there’s a lot of highly justified criticism aimed at such stories these days. Indeed, due to a particularly cruel example over at DC wherein the fourth Green Lantern discovers his then-girlfriend Alex’s body stuffed into his fridge freezer, the practice of killing a main character’s partner to fuel their character development is now commonly known as “fridging.” However, back when this story was first published, such tales were actually very uncommon. It was the Silver Age of Comics, after all, and killing a character’s girlfriend was simply not something that was really done. The story is easy enough to grasp; Norman Osborn has resumed his identity as the Green Goblin after a series of traumatic events and, remembering Spider-Man’s secret identity from his encounters with the webhead in the past, sets out to systematically destroy the wall-crawler’s life by targeting the people he loves.
Naturally, with such high stakes, the story is quite unlike it’s contemporaries. Throughout the tale Conway manages to create incredible levels of tension and the drama just builds with every page. The tale reaches it’s climax in the form of the titular scene, a death that would turn out to be far more significant than a mere turning point in Peter Parker’s life. The death of Gwen Stacy is also a turning point in comic book history generally, with some academics going as far as to say that it marks the end of the Silver Age as a whole. It would be easy enough to argue that the reason this comic arc had the impact it did at the time was due to the brutality of Gwen’s death. In order to truly allow readers to experience it in all it’s cruelty, I’ll not spill the details here, but suffice to say that it’s one of the most dramatic deaths in the history of the Silver Age for a reason. Simply put, this is a comic arc that cannot be missed out on, regardless of your feelings on fridging as a phenomenon, and it has been collected in a variety of easy-to-find trade paperbacks.
So that’s that, folks! Those three stories, to me, represent some of the best work ever committed to the pages of the Spider-Man comic series. They’re exciting and thought-provoking. They drag the reader in by their feelings and shake them around until they beg for mercy. But most of all these stories leave you with something, whether it’s anger, regret or a sense of triumph. A good story should do all of these things, and the advantage comics have over other fictional mediums is that they can convey this through both dynamic art and strong dialogue. It’s not just the old stories that are worth a collector’s time, either! Just recently, Dan Slott’s Superior Spider-Man shook up the status quo in a big way, and provided the fandom with a fresh new take on the hero they’d come to know so well over the decades. Granted, he did so by replacing his mind with that of one of his greatest enemies, but that’s the joy of comic books. Ultimately, Spider-Man has endured so long because he is a likeable character, a character who people empathise with greatly and who has come to represent the everyman… albeit with the proportional powers of a spider.
And, let’s be honest, who wouldn’t empathise with Peter when he has to fight a guy with metal tentacles on his back?
What do you think? Leave a comment.