Three Essential Spider-Man Stories: Power and Responsibility

"Spider-Man" by Alex Ross

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

Spider-Man: Kraven's Last Hunt
The front cover of “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…!

The Amazing Spider-Man #33
The cover to the final part of “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

The Night Gwen Stacy Died
The front cover to “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.

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Sean is a comic book devotee, and a pretty dedicated one at that. He is also an avid fan of slightly cheesy and very dated horror films, especially if they have huge monsters.
Edited by Kahlia Sankey, Misagh.

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  1. Why no Perceptions or Torment? Probably Todd McFarlane’s best work, alongside the first 30 Spawn’s.

    • Sean Hodges

      Sadly, I’ve never read it! It’s really a great shame; during my “buy all the spidey things” period last year, I ran into financial difficulties before I could pick up all the stuff I wanted. Still, part of my reason for writing these articles is to see what other people hold to be great, and if you recommend Perceptions of Torment then I’ll do my utmost to pick it up.

  2. Meep-Laaw

    Spider-Man: Death and Destiny was fantastic. There was also a Chameleon story I liked, can’t remember the book it was in, but he had disguised himself as a clown for part of it, the last scene takes place on the bridge (of course). Also an old issue of Amazing called “The Choice” when Peter decides to drop out of school. It’s got some great scenes with Lance Bannon, MJ, and Lance’s girlfriend(?). Plus just an all around solid issue.

  3. Blackhurst

    My list of memorable moments:
    1) the death of uncle Ben in Ultimate Spiderman.
    2) Spiderman 2099’s origin
    3) Civil War – when he unmasks
    4) when he finally becomes an Avenger.
    5)Spiderman vs Wolverine in Berlin.

  4. This piece hits exactly why I feel Spider-Man is one of my favorite superheroes. He isn’t all-powerful and basically invincible like Superman, he isn’t billionaire-rich like Iron Man or Batman. He’s a regular guy with regular everyday problems, who occasionally has to beat up a Doctor who genetically mutated himself into a lizard, or a menacing millionaire who dresses like a goblin. Great work!

  5. This is a great list but i really think Spiderman: Reign shoulda been on here somewhere. But i couldnt agree more with the number one choice

  6. spider man tas 1995 has some amazing stories!!!!

  7. Carlisle

    I really like your choices and you thought processes behind them. Spidey is my favorite superhero and I love to see other express their favorite stories from the webslinger.

  8. Gigi Raney

    How about the black issue from Amazing Spider-Man? I don’t remember the exact issue number, but it had the all black cover and was basically Spider-Man dealing with 9/11. I thought it was one of the best stories. Specially when someone in the issue asked him how he could let that happen.

  9. Jonathan Matos

    I’ve never read Kraven’s Last Hunt, although after your article I think I’ll have to. I remember seeing him in the Black Spidersuit and wondering why he was in it, and it looks like that hints at how its so much more than another Kraven issue.

    Also, the top two are probably my favorite Spider-man stories. Great picks!

  10. I have one that I would’ve liked to have seen, but I’m not heartbroken that it didn’t. “One Small Break” in the Peter Parker: Spider-Man series

  11. Taylor Ramsey

    I was going to poo poo this article for not being larger/longer. Surely there are more than 3? But really, you don’t need anymore than these three. The lists in the comments don’t really cover it either. Reign is just Dark Knight Returns for Spidey, Torment will never be taken seriously since McFarlane himself will never be again unfortunately, and really the only story that is both critical to Spidey and not on this list is Blue by Loeb and Sale. But even it touches on other parts of the story and retells them (wonderfully so, but still)
    this was a very nice article, thanks.

  12. This is what makes Spider-man, in my opinion, the single greatest comic book character of all time. Stories like his are about people who’ve died because of him, directly because of him. People who had their lives ruined because he couldn’t save them, like Harry or Eddie. The story of one person that can lose so much and still manage to be a pretty good guy, a hero even is inspiring. It speaks to us, means something to us, even when we’re too young to understand why. I love characters like Batman and Superman, but Bruce and even Clark are just disguises, part of their jobs as heroes. Spider-man is really just a nerdy kid with money, job, and rent troubles just like everybody else. He has a mountain of trouble ready to crush him at any second and every reason to give up and only one not to: because it’s the right thing to do! He doesn’t give up even when it would be a lot easier on him. That’s why his story speaks to us, because we look at him and hope we’ll have the strength to do the same thing when the time comes.

  13. Galina X

    Nice to see love for “The Night Gwen Stacy Died”. I would like Venom, The Wedding and “The Clone Saga” to be there too.

    #1 is of course, the best pick. Don’t know about any of the rest. (guess I’ll have to check these out).

  14. Dominic

    Interesting list. Glad you included “If This Be My Destiny…!” and “Kraven’s Last Hunt”.

    Surprised the list did not include (i) “Flowers for Rhino”, (ii) the death of Ultimate Spider-Man, (iii) the original “Who is the Hobgoblin?” storyline ending with the death of Ned Leeds, (iv) ASM # 274 “The Soul of the Spider” (a.k.a. the Beyonder vs. Mephisto during Secret Wars II), (v) the original black costume storyline (ending with Web of Spider-Man #1) and first Venom appearance, (vi) ASM #96 – 98 being the Harry Osborne drug abuse storyline which Marvel published without approval from the Comics Code Authority thus causing the CCA to re-visit their rules.

    Also surprised to not see more J. Michael Straczynski (from ASM) and Brian Michael Bendis (from Ultimate Spider-Man) on the list, as these two gents are responsible for what I feel are the two best ever runs in any Spider-Man title.

    • Sean Hodges

      I’ve heard extremely good things about Bendis’ work on USM, though given my personal mistrust of his writing – I’ve found he can be a real hit-or-miss nothing in between kind of writer, when it comes to quality – I’ve never actually picked it up! Of the choices you mention, I’d have to agree that the Harry Osborn piece being very important, simply because of it’s impact in comics overall, but I felt that Kraven’s Last Hunt edged it out by just a slim margin.

    • Ada Torres

      “Flowers for Rhino” is a cool story, but it’s more a Rhino story than a Spidey one.

  15. Daryl Christensen

    Maximum Carnage not mentioned? That was my all time favorite Spidey arc…

    • Maximum Carnage!!? lol. If you actually think that that crap deserves to be anywhere on the same list as Kraven’s Last Hunt, then you have a terrible taste in stories.

  16. Naomi Olson

    I love spidey but I’ve only read a handful of his stories outside the Ultimate universe and I thought the clone saga in Ultimate was pretty cool, definitely not the best Spidey story, maybe not even the best in the ultimate universe itself but still pretty cool

  17. KennethRios

    I’m not a fan of Spiderman at all, and never was. But after reading Ultimate Spiderman Vol.1, I was hooked. 21 Volumes later and 3 Ultimate Comics Spiderman volumes later, it became one of my top 5 series of all time.

  18. Admirable list, but where’s the first Venom vs. Spidey saga?

  19. I love spider man thats my favorite super hero when I was a kid although im only 16 I stll watch and read all the spider man I can! The Spider-Man related comic that im reading now is The Future Foundation, that’s my favorite spider-man right now but not of all time!

  20. Alvarez

    Spiderman is a little whiny sometimes. But overall still a kick ass superhero!

  21. Loved all these stories but there are far better missing from this one example is Grim Hunt that was amazing, in the later series Grim Hunt or Shed has to be my favorite arc

  22. e.vazquez

    Thanks for this list! i’ve read almost all of them over the years. Thank you for educating some folks on the greatness that is spidey. He’ll always be my favorite character.

  23. I wish I would have read comics when I was younger, but I do have a basic knowledge of them. Great article! I also find that Spider-Man is one of the more relatable characters in comics. I agree with the sentiment that the stories in themselves and the portrayals of Spider-Man make him more human than other super heroes.

  24. Just give me Kraven in a Spider-Man movie!

  25. Kraven’s Last Hunt is an amazing story

  26. Great article, I really like the specific examples from true Spider-man stories, rather than just from movies. It does a great job of showing the true depth to the teenage character and how he deals with the struggle of the double life, and that his mask saves him from his shyness.

  27. Sebastian

    nice confidence boost back into the power of spider-man. i am a reinvigorated fan. I should really pick up more spider-man comics.

  28. As someone who doesn’t even read comics, this list was definitely a pleasant surprise.

  29. I was a bit surprised initially to not see Blue by Loeb and Sale on this list, but considering it is a different retelling of the original “The Night Gwen Stacy Died”, it makes complete sense. Now if only I can actively find the three to read (and the black issue), I may be content in my casual-Spidey reading.

  30. ZMickieZ

    I really enjoyed the original sinister 6. Maximum Carnage has also been a guilty pleasure of mine.

  31. Glad you mentioned Mike Zeck’s art during the Kraven run. Zeck is too often overlooked when listing the great pencilers of the past 30 years.

  32. Jamie Tracy

    Spot on with Kraven’s Last Hunt.
    I remember buying those issues as a kid and being upset when the last page turned. “WHAT?!?!? I have to wait until next issue?”
    Mike Zeck’s Kraven is hands down the best depiction out there. The covers from that run gave us some of the most iconic images of that era.

    I agree with some of the other comments, Bendis and Bagley’s Ultimate Spider-Man is difficult to ignore. They have redefined Marvel’s greatest asset.

    I’d also throw into the arena Spider-Man: Blue. Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale gave us, specifically the 30-40 something year old readers who grew up with Spider-Man a very real, emotionally raw depiction of Peter Parker and his relationship with not only Gwen Stacy but MJ. Amazing art and honest heartfelt writing make this an essential read for all of us now married former social outcasts(like Peter).

  33. David Mancini

    Interesting and well-written article! As with most people, Spider-Man is probably my favorite superhero next to Batman. Real close tie. Anyway, this article made me wish I was into the comics.
    I could have never gotten myself into comics. It would probably help me enjoy the movies more, Spider-Man, and others.

  34. With regards to Dan Slott’s Superior Spider-Man, I was actually enjoying the take new Doc Ock. Peter Parker, and I really wished Slott would have kept his word and not brought Peter back because now the story seem’s somewhat silly, further down the line it’ll just be that one time they tired to swap Peter and Otto’s conscious but didn’t really work out. I feel as if Slott felt the pressure of bringing back Peter with the upcoming The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (Which I cannot express how excited I am for it). He even said (SPOILERS)(SPOILERS) the villain when he reintroduces Peter is gonna be Electro..
    Sounded like a sell out, nonetheless I will be picking up a few issue before I commit to an opinion on it.

    Recent Read’s that I have enjoyed have been

    Marvel Knight: Spider-Man for its unusual and engaging artwork
    Spider Island because of the relationship between Peter and his clone Kaine

  35. Leah Smith

    I’m shocked you didn’t mention the “mystery” behind Gwen’s death, of whether she was dead when Spidey caught her or her neck snapped when he caught her with his webbing. I know in the original there’s the “snap” written in, but later reprints have it taken out. The answer, though seemingly unimportant considering that either way she died, could greatly change the perspective of her death; either Spider-Man accidentally killed her and thus wasn’t careful enough, or he just didn’t get there in time.

  36. Excellent list! All the Spidey, all the time!

  37. Comic books definitely do NOT get the credit they deserve. That last mention about the death thing in the Spider-Man comics, it’s kind of depressing when you read up about it.

  38. Rather interesting retrospect in light of the somewhat recent rendition of Spiderman that was released in theatres.

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