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.