The countdown to the best Spider-Man comic stories continues with some classics from his co-creators Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, as well as some modern storylines.
5. “If This Be My Destiny” from Amazing Spider-Man #31-33 (1966-1967)
One thing in the 1960s that set Marvel Comics apart from its Distinguished Competition was that they did multi-part, serialized storylines decades before the “graphic novel” was ever thought of. One of these classic storylines was “If This Be My Destiny,” from artist/plotter Steve Ditko and scripter Stan Lee. Spider-Man is looking for the Master-Planner, who has been stealing various radiation-type devices, while Peter Parker is beginning college, dealing with some relationship issues, and worst of all, the poor health of his Aunt May. The comic’s most iconic moment happens in Amazing Spider-Man #33, where an exhausted Spider-Man is stuck in slowly rising water beneath the wreckage of the Master Planner’s base, and must will himself to dig his way out and get the serum to cure Aunt May, who has radiation in her blood because of a transfusion she got from Peter in an earlier storyline. It’s an image of individual strength and willpower
“If This Be My Destiny” is an excellent story because Steve Ditko skillfully ties together the most pressing issue in Peter Parker’s life (Aunt May’s sickness) with a thrilling tale of supervillains and subterfuge. Ditko puts Spider-Man through the wringer in this comic in an epic “snatch a defeat from the jaws of victory” moment when the Master Planner’s men steal the special ingredient that Spider-Man and Dr. Curt Connors (formerly the Lizard) were going to use to make the cure for Aunt May. This incident causes Ditko to foresee Frank Miller’s Daredevil with a montage of brutal beatdowns, as Spider-Man shakes down every criminal in the city before happening on the Master Planner’s base almost by accident. Ditko’s depiction of a deadly-serious Spider-Man is a little frightening, as he sidelines the clever web tricks for pure strength.
Even though Lee and Ditko have Peter Parker behave dickishly around fellow Empire State University students Harry Osborn, Gwen Stacy, and Flash Thompson because he is so consumed by his concern for both his studies and his sick Aunt May, Amazing Spider-Man #31-33 presents Spider-Man at his most admirable. Spidey pushes through physical pain and utter exhaustion to grab the serum and save his aunt, and Ditko puts his bruises on display when Peter Parker visits May and gets some money from J. Jonah Jameson for getting exclusive pictures of the Master Planner’s real identity as Dr. Octopus. Because he doesn’t want the people he loves to meet a similar fate as Uncle Ben, Spider-Man pushes through pain, ridicule, and makes any sacrifice possible to save them. “If This Be My Destiny” is a shining example of this characteristic in him, and Steve Ditko and Stan Lee weave together Spider-Man’s life in and out of costume to tell a compelling story with real human stakes in the midst of bright costumes and villain lairs.
4. “Kraven’s Last Hunt” from Web of Spider-Man #31-32, Amazing Spider-Man #293-294, Spectacular Spider-Man #131-132 (1987)
Some long-time Spider-fans are definitely going to say that “Kraven’s Last Hunt” is too low on this list. In this six-part crossover from writer J.M. DeMatteis and artist Mike Zeck, Kraven, a leopard skin wearing joke of a jungle-themed supervillain, is re-cast as one of Spider-Man’s greatest foes. He defeats Spider-Man in combat, takes his costume, and buries him alive, then becomes a “superior” Spider-Man, using more brutal methods to keep the streets of New York safe and singlehandedly capturing the cannibal serial killer, Vermin. However, Kraven doesn’t realize that the “man” part is more important than the “spider” part of Spider-Man.
“Kraven’s Last Hunt” is like a poem in comic book form, with recurring images, symbols, and words, as well as repeated allusions to William Blake’s “Tyger, Tyger.” It’s one of the most visually beautiful and terrifying Spider-Man stories, with some gruesome sequences, like when Kraven buries himself and eats spiders so that he can defeat Spider-Man in combat. The comic also shows the limits of dark superheroes, because at the time Spider-Man was wearing his black costume – not the classic reds and blues. Without his relationship with Mary-Jane Watson, the Daily Bugle staff, and his kindness even towards disgusting creatures like Vermin, he would just be a dark vigilante with a spider motif – like Kraven in this series. The power of these relationships to give Spider-Man strength and motivation is captured by Mike Zeck in a splash page where Spider-Man claws out of his grave with the caption “I love you,” as his love for Mary Jane helps him overcome death.
“Kraven’s Last Hunt” is evidence that even the most lightweight villains can be compelling and interesting, as J.M. DeMatteis and Mike Zeck depict Kraven the Hunter as a man of honor and madness, someone who wants to defeat his greatest foe before he dies. He is such a classy fellow that he leaves a “confession” saying that he impersonated Spider-Man in lieu of a suicide note, and realizes that it’s Spider-Man’s humanity and empathy that makes him a great hero, not his powers.
3. Spider-Man Blue #1-6 (2002-2003)
You never forget your first love, and Spider-Man Blue is proof that Peter Parker never forgot his –namely, the blonde, hair tie-wearing Gwen Stacy, who was cruelly killed in “The Night That Gwen Stacy Died.” Writer Jeph Loeb and artist Tim Sale of Batman: The Long Halloween and Superman For All Seasons fame craft a love letter to Silver Age Spider-Man and the stories of Steve Ditko, Stan Lee, and John Romita Sr. in this timeless miniseries. The book uses a clever, emotional framing device of Spider-Man recording his thoughts about Gwen into an old tape recorder, which allows for honesty and perspective as the older Peter looks on his early days as a college student and crime fighter. Most of the book is dedicated to the supreme awkwardness of the love triangle between Peter Parker, Gwen Stacy, and Mary-Jane Watson, who infuses the story with a real energy when she sashays into Spider-Man Blue #2 and immediately calls Peter “my guy.” There is also an overarching plot with a shadowy foe sending various bad guys to fight and test Spider-Man, all in an effort to deduce his secret identity in an homage to the serialized narratives that Lee and Ditko brought to Amazing Spider-Man even in its infancy.
Like all his work, Tim Sale provides some gorgeous full and double-page character-defining spreads, like Gwen and Peter riding a motorcycle together, Spider-Man shaking off a cold to fight two Vultures, and a solemn image of Spidey leaving a rose on the George Washington Bridge in honor of Gwen’s death. He’s an excellent storyteller too, and turns the joke villain – the Vulture – into a creature of the night, as he lurks in the shadows and defeats Spider-Man when he least expects it. Sale also expertly juggles the spindlier, more individualistic art style of Steve Ditko with the confident, romance comic-inspired work of John Romita Sr throughout Spider-Man Blue. His men and women are gorgeous, for the most part, but they are sometimes creepy, like when Harry Osborn starts mentioning his father or hints at his drug problems. Sale’s greatest achievement is creating amazing chemistry between Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy through glances, touches, and eye flutters that culminate in a well-earned and damn sexy kiss on Valentine’s Day. This proves that Spider-Man stories work best as romantic comedies that just happen to feature some punching in the background.
However, for all its heroic flourishes, perfectly-timed Spidey quips from writer Jeph Loeb, and clever action scenes (like when Spider-Man uses a tip from Gwen in science class to take down the formidable Rhino), Spider-Man Blue is a melancholy read. Spider-Man Blue #6 is all about how Spider-Man wishes he spent less time fighting jerks like Kraven the Hunter, and more time talking to, laughing with, and smooching Gwen, especially in light of her untimely passing. The final issue of the series is framed against a house warming party for Peter and Harry Osborn’s apartment, and that is where Spider-Man wishes he was. It looks at the inner conflict between Peter Parker wanting to have a normal existence with a girlfriend/wife and social life, and fighting crime so that no one ends up like his Uncle Ben. Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale definitely fall on the “should have spent more time with his loved ones” side, closing with a scene where Peter Parker and his wife Mary Jane realize how much they miss Gwen. I definitely felt blue after re-reading this great Spider-Man story, and maybe you will too (the caption where he talks about not expecting to bury Gwen before Aunt May is super painful).
2. “Death of Spider-Man” from Ultimate Spider-Man #156-160 (2011)
If Tom Holland ever starts acting like a diva, the suits at Marvel can always wave these comics in his face. But, in all seriousness, “Death of Spider-Man” is the perfect ending to Peter Parker’s 11-year journey in Brian Michael Bendis, Mark Bagley, and some other artists’ run on Ultimate Spider-Man. The story begins when SHIELD is stupid and bureaucratic as usual, and the Green Goblin breaks himself and the Sinister Six out of containment. Dr. Octopus wants to retire and be a scientist, so the Goblin kills him. Over the course of “Death of Spider-Man,” Spider-Man fights the Sinister Six by himself, takes a bullet for Captain America, and gets left to bleed out. In the final battle, he fights and defeats the Green Goblin, who has stolen power from the Human Torch. It is an unrelenting series of battles, and inker Andy Lanning cleans up Bagley’s pencils, showing how much Peter means to his friends and family. He isn’t the only hero in this story, with Aunt May shooting Electro, and Mary-Jane running over the Green Goblin with a van she stole.
The Ultimate Universe (the alternate universe where these stories took place) was a bleak place, with a racist, jingoist Captain America, an Iron Man who was constantly drunk and recorded a sex tape with Black Widow, a Wolverine who liked 18-year-old girls, and much more. Spider-Man was much too good for it, and gets badly hurt when he accidentally ends up in the middle of a firefight between the Ultimates (this universe’s Avengers) and Nick Fury’s black ops team. Instead of taking him to a hospital or somewhere to patch him up, Captain America and company continue to fight a futile battle, and Spider-Man uses his webbing to keeps his organs in. This is especially ridiculous, as Cap told Spider-Man that he had doubts about him going into action right before he got the call to fight Fury’s team. Bagley’s battle scenes aren’t fluid and stylish, but full of pain and punishment as Spider-Man absorbs hit after hit without getting any kind of medical attention.
“The Death of Spider-Man” ties up Spider-Man’s arc neatly and tragically as he dies at the hands of the man who genetically engineered the spiders that give him his wonderful abilities. He also sacrifices himself so that Aunt May, Gwen Stacy, and his superhero roommates, Human Torch and Iceman, don’t suffer the same fate as Uncle Ben. Forgotten by the adult heroes who were supposed to train him, and pursued by raving psychopaths, Spider-Man becomes the ultimate superhero, never giving up even if that means his life. His sacrifice inspires the young African-American/Latino teenager Miles Morales to become a new Spider-Man, and Miles currently stars in the comic simply titled Spider-Man, which is still written by Brian Michael Bendis.
1. Amazing Fantasy #15 (1962)
In the final issue of a struggling anthology comic previously called Amazing Adult Fantasy, a pop culture icon was born thanks to Steve Ditko and Stan Lee. The original incarnation of Spider-Man was truly more spider than man, with pages of him leaping and crawling over rooftops while frightening passer-bys instead of his smooth swings through New York. The plot of this comic is known to anyone who has seen Spider-Man, Amazing Spider-Man, or any of the various films. A nerd goes to a science exhibition, gets special abilities from a radioactive spider, finds fortune and fame on TV with his powers, lets a robber go one day, his uncle is murdered, and his killer is later revealed to be the same burglar. With great powers come great responsibility, and there’s an origin story for you.
Except for his depressing origin and loving relationship with his Aunt May and Uncle Ben, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s original Spider-Man/Peter Parker isn’t a likable fellow. He’s always telling people about his scientific knowledge, and brags to himself when he creates his own web fluid to swing from walls. In one thought bubble, he even says that he doesn’t care for any humans other than Aunt May and Uncle Ben, and Peter wears that glasses-at-the-end-of-his-nose-perpetual-scowl-face that Steve Ditko would return to throughout his career.
However, Amazing Fantasy #15 is an innovative superhero origin story, as it is one of the first to feature a solo teen superhero, someone who wasn’t a sidekick of an adult hero (Human Torch was a member of the Fantastic Four at the time). It also has an arc to it, as Peter Parker must learn to be a hero after his uncle’s death, beginning as a selfish daredevil and ending with vowing to be more responsible with his great powers. Like most of us, Spider-Man doesn’t immediately stop purse snatchers after getting superpowers, and uses his superpowers for his own gain until a personal tragedy forces him to change his ways.