I don’t want to come across as one of Those People, but man… I miss comic books from my youth.
When I had started reading comics, it was the very end of the 80’s. You could essentially say my first full year as a reader was 1990 to make it easy. So by the time I was into the hobby, the classic Marvel roster had existed for almost thirty years. Yet, it was still completely feasible to think, “I’m going to spend this weekend learning the entirety of the X-Men or Spider-Man’s history to this point”.
When I was starting, there were regular books that basically existed to retell characters’ backstories, as well as reprint titles like Classic X-Men and Marvel Tales. It was so easy and accessible! Marvel specifically went out of their way to make everything available to new readers.
Nowadays, I’m not even sure what is a canon anymore. But jeez… imagine trying to explain, say, the X-Men’s entire history to a new fan. Oy!
TITLE: Stan Lee Presents The Amazing Spider-Man
Writer and Artist: Stan Lee & Steve Ditko
Antagonists: Vulture, Chameleon, Sandman, Dr. Doom, The Lizard…
Aw, yeah. I LOVED this one as a kid. It was a mass market sized paperback book that collected Amazing Fantasy #15 and the first several issues of Amazing Spider-Man. For a boy just getting into Spidey, it was essential reading. My copy was a hand-me-down from my dad or my uncle or someone, and it was beat up to all hell. Even before I got my mitts on it, the cover was ripped and folded, and the edges of the pages were curling. But I adored it. I probably read it about fifty times as a child, just over and over. In spite of its condition, it was absolutely a treasure of mine.
It’s all here: sheltered nerd Peter Parker is bitten by an irradiated spider during a science exhibit, causing him to gain great power. Through a tragedy he could have avoided, he learns that he has also become burdened with an equally great responsibility. From there he tries to do the right thing, but not always in the right way, including trying to join the Fantastic Four until he learns they aren’t going to salary him. And while he’s making a difference, he meets many a foe who would join his glorious rogues gallery, ne’er-do-wells such as Chameleon, Vulture, Doctor Octopus, and The Lizard (but not, strangely enough, Electro, who is featured on the cover of this collection).
In just a few issues, Lee and Ditko give Spidey growth, but they don’t have him become a superstar. He bounces back from his first defeat (at the hands of Doctor Octopus) and decides not to quit. He gives Dr. Doom all he can handle and survives the experience. He recognizes Curt Conners as a friend and is able to defeat The Lizard without hurting an innocent man. He learns that he can’t show off his new powers around his classmates. He gets a part-time job as a freelance photographer to maximize what he can now do, but also gains a powerful enemy he can’t just punch away in J. Jonah Jameson. So much of what we know about Spider-Man was developed in these issues!
I’m generally pretty harsh on older comics when it comes to reviewing them. I think the writing is clunky, with a lot of unnecessary exposition in narrative boxes, and the themes are usually pretty basic stuff that doesn’t rely on a lot of thought from the reader. There are a lot of somewhat annoying tropes that pop up, and the perpetual use of thought bubbles explaining what the art is already showing me is tedious.
But nope… I love these issues.
As a modern era book, this would be more than acceptable. It has wonderful designs, powerful themes of responsibility and perseverance, and a heroic character who is honestly kind of unlikable at times, but who you can’t help but want to see evolve. But taken in the era in which this was written? Beyond remarkable. Stan and Steve revolutionized their industry with Amazing Spider-Man and set a standard that the creators to this day are still trying to meet (or at least copy). There’s just so much creativity here.
I want to break off for a second and talk about my favorite moment in a book that is full of fantastic scenes. After having fought Sandman (and defeated him with a vacuum cleaner), Spidey realizes he did not get any pictures of the scrap. So he takes a fistful of sand that is just lying around his school, tosses it into the air, and snaps some shots of him punching it and jumping through it. First of all, it’s a ridiculous visual, brilliantly imagined by Steve Ditko. But beyond that, it’s a scene that is emblematic of everything early Peter Parker is in a nutshell: he’s extremely prone to not thinking everything through and making minor errors, he’s unlucky, and he’s borderline obsessed with money. Not in a truly negative way—he’s trying to both fund his Spidey-ness and help support Aunt May—but a lot of these early tales focus on that aspect of his character. He wants to be the hero the city needs, but he also wants to find a way to earn some dough while he’s doing it. He refuses to let a chance to get a few bucks out of his struggle get away, even if it adds another layer of disingenuousness to his already questionably ethical job. But beyond that… just picture this high school kid throwing sand in the air and punching it! Then throwing it back in the air and diving through it. It’s absurd and asinine and desperate, all in the best possible way. I will always love this moment and all it represents.
Talking Point: So I assume most of us have read at least Amazing Fantasy #15, if not most of these early issues. So what is your favorite first appearance of a classic comic character? Who had the best introduction to the world?
Beyond genius in its own time, early Lee/Ditko Spider-Man holds ups to this day. It’s influential, important, and most importantly, just extremely well done.