As a Spider-Man fan, I was envious of Superman fans due to the quality of the best comic book story of the last decade. That led me to ponder the best Spider-Man stories, especially when considering the wisdom of recent changes.
Peter Parker’s probably the best character in comics. Excellent writers (Stan Lee, Roger Stern, JM Dematteis, Brian Michael Bendis, Paul Jenkins, Dan Slott, Peter David, etc) have worked with some of the most talented artists the medium has ever seen (Steve Ditko, Todd Mcfarlane, Mark Bagley, Ross Andru, Gil Kane, the two John Romitas, etc) to produce their best work on the character in a few of the greatest comic book stories ever. Given the quality of the character, I’m still left with the question: Why aren’t there more great Spider‑Man stories? Why don’t we have any Spider‑Man stories produced in the last generation as acclaimed as the absolute best of Batman?
The pre “One More Day” Spider‑Man books were good, but could have been better, especially when compared to Captain America or All‑Star Superman. It’s odd that the best Spider‑Man stories haven’t been topped in 20+ years, which is a damn shame given the quality of the best books produced today. In the last twenty years, I don’t think anyone has done a Spider‑Man story as good as Amazing Fantasy #15, or the Master‑Planner saga.
One could argue that the Illusion of Change hurt the Spider-Man comics, since it meant that Stan Lee’s successors dealt with restrictions he never had. David Brothers of Comics Alliance noted what the character’s growth brought to the series.
The first 140-odd issues of Amazing Spider-Man are my Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four. There’s a purity there that I greatly enjoy, and the first fifty issues tell the story of a boy becoming a man even while they show us what happens when a boy becomes a hero. We see Peter Parker at his most sour and most vibrant, and when he puts that costume back on, we understand exactly why. We see him grow up over the course of four or five years, long enough for being Spider-Man to become second-nature and long enough for Peter Parker to grow into a fully-realized adult. He goes from zero to hero, and that happens slowly, almost in real-time, instead of in his debut issue.All his rough edges weren’t sanded down by the end of these fifty issues, but you can see where the man is going. There are several milestones that come later — Gwen’s death, Mary Jane deciding to stay with Peter after Gwen dies, the death of Harry Osborn — but these first fifty issues are as good a superhero origin as you’ll find. The best, even.Time slows down for Spider-Man after this. He stopped aging, and he settled into the state we now know, a permanent purgatory of somewhere between 24 and 28 years old. Which is fine, of course. It is what it is. But I can’t help but wonder what would’ve happened if Peter Parker kept aging like he did in these original issues. He could’ve aged, gotten married, and retired. How would he have changed?
I would disagree about the Illusion of Change hindering the series, although it’s a point worth addressing in more detail. While there were a lot of excellent stories from writers Stan Lee and Gerry Conway before Marvel had come to that policy, there was great material afterwards as well, especially with Roger Stern’s run of Amazing Spider-Man. That included “Nothing Could Stop the Juggernaut,” the Hobgoblin saga, and ‘The Kid Who Collects Spider-Man,” which may remain the best introduction to superhero comics.
I hoped that a good relaunch would eventually result in stories better than “The Night Gwen Stacy Died,” or the best of Stern or Lee/ Ditko. It hasn’t quite happened yet (despite the quality of some of the post-OMD stories) but I remain optimistic.
It’s possible that I overrate the classics. It could also be that the old great Spider‑Man stories were better than any pre-Frank Miller Batman stories, so comparisons with other series are bound to be flawed if the Spider-Man comics started at a higher level. But I haven’t seen any Spider‑Man stories published in my lifetime which are arguably better than The Dark Knight Returns, Batman: Year One or The Killing Joke, even if Kraven’s Last Hunt (which came out more than twenty years ago) and Bendis’s first year on Ultimate Spider‑Man come somewhat close.
This isn’t a problem with other superhero franchises. The acknowledged best Superman stories were written after Roger Stern left Amazing Spider‑Man, including “For the Man Who Has Everything,” The Man For All Seasons, All‑Star Superman, Kingdom Come, John Byrne’s Supergirl saga, “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” and “What’s so Funny About Truth, Justice and the American Way?” The usual Top Five Batman stories list includes material published since Stern left ASM (Year One, The Dark Knight Returns, the Killing Joke, the Long Halloween, Arkham Asylum.) Captain America has Earth X, the Winter Soldier arc and The Ultimates, in addition to his excellent appearance in Daredevil: Born Again. The Avengers have both volumes of The Ultimates, Ultron Unlimited and the Avengers Forever mini‑series. Spider-Man comics haven’t been at that level, and there’s a correlation with a major development with the series in the 1980s.