It’s worth looking at the many different ways top Spider-Man writers have handled the villains.
Stan Lee co-created most of the major Spider-Man bad guys, who generally had mundane motivations, such as making money and becoming New York City’s top crime boss. That may actually be one of the biggest differences between Marvel and DC. I once pondered whether Alan Moore or Stan Lee had co-created more great comic book characters. And then I remembered that in addition to all the great superheroes and supporting cast members, Stan Lee had dozens of notable supervillains who continue to menace the heroes of the Marvel U decades after their introductions. That was the moment I realized he was the clear winner in that category, and likely to remain so.
Brian Cronin suggested that for the purpose of comparing Spider-Man writers, Stan Lee should be considered a different writer than Lee/ Ditko. As a result on a list of the best Spider-Man writers at CBR, Stan Lee was second to the combination of Steve Ditko and Stan Lee.
It never got to the point where Romita would be coming up with the plots for the issues without consulting with Lee the way Ditko eventually did in the Ditko/Lee issues of Amazing Spider-Man. Lee always gave Romita SOME sort of plot, even if said plot likely became vaguer and vaguer the more that the two men worked together. Romita never had the control over the stories that Ditko had. So that’s why this listing is for Stan Lee by himself. If you want to think of it as Stan Lee/John Romita, though, fair enough.
The Lee/ Romita run saw a combination of classic villains like the Green Goblin and Vulture, with newcomers like the Rhino, the Shocker and the Kingpin—who essentially became the Big Bad. Just as the Lee/ Romita supporting cast became the iconic version of that aspect of the series, their approach to villains became the generic approach for other writers. Unfortunately, this could get repetitive, as the fifth showdown between Spider-Man and the Vulture was likely to be fresher than the 42nd. You could also say that the Shocker was the first copycat villain since he’s often been used as a substitute for Electro. If so, that became another element later writers would use.
Brian Michael Bendis reimagined most of the rogues gallery in 170+ issues set in the Ultimate world. He was patient enough to save some of his favorite villains until it made sense for the story, waiting nearly a decade to introduce the Ultimate Mysterio. But he may just deserve the most credit for briefly making the best-selling comic book in the country a book with Norman Osborn as the lead.
Gerry Conway was the first writer to realize that Spider-Man had years of backstory. Revenge was often the motivation for his villains, including the Harry Osborn Green Goblin, the Jackal, the Punisher (who was tricked into thinking Spidey killed his best friend) and Tombstone. He also tied villains to members of the supporting cast, as in the case of the Man-Wolf and the Molten Man, now revealed to be Liz Allen’s stepbrother.
Tom Defalco co-created Deliah, the Rose, the Black Fox, Puma and others. And then he went on to give Spider-Man’s daughter her own rogues gallery. He also continued the Hobgoblin saga in both Amazing Spider-Man and the MC2 Universe, so he often had at least one “Big Bad” in the series. The one problem with Spider-Girl may just be that it’s impossible for writers of the regular Spider-Man titles to implement her rogues gallery. An additional accomplishment of Defalco’s is how he essentially defined Dr Octopus’s origin in two of his Spider-Man Unlimited issues.
Peter David’s best work pit Spider-Man against somewhat ordinary bad guys. The Commuter was a thief who lived in the suburbs. The Sin-Eater was a maniac with a shotgun. Then there was MJ’s stalker in FNSM. In addition to his quiet intimate stories, Paul Jenkins was also effective at having villains force Spidey to make almost impossible decisions.
Joe Kelly’s biggest arcs focused on the families of the bad guys, including Norman Osborn, Kraven and Hammerhead. Todd Mcfarlane essentially wrote Spider-Man as a horror series, focusing on the villains who would fit that type of series. So his Spider-Man fought the Lizard, Calypso, Hobgoblin, Morbius and the Wendigo.
David Michelinie may have co-created more memorable villains than any writer since Stan Lee, with Venom, Carnage, Cardiac and a few others. He was big on having interactions between villains, with the return of the Sinister Six, and Spider-Man often caught in a fight between other bad guys (Scorpion VS the Rhino & Whiplash, Green Goblin VS Hobgoblin). The risk is that it can make the villains seem less impressive when they all have to work together against Spider-Man, but it ensures that the artist has something cool to draw, and that the hero faces a unique challenge. Sure, Spider-Man had fought the Rhino before, but he hadn’t fought the Rhino, the Scorpion and Whiplash at the same time.
Mark Millar’s villains were rather brutal, even when acknowledging their weaknesses, as when the Vulture decided to avoid challenging Spidey until he had all the right tools. Millar was responsible for turning Mac Gargan into Venom, a development I supported. But his main plan seemed to be to pit Spider-Man against villains even casual readers would recognize.
Marv Wolfman brought back classic figures who hadn’t been seen in a long time, such as the Burglar & Mysterio. He also introduced the Black Cat, and used the death of Spencer Smythe to further Spidey & Jonah’s relationship. The stories felt substantial, even if much of it was reversed. Zeb Wells’s specialty seems to be epic multi-part stories pitting Spider-Man against his greatest foes, revealing what makes them both tick.
Stern was my favorite writer when it came to Spider-Man’s enemies. He may have been the first writer to have a clear philosophy about what villains Spider-Man should face, and why. He avoided the trap of making Spidey’s enemies less impressive through repeated defeat, while coming up with new challenges for the webswinger. But that doesn’t matter as much as the awesomeness of the actual stories. And a lot of credit goes to the guys beating up on Spidey. “Nothing Can Stop the Juggernaut” is one of the best fights in comic book history, and the best with Spidey. In addition to his focus on villains from other titles, Roger Stern is best known as the co-creator of the Hobgoblin. He also gave an origin to the Vulture, and revealed a secret from Mysterio’s past. So he was willing to use the familiar bad guys when there were new wrinkles to explore.
Dematteis may just be my second-favorite. His villains usually had actual arcs in their storylines, while they were putting Spidey through hell. It wasn’t just about finding someone for Spidey to beat up. Dematteis is probably the first guy you want for a mini-series about the villain in the next Spider-Man movie. He fleshed out the antagonists, and explored what made them tick. It’s impressive what he managed to do with Mysterio and Electro in the space of three issues. He also had a tendency to kill off characters (Kraven, Dr Octopus, Harry Osborn, etc.) which made for effective self-contained arcs, but wasn’t the best approach for this kind of serial.
Dan Slott has the potential to surpass the two. The co-creator of new villains including Mr. Negative, Paper Doll and others, he’s also willing to change the status quo for the villains, with a tendency to upgrade the classic bad guys (Dr Octopus, Scorpion and the Spider-Slayers) or give them new identities (Anti-Venom, Phil Uirch becoming the Hobgoblin.) He makes the classic villains more dangerous, but also managed to tell a good story with the Queen, an obscure opponent from the universally reviled Avengers Disassembled Tie-in. He’s willing to consider every option for the sake of the story.