Ever since first watching 1994’s Spider-Man: The Animated Series, I have liked Spider-Man. This is not a unique predilection. He is, after all, one of the more enduring comic book characters around, and comprised at his inception a rather unique approach to superhero characters. Not being an all-powerful alien or insane playboy, Spider-Man and his civilian alter ego Peter Parker had to battle teenage angst, mundane inconveniences and adverserial weather alongside crazed superhumans and well-armed bank robbers. He was more pedestrian than most preceding characters – he had actual, relatable problems to deal with.
Like most popular comic book characters, especially in this age of Mouse-powered superhuman overindulgence, I got to know Spider-Man through tertiary material, just like I did Batman and all the others: Through animated cartoons, toys, and later, films. Spider-Man had permeated the cultural membrane and existed as an Idea rather than solely as a comic book character. I knew about Venom and Shocker and Mysterio as though it was through Biblical canon – these things had been acknowledged before and they would be in the future – they were.
Which is why I decided I should probably read all of the Spider-Men some time. All 80 billion of them. I hope to glean some insight into shifting perspectives, creative choices and the creation of a lasting legendarium – however convoluted and frail – and how much design and how much catastrophe figured into this process.
The Amazing Spider-Man’s original run alone features 700 issues, so I’ll be at this for a while. So for this first instalment, we have a look at Amazing Fantasy #15, and The Amazing Spider-Man numbers 1 through 12.
I won’t be doing this issue by issue, because that means 700 reviews and I hope to do something with my life before getting there. So for now, abide with this more lateral approach.
A lot of this comic is about Fox News, basically. Almost immediately the comic serves up one of the most familiar elements of Spider-Man mythology – the constant character assassination by Daily Bugle editor J. Jonah Jameson, who goes out of his way to convince the reading public that Spider-Man is a crook, usually the same person as the one he happens to be chasing at the time. We spend a fair amount of moments with the reading public, allowing us to wallow in the shallow opinions of a public that largely assumes that whatever a paper prints is probably true. It is bonehead satire, or at least it would have been then. I’m afraid it might actually be more relevant now than it was then. Jameson is a Bill O’Reilly before his time, and almost immediately the more amusing character of the bunch.
The comic almost immediately introduces most familiar tropes of the mythos. Peter Parker is a morally conflicted neurotic who is constantly hassled by his classmates. He sticks to walls, swings on webs and has eerie prescience re Bad Things. Evil and/or insane and/or unlucky individuals adopt weird monickers and gimmicks and do crimes and Spider-Man stops them from doing said crimes. He makes money by selling photographs of himself.
Interestingly, loads of staple villains are almost immediately introduced. Chameleon, Vulture, Electro, the Lizard, Sandman and Doctor Octopus turn up one after the other, though most don’t get an explanatory aside about why or how they are actually doing this.
Strangely, I notice these stories do seem contextually grander because I have foreknowledge of hos culturally significant they become. Though occasionally sharp and sometimes even clever, much of this comic is stupidly asinine – but it is difficulty to objectively find it so. It’s as though the comic’s hapless attempts at interpersonal drama are someow validated by the fact that in a few decade’s time, these attempt will work slightly better.
An example: Peter’s first romance here is Jameson’s secretary Betty Brant, who has Something She Can’t Possibly Tell Him. Almost immediately you’re not particularly interested in finding out, mostly due to Betty’s complete lack of distinctive character features, save for being female, not hating Peter Parker and not being his Aunt. It’s not as if any other character is particularly more developed, but Betty is particularly underserved. In the end, Spider-Man is present when her brother gets shot by Doc Ock and somehow this furthers the drama.
It is clearly a prototype of his future relationships – most of which won’t be better thought out, but by virtue of history and longevity will feel somehow more rounded. Or at least I assume so.
More of this later as we continue our journey through sequential art history. Until then, some more choice picks from these first 12 issues: