Marvel’s Spider-Man has been a fundamental part of the superhero genre for six decades, helping transform the landscape of the medium and pop culture multiple times over the years. Along the way, the character’s enduring popularity can be said to stem from a lot of elements – in particular his adaptability as a character. He’s flexible in a way most characters just aren’tcapable of highlighting a lot of different parts of the human experience in a colorful, exciting way.
To celebrate Spider-Man’s sixtieth year as a Marvel Comics icon, here are the six most important genres the character has tackled – and the stories that highlight just how good the character has been over the years.
ROMANTIC (ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN # 13 – CONFESSION)
Romance has always been at the heart of Spider-Man stories, from the innocent affections of Gwen Stacy in Spider-Man: Blue to the more adventurous elements of Spider-Man’s time with Black Cat in tales like “Going Straight.” Mary-Jane Watson is his most enduring, however, with their marriage and the subsequent stories (like “To Have and To Hold,” from Sensational Spider-Man Annual # 1) being among the superhero genre’s most enduring relationships. Their romance is so fundamental an entire series predicated around it (Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane) became a franchise on its own.
But it’s another alternate reality Mary-Jane / Peter story that remains the franchise at its most heartfelt: “Confession” from Ultimate Spider-Man # 13 by Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley focuses on a teenage Peter confessing his secret identity to his best friend, Mary-Jane – only for the conversation to take a more romantic direction. Highlighting the fumbling but foundational first love one finds in youth, it’s simultaneously sweet, silly, and endearing in the best way. It’s the closest superheroes have really ever gotten to John Hughes and remains a highlight of that historic run.
COMEDY (AMAZING SPIDER-MAN # 267 – THE COMMUTER COMETH)
Spider-Man is overtly absurd, quipping in blue spandex while contending with truly ridiculous threats. Comedy has been one of the ways the franchise has also explored the greater cast of characters, with the comic failings of J. Jonah Jameson helping flesh out the blowhard antagonist into one of the most complex supporting characters in comics. There are plenty of stories that dive into the innate sense of humor at the heart of the franchise – Spider-Man / Human Torch, Marvel Adventures: Spider-Man, Spider-Man & the X-Menand Darwyn Cooke’s contributions to Spider-Man’s Tangled Web.
Comedy is subjective, so naming the best comedy issue of anything is a tricky situation – but “The Commuter Cometh” from Amazing Spider-Man # 267 by Peter David and Bob McLeod is a great example of the hero’s plights being used for laughs. When a small-time crook catches Spider-Man’s attention, the hero follows him into suburbia – and discovers that his amazing attributes do little to actually help him outside of the city. It’s comedy at Spider-Man’s expense but never in a mean way, instead highlighting the classic “real-world grounding the absurd” tone that’s long defined Marvel as a whole.
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TRAGIC (PETER PARKER: SPIDER-MAN # 33 – MAYBE NEXT YEAR)
Despite his typically aloof manner, Spider-Man is a character defined by tragedy. His entire mission as a hero stems from Uncle Ben’s death, and there have been plenty of other friends, loved ones, and associates he’s lost over the years. The humanity at the heart of the character makes all these moments land even harder, making storylines like “The Night Gwen Stacy Died,” “The Kid Who Collected Spider-Man,” “The Gift,” and “The Death of Spider-Man “so impactful. All of these tragedies add to the overall tapestry of Spider-Man’s motivations – building on the pain of Ben’s demise at the core of the hero.
“Maybe Next Year” from Peter Parker: Spider-Man # 33 by Paul Jenkins and Mark Buckingham is largely told in flashback, focusing on Peter’s history as a fan of the team and how going to games – and learning to deal with the team’s constant losses – became a major part of how Ben taught Peter about life. It highlights the quiet resolve at the heart of the characters and shows Ben’s heartfelt influence on Peter instead of just talking about it. It’s a bittersweet love letter to baseball and a heartbreaking family lone gone, all with one of the single most effective tear-jerking endings in the genre’s history.
VILLAIN-CENTRIC (SPIDER-MAN’S TANGLED WEB # 4-5 – FLOWERS FOR RHINO)
On top of having instantly iconic powers, designs, and motivations, what separates Spider-Man’s foes from other rogues’ galleries is their ties to the world around them. Spider-Man villains are – for the most part – sad sacks who try to fix the traumas in their lives by attacking the world. The best of them can play this for epic scope and with tragic elements, such as Doctor Octopus’ attempts to break his villainous streak in The Superior Spider-Man. Others can play up the street-level comedy of the situation to great effect, with The Superior Foes of Spider-Man heavily leaning into those aspects.
The story that juggles both best is “Flowers for Rhino,” a two-part storyline from Spider-Man’s Tangled Web # 4 & # 5 by Peter Milligan and Duncan Fegredo. When the typically inept Rhino gets an experimental surgery to enhance his intellect, he quickly becomes one of New York’s most dangerous villains – but loses touch with his humanity. The story explores the excitement, comedy, tragedy, and horror of a supervillain like Rhino. It’s a unique approach to exploring a fascinatingly damaged person – like all the best villain-centric stories.
ADVENTURE (THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN ANNUAL # 1 – THE SINISTER SIX
Spider-Man is, at the end of the day, an action comic. The series has always been driven by a sense of adventure and action, with many of Peter Parker’s most exciting tales being ones that highlight the character’s innate skills as a hero. This can range from the epic (such as Spider-Verse spirit Spider-Geddon) took it to a multiversal degree, pitting an army of Spider-Men and Women against a nigh-unstoppable force. It can also be supremely intimate and close-quartered, such as the effectively claustrophobic and tense “Unscheduled Stop” storyline or the Marvel Knights Spider-Man: Fight Night mini-series.
Spider-Man has been action-packed since the earliest days of the character, and it’s never truly surpassed the sheer fun of Amazing Spider-Man Annual # 1. “The Sinister Six” by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby sees Doctor Octopus and many of Spider-Man’s other most dangerous early enemies (Kraven the Hunter, Sandman, Electro, Mysterio, and Vulture) team up for a massive coordinated attack on the hero. Filled with splash pages and last-minute saves, “The Sinister Six” is an early indicator of the massive potential the character has as an action hero – and a solid inspiration for the character going into future decades.
ADD IT ALL TOGETHER AND … (AMAZING SPIDER-MAN # 498-500 – HAPPY BIRTHDAY)
Each Spider-Man story highlighted and mentioned throughout this article has been a highlight for the character and his place in the Marvel Universe. But the best are often the ones that meld these vital elements into unique forms. “Kraven’s Last Hunt” brings a sense of terror to the classic action and romance in Spider-Man stories. The Spider-Man / Jonah character drama in “My Dinner With Jonah” is amplified by their comical dislike for one another. Spider-Gwen spirit Ultimate Comics: All-New Spider-Man proved that Spider-Man stories could work even without Peter in the title role.
Amazing Spider-Man # 31- # 33 (“If This Be My Destiny” by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby), Amazing Spider-Man # 50 (“Spider-Man No More!” By Stan Lee and John Romita Sr.) and Amazing Spider-Man # 229- # 230 (“Nothing Can Stop the Juggernaut!” By Roger Stern and John Romita Jr.) are usually held up as the gold standard for the character – and with good reason. But as they’ll likely receive further exploration elsewhere, it’s also worth highlighting another story that incorporates all the important elements of Spider-Man into a single epic storyline – “Happy Birthday” from Amazing Spider-Man # 498- # 500 by J. Michael Straczynski and John Romita Jr.
When Spider-Man is dragged into a potential crisis-level threat to the Marvel Universe, he finds himself unmoored from time and space – pitted against all of his greatest enemies and challenges in quick succession. To save the world, Spider-Man has to overcome every single conflict he’s ever confronted – all brought to life with some of Romita Jr’s best artwork. It’s fun, adventurous, bittersweet, exciting, and epic, giving Spider-Man the chance to confront all of his legendary villains and gain surprising closure with his legacy. It’s a spectacular summation of everything that makes Spider-Man amazing.
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