EXCL. PREVIEW: "Avatar: Smoke & Shadow" TPB Threatens the Fire Nation
12. “The Gift,” Amazing Spider-Man #400
One of the amazing things about “The Gift,” by J.M. DeMatteis, Mark Bagley and Larry Mahlstedt is that it takes place firmly within the second Clone Saga. Ben Reilly is all over the issue and the story concludes with Peter Parker being arrested for a murder committed by Kaine (who I don’t believe we yet knew was also a clone of Peter Parker, hence Peter’s fingerprints being left at the scene of the crime).
And yet, at the heart of the comic is the relationship between May Parker and Peter Parker. DeMatteis beautifully handles the last day of their relationship as May awakens from her coma in time to spend one more day with Peter, Mary Jane and her closest friend, Anna Watson.
She has a particularly special moment with Peter on the observation deck of the Empire State Building…
And the death scene? Wow. It is three pages long, so I didn’t have room for it here, but…well…if you can read it without being a LITTLE bit choked up, then you are made of sterner stuff than me.
11. “The Goblin Unmasked!,” Amazing Spider-Man #39-40
Yet another story where the context is so important. This is a great two-parter about Spider-Man learning the identity of the mysterious Green Goblin (who also, shockingly, learns Peter’s identity, as well)…
and then having to choose to save his enemy when Osborn’s memory goes away…
But as good as the tale is, it was even more important in showing that Stan Lee did not need Steve Ditko to still tell sensation Amazing Spider-Man stories. This story is the debut of John Romita on the title. These first few issues or so are done in a more Ditko-esque style (which Romita did well) but soon, Romita would take over and re-define the look of the series. This initial story, though, showed that Lee and Romita could deliver the goods just like Lee and Ditko could!
10. “The Harry Osborn Saga,” Spectacular Spider-Man #178-184, 189-190, 199-200
J.M. DeMatteis began a classic stretch of stories spotlighting the slow descent of Harry Osborn into madness beginning with the Child Within storyline in Spectacular Spider-Man, where we see just how badly emotionally abused Harry was by his father Norman (a few years later, DeMatteis would re-visit this idea in a Spectacular Spider-Man Annual where Spider-Man relives Harry and Norman’s childhoods). Meanwhile, the fact that Harry knew Peter’s secret identity was being used by Harry torment his best friend…now his enemy.
Things seemed to come to a fever pitch in #189…
With Spidey finally saying, in effect, “screw it”…
Harry kept the secret and later, died a heroic death fighting against his own madness (as his body fought against itself). DeMatteis always does exemplary character-driven work, but this character study of Harry Osborn was really top of the line. Sal Buscema did a great job on the artwork.
My pal Chris has this to say about the Harry Osborn Saga:
I like the inherent drama in Peter’s best friend being his worst enemy, as set up by Conway [who first had Harry Osborn become the Green Goblin – BC]. This conflict was best realized here, with Demateiss probing the psyches of the characters involved and Buscema delivering the best storytelling of his career. To me, it comes down to the moment of peak tension, where Harry has everybody sitting down to dinner in Spectacular Spider-Man #189. We see Harry descending into madness, Liz worried, Peter doing his best to calmly eat, Normie enjoying all the fun, and Raxton ready to lose his cool, all perfectly realized by Sal Buscema. I consider this the best modern Spider-Man story; I even think this has already earned its place among the best Spider-Man stories right alongside the classics.
9. “Spider-Man No More!” Amazing Spider-Man #50-52
The majority of the voters voted for just #50, but a goodly amount voted for the whole three-part story, so I’m including the whole thing.
The comic is obviously best known for the opening act, where Peter Parker is driven nearly mad from all the bad press Spider-Man was getting on TOP of all of Peter’s personal problems (like Aunt May being sick…AGAIN). Finally, Peter decides to give up being Spider-Man…
However, the Kingpin of Crime (introduced this story) has taken control and he is ratcheting up the attacks in New York City and after Peter saves the life of an elderly security guard (who bears an uncanny resemblance to an uncle of Peter’s), Peter realizes once again that he has too much responsibility to quit doing good…
This leads to an awesome cliffhanger as Spidey returns and takes the fight to the Kingpin…
This story also saw the introduction of Joe “Robbie” Robertson and the heroic death of Frederic Foswell. It is a Stan Lee/John Romita/Mike Esposito classic.
8. “The Kid Who Collects Spider-Man,” Amazing Spider-Man #248
People always remember the ending of this one-off tale by Roger Stern, Ron Frenz and Terry Austin, but I don’t think the beginning gets enough credit. Stern comes up with a truly novel approach to telling the story, intercutting the article about Timmy with Spider-Man meeting the boy, in response to the article…
It is a great plot device and Stern uses it really well. Frenz and Austin shine on the artwork and, of course, the character drama at the heart of the tale is quite gripping. Peter sharing time with a young boy who idolizes him gives readers a unique perspective on Spider-Man and what it means, truly, to be a hero. A touching work that is hard to read without getting a bit sentimental about it.
7. “Nothing Can Stop the Juggernaut!” Amazing Spider-Man #229-230
On the other side of things, this two-parter by Roger Stern and artists John Romita Jr. and Jim Mooney spends less time on character development (although Peter’s dogged approach to heroism does play a role) and more on one of the most inventive and well-designed fights in comic book history.
Ever since Stan Lee and Wally Wood put Daredevil through the paces against Namor, one of the hallmarks of the Marvel Universe is putting a David up against a Goliath and watch the underdog, if not pull it off, at least make it far more interesting than it should be.
Here, Spider-Man throws everything and the kitchen sink against Juggernaut, including some really well-designed page layouts by Romita Jr. (as he wrings every little bit of drama that he can out of the tale)…
Such a haunting image for Spidey, but this is Spider-Man, after all…he’ll find a way! But HOW? Read the story!
6. “The Original Hobgoblin Saga,” Amazing Spider-Man #238-239, 244-245, 249-251 and Spectacular Spider-Man #85
One of the things that has gone a bit forgotten when it comes to Hobgoblin is the fact that writer Roger Stern made a point of setting it up so that Peter Parker was, once again, sort of responsible for something bad happening. Just like when he let the burglar get away and then his uncle got shot, so, too, did Peter let a crook get away rather than chase him into the sewers.
The result is the petty criminal stumbling on to one of Norman Osborn’s hidden Green Goblin lairs…
Spidey realizes that in the issue in question (that a Goblin lair was discovered by the petty crook), so when the Hobgoblin shows up, Spidey knows that the two things are connected.
What things DO remember about the Hobgoblin is that he had a slightly different approach to villainy than most. He was not crazy, exactly, he just figured that he could use Osborn’s goods to gain power and fortune. He was calculating in a way that most super-villains just aren’t. And come on, how do you beat this introduction by Johns Romita…
The other interesting aspects of the Hobgoblin were his schemes, like when he found information on a bunch of notable businessmen and blackmailed them all together. Plus his quest for power (the Spectacular Spider-Man issue has him finally finding the Goblin Serum, which gave him the powers of the Goblin and not just his gear). Also, John Romita Jr’s great artwork. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there was a great mystery as to WHO the Green Goblin was. Looking back, knowing who Stern intended him to be, Stern plays it very fair in just the relatively few issues that the Goblin appeared in during Stern’s run.
Stern would return to the character years later to give it his original reveal.
5. “Spider-Man!” Amazing Fantasy #15
Here it is, the king of all superhero origin stories! What Steve Ditko and Stan Lee achieve in these eleven pages is just remarkable. They create a fully-realized superhero, with back story and everything, plus a shocking, heartfelt reason for the hero to be…well, a hero. And it was all in just one single story.
From the origin of the webshooters…
To the greatest lesson in responsibility comic books have ever had (and yes, I like to use the reprinted version with the Spidey eyes the way they are now and not with the dots for eyes)….
Absolute brilliance from two comic book legends who were somehow about to match the level of this story for thirty-nine more glorious issues.
Lorin Heller has this to say about the story:
To date, I think this is simply the best thing that Marvel has ever produced, and I’m guessing they’re never going to top it. A nerd, a loser, a geek, Peter Parker was going through all the things that much of the comic-reading population was going through…with one exception. Most of us geeks never get bitten by a radioactive spider. The “hero that could be you” concept jumped into full bloom. But even more than that, the genius of this story is the lesson it teaches through tragedy. Peter works on so many levels: identification, humor… but the thing which will always make him the most fascinating for me, is that here we have the first protagonist who ended up becoming a hero not just because he intrinsically knew it was the right thing to do, but because he SCREWED UP MAJORLY AND IT COST HIM! I love redemption stories, and this is simply one of the ultimates. For all the good things Peter does, he will never, ever be able to truly forgive himself for what his mistake caused. It is a lovely character, and one I never get tired of reading.
Luke Werner had this to say:
Now, virtually everyone knows this by memory, so we tend to take it for granted. But consider this — whereas the origins of icons like Superman and Batman and Captain America have constantly been tweaked, twisted, retconned and rebooted, Spider-Man’s origins have remained essentially unchanged. This is a testament to just how good and complete Lee and Ditko got it from the get-go. Even when there have been stories that attempt to tweak Spidey’s origin – Amazing Spider-Man #200, for instance – they have failed to reinvent the core of his origin and have been, at the very least, divisive for fans.
But that is only half of it. Let’s imagine that the one and only appearance of “Spider-Man” was this one little odd tale, not as an origin, not as a springboard for more adventures, but as a complete story, in itself.
Even in that circumstance, it is a superior story. The journey of the mocked and timid underdog, handed ownership of extraordinary gifts without having earned them, uses his awesome might for self-interest rather than righteous good, then experiences dire consequences because of his behavior. It is a Good Samaritan tale, twisted and brutalized.
But, even more intriguing, it richly deconstructs the hero/villain paradigm. It is the villain that refuses to abandon the sense of entitlement that his power has “earned” him. It is the hero that understands that his power entitles him to nothing. It is the hero that comes to the realization that “with great power there must also come — great responsibility.” That message has much deeper and more profound impact when it is learned organically through adversity and failure, than through steadfast righteous principle from the outset…
…and all of that in only eleven pages.
And finally, my buddy Chris Nowlin had this to say about the story:
My favorite Spider-Man story is my favorite superhero story is my favorite comic is my favorite story. That said, I don’t know what to say about it, at least not without rambling endlessly. I like the timeless art of Ditko, but more than the execution, I like the story. A man makes a mistake and learns a lesson, and I think the lesson is a good one. Just like the story.
4. “The Death of Jean DeWolff,” Spectacular Spider-Man #107-110
One of the most fascinating aspects of The Death of Jean DeWolff is how it sort of type cast Peter David early on as the “serious guy,” which, obviously, he CAN do quite well, but it is far from being a defining aspect of his writing style. He is vast, people! He contains multitudes!
Anyhow, this storyline tells the story of a minor Spider-Man supporting character, Captain Jean DeWolff, who was always friendly to Spider-Man, being murdered by a mysterious serial killer known as the Sin-Eater. After her death, Spidey gets the double gut-punch of learning that she was totally into him…
What’s funny is that the mystery of the Sin-Eater’s identity is not something that is really meant to be solved. It is there just to ratchet up the drama until Spider-Man’s first girlfriend, Betty Brant, is almost murdered by the Sin-Eater. When Spidey gets there to save her…well, Spider-Man (and guest-star Daredevil) have differing ideas on how to proceed with the killer…
Few writers challenge ideas like this as strongly as Peter David does in this story. Plus, this is one of the best Spider-Man/Daredevil team-ups of all-time. Rich Buckler does the art with a variety of inkers (Brett Breeding, probably most prominently). Very good stuff.
3. “The Death of Gwen Stacy,” Amazing Spider-Man #121-122
In the “Death of Gwen Stacy,” Norman Osborn finally snaps for good and, as the Green Goblin, kidnaps Peter Parker’s girlfriend, Gwen Stacy and then throws her off of a bridge…
Gerry Conway, Gil Kane and John Romita practically DARE you not to come back for the next issue. They don’t think you can do it! And they’re right, as the following issue is a powerful lesson in Spider-Man’s humanity and his capacity for mercy.
Of course, an underrated aspect of the story (which is amusing, since a reader then wrote in to me extensively on this topic, so I guess it is not THAT underrated) is the way that Conway uses this story to set up the romance he wanted between Peter and Mary Jane, as seen in the classic epilogue to the story (which is the first half of a bookend Conway uses during his run).
Luke Werner had this to say about the story:
Much has been discussed about the importance and impact of “The Death of Gwen Stacy” throughout the years — how it was instrumental in ending the Silver Age of comics; how the hero fails to rescue the damsel in distress; how Gwen is captured and killed because of Spider-Man’s actions, not in spite of them; how the character of Gwen Stacy had become stale, and her death was an inevitable moment in Spider-Man’s ongoing narrative; how she, therefore, doesn’t deserve the “sacred cow” status she has been given.
The list of themes that can extracted from this story are nearly infinite, and it will continue to resonate and inspire discussion, analysis, and disagreement as the years go on.
All that aside, here is why we should cherish these two issues and why they deserve to be considered one of, if not the greatest of, Spidey’s greatest stories:
In #122, Spider-Man, intent on revenge, finds Green Goblin hiding out in one of Norman Osborn’s warehouses. The battle is renewed, and Spider-Man outmatches Goblin from the start. When Spider-Man finally gets up close and personal, he nearly beats Goblin to death. But… but, suddenly, he stops. He stops and whispers “Good lord… what in the name of heaven am I doing?” Now, put yourself in Spider-Man’s costume for that moment. Would you have stopped? If you were in those circumstances, could you have? I don’t know if I could have. I really don’t.
This is why Spider-Man is a hero. Not because he can defeat a powerful villain like the Green Goblin, but because he can stop himself from sinking to the Goblin’s level… even in circumstances that we may see him as having an unquestionably free pass to do so.
Reader Eve K. had this to say:
Now, when it comes to the Gerry Conway scripted “The Night Gwen Stacy Died/The Green Goblin’s Last Stand”, most fans are bound to talk about the impact the deaths of Gwen Stacy and Norman Osborn had on superhero comic books in general. Unsurprisingly so, as it is indeed, a tale ballsy for its time. It was unheard of to kill off the titular superhero’s love interest and the arch-nemesis in a single story. I would, however, like to talk about a less discussed aspect of the tale which appeals to me the most. Which is saying a lot as the entire story is well crafted and perfectly executed. I am talking about the “Epilogue” scene between Peter and Mary Jane in ASM #122. It is but one page but oh, what a page it is. The range of emotion captured through the artwork of Gil Kane and strong inking of John Romita Sr. is moving, to say the least. But what touches me the most is how the moment between MJ and Peter plays the element of much needed hope in an otherwise downer of a story. The inclusion of this one page really subverts the entire tone of the arc, which could otherwise be viewed as rather sexist. It is here, on this masterful and undiluted page, where Mary Jane Watson develops into one of my favorite Marvel characters.
And that is the precise reason why I sincerely feel “The Night Gwen Stacy Died” is not any run-of-the-mill “Women in Refrigerators” tale. Though many WiR stories have been produced thanks to writers trying to replicate the impact the story had on the superhero comic culture, and failing miserably because they lacked Conway’s knack for sophisticated drama telling. One of the reasons I find this story superior to even the finest of WiR stories like Alan Moore’s “The Killing Joke” is because it actively sets out to serve as a tool for the development of a male and female character’s emotional arc. Here, Gwen’s tragedy serves to strengthen Peter and Mary Jane’s relationship, as opposed to Barbara Gordon’s tragedy used as an exploitative tool to explore the Batman and Joker’s relationship. Sure, the story chronicles the ever building tension between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin finally coming to a head, but it was meant to close the chapter on Norman’s story. What Conway intended “Death of Gwen Stacy” to initiate was the tale of Peter + MJ, which has now evolved into a full fledged saga.
Speaking of evolution, “The Night Gwen Stacy Died” is almost as coming of age a tale as “Amazing Fantasy #15″. Not only does Gwen’s death force Peter and Mary Jane to grow up and prime them for a mature relationship, but it also expands the significance of not one, but two female characters. Let’s face it, Gwen Stacy was a pretty irrelevant character when it came to the bigger comic landscape. Her shocking death however, changed all of that! Suddenly, she became iconic. As for Mary Jane, I am sure her creator Stan Lee himself never calculated her potential to be so immense. A character who started out as a playful distraction blossoming into one of the every best supporting characters in superhero comics? Especially a character who was a non-superpowered young girl? Unheard of in the early 70s! And yet, Gerry Conway realized just how much promise MJ Watson- a fresh off the Second Wave take on women’s representation in a predominantly male targeted medium, had. He sensed she was too good and unique a personality to be marginalized and made his decision to give her a much more substantial and important role in the Spidey mythos. Starting with “The Night Gwen Stacy Died”.
Thematically, it has been tragedies which have helped shape Peter Parker into the man he becomes. Uncle Ben’s death grounds him and gives him the determination to put his powers to their best use ever. And Gwen’s death gives him a better and fuller understanding of a relationship, and helps him have his first mature relationship yet, with Mary Jane. It was a great loss which gave birth to the career of my favorite webslinging superhero, and it was a great loss which gave birth to my favorite love story in not only comics, but also in all of fiction. The wonderful and hope filled love story of Peter and MJ, borne out of the fateful night Gwen Stacy died.
2. “The Master Planner Saga,” Amazing Spider-Man #30-33
What is fascinating to me about this Stan Lee/Steve Ditko classic three-parter is that the finale (the “Final Chapter,” as it were) is so legendary that the first part is somewhat overlooked, which is only, you know, THE INTRODUCTION OF GWEN STACY AND HARRY OSBORN!
Think about that – the intro of two major characters and it is not even a blip when you think of this story, THAT is how powerful the sequence in #33 is, where Spider-Man is trapped under a bunch of rubble in an underwater base that is taking on water, trapped just feet away from an isotope that can save Peter’s Aunt May’s life (a life that is in danger because of a blood transfusion she received from Peter). Talk about drama!
And then, Ditko just goes all nuts on us and gives us a defining series of pages that tons of artists have homaged ever since…
Chris Nowlin had this to say about it:
Given the lesson about responsibility learned in his first appearance, the natural question which follows– which to me is the core of the Spider-Man series– is one of how to balance conflicting responsibilities. Peter has decided to feel responsible for not only his own problems, but everybody else’s as well. What do you do when the weight of responsibility threatens to crush you? Nothing brings this point home more than this story, a perfect ending for the story begun in Amazing Fantasy. Peter is starting college, has a chance to make new friends (such as Harry and Gwen). But his aunt is sick. His responsibilities as a student, his social responsibilities to his nearly-friends, his financial responsibilities, his responsibilities to his aunt… this is enough to overwhelm him even before you consider Dr. Octopus. And then the metaphorical ceiling which seems to be crushing down becomes a literal
ceiling, as a subway station comes crashing down on his head.
1. “Kraven’s Last Hunt,” Amazing Spider-Man #293-294, Spectacular Spider-Man #131-132 and Web of Spider-Man #31-32
For a story that was originally going to star Batman and the Joker (see this Comic Book Legends Revealed installment for more information), this sure did turn out to be a great Spider-Man story, huh?
First off, the very NOTION of one writer (John Marc DeMatteis) and one art team (Mike Zeck and Bob McLeod) taking over all three Spider-Man titles for two months to tell a six-part epic was, in and of itself, pretty revolutionary.
But DeMatteis’ idea of taking a fairly typical (by that point in time) Spider-Man villain, such as Kraven the Hunter, and then having him take his fight with Spider-Man to a whole new level (a level Spidey is clearly not prepared for) was a shocking idea…
Kraven then dresses as Spider-Man and “bests” him at that, too (well, in Kraven’s mind, as well). Meanwhile, Spider-Man is buried alive. His love for Mary Jane, though, pulls him through, in a brilliant sequence…
That’s already a ton of awesomeness, and we haven’t even gotten to the confrontation between Kraven and Spider-Man that follows!
A breathtaking piece of work that inspired countless imitations by other writers over the years. And, according to you folks, the greatest Spider-Man story ever told.
That’s the list! Agree? Disagree? Let us know!
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