I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.
Though I first started buying superhero comic books at the very beginning of the nineteen-eighties, I had an abiding fascination for the history of the characters whose adventures I devoured. That fascination was certainly stoked by the approach of my favored publisher, Marvel Comics, which both employed a continuity-heavy approach and was always quick to nostalgically look back to their heyday of around two decades earlier, when they truly transformed the field. I developed a collector’s mentality fairly quickly, a tendency that could be fiscally problematic in the comic book arena, where a steady back issue market was increasingly becoming the sturdy spine of the retailers who would soon be practically the only providers of those colorful periodicals. I was especially covetous of the back issues that were originally published in the earliest years of Marvel, when Stan Lee was still writing damn near everything. Most of them had accumulated value as collectibles, putting them well outside of my youthful budget, which made it all the more incredible when I was poking through a back issue box at Midwest Books, in Stoughton, Wisconsin, and discovered a copy of The Amazing Spider-Man #25 in my meager price range, the comic’s bright yellow cover beckoning to me.
Well, the cover wasn’t so bright on the copy I held in my hands, and it was also fairly tattered, with at least one sizable hole. But it was still a Spider-Man comic from 1965! From before artist Steve Ditko’s famously acrimonious departure from the title. And I could afford it! I set aside any other planned purchases for the day and snapped this up, at the time the oldest comic I owned.
It was also wildly different from the more modern adventures to which I was accustomed. By the time I was buying new issues, Marvel had settled into a house style, most artists adhering to fairly steady character renderings. But the foundational years of the publishers were defined by far more distinct and idiosyncratic pencilers, such as Ditko and especially Jack Kirby. I knew that Ditko drew his characters with a odd angularity, but it was a whole different matter to see a whole story of it, especially on its original yellowing paper. Adding to the bizarreness was the story itself, the first appearance of a Spider-Slayer invented by Professor Spencer Smythe, which means it’s an entire comic book story about a curmudgeonly newspaper publisher using a remote-controlled robot to hunt down the superhero he despises.
What’s more, the publisher in question, J. Jonah Jameson, is reluctant to employ the arachnid-hunting robot until Spider-Man’s alter ego, Peter Parker, encourages him to do so, figuring that the mechanical man will make for an easy adversary, allowing Parker to snap some photographs of Spider-Man besting the Spider-Slayer which he can then sell back to Jameson to publish in the newspaper. Whew. Turns out the Spider-Slayer is tougher than Peter predicted, however. Before the battle begins, though, Lee and Ditko take time to delve into Peter’s always challenging private life.
Freshly afoul of the school football hero and boisterous bully, Flash Thompson, Peter can get back to fretting about the clanking monstrosity that will soon have him in its crosshairs. The early Marvel stories are often credited with bringing greater verisimilitude to the human relationships between characters than had been seen before in comics, but it’s remarkable how much of that strength was really centralized in Amazing Spider-Man, home to a far stronger supporting cast than anything else emanating from the publisher. And yet the soap operatics weren’t at the expense of the action, which was appropriately dynamic, especially when it involved a robot with physics-defying tendril arms and a video screen face broadcasting the gloating image of its media maven operator.
Amazing Spider-Man #25 holds the first appearance of Spencer Smythe and the Spider-Slayers, but a far more significant debut takes place completely separate from the two-fisted excitement. Betty Brant and Liz Allan, two lovely ladies both pining for Peter Parker (who was suspiciously lovelorn given just how many knockouts found him intriguing), go looking for him at his Aunt May’s house, only to get a glimpse of the new neighbor girl.
Mary Jane Watson would figure significantly in the future of everyone’s favorite wall-crawler, of course. At this point, the character was a clever tease on the part of the creators, her face obscured for nearly twenty issues before she finally emerged in closing panel of a story, arguably the most famous single panel in the company’s history. Still.
Back on the rooftops with Spider-Man and the Spider-Slayer, our hero continued to tangle with the robot until it seemed he was stuck for good, causing Jameson to leave his post and rush up to unmask his hated foe. When he arrived, however, the discovered that Spider-Man had slipped away, leaving a decoy empty costume.
Jameson suitably humiliated, Peter retrieves his civilian clothes and heads home, only to encounter one more unexpected challenge, one that seemed to crop up a lot in these early issues.
Peter’s double-life as a superhero always seems to be on brink of being exposed, undoubtedly a vestige of the clumsy comic tropes Marvel Comics was otherwise shaking off (a remarkable number of Superman stories back then revolved around little more than Lois Lane trying to unearth the secret identity of Metroplis’s greatest hero). Familiar or not, it contributes to a comic book that packs a lot of story into twenty pages. I’m not even sure how much I paid for this well-worn piece of comics history. Maybe that’s because I never had any doubt that I got more than my money’s worth.
Fantastic Four by Stan Lee and John Buscema
Contest of Champions by Bill Mantlo and John Romita, Jr.
Daredevil by Frank Miller
Marvel Fanfare by Chris Claremont, Dave Cockrum and Paul Smith
Marvel Two-in-One by Tom DeFalco and Ron Wilson
Fantaco’s “Chronicles” series
Fantastic Four #200 by Marv Wolfman and Keith Pollard
The Incredible Hulk #142 by Roy Thomas and Herb Trimpe
Uncanny X-Men by Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum
Godzilla by Doug Moench and Herb Trimpe
Giant-Size Avengers #3 by Steve Englehart, Roy Thomas and Dave Cockrum
Alpha Flight by John Byrne
Hawkeye by Mark Gruenwald
Avengers by David Michelinie and George Perez
Justice League by Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis and Kevin Maguire
The Thing by Dan Slott and Andrea DiVito
Nexus by Mike Baron and Steve Rude
Marvel Premiere by David Kraft and George Perez
Marvel Super-Heroes Secret Wars by Jim Shooter and Mike Zeck
Micronauts by Bill Mantlo and Butch Guice
Batman: The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland
What If? by Mike W. Barr, Herb Trimpe and Mike Esposito
Thor by Walt Simonson
Eightball by Dan Clowes
Cerebus: Jaka’s Story by Dave Sim and Gerhard
Iron Man #150 by by David Michelinie, John Romita, Jr. and Bob Layton
Bone by Jeff Smith
The Man of Steel by John Byrne
Fantastic Four by Doug Moench and Bill Sienkiewicz
“Allien and How to Watch It” by John Severin
Fantastic Four Roast by Fred Hembeck and friends