What’s a great run on Spider-Man without adversity, for both its hero and its creator?
Under the pen of Roger Stern from 1980 through 1984, Spider-Man met some of his greatest physical and emotional challenges while his author left behind a legacy of unfinished business.
By the late ‘70s, Roger Stern had broken into Marvel Comics as an editor and part-time writer. Meanwhile, the Wall-Crawler had entered one of his first fallow periods in Denny O’Neil’s time on Amazing Spider-Man, which simply never reached the heights anyone expected from the superstar writer. In the meantime, Marvel had launched “Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man” – the hero’s second ever ongoing title – to meet an increasingly insatiable reader appetite for the character.
And when the time came for a new writer on Spectacular, enter Stern, who had left his editor position to be a full-time freelance writer. Stern would go on to write 17 issues of Spectacular and his success on the second string title would lead to Spider-Man Editor Tom DeFalco calling him up to the big leagues. The result is a run that spanned from Amazing Spider-Man issues 224 through 252 and 2 annuals, as Stern created stories widely regarded as some of the greatest Spider-Man comics ever made and introduced a villain that would plague his hero for decades. But Stern’s run would end abruptly and contentiously, creating a behind the scenes scramble that made a mystery into a real mess.
All the while, Stern would cement himself in the hearts and minds of Spider-Man fans forever in what can be seen as the run that transitioned Spider-Man into the modern era of comics while still paying homage to the influence of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko.
Here, we’ll explore how Stern’s early days on Spectacular Spider-Man helped define his storytelling approach, the unstoppable tragic highs of Stern’s early days on Amazing Spider-Man, and how the mystery of The Hobgoblin came to define the unresolved greatness of Roger Stern’s Spider-Man.
Stern is best known for his time on Amazing Spider-Man, but anyone with an interest in the writer’s time with the Wall-Crawler should absolutely not overlook his run on “Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man” from issues 43 through 61.
The author began writing Spider-Man at the age of 29 and, like Gerry Conway before him, was a kid who once collected Spider-Man.
“With Spider-Man, I was just trying to be faithful to the character I had read ever since my mid-teens,” said Stern. “And, of course, to deliver stories that were interesting and entertaining enough that readers would come back and buy the next issue. I truly never gave it much thought beyond that. I was too busy meeting my next month’s deadlines.”
The Peter of Stern’s time on Spectacular is an overworked young man trying to balance his heroic adventures with his personal relationships, his time as a grad student, and his many jobs, with Peter working as a TA and doing photography for The Daily Globe, not The Bugle. Stern’s Peter is constantly frazzled and usually on his backfoot when fighting his enemies, but he isn’t the absolute sad sack we see in most early Spider-Man stories. His comedic side is genuine, not a coverup for his struggles.
Stern’s run on Spectacular with artist Mike Zeck begins with an inauspicious start and low stakes, but it also introduces Roderick Kingsley, billionaire fashion designer and neerdowell who will come to define Stern’s Spidey run. And the Spectacular run sees the writer establish several crucial elements of his storytelling style.
Specifically, Spectacular is mostly composed of standalone issues that push various story elements forward in stops and starts. There’s no traditional 6-issue story arc tailormade for a trade collection like modern comics. Instead, there’s a more organic flow as Stern has different ongoing threads that he moves forward over time.
Given that PPSSM is the B-side book to ASM’s flagship title, Stern can’t really make any serious changes to Pete’s life and generally has to react to what changes happen in ASM. We can see that multiple times throughout Spectacular with footnotes about changes in his relationship with Debra Whitman, different run-ins he’s had, and how he’s started working at the Bugle again. Here, Stern’s go-to supporting cast is the teaching staff at the university, but they typically don’t intersect much with the Spidey adventures. They’re more here to give some color to Pete’s non-heroic life. And when Stern moves to ASM, he’ll ditch the staff and focus on The Bugle bullpen and Aunt May.
Without the ability to make any meaningful changes to Peter’s life, it’s more apparent why Stern’s work here is mainly one-off issues with quirky, lesser known villains. Anything else he would try to do couldn’t really make any headway in lasting changes for Pete. Still, it’s fun stuff.
Speaking of villains, Stern’s time on Spider-Man is filled with unexpected opponents that pull from the hero’s already deep catalog or even other books.
A new prowler, the Tinkerer’s fake aliens, Killer Shrike, Will o the Wisp, The Beetle, Jack o Lantern, Cobra – the only classic Spider-Man villain around is The Vulture. And that wouldn’t just be the case with Stern’s time on the b-title. Vulture is the only classic Spider-Man villain ever used by Stern during his time on both Spectacular and Amazing. Instead, Stern likes to surprise his hero by matching him up against a villain he’s never fought before or whose strength and tricks he’s mostly unfamiliar with. It’s a unique way to keep the hero on his toes, and while it means that readers looking for an iconic showdown will be disappointed with Stern’s run, it serves another of the author’s passions – filling out the backstory and pathos of characters whose personalities had previously gone overlooked.
If any character benefits from Stern’s injection of depth the most, it’s The Vulture, who appears in 4 issues over 2 series. These appearances give tragedy, desire, and uncertainty to Adrian Toomes in ways that hadn’t been done before.
But his hero is even more fleshed out. Stern uses a ton of thought bubbles for Peter’s constant inner monologue in both fights and normal life. Really, every character’s mind is an open book, even those whose identities are a mystery. But if there’s one thing that Stern’s Spider-Man is lacking, it’s a love life.
There are some brief romances – the eternally cold-shouldered Deb Whitman, the conflicted Black Cat – but this Peter has NO time for love. And if there’s anyone that Stern would absolutely NOT allow Peter to be with, it’s Mary Jane Watson.
Despite being brought together by Gerry Conway and shepherded by Len Wein, the couple were broken up by Marv Wolfman, who wrote her out of the series entirely in issue 201, with the incumbent O’Neil disregarding her completely. It’s a strange thing to think of now, but MJ was basically persona non grata for a large stretch of Spider-Man in the early ‘80s.
Stern in particular was strongly against Peter and Mary Jane being a couple as he found them to be completely incompatible personality wise. However, he was the writer directly responsible for bringing MJ back in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man after being missing for 3 years. The MJ that returned was a more mature, responsible young woman and, in the process, Stern laid the seeds for MJ’s tragic family history explored years later.
“I started reading ‘Amazing Spider-Man’ when I was in high school and I didn’t miss an issue until Marvel had Pete and Mary Jane get married,” said Stern. “That’s when the train went off the track for me. I always thought their marriage was a mistake. I understand that some fans disagree, and I sympathize. But I’d written those two, and they just didn’t work as a married couple to me.”
Stern would work with a variety of artistic collaborators throughout Spectacular Spider-Man: Mike Zeck, Marie Severin, even Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter (who subbed in on issues to show the rest of Marvel how they should be drawing – standard six panel grids at medium range and eye level, real boring stuff, no wonder no one followed his example), and an even larger rotating troupe of inkers. But it wouldn’t be until his move to Amazing Spider-Man that Stern found his defining penciller: John Romita Jr.
Nothing Can Stop Roger Stern
So what is it that makes Roger Stern’s time on Amazing Spider-Man so celebrated?
There aren’t any life-altering moments for the character. Most issues are self-contained to stay new reader friendly. Stern’s borrowing of villains from other titles keeps the classic rogues out of the picture. From the outside, Stern’s Spider-Man is a simple, low key run that doesn’t make any waves. But reading it is a different matter.
What’s most important is that Stern just GETS Spider-Man, both as the beleaguered hero and as the eternally unlucky Peter Parker. And while Stern’s runs see Peter in a time of transition, leaving his position as a teacher’s assistant, quitting grad school, and restarting his freelance job at the Daily Bugle, his Peter is consistently characterized as funny, fully committed to the hero life, and deeply caring for both his long-time friends and the random New Yorkers he saves along the way.
As far as action goes, Stern’s Spider-Man is immensely strong. To match, Stern pushes Spider-Man into fights with enemies who can challenge him physically or mentally. And there’s no better example of this, and maybe no better story that Stern has written, than his two-part “Nothing Can Stop The Juggernaut” in issues 229 and 230.
The story finds Spider-Man trying to stop The Juggernaut, long-time X-Men enemy, from kidnapping Madame Web (the blind and fragile psychic created by Denny O’Neil). With Madame Webb predicting the Juggernaut’s approach, the stakes are clear – Spider-Man must stop the villain in his 5-mile walk across Manhattan. It’s a classic tale of Spider-Man against an insurmountable physical challenge that evokes the Lee and Ditko Master Planner Trilogy’s “If This Be My Destiny” finale. It seems like every Spider-Man author has done their own take on the “overcoming impossible physical odds” trope, but few have been as inventive or emotionally resonant as Stern’s version.
Here, instead of an object, it’s a man that physically outclasses Peter. And in making Spider-Man’s efforts to protect Madame Web essentially doomed from the start, we see how our hero is stubbornly tenacious and continually wracked with guilt.
Most of issue 229 is Spidey trying to stop Juggernaut in different ways, yet nothing works. He’s not just an unstoppable force, he’s almost inhuman. With John Romita Jr. on pencils, the artistic pair create incredible pacing as methodical as the villain. Tension builds as Juggernaut becomes a slow-motion wrecking ball that can’t be stopped. In particular, a great use of location, spacing, and panel breakdowns by JR Jr. illustrate his path through the city and the toll on Spider-Man
As a sidenote, this is early Romita Jr., working in the shadow of his legendary father and evoking a classic Spider-Man look, even bringing back the armpit webbing. But as the issues go on and the inkers change, JR Jr.’s style begins to look more like his recognizable angular take, especially when inked by Klaus Janson.
By the end of the issue, Webb is left for dead and Spidey is sent on a path of revenge.
In part 2, the even more hell-bent Spider-Man uses everything in reach to stop Juggernaut. He shoots steel girders like a bow and arrow. He swings a wrecking ball like it’s nothing. He hits Juggernaut with an exploding gas tank. It’s an incredible escalation by Stern. In the end, it’s Spider-Man’s tenacity, commitment, guilt, and rage that beat The Juggernaut (along with a massive pool of wet cement), in what I might consider the definitive Spider-Man comic.
Of course, with Stern’s one-off approach to Spider-Man stories, Juggernaut is just one piece of a collage that makes up his run.
While I’ve previously covered the story in an earlier video and won’t go into detail here,
The Kid Who Collects Spider-Man is a perfect, touching, tear-jerking little story that understands the real world importance of Spider-Man in half an issue’s length. It’s beautiful and one of Stern’s best stories simply because it’s so touchingly human and vulnerable in ways that many cape comics only pretend to be. And rather than simply gut punch the reader with its late reveal, The Kid Who Collects acts as a call to be kinder, more loving, and more giving to the people in our lives.
But then again, these comics are mostly about punching.
A tragic Black Cat story, the Foolkiller, the return of the Brand Corporation and Will o the Wisp from Spectacular, a terrifying transformation for the usually-pointy-shoed Tarantula, and multiple Vulture stories make up a time when Peter continues to grow as an adult, until the arrival of a new mysterious villain came to define Stern’s run.
The Goblin’s Destruction
What Stern may be most well known for in Spider-Man history comes late in his time on the title. It’s his singular creation that was made to live up to the Lee and Ditko stories he read as a teenager and the unfinished legacy that was quickly taken out of his hands: The Hobgoblin.
Amazing Spider-Man #238 details the origin of the Hobgoblin as a criminal on the run from Spider-Man discovers an old Green Goblin layer in the sewers, which he quickly sells to a mystery character. Soon, this cloaked figure uses Norman Osborn’s weaponry and secret journals to become The Hobgoblin.
While Stern would ensure that the sane Hobgoblin and insane Green Goblin would be characterized as two very different figures, the author also actively recalls Osborn and The Goblin like a ghost from the past haunting Peter. And since Peter pushed the robber down there, the hero begins to feel a responsibility for creating a new Goblin, akin to his responsibility for Ben’s death. It’s a smart move by Stern to give his villain more emotional resonance and connection to Spider-Man while still not revealing his identity.
The issues that follow bring Hobgoblin in and out of Peter’s life in several unresolved battles. These clashes build tension for both men as Hobgoblin seeks to recreate the Goblin Formula to be strong enough to defeat the hero while Spider-Man fears that Hobgoblin will uncover his secret identity in Osborn’s journals.
The duality of both never fully defeating the other is what drives Stern’s narrative.
You can see Stern’s Hobgoblin plot kick into high gear with the second half of his time on ASM, and it has a twofold effect. The plot and mystery get tighter while delivering a lot of great twists and action sequences, but everything else in the title seems to fall away. The relationships, supporting character plots, and daily life details are all slowly dropped until the major conflict with Hobgoblin takes over everything in the title. It’s clear that the Hobgoblin story is Stern’s passion.
The parallels made between Green Goblin and Hobgoblin are no coincidence. Stern not only wanted to create a mystery villain that could challenge Peter in the ways that Osborn once had, but also intended to have the mystery of Hobgoblin’s identity run 1 issue longer than the Green Goblin mystery, placing the intended reveal at Amazing Spider-Man #264.
But Stern would never get there. While issue 251 brings the Hobgoblin story to a climax, Stern never revealed his identity before he quit the book. In fact, Stern quit so abruptly that issues 251 and 252, his final works on Amazing, are scripts written by editor and writer Tom DeFalco based on plots provided by Stern.
The reason? Stern simply could not stop butting heads with new Spider-Man editor Danny Fingeroth, who had replaced DeFalco.
“As far as Spider-Man was concerned, Tom and I were absolutely on the same wavelength,” said Stern. “When he left, it just wasn’t the same without him. I didn’t have to explain every little detail to Tom, the way I did with Danny.
I could see that if we kept working together, it would drive at least one of us crazy. Maybe both of us. After about six months, I called J.R. to discuss it with him, and he said that he was thinking of leaving Amazing to spend more time on the X-Men. And that made it easier to leave the book.”
As for the way he didn’t entirely tie up his plot, Stern said,
“I’d already plotted ASM #251 and #252 when I decided to leave the book. Shoehorning in a revelation about the Hobgoblin’s identity wouldn’t have worked. Besides, I wanted Hobgoblin to be a continuing, viable adversary for Spider-Man. That’s why John Romita, Jr. and I created him in the first place.”
All these years later and it’s no secret anymore that the true identity of Hobgoblin is Roderick Kingsley. And while Kingsley was at the center of several issues of crime and intrigue on Stern’s first Spidey title, Stern didn’t start writing Hobgoblin with the character in mind.
According to Stern, it wasn’t until he had developed Hobgoblin’s speech pattern that he knew it should be Kingsley under the mask. And once the writer had a grasp on the character, Stern decided that Hobgoblin would be his magnum opus.
The mystery of The Hobgoblin post-Stern is, frankly, a huge mess. While Stern had the villain’s true identity in mind, he told very few people, one of them being DeFalco. The issue was that DeFalco didn’t like the reveal, especially with Kingsley having a twin brother to trick audiences feeling like a cheap play.
So DeFalco decided that the true identity of Hobgoblin would be … Richard Fisk – the son of The Kingpin and a major player in DeFalco’s time on the title as The Rose. But Fisk hadn’t even shown his face in any of Stern’s run. While that reveal would immediately prove Stern’s mystery teases to mean nothing, the idea ran into editorial trouble when DeFalco began clashing with new Spider-Man editor James Owsley (aka Christopher Priest).
When the time came for DeFalco to reveal the Hobgoblin’s identity to his editor, he lied and said it was Ned Leeds. And here’s where things get really complicated. Owsley hated the idea and decided to kill off Leeds in the one-shot Spider-Man vs Wolverine without DeFalco knowing and make then-current Spectacular Spider-Man writer Peter David reveal the Hobgoblin to be The Foreigner (once again, not even shown in any of Stern’s time). Cue full scale writer revolt and DeFalco posthumously revealing Leeds to have been the Hobgoblin all along and place Jason Macendale, Jack O’ Lantern, as the new Hobgoblin. Yeah, it’s a mess.
So what was once meant to be a long-running mystery with a reveal that would pay off slowly planted hints was rewritten and fought over behind the scenes. Meanwhile, Stern, who was happy with what DeFalco had been doing with his villain, hated the Leeds reveal.
Beyond Hobgoblin, Amazing Spider-Man #252 being Stern’s last on the title is quite thematically appropriate, as the issue sees Spider-Man returning from Secret Wars in possession of the new black costume he’d acquired in the miniseries. The costume would, of course, eventually be revealed to be a symbiote and give rise to Venom, ushering in a new era in the title and helping to define much of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s for the character. While it was Jim Shooter who wanted Spider-Man to wear a black costume (an idea bought from a fan for $220 years prior), it was Stern who suggested the costume be alive. It’s Stern’s last contribution to Spidey’s legacy and another that would take on a life of its own beyond the writer’s time on the title.
Stern’s quitting of Amazing Spider-Man wasn’t the first term the writer left a Marvel book over contentions with editorial, and it wouldn’t be the last.
Stern began a lengthy run on Avengers in 1983 that would run for more than 60 issues. But once again, Stern butted heads with the higher ups. This time, it was with Avengers editor Mark Gruenwald, who wanted Stern to reinstate Captain America as the leader of the team and depose Monica Rambeau’s Captain Marvel, who Stern had co-created in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man Annual 16. And to do so, Gruenwald wanted Stern to write Rambeau as a poor leader who needed to be replaced.
Seeing the approach as sexist, Stern refused and was then fired. And after a tenure filled with editorial clashes that offset his many well-received stories, Stern was ousted at Marvel. Except for one last chance to return to Spider-Man.
“Editor Jim Salicrup called me up and offered me work on Spectacular Spider-Man,” said Stern. “But this was right after Spider-Man had gotten married to Mary Jane Watson, which I thought was a huge mistake for both characters. So I thanked Jim and asked him to give me a call if and when that fell apart.”
With no opportunities left at Marvel, Stern severed his ties with the publisher he had worked with for decades.
“I wasn’t disillusioned with Marvel, so much as I was disappointed in the place,” said Stern. “I’d been working steadily for them for nearly twelve years, turning out stories that I thought were pretty good. The readership seemed to agree, and I’d never gotten any complaints from any of my editors. But then, suddenly, it was all over.”
In the wake of his departure, Stern set sail for DC Comics, where he had a hand in producing some of Superman’s defining ‘90s stories, including his death and, ironically enough, his marriage to Lois Lane. Yet there was still unfinished business with the Wall-Crawler.
In 1996, Stern returned to Marvel to write “Spider-Man: Hobgoblin Lives,” and, if the title didn’t give it away, the 3-issue miniseries gave Stern the chance to bring his Hobgoblin mystery to its intended close with the reveal of Roderick Kingsley as the true Hobgoblin. Following its success and Stern’s satisfaction at seeing his true Hobgoblin identity permanently placed in Marvel canon, the author would write several other series at Marvel and years later write several issues of the main Amazing Spider-Man line post-One More Day. Why had Stern returned to Spidey decades later?
It’s simple: Stern’s despised marriage of Peter and Mary Jane was erased from Marvel history and the writer could once again be happy with the character’s status quo. That’s what you call a controversial take in the Spidey fandom.
These many stops and starts show a writer passionate about the character, but never fully given the chance to say his piece about Spider-Man.
The abrupt end and complicated legacy mean that Stern’s Spider-Man run lacks payoff or completeness to its structure. A fact that’s even more apparent when read in the context of all the behind the scenes conflict.
But despite its ending, the sudden turnover feels perfectly in line with Stern’s storytelling approach. Villains come and villains go. Challenges rise and are bested by a hero that inspires us all. And in the end, it’s simply another day for our Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man.
It’s a comic that you could hand to anyone who wanted to understand the character and simply tell them, “Now, THIS is Spider-Man.”