With almost sixty years of publication history, comicdom’s friendliest of Friendly Neighborhood heroes has seen a staggering range of stories and interpretations—not all of them compatible. Indeed, Peter Parker has inspired some of the greatest superhero comics ever—and some of the absolute worst. There’s just so much content in Peter’s world that it can be difficult to know where to start.
But if I were to imagine a reader completely new to the Spider-Man of Marvel’s mainline universe, Earth-616, the ten story arcs and creator-run highlights listed below would be a most excellent entrée for beginners. Because there’s so much material to draw from, my criterion for this list is finding those moments where satisfying, entertaining storytelling endures not just on its own merits but through continued relevance to Spidey’s contemporary world and mythos.
And if you’re keeping up with Nick Spencer’s current Amazing run, you know that he’s been mining deep into seemingly all of Spidey’s endlessly layered history. His enthusiasm for the whole Spider-Man mythos is inspiring, proving that these classic stories have largely aged well, rich with material that continues to satisfy and provoke.
The Lee-Ditko: Origins & Destiny
From Spidey’s first appearance in Amazing Fantasy #15 followed by Amazing Spider-Man #1-38, artist and Spidey cocreator Steve Ditko gave readers of the time a foundational version of the character that was clearly much more brooding, anxious, and edgy than friendly. In fact, Ditko’s Peter had only one friend, Betty Brant, who quickly fell prey to Ditko’s penchant for dark and often frenzied melodrama. Even now, though, these stories somehow feel fresh. They’re certainly dated in many ways, but the raw energy that Ditko brought to the storytelling and the complex humanity that seemed to evolve out of the tension between Ditko’s edginess and Stan Lee’s sentimentalism make these thirty-nine issues absolute standouts—not only for the Silver Age but the history of the medium itself.
Audiences of the day witnessed the evolution of Spidey’s characteristic visual motifs and poses at a time when this sort of deeply conflicted superhero was utterly unique. He was just an ordinary teen wearing a creepy mask and no footwear. How much the design was Ditko’s alone or took input from his roommate, pioneering fetish and bondage artist Eric Stanton, is debatable, but everyone who loves Spidey should revisit the Lee-Ditko run often. Ditko’s indelible take has never been matched for its foreboding sense of some dark and terrible fate awaiting our hero somewhere in the chasms of the city—while Peter, with an impossibly frail and clueless aunt to care for, had to suffer the pettiness and stupidity of his peers and employer.
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If I had to pick one story from this most classic Silver Age run, it’d have to be “If This Be My Destiny,” Amazing Spider-Man #31-33. This brief arc, the last issue in particular, is where the hero Spider-Man is truly born, where he fully comes into his own. And with Doc Ock putting his aunt’s life in danger, Spidey is depicted in issues #31 and #32 with a desperate, seemingly indefatigable rage that we’ve almost never seen since. Still, I’d recommend starting with Amazing Fantasy #15 and building to this moment of satisfaction, getting to know Spidey’s evolving supporting cast and rogues gallery along the way.
(The first half of the Lee-Ditko run is collected in Amazing Spider-Man Epic Collection: Great Power.)
The Opening Chapters of the Lee-Romita Run
Even if Ditko hadn’t abruptly left Amazing Spider-Man after many months of silent grievance between him and Stan the Man, it was unlikely Marvel could’ve found a replacement to match the neurotic energy of Ditko’s Peter Parker. But John Romita turned out to be a perfect fit regardless. The gregarious Jazzy John coming in hot on the heels of the notoriously antisocial Ditko couldn’t have brought a more opposite style and tone to the book. While Ditko’s supporting cast was almost entirely obstructive toward Peter, Romita turned his peers into friends, even Flash! Previously a seasoned romance comics artist, Romita helped forge the Marvel house style, and his Spidey run immediately introduced a more even-keeled clarity that moved away from Ditko’s manic energy and his almost uncannily elastic version of Spidey. That’s not to say something invaluable wasn’t lost with Ditko, but the unfussy steadiness and even romantic chutzpah of Romita’s work proved fit for the times and just what Amazing needed as it became ever more popular.
Romita drew a hip, handsome Peter with almost no edginess, and Peter’s moments of anxiety now evoked endless sympathy rather than the nebulous dread of Ditko. Over the course of the Lee-Romita run from #39 to #110, with a few small gaps toward the back end, Romita’s professional consistency would see Amazing Spider-Man occasionally coasting on its laurels, but it was still the best Marvel title of its time. Though it had fewer highs than Ditko’s run, Romita’s work with Stan Lee really built out Peter’s world more fully from the groundwork laid by Lee and Ditko. There are many highlights here, but my personal favorite is simply Romita’s first five issues, #39-43. While #39-40 dramatically reveal the Green Goblin’s identity and wrap up this early formative conflict for the time being—thus setting up Peter’s dread around Osborn for years to come—issues #41-43 introduce both the Rhino and Mary Jane, who couldn’t be more excited to watch the Spidey-Rhino brawl even if it means blithely putting herself in mortal danger. This heedlessness, along with her almost manic need to dance and groove, largely defined the Silver Age MJ. Start here and keep grooving through #110, “The Birth of the Gibbon.”
Origin of the Hobgoblin
The absolute highlight of the Silver Age, Amazing Spider-Man hit an inevitable slump for about six years, after the fun but often bizarre run of writer Gerry Conway, which ended with “The Original Clone Saga.” Conway’s most unforgettable arc, “The Death of Gwen Stacy,” doesn’t hold up well as a story that can be enjoyed over and again. For my money, that kind of storytelling doesn’t come back to the title until 1982 with Roger Stern, beginning with #224 (though he’d just come off a strong but episodic run on Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man in issues #43, #45-52, and #54-61, 1980-1981).
Stern’s style hearkened back to the days of Lee and Romita, but he was a much subtler storyteller and managed to avoid excessive melodrama. Everything Stern wrote for Marvel had a kind of nostalgic self-awareness, but it was like an acknowledgment and homage to the Silver Age Genesis that never, ever intruded on the clean and bold forward motion of the story. Stern’s success here owes much to the fact that Romita’s son, John Romita Jr., penciled the run; JRJR was really just coming into his own as an artist at the time, and the sense of unindulgent nostalgia is also that of two lifelong fans revitalizing a franchise and making it appealing to readers of the early 1980s.
Stern and JRJR gave us many classic Spidey tales, and yet they rarely turned to Spidey’s go-to rogues gallery. This was intentional: Stern’s deep understanding of the character shines through when he’s taking on unlikely foes like the Juggernaut or Cobra. He knew that unlike most superheroes, Spidey wasn’t defined by his stock villains. So what defined Stern’s Spidey? In the classic “Nothing Can Stop the Juggernaut,” #229-230, it’s clearly Spidey’s tireless, selfless efforts in going up the most implacable of foes. Because this is mainstream comics, Spidey’s always going to find a way to overcome, but there’s an undeniable sense that otherwise, he’d give his life trying to defeat an enemy that doesn’t even bear him personal ill will.
But recommending the most essential and exciting story of the run, I have to go with their Hobgoblin saga, whose central mystery was never satisfactorily resolved since the creative team was booted right after the initial climax to the long buildup of this mysterious new villain in issue #251. All involved would readily admit the idea for Hobgoblin is a rip-off of the Green Goblin. What was original about it, though, was the way they melded the Goblin’s M.O. with the almost noirish intrigue of other early, largely forgotten Spidey villains, like Crime-Master and Big Man, or even Doc Ock in his Master Planner guise.
Stern and JRJR’s saga may have been episodic and incomplete, but unlike any narrative thread between #150 and #300, the unresolved mystery of the Hobgoblin had many heavily invested readers speculating for years about the Hobgoblin’s identity. And the complexity of Hobbie’s operations would help build out Spidey’s essential rogues gallery even more, laying the groundwork for a sort of Goblin franchise, which culminated most recently with 2014’s “Goblin Nation,” the closing arc of Superior Spider-Man.
The Death of Jean DeWolff
Incredibly, the classic story of “The Death of Jean DeWolff” came at the very start of Peter David’s career at Marvel. Spectacular Spider-Man wasn’t just meant to be the B story to Amazing; it was focused on unpacking psychological aspects of Peter/Spidey’s life that the flagship title couldn’t take as much time for. No one fulfilled this aim as well as Peter David and J.M. DeMatteis (who has two entries on this list!).
But more than with previous writers, it really kicked off with #107-110 (1985), which David has happily admitted were very much modeled after Frank Miller’s already classic Daredevil in terms of its dark, violent themes and grittier, noirish aesthetics. The story begins with police captain Jean DeWolff’s murder. This was a character who’d been a staple in the title for years, a reluctant ally to Spidey and a mature, sexy woman in a beret whose sexual tension with Spidey was never made explicit. Really, it would have been a total mismatch, but Captain DeWolff was a strong, charismatic presence beloved by fans of the title.
There are aspects of this story that haven’t aged well, which have more to do with ignorance than willfulness but do tend to damage most superhero stories focused on street-level crime and the police. But in any case, the mystery killer turns out to be a real surprise. If you’ve been following Nick Spencer’s work on Spidey, you already know who it was (if you hadn’t guessed already). David did write a solid conclusion to his troubled story with Spectacular Spider-Man #134-136, David’s last arc on the title. (Most of the issues between this and “The Death of Jean DeWolff” are, inexplicably, not on Marvel Unlimited.) These stories reintroduced death to Spidey’s world with a newfound maturity and more enduring reflections on mortality.
Kraven’s Last Hunt
This meditation on mortality was taken to its ultimate height with “Kraven’s Last Hunt” by J.M. DeMatteis in a 1987 crossover between the three Spidey titles of the time. But it’s all the same creative team of JMD, Mike Zeck, Bob McLeod, and Janet Jackson.
Originally intended as a story for Batman, this masterpiece could be equally well fitted to most street-level crimefighters with eccentric rogues galleries, if adapted according to each hero’s distinct temperament. Adapting the story for Spidey, JMD highlights Peter and MJ’s close bond through their inner monologues, as they’re kept apart for the vast majority of the event. Elsewhere, he’d go on to show himself the best writer of their relationship, at least until J. Michael Straczynski. Here, their concern for one another in separation is in marked contrast to the two other feature characters: Kraven and Vermin, a devolved rat-like man with a terrifying capacity for violence and cannibalism—but a surprisingly sympathetic pawn in Kraven’s last hunt, a sort of forlorn Caliban who might never find redemption.
Kraven here is fatalistic and suicidal—which is handled with supreme care and lack of sensationalism on JMD’s part, an extremely rare feat in mainstream comics of the time—but in his despairing nihilism he believes redemption lies in proving himself a greater warrior than “the Spider.” In other words, his belief has always been “might is right.” Of course, that completely misses the point of Spider-Man’s existence. But it makes for a compelling deconstruction of Kraven’s literally toxic brand of masculinity and what reads, implicitly but quite clearly, as a violent displacement of homoeroticism.
While Frank Miller was once again an influence on a classic ’80s Spidey story, in critiquing the potential fascism in superheroism, JMD brings his own subtle interests in psychosexual drama—seen also with Vermin’s interiority. That subtlety is owed equally to Mike Zeck and his darkly cinematic unfolding of the drama, scant on dialogue, heavy on drums. It’s a dark incantation, far beyond the “grime and grit” typical of the ’80s but also uncharacteristic for Spidey; still, handled well, brief stories of loss and tragedy become real highlights for this franchise largely defined by a more wholesome brand of adventure.
The Decline & Death of Harry Osborn
JMD’s other Spidey masterpiece shares many of the same qualities, but this time as drawn by Sal Buscema and with significantly more dialogue—wholly integral to the psychological portrayals of the players. Buscema’s character expressions do equal work here and are far more interesting and subtle than those of McFarlane and Larsen on Amazing. It’s baffling why only three of the relevant issues of this classic stretch of Spectacular Spider-Man are available digitally. Beginning with the seven-issue “Child Within” arc in #178 and building episodically in #188-190 and #199 toward Harry Osborn’s last act in #200, “Best of Enemies,” this is the best Spider-Man story of the 1990s, full stop. You won’t regret tracking down these issues; otherwise, you must await the day they’re finally collected in trade.
If you’ve been keeping up with Nick Spencer’s Amazing Spider-Man, you’ll know how relevant this tragedy continues to be. JMD was inspired by Gerry Conway’s classic but ham-fisted take on Harry in ASM #136 (1974), where an emotionally fragile Harry takes on his dead father’s Goblin mantle. But JMD’s take on Harry’s dynamic with Peter, Spider-Man, and the legacy of his father goes much subtler and unfolds carefully across many issues with hypnotic panel arrangements similar to Zeck’s—though Buscema’s art is more spare and stark.
The engine of the plot may be the final crackup of Peter’s best friend, but while highlighting the starkly different backgrounds of these two best friends, JMD brings to the fore aspects of both that previous writers had never seriously considered—like Peter coping with the death of his parents early on and Harry being resentful of Peter despite Harry’s exceptionally wealthy upbringing. After all, Harry’s soul never had a chance growing up in the shadow of Norman Osborn’s disapproval, ambition, and eventual mania. Reading from #178 through #200, you’ll find equally insightful portraits of Aunt May, MJ, and even the Vulture! (Seriously, old Adrian Toomes has never been more compelling.)
(Hot take: David Michelinie’s contemporaneous run on Amazing was very uneven and rarely satisfying. Style over substance wasn’t just a problem with the art. But I’d be remiss in neglecting the now all-important Alien Costume Saga/Venom’s Origin. These stories and issues are very sporadic and ultimately concern Eddie Brock much more than Peter Parker.)
Throughout the ’90s, the Spidey franchise was in disarray, and Byrne’s botched retcon of Spidey’s origin proved the final straw. Cue hiring outside talent, namely J. Michael Straczynski, who revitalized Amazing with his mature portrayal of Spidey akin to JMD’s work. Leaving aside his final arc, “One More Day,” JMS’s opening six-issue epic, “Coming Home,” remains the most relevant of his run’s many highlights—partly for introducing Morlun, the last major Spidey villain debut, which shows how compelling (and how obstructive) Spidey’s legacy villains remain. But JMS primarily introduced him merely as another one of those implacable and impersonal foes that have fueled some of the best Spidey stories.
This bruise fest feels like an original twist on Spidey’s past battles with both Juggernaut and Kraven. Like “Kraven’s Last Hunt,” it begins with the death of Peter Parker—or one very like our 616 hero. But in the moment, this sudden shock tosses out years of reader complacency. Perhaps more importantly, the story shows how alone and adrift Peter’s become. And it makes sense of Peter later turning to the Avengers and most especially Tony Stark for a sense of mentorship but also safety for himself and his loved ones. The betrayal of the promise Stark leads into the end of an era, almost full circle with Peter thrown back on his own devices on the streets. Caught in the middle of a “civil war” that ultimately leads to Aunt May on death’s door, Peter—or editorial—makes an infamous deal with the devil and gets an abrupt soft reboot.
Straczynski’s work is also a stark contrast with Brian Michael Bendis on Ultimate Spider-Man, which focuses on Peter as a teen. I was just the right age to be more taken with Amazing in the early aughts, where Peter being down on his luck but looking to make good after years of strange and alienating experiences just felt more relatable. Bendis’s Spidey is a lot of fun, but Straczynski explored adult Peter’s life in ways that now seem impossible—because Peter will likely never be allowed to age as he’d begun to during this period. However, the next primary Spidey writer, Dan Slott, knew that Peter couldn’t just go back to shooting Spidey pics for cranky Jonah, and the Straczynski run showed the constructive potential in taking new risks and setting off into uncharted territory.
“Coming Home” also saw the triumphant return of the now veteran master John Romita Jr., a perfect fit for the cinematic rebirth of Marvel’s greatest hero—and his last era as an adult who ages with the rest of us.
The Gauntlet/Shed/Grim Hunt
Jumping from 2001 to 2010 in Amazing Spider-Man is way more jarring and confusing than doing likewise between, say, 1982 and 1991—and that’s almost entirely thanks to “One More Day,” which saw Mephisto annulling Peter and MJ’s marriage from history and the mysterious return of Harry from his secret years of convalescence in Europe (see ASM 581 for the deets). There’s also the fact that post-OMD, Spidey had only one monthly title—Amazing—and it shipped almost every single week from 2008-2010.
When Dan Slott and company opened this new era with “Brand New Day,” MJ is a recent ex-girlfriend, though still friendly, albeit with clear boundaries and mostly not in New York; the return of Harry, who now appears perfectly well adjusted, is a complete mystery for months. More importantly in the long run, Peter seems to be much younger, much less burdened by experience. A necessary decision for Marvel? What matters are good stories, and this strange and abrupt transitional period couldn’t be more relevant now, in 2021. But for our purposes, it’s #600 and beyond where the series really starts to hit its stride, across a three-and-a-half-year period all the way to #700, the end of an era (see our penultimate entry below). There are many highlights across these 101 issues, but I went with the earliest, longest, and most diverse, #612-637.
While I would recommend issues #600, 606, and 611 as a prelude to “The Gauntlet,” they aren’t collected in The Gauntlet – Complete Collection volumes. The #600-611 stretch also reintroduces classic characters who will show up throughout this long story suite and especially its finale, “Grim Hunt.” The basic premise, though, is simple enough: myriad Spidey rogues—even the Juggernaut—are sent after our hero, separately, under the secret auspices of Kraven’s widow and children, all to force Spidey into a bruising gauntlet that will weaken their “Spider” prey, allowing the Kravinoff family and allies to capture him for a sacrifice of “totemic” spider blood that will resurrect the great hunter Kraven. The twist, however, is that nobody sees what’s coming—except maybe Madame Web!
It’s not the easiest entry point, but it’s a wonderful sampler of modern Spidey and his classic villains, who are revamped without an ounce of crass gimmickry. Rhino, Electro, the Lizard—they’ve never been more fully realized and compelling. The chance to reintroduce these characters inspired much brilliant creativity, with each story by a different creative team, including veteran writers Roger Stern and J.M. DeMatteis and fan faves Joe Kelly, Zeb Wells, Chris Bachalo, and Marcos Martin. The last story before “Grim Hunt” itself and second in quality to the final event, “Shed” by Wells and Bachalo is frightening, dark and tragic, but its portrayal of Curt and Billy Connors remains as relevant as the Kraven story for getting into Nick Spencer’s current run.
The second half of “The Gauntlet,” including “Shed” and “Grim Hunt,” is collected here.
(Two other highlights before “Dying Wish” are the Big Time/No One Dies stretch where Slott takes over sole writing duties and the Spider-Island event—which might best “The Gauntlet” as a large-scale narrative; unfortunately, I just can’t get into Humberto Ramos’ art. You may feel differently! 😊)
Dying Wish/My Own Worst Enemy/Troubled Mind
Now jumping to 2013, we once again find another totally new status quo that really got its start in “Big Time” (#648-652, 2010-2011), with the first appearance of Peter’s new employer Horizon Labs, where his rise as inventor extraordinaire is meteoric—just like his eventual fall from grace nearly a decade later. The outcome of “Dying Wish” (#698-700) would push the reach of his ambitions much further, so the ultimate downfall would hit that much harder. But! At that point, we’re really talking about the tragic hubris of Otto Octavius, whose tenure as Superior Spider-Man would revitalize the franchise beyond anyone’s wildest expectations.
What?! The staggering shock of #698 had in fact been a long time coming. Masterfully, this is a story that Slott laid the groundwork for in #600, where Doc Ock received a fatal prognosis. You can guess then what his dying wish turned out to be. The story of this vicious creep in Peter Parker’s body continues throughout most of the next series Superior Spider-Man, but the best of it is the first nine issues, which would have likely been the end of Doc Ock’s horrifically verboten squatting, except that Marvel was surprised by the popularity of the character! In #9, we see a glimmer of what was perhaps Slott’s original intention for our hero’s return. But by then we’ve already begun to sympathize with Spidey’s greatest archnemesis as he begins to realize that his grand theft didn’t bring him the unconstrained freedom he had wished for.
The pencils are traded off throughout this stretch by the refreshing mix of hot newcomer Ryan Stegman, peak Giuseppe Camuncoli, and a much matured Humberto Ramos, blessedly less cartoonish in style and more textured and naturally expressive.
We at last come to my favorite Spidey miniseries, 2019’s Spider-Man: Life Story by Chip Zdarsky and Mark Bagley, whose status as the artist who’s drawn Spidey more than anyone else makes him a perfect fit for this loving homage and subversive look back at Spidey’s history. Each issue covers a different decade, sixty years in all, treating the Marvel universe as if it aged in correspondence with our own. This is so rare for Marvel that I’d like to see it done for other major characters or teams. Look at every cover for a moment and you’ll feel the excitement of getting to see familiar territory reworked in surprising and refreshing ways. But it’s all done so lovingly, showing a deep appreciation of continuity remixed without any contrivance.
Chip’s brilliance here is in his thoughtful revision of key moments with both a greater degree of realism and an artful compression of critical events. In issue #1, Flash’s going away party before shipping off to Vietnam has a clearer undercurrent of anxiety and even regret on Peter’s part, and very unlike the source material in ASM #47, Norman is there to threaten Peter, not have a nervous breakdown. The series gets wilder and more compelling from there, with Cap fighting to protect Vietnamese villagers against American soldiers and #2’s elegantly redacted version of Gerry Conway’s “Original Clone Saga” (still a fun read!). Life Story isn’t just a realistic reading of “superheroes in the real world,” it’s more importantly a treat for longtime fans who are themselves beginning to feel the weight of experience and the weathering of age. There’s not nearly enough of this kind of storytelling in mainstream comics: both a love letter to aging and the beloved stories we age with. This is my kind of meta—less cheek, more wisdom.
Enjoyed the article and agree with a lot especially the Stern praise. I think the Michelinie era was fun. Todd and David made Spiderman, how do I say it, less fragile physically speaking. I saw Spidey do feats I always felt he should have been like swinging tanks around with webs, lift cars over his head with ease. This is the Spiderman I love and always envisioned. Yes the stories aren’t as compelling as the Lee or Stern tales but man that is the one single weakness I find with them. Spider-man physical prowess and strength should never be overlooked.
Thanks Bruce! I agree Michelinie’s run is still a lot of fun. That was my first experience of Spidey as a kid. Back then, my mother was sure those funny books were rotting my brain; she certainly never believed they were actually boosting my vocab as a first grader up to college level, hah!
Really it was close to a tossup between Michelinie and DeMatteis, but ultimately I’m happy to promote DeMatteis’ work; it’s a crime so little is collected. Still, while JMD feels more satisfying these days, DM’s Amazing when penciled by McFarlane, Larsen, or Bagley just can’t be beat for big 90s comic action at Marvel.
Really detailed and interesting list! So hard to find decent round ups for Spiderman. Thanks!