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Stan Lee and John Romita’s Spider-Man – The Amazing Spider-Man Omnibus, Vol. 2 (Review/Retrospective)

I loved Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s Amazing Spider-Man. In fact, I think it might be the most accessible Silver Age comic book that I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. However, all good things must come to an end, and Steve Ditko left the title after thirty-eight issues. As such, the title went through a transitional period, with John Romita Sr. taking over the art on the book. Romita would arguably end up a much more proactive guiding light on Amazing Spider-Man, doing a lot of work outside the main title that undoubtedly helped cement the character’s place in popular culture. There’s a wonderfully “sixties pop” feelings to the issues collected here, even if they feel a bit more conventional than Ditko and Lee’s collaboration. Still, it’s easy to see why The Amazing Spider-Man is among Marvel’s longest-running books.

Reflecting on a fun run…

There’s a marked change in the title, beginning from the very issue that John Romita takes over the artwork. I think it’s possible to argue that most of Ditko’s Amazing Spider-Man could be read as one gigantic origin story, with the first thirty-three issues establishing the groundwork for what would follow, setting up the characters and the “rules” of this very new and very different kind of superhero. After that point, with Peter famously lifting a weight off his shoulder (a collapsed hunk of metal, but metaphorically the guilt for his uncle’s death), I’ll freely concede that Ditko’s run lost a tiny bit of steam. Everything felt like an epilogue, or perhaps like treading water.

John Romita’s arrival is a breath of fresh air. Romita’s storytelling is great. Ditko arguably has a more fluid sense of choreography, and his actors look more like graceful dancers, but Romita’s characters have a certain weight to them – as if they are ready to crash out of the panel and into the reader’s lap. While I don’t think this stretch of issues – neatly bookended (almost) by two Green Goblin encounters – quite measures up to those first thirty-three issues, but that’s not a major fault. Few comics do. There are at least two genuine classics here (How Green is my Goblin? and Spider-Man No More!), but there’s also a wonderful sense of energy.

Green with envy…

From the outset, it’s clear that Romita won’t be emulating Ditko. Ditko’s figures were typically a bit skinny and gangly. They were thin and seemed almost stretched. The frailest member of Romita’s cast, the elderly George Stacy, actually looks like most of the cast as rendered by Romita. Shoulders get broader, characters get more muscular. Even the faces of established characters like Peter and Gwen get just a bit more dashing. Romita draws beautiful people doing beautiful things, and it’s quite clearly an entirely different world to the one that Ditko established. Ditko made The Amazing Spider-Man unique by making it seem somewhat smaller than other titles. Under Romita, The Amazing Spider-Man is far more muscular and heroic.

Romita’s panels even seem to strain a bit. During the early issues, Romita will occasionally try to adhere to a nine-panel page, mirroring Ditko’s somewhat claustrophobic layouts. However, as the artist gets more comfortable, his artwork expands, with fewer panels taking up more space. And there’s no denying that Romita’s artwork looks much better once he gets completely comfortable. It feels like the title has a lot more room to breath than it did in those earlier issues.

The Kingpin is going to tear this city apart with his bare hands!

Whether this is an improvement or not will depend on the reader – it’s honestly a matter of taste. Both Ditko and Romita are very good at their particular styles, and both bring a very particular voice to the adventures of Peter Parker. It’s possible to argue, and I’d agree to an extent, that Romita’s work feels a lot more conventional that Ditko’s. Ditko’s Amazing Spider-Man felt quite different from most titles of the time, and a lot of that came from how tightly controlled Ditko’s work was. It seemed like he was constricting Peter Parker, and that felt quite appropriate given the character’s luck. Romita’s Amazing Spider-Man effectively bursts free of that, as if using Spider-Man’s own seldom-mentioned power of “chest expansion.”

You could argue it’s a very natural and a logical progression, and I’d agree with that too. Ditko had the fortune to tell his story before he departed – to plot a character arc for Peter Parker that saw a young and inexperienced teenager come to terms with the radical change in his circumstances. As such, it makes sense that Romita’s world feels a little brighter and a little bit more expansive. The world looks a great deal more handsome because, to Parker, it is.

Talk about a snow day…

And this change in artwork is reflected in Stan Lee’s plots. Most obviously, there’s a major change in Peter himself, and the notorious Parker luck. An early issue promises, “Beginning: a great new era.” The first issue sees Peter Parker buying a motor bike. The narration sarcastically refers to “May Parker’s ‘fragile’ nephew.” Gwen even remarks upon Peter’s new-found confidence, “Actually, I never thought of you as the motorcycle type before, Pete!”

Mary Jane is introduced, perhaps the luckiest thing that ever happened to Peter. “Face it, Tiger… you just hit the jackpot!” She’s not wrong. While Ditko’s early version of Parker would have struggled around her, she’s quite taken with Romita’s version of the character. “You come on strong, son! And all this time I was afraid you’d be the shy type!”His relationships with Gwen and Mary Jane feel a lot less frustrated than those earlier teenage flings. They actually get to go on dates together, for example, as opposed to randomly getting angry with Peter for hanging out with the other girl.

The scales must be balanced!

Even Gwen can’t help but note the sudden shift in Peter’s good fortune, trapped between two beautiful and intelligent women who both want him for who he is. “Is it true you’re only dating me because Raquel Welch stood you up?” For his part, Peter seems a lot happier caught between Gwen and Mary Jane than he ever did with Betty and Liz. Of Gwen, Peter thinks, “She’s the only girl — who’s never asked me — for any explanations!” On that point, Mary Jane is also cool with Peter being who he is – riding to the Rhino’s rampage with him.

Lee and Romita even go out of their way to tidy up the last few connecting shreds of the relationship between Peter and Betty. To be fair, it seems like only a few issues ago the characters were expressing their undying love, so Stan works his magic to make that break-up as smooth as possible, smoothing over even the smallest hint of tragedy. “Whatever we had before,” we’re told, “whatever there was between us — it’s gone!” Peter observes, “Once I thought I couldn’t live without her! Now she’s just another girl named Betty! Boy, have I grown up in these past few months!”

Gaze into the fist of Mysterio!

Even Peter’s high school bully, Flash Thompson, matures and seems to accept Peter as a friend, “Y’know something, Parker? Every so often I figger you’re not as square as I thought!” Accepted into the army, Flash seems to mature beyond the high school jock archetype he initially was, suggesting that perhaps Peter’s world isn’t quite as bleak as it might have seemed. Even Harry Osborn suggests that Flash has grown and developed as a character.

It helps that time has passed. Comic books have their own notoriously flexible sense of time. In order to justify keeping heroes like Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four around, when they’d really be well into their seventies, the company tends to compress the history of its characters down to a decade or so. The result is that time passes quite slowly within the fictional universe, if it is mentioned at all. However, these issues come from before these rules had quite cemented themselves.

Batman’s not the only one who can do brooding…

In fact, it’s suggested that Peter has been doing this for almost as long as readers had been following him. John Jameson references the events of The Amazing Spider-Man #1, asking his father, “Don’t you remember how he rescued me a few years ago?” It feels funny to think that Peter’s calendar is so clearly instep with that of his readers. Then again, perhaps that’s the appeal. After all, Peter Parker did get to grow up with an entire generation of readers, leaving high school and going to college alongside them.

Even J. Jonah Jameson seems to soften a bit here. Not too much of course – at one point he tries to hold down Spider-Man so the Vulture can finish him. Still, there are hints that there’s a decent man beneath that cigar. (Lee and Ditko did acknowledge that as well, to be fair, in a more subtle way – suggesting that Jameson did care about his newspaper, albeit as an extension of himself.) Here Jameson gets his own little moment of awesome, standing up to the Kingpin and refusing to bow to the threat of force.

Grabbing the Rhino by the horn…

Told that he’ll cease any coverage of the Kingpin’s activity, it’s fun to see Jameson’s outrage directed at a deserving target. He responds, in a typical Jameson-ian manner, “In a pig’s eye! Nobody tells me what to write in my paper!” In a rare moment of level-headed-ness, he refuses to go along with Smythe’s plan to kill Spider-Man using a lethal Spider-Slayer. “Now wait a minute!” Jameson insists. “Nobody’s talking about murdering him! I just want him captured, see?” The character isn’t exactly converted, and he’s still a major thorn in Spider-Man’s side, but he seems a lot more human here.

And, to contrast with Jameson, it’s interesting that supporting cast expands to include several supporting characters in favour of Spider-Man. Perhaps that’s the clearest indication that the web-crawler’s notorious bad luck has turned, in that we get two very reasonable supporting characters in the form of George Stacy and Robbie Robertson, both influential figures. In particular, George Stacy makes a fascinating inclusion to the cast, because he’s the first positive father-figure in Peter’s life since the death of Uncle Ben.

Yes, he is talking to YOU evidently…

Stacy is shown to be as interested and as supportive of Peter as he is of Spider-Man, even explaining the situation to Gwen when Peter can’t. It’s hinted here that he suspects Peter is Spider-Man, a fact that would eventually be confirmed. He makes for a fascinating contrast with Jameson, as the only other major recurring male character of that age. His open-mindedness sets him apart, as he reflects on Jameson, “May heaven protect us from those who know all they need to know… about anything.”

More practically, Stacy stands up for an unconscious Spider-Man at the mercy of a New York crowd. “Relax, Jameson!” Stacy insists. “We’re not unmasking him!” That said, his argument’s pretty tenuous. “And even a helpless masked man has his rights!”he insists, as we’re asked to believe that the city would pause to consider the legal right for a vigilante to keep his mask on. Especially during an election year, when you’d imagining the mayor unmasking Spider-Man would be a national hero. Still, if you’re going to pick at plot points, there are more obvious problems to be found.

It’s not a black and white issue…

It is interesting to note, though, that the arrival of Stacy sort of shifts the dynamic in the comic quite a bit. It seems that Romita and Lee’s Amazing Spider-Man is far more concerned with fathers and sons than Lee and Ditko’s. In fact one could argue that the lack of father figures in Lee and Ditko’s Amazing Spider-Man only served to isolate Peter further, so he had no one to turn to. However, here we’re shown a variety of failed fathers trying to do right by their sons.

John Jameson was briefly introduced in the first issue of The Amazing Spider-Man, but his relationship with his father was barely touched upon. In contrast, here we get to see their dynamic in all its dysfunctional glory. J. Jonah Jameson is perfectly willing to use his own son as a weapon against Spider-Man, and is repeatedly shown to be disinterested in anything his own son has to say. The only time he seems to be interested in listening is when John might have the key to a story that would sell newspapers. Jameson is perhaps the most obvious example of a failed father figure, but he’s not the only one.

Trust me, it’s quite a tail!

Again, Curt Connors and his son were introduced during Lee and Ditko’s Amazing Spider-Man, but there was little focus on their relationship. Curt’s son was only really a plot device to create tension and suspense. Here we learn that Curt has been spending time away from his wife and his child, and seems to be tempted by the idea of power that the lizard represents. “I was just thinking,” he tells Spider-Man, “perhaps the Lizard could defeat the Rhino!” It seems that Curt almost subconsciously desires the change. And, when it counts, he can’t be there to greet his son at the train station because he’s too busy changing into a giant green lizard man.

In contrast, the dynamic between Harry Osborn and Norman Osborn was touched upon by the Ditko and Lee combo. In their first two panels together, Norman manages to tell his son to shut up, twice. Here, the trend continues. Sure, he’s only really a jerk when he’s got the Green Goblin on his mind and he’s going through a nervous breakdown, calling his son a “fatuous fool”and all that. However, even when he’s not being a psychotic murdering machine, he’s hardly an ideal parent. After all, he offers Peter a job at his company, rather than Harry. In fact, he seems more interested in Peter than he does in his own son. While he’s going through his prolonged second breakdown, he can’t even talk to Harry about it.

Don’t throw it all away…

And then, of course, there’s Peter himself. This collection closes with the unfortunate Amazing Spider-Man Annual #5, which reveals the true story of Peter’s parents. Stan and Steve had avoided the topic completely, never explaining why Peter was living with his Aunt and Uncle. I like the idea that Peter’s parents died when he was young, and that was the end of it – I like the idea that this got him used to the idea of death so the violent loss of his Uncle Ben wasn’t such a complete shock. of course Peter wears the Spider-Man outfit to honour his Uncle Ben, but he’s not morbidly obsessed with the man. Unlike, for example, Batman – who is morbidly fixated on the loss of his parents. My own personal interpretation of Spider-Man is that the loss of his parents is what helped him come to terms with the tragedy of Ben’s death so well.

Of course, Stan Lee suggests that he didn’t intend anything quite as deep. Asked by Marc Webb why Peter didn’t have any parents, Lee’s pragmatic response was, “I just needed to get them out of the house.” So Amazing Spider-Man Annual #5 introduces perhaps the first awkward retcon into Spider-Man’s past. It’s so awkward it’s rarely directly mentioned these days, except in affectionate spoof like with The Untold Tales of Spider-Man. Apparently Peter’s parents were traitors. And then it turns out they were spies. But apparently the US government forgot they were spies, and so assumed they were traitors. But it’s okay, because Spider-Man has proof that they were definitely US Agents, even though the only people who could validate it are the US government and…

Life never closes a door…

Okay.

Suspension of disbelief is a strange thing. It has different strengths for different people. Some can embrace ideas with ease. Others simple can’t. I can accept the idea of a wall-crawling web-slinging superhero. I can accept convenient amnesia. I can accept brainwashing. I can except a flying OAP and pumpkin bombs. I can barelyaccept that a prison would leave Spider-Man’s mask on, and I can accept the Green Goblin’s insane slide-show at the start of the run.

Talk about a bad hair day!

However, the idea that Peter’s parents just happen to be super-spies, and he just happens to find the evidence that exonerates them, and the American government just happens to forget that they were double agents really stretches that. What I always responded to in Peter was this idea that he was just a normal kid dealing with these super-human problems. A normal kid who gets bitten by the wrong spider and suddenly ends up in a whole new world. If that kid just happens to be the son of a pair of secret agents working to bring down the Red Skull? He doesn’t feel so normal any more. It feels like a rather disappointing reveal.

That said, it’s hardly the most ridiculous thing that happens here, on any objective scale – even if it is the one that most seriously affects the eponymous character. Reading this volume, it seems that Steve Ditko was something of a restraining influence on Stan Lee when it came to conventional superhero plotting. There are all manner of tried-and-tested superhero plots used here, in some very awkward manners. It’s not that Lee and Ditko were entirely straight-laced (they did feature a robot deducing Spider-Man’s identity and a a man powered by a meteor, for example), but here it seems like Lee has been let off the leash a bit.

What a tangled web…

That shouldn’t seem like that much of a surprise, of course. Ditko was very much in favour of grounding Peter Parker, in particular objecting to a sequence in the first issue where Peter hijacked a government jet and saved a capsule falling from a space ship. Such a thing seems (rather obviously) outside Spider-Man’s league. “It’s like having a high school football player playing in the Super Bowl,” Ditko commented. However, with Ditko gone, things begin to get really weird, really fast.

The second issue collected here features one of my favourite surreal sequences, as the the Green Goblin holds Spider-Man prisoner and shows him a slide-show on his projector. “And now, the final remembrance,” he boasts, “before you meet you end!” It almost reminds me of that wonderfully disturbing sequence from Red Dragon. I wouldn’t have been surprised to turn the page and discover the Goblin boasting, “Crime Master – becoming.” Of course, this being the Silver Age, the Green Goblin appears to be projecting directly from his brain via a harness on his head. I do worry that my biggest logical problem with all this is the fact that this cerebral projector seems to work through his rubber mask.

“Aw, boss, Tony spent hours on that model!”

Of course, the Green Goblin discovers Spider-Man’s secret identity, so Lee and Romita have to deal with that. And they deal with it through amnesia. Surprisingly enough, something similar happens when the character returns at the end of this particular volume. Even Spider-Man winds up with a case of rather convenient amnesia at the hands of “the nullifier”, which really sound like the kind of thing that Iron Man would be more adept to handle.

There’s a distinctly science-fiction flavour to many of these stories. When the Rhino appears on the scene, Spidey observes, “Just as I suspected! It does have something to do with the space race!” John Jameson is affected by spores from outer space, conveniently. The Kingpin uses brainwashing to get what he wants, while Doctor Octopus steals the aforementioned nullifier, which is treated as a threat to national security. Strangely, for a bunch of comics after the original issues, there’s a much stronger Silver Age influence felt on these issues.

Rhino smash!

There’s even a couple of examples of what might be termed “superdickery”, an opening sequence that portrays our hero doing something shocking or out of character that is promptly revealed to be not quite what it appears. It’s a cheap and cheesy gimmick, a rather lame way of grabbing the reader’s attention. The most awkward example features Spider-Man appearing to rob a bank, when in fact he was just removing a bomb.

Yet another opens with a confrontation between Spidey and the Green Goblin and Kraven, only to confess (to be fair, on the same page) that it’s a flashback to an earlier adventure. (Already, at this stage, Stan the man was retconning the character’s history. “In case you don’t remember this stirring sequence from ish #15 or #34 (Kraven’s last two appearances), it’s because we didn’t show it!” he advises his diligent readers. “After all, we can’t blow the whole bit in every yarn!”

Give him a round of applause…

The Amazing Spider-Man Annual #3 explains why Spider-Man isn’t a member of the Avengers, and it’s victim to so many of the Silver Age superhero tropes that were in evidence over on The Avengers at the time. Spidey is subjected to fairless nonsensical and reckless “tests” to determine his viability to join the team. One involves the mandatory superhero crossover fight sequence.

The second, and somewhat more illogical, trial sees the Avengers sending Spidey to take on the Hulk and lead the monster to the mansion, because apparently Captain America is too busy to travel across town to take on the rampaging monster. Never mind the massive property damage the creature is causing, or the massive risk to human life, apparently it’s worth letting the Hulk wander through one of the most densely populated cities on the planet to prove Spider-Man belongs on a team of heroes. Spidey takes pity on Banner, and lets him go – which makes for a strange ending.

The Vulture is circling…

After all, Silver Age superhero comics were hardly morally complex? Does this mean Spider-Man was right to allow the Hulk to continue wandering through town? Are the Avengers wrong to try to contain the creature’s violent outbursts? Given that Spidey’s primary theme is one of responsibility, just letting a rampaging monster go seems a little irresponsible, no matter how you feel about the man trapped inside the beast. This being the Silver Age, the Hulk’s rampage won’t kill anybody, but – if he did – that would create a situation just like the one that led to Uncle Ben’s death.

Of course, we’re not meant to think about it that much. It’s just an ending to the story that allowed Lee to keep the character out of his superhero team book. What’s interesting is that so many fans and editors would continue to insist, up until the present day, that Spider-Man doesn’t belong in the Avengers. This encounter merely excludes Spider-Man by a technicality. In fact, Lee makes a convincing moral and philosophical argument that Spidey belongsin his superhero team.

Break a leg… I mean an arm!

After all, how is combining his power with that of others in any way incompatible with the character’s ideology. “Thor was right!” the character admits after doing some soul-searching. “I do have an obligation — to mankind!” It’s telling that this rather simple premise would be used by both Dan Slott and Brian Michael Bendis to justify the character’s place on the team of “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.” (Of course cynics would suggest that he was just there to boost sales, but there’s an argument to be made that Spidey sincerely deserves a place on Marvel’s flagship team.)

Still, throughout this stretch of issues, it feels like Lee and Romita are fully embracing the sixties. There’s life and vitality and music – a generation freed from the conservatism of the fifties. Ditko’s Parker was quite conservative, mentally lambasting protesters, but this version seems like a genuine swinging baby boomer. And, to be sure, there’s a bit of depth to all this. The Vietnam War lurks in the background, with Flash Thompson even drafted to serve in the army, and likely to be stationed overseas. Even though the topping is only fleetingly brought up, one senses the gravity with which Romita and Lee treat the subject.

Shocking!

I think you could make a case that the best story of this collection – and arguably one of the best Spider-Man stories ever told – is still grounded in that harsh reality, even if it’s never expressly alluded to. Spider-Man No More! is a comic book classic, one that even informed Spider-Man II, the best of the live-action Sam Raimi films. In it, Peter opts to give up being Spider-Man. He doesn’t stop because his powers go away, or because he’s brutally beaten, or even because the risk of discovery is increasing. In that story, Peter Parker gives up being Spider-Man because he thinks, briefly, that he may have outgrown it.

Reflecting on his career, he thinks, “I was just a young, unthinking teenager… when I first became… Spider-Man… But, the years have a way of slipping by… of changing the world about us… and every boy… sooner or later… must put away his toys… and become… a man!” It seems that, to Peter, giving up being Spider-Man is “putting away childish things”, so to speak. It’s an inevitable part of growing up, of accepting the world as it really is. It’s the pragmatic thing to do. After all, what is the point in being a wall-crawling superhero when people are dying overseas, the economy is in trouble and all those real world problems keep pressing down?

The bigger they are…

It seems fair to read this as a reflection on the fact that a lot of readers had grown up with The Amazing Spider-Man at this point, gone through high school and either ended up in college or joined the army. Undoubtedly they felt the same way about the book itself – what use is this fantasy in the real world? There’s something deeply and truly moving about The Amazing Spider-Man #50, as Peter comes to terms with the idea that his amazing adventures do have a place amongst all the humdrum activity, and that just because he’s grown up doesn’t mean he should give up on Spider-Man.

It’s telling that the main bad guy of that story is the Kingpin. Sure, the character would take on some Silver Age trappings in the issues that followed. He’d eventually assume the identity of “the brainwasher”, for example, and he carried a “disintegrator cane.” Still, measured against the other new characters like the Shocker or Vulture II or the Rhino, Wilson Fisk was a very banal form of evil. He was a gangster, the kind of person who could exist, albeit in a less fancy form. All it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing, and Peter’s idleness allows the most simple form of corruption and evil to take root.

Not at all watered down…

I’m not one for cheap sentimentality, but there’s something heartwarming about the way that Lee and Romita suggest that we should never let ourselves outgrow the enthusiasm and fancy that Spider-Man represents, and that his virtues are very important even in a world as uncertain as the America of the sixties. There’s a sad story playing itself out in the letter columns, but one that underscores just how much an icon like Spidey can mean.

Corporal Leonard R. St. Clair had a letter published in The Amazing Spider-Man #50, the Spider-Man No More! story. He remarked how great it was to read the books on his overseas posting. Unfortunately, the magazine received a notice of the Corporal’s death in The Amazing Spider-Man #53. Corporal St. Clair died in the line of duty, serving in a foreign land, fighting a war that was already feeling a little futile. And yet, in the midst of this, the book meant so much to him that he would write to thank the editors. I think the story frames the context of The Amazing Spider-Man very well.

Smoke and mirrors…

While I might, narrowly, prefer Ditko’s work on the title, it is worth conceding that it was John Romita who really pushed the book to its status as a pop culture monument. Romita might not seem to have had the same volume of output as Ditko on the title (towards the end of the run here, he receives assistance from Jim Mooney and Don Heck), but he did manage to launch a second book featuring the character. (And, for my money, the Mooney and Romita collaboration on the black-and-white issue of The Spectacular Spider-Man is the artistic highlight of a fabulous volume.)

Although Romita couldn’t quite match Ditko pencilling both The Amazing Spider-Man and Dr. Strange (and annuals) at the same time, it hardly sounds like the artist was lying idle. “Stan figured Don would save time for me in the pencil stage,” he explains in an introduction collected here, “freeing me to do more of my chores around the office such as cover sketches and art, costume designs, minor art corrections, fill-in stories for Captain America, inking the occasional one-shot book, over-seeing the Spidey Super-Stories books we did with the Children’s Television Workshop and designing the Spider-Man balloon for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.” It’s examples like that which really secured Spider-Man’s place in popular consciousness, and Romita deserves an astounding amount of credit for helping to push the character to the fore like that.

Cat fight!

And that’s not even counting the contribution to the actual comics. While Ditko introduced Gwen Stacy, Romita’s pencils really defined her. There was a softening to her voice as well from Stan Lee, and the character generally emerged as a stronger romantic interest. That said, she’d be blown away by Romita’s Mary Jane. Lee and Ditko had teased us about the character’s movie star good looks, and Romita delivered. Mary Jane has a wonderful energy to her in these panels. (That’s undoubtedly compounded by the fact that she never seems to stop dancing.) Given how things ended up, it’s almost hard not to feel sorry for Gwen, knowing that she doesn’t stand a chance in the eyes of Peter or the fans, which would lead to her inevitable fate.

Despite the wonderful work Romita did with the leading ladies, I will note that his villains don’t quite measure up to Ditko’s. Sure, the Rhino is a Spidey favourite, and the Shocker has been around long enough to become an institution. However, neither can quite measure up to Doctor Octopus, the Green Goblin or even the Vulture, the Lizard, the Chameleon, Mysterio, the Sandman or the Scorpion. The Kingpin is a fascinating character, but he wouldn’t really come into his own until Frank Miller drafted the character into Daredevil. There’s a sense that Lee and Romita recognise this. The Goblin, Doctor Octopus and the Vulture all get extended arcs, and the newer characters are out-numbered significantly by the returning favourites. And Romita draws them all spectacularly.

Put that in your pipe!

I have to admit, to be honest, my favourite new villain here is actually a one-shot character appearing in the first Spectacular Spider-Man issue. Raleigh, the would-be mayor of New York, makes for a perfect foil to Spider-Man in a way that none of the new villains really do. We’re presented with a character consciously exploiting his underdog status for personal gain, pretty much the opposite of Spider-Man, who suffers due to his underdog status.

Explaining his evil plan, Raleigh boasts, “Then, to gain sympathy, I pretended the underworld was out to destroy me.” There’s something quite tragic that the public is more likely to support a fake who claims to be victimised, rather than a real hero who is victimised. There’s a cruel irony that, even defeated, Raleigh is more popular than Spider-Man. “Even in death,” Jameson eulogises the one-shot character, “his honesty — his fearlessness — shine out like a beacon. His life will be an inspiration — to us all.” None of the other new villains resonate quite so well with Spider-Man.

Kingpin smash!

(Although I do like that Kingpin is very clearly disinterested in the whole “being a supervillain” thing. He seems to just want to establish his criminal empire and rule like a prudent business, but somehow got caught up in a wacky superhero adventure. At one point, his minion explains how an incredibly convoluted death trap works, only for Fisk to curtly inform his underling, “Just let me know when the charade is completely ended!” I love that he actually calls the elaborate construction of a death trap a “charade.” Even then, Fisk was hardcore.)

There is one more major difference between this bold new era and the older Ditko stories, and it’s the fundamental nature of the world itself. Ditko imagined Peter to live in a harsh, cruel and random world, where meaningless things happened and not everything ended up making perfect sense. When the identity of the Crime-Master was finally revealed, it turned out to be an anti-climax – neither we nor Peter recognised the name. More than once, Peter pulled the mask off an adversary only to discover that he didn’t recognise them. Such an approach made sense, as New York was a gigantic city, and it seemed only logical that some of the goons running around would be people we didn’t know.

Oh, man… this is kinda awkward…

Romita’s Amazing Spider-Man feels a lot more connected, almost as if everything is within one degree of separation from Peter. Coincidences abound, and characters tend to overlap. Most notoriously, there’s the identity of the Green Goblin, who is revealed in the first issue collected here to be Norman Osborn, who is (a.) the father of Peter’s classmate Harry, and (b.) the corrupt business man that Peter foiled not a few issues ago. One popular (and refuted) rumour suggests that Ditko left the title over the identity of the Green Goblin, with theorists arguing that Ditko wanted another “random” reveal, like the Crime-Master.

This has been refuted, but the fact that Norman’s identity was revealed in the issue immediately following Ditko’s departure has only fanned the flames, as have comments from Romita himself. “Looking back,” the artist has been quoted, “I doubt the Goblin’s identity would have been revealed in Amazing #39 if Ditko had stayed on.” Maybe that’s the case, but we’ll never quite know. However, there are other examples.

Consider him armed and dangerous…

When Aunt May puts Peter’s room up to let, of course the tenant turns out to be somebody we know – Doctor Octopus, no less. Even May herself points out on the serendipity of it all. “And to think it’s you who are answering our ad for a border! What a small world!” Romita’s Amazing Spider-Man is a small world, one much smaller (and a lot friendlier) than Ditko’s. Similarly, John Jameson is around when anything involving the military happens, and George Stacy gives the police force a face (even if he is retired).

This (smaller and friendlier) logic also applies to the broader Marvel Universe. There are more direct crossovers in these pages, as compared to during the first thirty-nine issues. Sure, Ditko’s Spider-Man would occasionally cross paths with the Fantastic Four or team up with Daredevil, but he seemed quite apart from the madness of the shared universe. Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1 featured most of the Marvel Universe, but in tiny roles (almost cameos serving as advertisements). Amazing Spider-Man Annual #2 featured a more direct crossover, but only with Ditko’s Dr. Strange.

Supervillain team-up!

Still, none of the characters Peter encountered could seem too odd or strange. The Fantastic Four were the cornerstone of the Marvel Universe, and Daredevil was another low-level urban hero. However, this run sees Spidey mingling with the broader superhero universe in a more significant manner. He crosses over with, of all characters, Medusa of the Inhumans and Ka-zar. Neither character really comes to mind when you think of Spider-Man, and there was a sense that Spidey was branching out a bit. He also nearly joined the Avengers and took on the Red Skull. While the Marvel Universe had already been established, even as part of the Amazing Spider-Man, there’s a sense that the whole think was being kicked up at least a notch here.

I’ll freely concede that I am not quite as fond of the John Romita era as I was of Steve Ditko’s tenure on the title. However, Romita and Lee continue to produce a top-tier book. It’s hard to argue that The Amazing Spider-Man isn’t still among the finest comic books being published during the Silver Age. Sure, it might be a little bit hokier, or a little bit cheesier than those very first stories, but it’s a fun and entertaining ride. There’s still a sense of dynamic progress in these issues – Peter’s world is still expanding. Although I think Peter’s character arc was perfectly covered in Ditko’s first thirty-three issues, there’s still a sense of movement.

Leapin’ Lizards!

Romita is an artist who is among the very best working in comic books, so literally every page of this gigantic collection is a joy to behold. It looks like a pop culture master class, and it’s easy to see why these early Amazing Spider-Man issues are so highly regarded. While I might marginally prefer the first volume, I can’t wait for the next collection of Romita’s work on the web-swinging wonder.

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12 Responses

  1. You deserve SO many more comments on this review. Thank you por posting this. I had a blast reading it after I order my copy of this book. So thank you. 🙂

    • Thank you very much Michelle! The fact you liked is good enough. I find people read these posts, but don’t generally comment. I hope my writing’s not that bad!

      • Darren, you are not a bad writer. You are the greatest film/comic critic ever. I am dead serious. Please keep this blog up. Sorry if I’m too sycophantic here.

  2. I agree with most of what you say. However issue 50 was never one of the my favorites. His motivations for wanting to quit seem absurd considering what we saw earlier in the Ditko years. The idea about father/son’s interesting. Was that conscious on their part? Hard to say.
    The other thing is the whole Fredric Foswell tries to save Jameson’s life in gratitude was pretty hard to believe. It was a attempt at drame that had basis in characterization.

    The few issues that approached the quality of the Ditko years were Annual 3 and the two Mysterio issues. Was that 66 and 67? You seem to at least like the artwork even though you did not mention it in your text. It was a interesting idea even if the plot twist was easy to figure out. Despite the questionable choice in Annual 3 that issue had more real angst than anything else Lee or Romita did in their first year together.

    You did not go into detail about Robbie Roberson. His influenceis important because he was the first supporter of Spider-Man who was not a journalist but a actual member of the Daily Bugle. Not counting Betty Brant who no input in the newspaper. The dramatic difference is seen in the issue where the Bugle actually prints a retraction to Spider-Man. Could you imagine that happening when Ditko was on the title?

    Many of the other changes with Peter and his relationships really seemed like a mistake. From Betty Brant to making friends with Flash and Harry. Other people do not seem to mind it. Blake Bell is at least one fellow who agrees with me. Have you read his book on Steve Ditko?

    • I haven’t actually. Ditko is a fascinating character, and I love his work, but I’m hesitant to pry too heavily into his personal life or background. I adore those first issues of Spider-Man, and I think it very clearly changed once Ditko left. I wouldn’t argue it was an improvement – in fact, Ditko’s scripts read almost as a serialised novel, whereas the later stuff feels more open-ended. At the same time, I think that the softened edges of the Romita era inform a lot of what people think of when they think of Spider-Man, so I’m reluctant to object too heartily to it. Chris Sim argues that the first 100 issues of The Amazing Spider-Man are the most consistent first 100 issues of any superhero title ever. (The only other run that comes to mind is Ultimate Spider-Man, appropriately enough.) I think that’s a solid argument, and I think that while Ditko’s first issues are a vital part of that (the most vital part of that), it makes it impossible to object too strenuously to Romita’s time.

      • Don’t worry about the book. It doesn’t deal with Ditko’s private life. Most of the stories are only about his professional life. And the majority of the work is more criticism than biography. The only things about his personal life were some stories about his early years before he became a artist. So if you don’t object to that feel free to look at it.

      • I’d say the “amazing” consistent quality of Amazing Spiderman ends after the first Clone Saga where they try and retcon a lot of previous events.

      • Fair point. But it’s still an incredible run to that point. Clone saga is somewhere in the high two-hundreds or three-hundreds?

  3. I’m surprised John Romita’s run doesn’t get as much attention as Steve Ditko’s. It’s really just as good. As for Annual #3, I really don’t think Spider-Man should be an Avenger. The key is the Avengers isn’t like the Justice League where it’s supposed to be the center or the universe with all the A-listers (let me state how much I do not care about the Brian Michael Bendis “New Avengers”). I think the Avengers sort of operates on the sides, as the Marvel universe doesn’t really have a defined center (I personally thin all the unnecessary stuff down to Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Avengers, and the Fantastic Four).

    • I think it’s quite fair to argue that Bendis’ New Avengers would not have happened (or would not have happened in that way) if Marvel Studios had retained the film rights to Spider-Man and the X-Men. I suspect the centring of the Marvel Universe on The Avengers was part of the “these are our toys” reality of the larger multimedia strategy. That said, I think that New Avengers was probably the best way of doing what was clearly an external mandate.

      I am not a huge fan of The Avengers as they existed beforehand – they always seemed rather cliquéish and elitist, with their mansions and… goodness, I hate eighties Hawkeye and his entitlement issues so very much. I think tearing everything down and rebuilding was the way to do that. (I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Bendis’ approach draws rather heavily from Chris Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men run.) As an aside, I think that Bendis uses Spidey rather well in New Avengers, by having him represent an actually working-class hero who doesn’t come from a world of mansions and butlers. (There’s a great moment where he essentially calls Hawkeye out for observing that it’s tough to be a superhero without all that framework.) Although, arguably the inclusion of Luke Cage does makes Spidey rather redundant.

  4. You say Stan and Steve dodged the subject of Peters parents entirely, buuuuuut in the story “Spider-Man Goes Mad!”, Aunt May mentions Peter doesn’t have a mother or a father. I’m willing to forgive this slip up on account that you have to review a total of 40 issues in one article. 😉

    • Thanks! Yep, it’s a bit of a slip, but it is a single line that doesn’t really say much beyond the fact that they ain’t around.

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