Orbital Reading Lists: Spider-Man – Part 1

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Based on the number of customers we have on a weekly basis asking us, “Where’s the best place to start with [insert character here]?” – we’ve  started a series of reading lists, recommending the best of what’s currently in print, and in chronological order. Spider-Man is one of the most iconic comic book heroes of all time, and Stan Lee’s best loved creation. Peter Parker first appeared in Amazing Fantasy #15 back in 1962, and was given an ongoing series just a year later. That’s going waaaay back, so this list will concentrate on the modern era of Spidey comics, with more to be added both further back and further ahead. Going back to the turn of the century, here are some of the wall-crawler’s best contemporary tales, in reading order!

AMAZING SPIDER-MAN (ULTIMATE COLLECTION – VOL. 1)

J. Michael Straczynski (w), John Romita Jr. (a)

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The JMS run is largely defined by the decision to let Peter truly grow up. Over the course of Straczynski’s six-year tenure, Peter naturally matures into a confident adult in all areas of his life without ever losing his snappy sense of humour and trademark hard luck.

Things don’t start out that way, of course. Having recently separated from Mary Jane, Peter is restless, jobless and especially susceptible when he is approached by Ezekiel, a wall-crawling mystery man who seems to know more about Peter’s powers than Peter himself. Ezekiel blows Peter’s mind (and the minds of the readers) when he tells him to consider the possibility that his Spider powers didn’t come to him by accident, essentially challenging the entire Spidey mythos. According to Ezekiel, Peter is a “totem”, a conduit between man and beast (in Peter’s case a spider) which even reflects in his rogues gallery of Rhinos, Lizards, Vultures and Scorpions, etc. Ezekiel warns him that he has enemies who would seek him out for precisely this reason. Enter Morlun, a vampiric villain who feeds on just such creatures…

Also contained in the first volume: the 9/11 tribute issue, appearances from Doctor Strange and Doc Ock, and the beautifully crafted issue #39 (JRJR at the height of his powers), which explores the lingering connection between Peter and Mary Jane even as they live their lives apart. The most memorable development is when a central character discovers Peter’s double-life as Spider-Man, the aftermath of which is so well-handled and believable that it stands as one of my favourite “secret identity reveals” of all time.

CIVIL WAR: THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN

J. Michael Straczynski (w), Ron Garney (a)

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It was an unforgettable moment in Spidey history when Peter removed his mask on live television, revealing his secret identity and breaking the internet. This story takes place late in the JMS run, at which point Peter has found an unlikely father figure in Tony Stark, who has taken Peter under his wing and even built him a fancy, high-tech new costume. Tony convinces Peter to take his side in the fight against Captain America over the Superhero Registration Act, a decision that will result in major consequences for Peter and his loved ones. Between the tie-in issues collected here and the main Civil War title, it’s worth the price of admission just for J. Jonah Jameson’s reaction to Peter’s unmasking alone. It is also memorable for the Iron Man/Spider-man relationship, which has never been as complex before or since.

This is also one of the books that certainly looks to have informed the Spider-Man: Homecoming film.

BRAND NEW DAY (COMPLETE COLLECTION VOL. 1)

Various (w), Various (a)

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Readers were up in arms after the Straczynski continuity ground to a halt and back-pedaled following final arc “One More Day”, which sees Peter and MJ make a deal with Mephisto: in order to save Aunt May, they must allow their marriage to be erased from existence. The idea behind this decision was to bring the character back to basics, and Brand New Day essentially reboots Peter as a single, hapless Daily Bugle photographer whose secret identity is Spider-Man. This era started off a bit uneven, but things soon shaped up and some of the most wonderful stories and characters came out of it. Creative duties were split between rotating teams on the Amazing Spider-Man title, which published three times monthly. The “Spidey Brain Trust” included Bob Gale, Marc Guggenheim, Dan Slott and Zeb Wells, with the later additions of Joe Kelly and Mark Waid.

Changes in the status quo meant that Peter’s identity was once again a well-kept secret, and that Harry Osborn (who’d been dead since the ’90s) is still alive. Having recently returned from…Europe, Harry introduces Peter to his new girlfriend Lily Hollister and her friend Carlie Cooper, a forensic specialist for the NYPD. We also meet a number of new friends and foes including Jackpot, Screwball, Mister Negative and the mysteriously Goblin-esque Menace.

BRAND NEW DAY (COMPLETE COLLECTION VOL. 2)

Various (w), Various (a)

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By the second volume, BND has really hit a stride. Following the events of crossover event Secret Invasion, Norman Osborn is being hailed as a national hero. More politically powerful than ever, he and his team of super-powered enforcers, the Thunderbolts, are gunning for Spider-Man with the full force of the law behind them. With Menace on the loose and Norm back aboard his Goblin Glider in his finest purple duds, Spidey is dodging Goblins left and right, but not without first being hunted by the Kravinoffs!

The first of the Joe Kelly issues commences with a focus on Hammerhead, who’s working as muscle for rising crime lord Mister Negative. This volume also includes some exciting Spidey team-ups with Daredevil and the Punisher, and features the famous issue where Flash Thompson loses his legs in battle, paving the way for a more (ahem) symbiotic relationship with Spider-Man in the future.

BRAND NEW DAY (COMPLETE COLLECTION VOL. 3)

Various (w), Various(a)

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Mark Waid makes his debut on the writing team with “Unscheduled Stop”, a two-part story in which Spider-Man must save a subway car full of people trapped in a tunnel by what appears to be an earthquake, but turns out to be something more sinister. It introduces the character J. Jonah Jameson Senior, who will come to play a big role later on (with hilarious long-term consequences for both Peter and Jonah).

The third volume also provides answers to long-running questions such as: who is the mysterious goblin Menace? How is Harry Osborn still alive and where was he when he was supposedly living in Europe? And why doesn’t anyone remember what Spider-Man looked like when he unmasked on live television?

Harry’s storyline is one of the most compelling as he struggles to stay on the right path but keeps being tested. His death (in Spectacular Spider-Man #200) had been such a seamless and inevitable ending for the character that it was going to be difficult to offer a satisfying reason for him to be brought back. Fortunately, the explanation is extremely plausible, well-handled and respectful of the Spectacular storyline that preceded it.

Also in the pages of Volume 3: New York City gets a very unlikely new Mayor! Spidey saves President Barack Obama (a Spider-Man fan in real life) at his inauguration in the Presidents Day Celebration issue!

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That’s it for Part 1 of our Spider-Man reading list, with more to come! In  Part 2, we’ll get to know that other Spider-Man from the Ultimate Universe whose initials are MM rather than PP! Also, you can read my spoiler-free review of Spider-Man: Homecoming here!

-Liz

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