Infinite Spider-Man 10.6: The Best Stories

Posted by Mister Mets 08 May 2012

My envy as a Spider-Man fan over the quality of the best comic book story of the last decade led me to ponder the best Spider-Man stories, especially when considering the wisdom of recent changes.

Peter Parker’s probably the best character in comics. Excellent writers (Stan Lee, Gerry Conway, Roger Stern, JM Dematteis, Brian Michael Bendis, Paul Jenkins, Dan Slott, Peter David, etc) have worked with some of the most talented artists the medium has ever seen (Steve Ditko, John Romita‑ either one, Todd Mcfarlane, Mark Bagley, Ross Andru, Gil Kane, etc) to produce their best work on the character in a few of the greatest comic book stories ever. Given the quality of the character, I’m still left with one question: Why aren’t there more great Spider‑Man stories? Why don’t we have any Spider‑Man stories produced in the last generation as acclaimed as the absolute best of Batman?

The pre “One More Day” Spider‑Man books were good, but could have been better, especially when compared to Captain America or All‑Star Superman. It’s odd that the best Spider‑Man stories haven’t been topped in 20+ years, which is a damn shame given the quality of the best books produced today. In the last twenty years, I don’t think anyone has done a Spider‑Man story as good as Amazing Fantasy #15, or the Master‑Planner three parter. This is disappointing.

One could argue that the Illusion of Change hurt the Spider-Man comics. But I would disagree with that. While there were a lot of excellent stories mainly under writers Stan Lee and Gerry Conway before Marvel had come to that policy, there was a lot of great material afterwards, especially with Roger Stern's run of Amazing Spider-Man.

I hoped that a good relaunch should eventually result in stories better than “The Night Gwen Stacy Died,” “Nothing Can Stop the Juggernaut," "The Kid Who Collected Spider‑Man" and the supposedly outdated Lee/ Ditko tales. It hasn't quite happened yet (despite the awesomeness of some of the post-OMD stories) but I remain optimistic. Perhaps I overrate the classics, or it could just be a matter of the old great Spider‑Man stories being better than any pre-Miller Batman stories I’m aware of, but I haven’t seen any Spider‑Man stories published in my lifetime which are arguably better than The Dark Knight Returns, Batman: Year One or The Killing Joke, even if Kraven’s Last Hunt (which came out more than twenty years ago) and Bendis’s first year on Ultimate Spider‑Man (not exactly the adventures of a married Spider‑Man) come somewhat close.

This isn’t a problem with other superhero franchises. The acknowledged best Superman stories were written after Roger Stern left Amazing Spider‑Man including “For the Man Who Has Everything,” The Man For All Seasons, All‑Star Superman, Kingdom Come, John Byrne’s Supergirl saga, “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” and “What’s so Funny About Truth, Justice and the American Way?” The usual Top Five Batman stories list includes material published since Stern left ASM (Year One, The Dark Knight Returns, the Killing Joke, the Long Halloween, Arkham Asylum.) Captain America has Earth X, The Winter Soldier arc and The Ultimates, in addition to his excellent appearance in Daredevil: Born Again. The Avengers have both volumes of The Ultimates, Ultron Unlimited and the Avengers Forever mini‑series.

While pondering the question of why Spider‑Man hasn’t had an All‑Star Superman a few years ago, I  came to the conclusion that even though Spider‑Man has been married in the comics, the majority of great recent Spider‑Man stories feature a single Spider‑Man, either existing in worlds in which Peter and MJ weren't married, as Untold Tales, or during the periods in which Peter and MJ were briefly separated or MJ was believed dead. If it’s not just an odd coincidence, or a matter of less opportunities to tell stories with a single Spider‑Man resulting in better writers getting the chance to tell those stories, you’re left with one of two possibilities. Either better writers are drawn to stories with a single Spider‑Man, or Peter Parker being single allows the writers to tell better stories. If either is true, I reasoned that erasing the marriage should increase the percentage of upcoming acclaimed Spider‑Man stories.

Examples of great recent pre-OMD stories (in the years before One More Day) with an unmarried Peter Parker include the best of Ultimate Spider‑Man, the first two Spider‑Man Movies, most of Spider‑Man: Blue (with the exception of the last three pages), the first four issues of Dan Slott’s Spider‑Man/ Human Torch mini series, Darwyn Cooke's Valentines Day Tangled Web, Lee Weeks’ Death and Destiny mini series, Joe Kelly’s prom story in Webspinners, Negative Exposure, Dematteis and John Romita Sr’s “The Kiss” and even Kaare Andrew’s alternate future tale Reign.  Going back a few years, you could add Busiek’s Amazing Fantasy mini‑series and the best of Untold Tales of Spider‑Man to the list.

One time there was a disproportionate amount of great Spider‑Man stories was when when Mary Jane was believed dead, or immediately after she moved to California, as long as Howard Mackie wasn't writing. During that period, you had Paul Jenkins's first two standalone issues, The Revenge of the Green Goblin crossover (even Mackie's issue of that was exceptional), Jenkins's Robot Master and euthanasia storyline, his Fusion three‑parter, Straczynski’s first nine issues of Amazing Spider‑Man (with Morlun, and Aunt May learning Spider‑Man’s identity) and "Heroes Don't Cry" and the Ultimate Punisher three‑parter.

There were some excellent and beloved Spider‑Man stories since the 1998 relaunch featuring a Peter Parker married to Mary Jane, but there just weren’t as many of them. The list would include Jenkins’s last issue of Spectacular Spider‑Man, his Chameleon three‑parter in Webspinners, the fifth issue of Spider‑Man/ Human Torch, the last three pages of Spider‑Man: Blue, the Sensational Spider‑Man annual, Straczynski’s “Happy Birthday” and “Book of Ezekiel” three‑parters, Sins Past (some people loved it so I’ll include it), Mark Millar’s twelve issue stint on Marvel Knights Spider‑Man, the best of Spider‑Girl (I’d argue that the best of Ultimate Spider‑Man more than makes up for this one), the Civil War tie‑in of Amazing Spider‑Man, the Friendly Neighborhood Spider‑Man Vulture storyline, “My Science Teacher is Spider‑Man,” and Beland’s Web of Romance one‑shot. And that’s pretty much it.

While I'm sure that there are readers who believe that the stories mentioned are among the worst in comic book history, most of the comics I listed are fairly popular. Opinions could differ, but it's difficult to deny the success and popularity of Ultimate Spider‑Man, Spider‑Man 2 or JMS's first nine issues of Amazing Spider‑Man amongst general Spider‑Man readers. At the same time, I’ve yet to hear anyone make a convincing case for a Spider‑Man tale being as acclaimed as The Dark Knight Returns or All-Star Superman. This isn't me just defending random Spider‑Man stories I happen to like. It's a trend I notice amongst many of the most successful and acclaimed Spider‑Man stories, stories which I happen to enjoy.

As Peter and Mary Jane are married in the regular comics, there are more stories featuring that status quo, so a greater percentage of pre-OMD great Spider-Man stories should be from that period. It’s significant if there seem to be more great stories in which they are single. Spider‑Man: Blue, one story which made both lists, exemplifies the possibility that the marriage represents an ending, not a plot that can go somewhere exciting. It features Peter reminiscing about his relationship with Gwen Stacy, and ends with him happily married to Mary Jane, presumably forever. It works for a single TPB, but not for a never‑ending serial.

Some of the stories that I've mentioned don't have romantic tension, but there are other things the marriage removed. A few came from a period when Mary Jane had essentially left Peter, bringing their relationship to an uncertain place- right after Mackie's last arc. While Peter wasn't really romantically interested in anyone else at the time, there was more tension in those stories because he lacked a supportive wife to go home to when a story arc was done.

There is the question of how much any change to the status quo would contribute to good stories, and the comparison has been made between Peter’s marriage to Mary Jane and his job as a photographer for the Daily Bugle. This doesn’t work as well since the latter has been a big part of many of the best Spider‑Man stories ever, even if it was just the scrapbook of Jonah’s retractions in “The Kid Who Collects Spider‑Man.” Peter Parker working for the Daily Bugle doesn't limit the stories you can tell with him and opens up new stories, with the Bugle providing the perfect excuse to put Peter Parker in situations in which Spider‑Man is needed. His usual position as a freelance photographer also meant that he didn’t have job security, which kept the Bugle from bringing stability to his status quo. Post-OMD, he has been blacklisted from any photography positions. Presumably his marriage was more stable.

There were certainly clunkers with the single Spider‑Man and the Illusion of Change approach, but they compare rather favorably to the worst of married Spider‑Man: "Peter Parker No More!" "Live and Let Die," the worst of the Clone Saga and post‑reboot Howard Mackie. There have been fantastic Spider‑Man writers since the marriage (JM Dematteis, Paul Jenkins, and Mark Millar immediately come to mind) so the question of why we haven’t seen Spider‑Man’s Killing Joke is not a matter of the past creative teams not being good enough. Peter’s marriage to Mary Jane and the way it limits the writers is one of the reasons the books simply weren't as good as they could be.

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