The first strategy is to recommend a stretch of issues, perhaps a complete creative run. There may be some questions about the backstory, but it will be much easier to follow transitions issue by issue, rather than trying to figure out how things changed from one comic to another, as enemies become friends while villains died and came back. Rather than being worried about understanding the material in the past, the reader can focus on the character’s present, following various subplots from beginning to end. We’ll cover this in the next installment.
The other strategy is to go with an assortment of the most notable stories. Since Spider-Man’s been around since 1962, appearing in at least three books a month since 1975, there are going to be a lot of choices available. Anyone interested in the comic book adventures of the character is going to have a difficult time sifting through all of that material, especially since much of it is produced by people who assume that a reader is already quite familiar with the character’s most important storylines.
So the aim would be to start with those adventures. What are the Spider-Man stories that everyone interested in the character (or the comics medium or good storytelling) should definitely check out? If there were classes on these comics, this would be the reading list for the Spider-Man 101 introductory course. The selected stories have been curated based on a combination of acclaim, significance and accessibility. This is the material that is most likely to appear on Top 10/25/50 lists and to be alluded to in subsequent storylines. In some cases, it may be that a particular story is not considered important by itself, but it is an appropriate example of something that is referenced often.
It’s where to start. If you’ve been reading for a few years, these are the stories you should know. If not, comixology is your friend, as is your local comics shop.
Trade Paperbacks and One-Shots
It’s pretty easy to offer recommendations for anyone curious about Batman comics. You give them a list of a dozen or so TPBs, and later a recommended reading order for the runs by Grant Morrison, Scott Snyder and maybe Pete Tomasi. A significant difference between Marvel and DC is that the greatest DC stories tend to be self-contained, but the majority of the greatest Spider-Man stories are pieces of larger creator runs. While there are some great single-issue stories, and a few highly recommended self-contained TPBs, the majority of the best stories are parts of larger creative runs. Most of the material exists within the classic Marvel Universe, essentially an ongoing mega-story published since 1961. The main exception is those stories that are part of the Ultimate Marvel Universe that’s been published since 2000 with 700+ issues.
There are less TPB-length stories and iconic one-shots with a complete beginning and end for Spider-Man than for Batman or Superman, but those few are worth checking out. Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s mini-series Spider-Man: Blue retells the Mary Jane/ Peter Parker/ Gwen Stacy romantic triangle, covering the beginning of Peter Parker’s college days. It’s a great introduction to a character, and works well as a companion to the Lee/ Romita run. It also includes memorable battles with the Vulture, the Rhino, Kraven and the Lizard. It gives a sense of Peter Parker’s perspective during events that changed his life.
In the late 80s, Spider-Man started wearing the black costume, and starred in three tragic and dark storylines that pushed him to his limit. The first of those chronologically was “The Death of Jean Dewolff” from Peter Parker the Spectacular Spider-Man #107-110. It pit the hero against a villain who was essentially an ordinary serial killer, although there was a nasty twist to his identity. It ended in one of the most violent battles of Spider-Man’s career. Against Daredevil.
Spider-Man VS. Wolverine is another of the major tragedies, as well as the most notable team-up between Marvel’s two most popular characters. A throwaway line about how Peter can’t really be sure how he gained his powers becomes significant decades later. The setting—East Germany in the 1980s—is anachronistic, but it is compelling to see Peter Parker getting involved in affairs way out of his league. As an aside, this may also be the most acclaimed mainstream superhero comic written by an African-American author.
The finale of this unoffifcial trilogy was Kraven’s Last Hunt. Originally appearing in Web of Spider-Man #31-32, Amazing Spider-Man #293-294 and Peter Parker the Spectacular Spider-Man #131-132, this six-part crossover by JM Dematteis and Mike Zeck was essentially a two month long fill-in—although events in the storyline would haunt Spider-Man for some time to come. That means it has a complete beginning, middle and end, and doesn’t rely on the reader understanding earlier subplots. This story shows Spider-Man at his angriest, most traumatized, and still willing to do what is right. There are rumors that Kraven will be the villain in the next Spider-Man film, and this volume is the reason why. This story gets into his head just as well as it does Spidey’s.
The rest of the essential Spider-Man stories tend to be parts of larger runs. With these, we start where the character did.
The Best of Lee/ Ditko
Lee and Ditko’s run lasted for 38 issues of Amazing Spider-Man, as well as the first two annuals. It’s good stuff, in a way that isn’t true of most opening runs of generations old superhero comics, but I’ll try to narrow it down to about ten issues. It all started with the origin of the wall-crawler in Amazing Fantasy #15, which defined Peter Parker as a different type of superhero, and featured one of the best twist endings from any comic book story. It was groundbreaking fifty plus years ago—I don’t think there were any superheroes who used their powers for selfish reasons before—but that’s not why it holds up today. It’s a shame that the story’s become so famous that everyone who reads it probably knows how the story ends. But it excels with the little moments. What better way is there to show how weak Peter Parker is by having his elderly uncle say to Aunt May “I can hardly outwrestle him now?” Doesn’t it make sense that someone with Spider-Man’s powers would become a media sensation? Subsequent issues have these brilliant smaller moments, in addition to some of the most iconic scenes in comic book history.
Amazing Spider-Man #1 sets the tone of the series, establishing Spider-Man’s status as a misunderstood hero, while also introducing J Jonah Jameson, and featuring the first encounter with other superheroes in the shared Marvel Universe. Issues 3 and 6 introduce Doctor Octopus and the Lizard, while also featuring Spider-Man’s first serious defeat and first trip outside of New York. Amazing Spider-Man #10 introduces the Enforcers, and features a major revelation about J Jonah Jameson, as well as a blood transfusion that becomes quite important later. Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1 features a showdown with six of Spider-Man’s most dangerous enemies, just as Peter Parker has lost his powers, a plot point Sam Raimi later adapted into Spider-Man 2. Amazing Spider-Man #20 introduced the Scorpion, and featured J. Jonah Jameson’s biggest screw up.
The Master Planner saga from Issues 31-33 is the high point of the run, arguably the definitive Spider-Man story. There’s more to it than one of the most memorable sequences of Silver Age Marvel; I’m tempted to do a column about the nice things people have said about the first five pages of #33. Before that can happen, Spider-Man fights the world to save a family member, screwing up Peter Parker’s life in the process. The end of his first romantic relationship, and the introductions of two of the central supporting characters are almost an afterthought.
There really is no substitute for reading the entire Lee/ Ditko run, as plot points from every issue will be mentioned at some point in later Spider-Man comics, and the most forgettable villains will return to menace the hero. Even the Looter shows up again about seven times, and some of his later appearances are pretty good. Though there are plenty of other good comics to get to first…The Best of Lee/ Romita
Cocreator Steve Ditko abruptly left the Spider-Man comics, but it remained one of Marvel’s top titles with John Romita Sr. taking over as the artist, and bringing a different sensibility. Peter Parker went from lonely nerd to a young man with a social life. Some comics professionals think it was a mistake for Stan Lee to ever allow Peter Parker to graduate high school, but this might be the most iconic period of the series’s history, as Peter balanced college, working for the Daily Bugle, and his responsibilites as Spider-Man. It’s been the template for most of the Spider-Man animated series, as well as the first two cinematic versions of the character. It also marked the point where Amazing Spider-Man surpassed the Lee/ Kirby Fantastic Four to become Marvel’s best-selling title.
Amazing Spider-Man #39-40 features Spider-Man’s unmasking by the Green Goblin, and is one of the few instances in which a mystery villain becomes more interesting as the truth is revealed. Amazing Spider-Man #42 introduces Mary Jane, in another of the top moments from Silver Age Marvel. First, Spidey gets accused of a bank robbery after doing the right thing, and has to fight his boss’s newly superpowered son. Amazing Spider-Man #50-52 introduce the Kingpin, and feature the Spider-Man No More! storyline, as Peter Parker ponders whether his critics may be right, and that he may doing more harm than good as a masked vigilante. Amazing Spider-Man #88-90 features the arrival of artist Gil Kane, in addition to another defining tragedy in the series. A supporting character bites the dust, but not before making a surprising confession.
The Best of Gerry Conway
Gerry Conway and Gil Kane’s Amazing Spider-Man #121-122 has been reprinted a lot of times. It may be the defining tragedy of the Spider-Man mythos, the end of the Silver Age of comics, and the most suspenseful comic ever written, as Spider-Man fights to save his kidnapped girlfriend from a villain who knows his secrey identity. It’s the comic book equivalent of Psycho. You know what’s coming up next, but it’s still terrifying. Spider-Man has his best battles against the Green Goblin in both chapters of this issue, although they may just be elevated by the quality of the rest of the issue. There’s still a controversy over what was responsible for the death in the first issue, all because of a single sound effect that writer Gerry Conway didn’t even realize that he left into the script. And the next part includes another of the best death scenes in comics.
Conway’s place as one of the top Spider-Man writers is cemented with two more stories. Amazing Spider-Man #129 introduced the Jackal. Much more importantly, it’s the first appearance of the Punisher, a dangerous antihero (one of the first in Marvel comics) who is convinced that Spider-Man has to be brought in dead or alive. In that early appearance, we see the things that make him the most popular spinoff character of the Spider-Man comics: a moral code, and a willingness to go further than other street heroes. Amazing Spider-Man #136-137 featured the fall of Harry Osborn, as Peter’s best friend becomes one of his most dangerous enemies, a plot point borrowed for two of the films. We see how dangerous the Green Goblin’s weapons are in the hands of someone who doesn’t have an agenda, and just wants to cause as much harm as possible to Peter Parker. Both stories feature pencils by Ross Andru, an “artist’s artist” whose work exemplified Spider-Man in the 1970s, especially with the attention to detail in the depictions of New York City.
The Best of Roger Stern’s Amazing Spider-Man
The entirety of Roger Stern and John Romita Jr’s stint of Amazing Spider-Man comes highly recommended. But you may want to stick to the highlights at first. “Nothing Can Stop the Juggernaut” from Amazing Spider-Man #229-230 is widely considered one of the most impressive fight scenes of any comic book. It showcases one of the ways Roger Stern stood out as a writer: Rather than pit Spider-Man against Electro for the tenth time, Stern chose to send the wallcrawler against villains he hadn’t fought before. If you’ve never read the story, you would imagine that Spider-Man against a guy would could beat up the X-Men was going to be a very one-sided battle, and you’d be pretty much right. This is two issues of Spider-Man doing whatever he can to hurt the Juggernaut, and for the most part failing. It’s a great example of his grit and resolve.
“The Kid Who Collects Spider-Man” from Amazing Spider-Man #248 is the simple story of a hero visiting a fan. A boy who idolizes Spider-Man comes to learn what he’s really like. The ending is going to hit like a freight train. It’s probably the best conversation issue in comics, and the lack of conventional trappings of superhero comics (no fight scenes, no melodramatic subplots) means you can give to anyone as an introduction to the medium. I’d almost say that it should be included in English textbooks, but comics are supposed to be more subversive than that.
Finally, the Hobgoblin Saga from Amazing Spider-Man #238-239, 244-245 and 249-251 is generally considered one of the greatest extended arcs of the series. This was the story that established the Goblins as legacy villains apart from the Osborns, and showed just how dangerous those weapons can be in the hands of a sane and rational master manipulator. There are several nasty twists in the mystery before Spider-Man and the Hobgoblin get into a fight where only one of them walks away.
While the Hobgoblin was probably the best new Spider-Man character to appear in over a hundred issues, he would be surpassed witihn a few years. It took a generation for someone to create the definitive an evil version of Spider-Man, but once that happened, Venom quickly became an indelible part of the series. There was more to it than just having a villain with Spider-Man’s powers. He has a reason for hating the wallcrawler. He could sneak past Peter’s spider-sense. And he also knew Peter’s secret identity. And where he lived.
The only question is which of the first two storylines is best. Amazing Spider-Man #300 introduced Venom, as Spider-Man had to figure out a maniac who had his powers, was stronger, and had just scared the hell out of his wife. The rematch in Amazing Spider-Man #315-317 features Venom targetting Peter Parker’s loved ones, and highlighted one of the things that was most remarkable about the villain. He was going to have a lot of fun before he put Spider-Man into the ground. Both stories also feature art by Todd Mcfarlane, known for his contortionist take on the character and his webbing. These are the stories that made him the most popular artist in comics.
Ultimate Spider-Man Year One
The last of the essential Spider-Man stories doesn’t even feature the classic Peter Parker, although it has come to inform the understanding of the character. The first 13 issues of Bendis/ Bagley’s Ultimate Spider-Man were a 21st Century take on a superhero who started out as a teenager. There’s stuff here that can only be done in the Ultimate Universe, and the story may also be responsible for the entire trend of writing for the trade, as Bendis and Bagley spend several issues establishing their version of Peter Parker before he even puts on the Spider-Man costume. My brothers, and college room-mate can attest to the utility of Ultimate Spider-Man #1-13 as an introduction to the character.
The second TPB features an education for Peter Parker, as he decides to pick a fight with the city’s top crimelord, and wonders whether he should tell the girl he loves his secret. It sets the Ultimate books in a new direction, different from what happened to the original Spider-Man.
I hestitated a bit about including this one, since it is set in a different universe than the other Spider-Man stories, which might be confusing to some newer readers, and anathema to long-time fans. But I think anyone who can understand that the Tom Holland Peter Parker popping up in Captain America: Civil War is a different character than the Tobey Maguire Peter Parker from the Raimi trilogy should be able to manage.
In many cases, the order in which stories are read doesn’t matter. However, some will reveal key plot points of other arcs. The Death of Jean Dewolfe reveals how “The Kid Who Collects Spider-Man” ended. The first Venom appearance reveals a few twists in the Death of Jean Dewolfe. A death in Spider-Man VS Wolverine is significant for Kraven’s Last Hunt.
Events in Amazing Spider-Man #10 lead directly into the Master Planner Saga. Something J. Jonah Jameson does in Amazing Spider-Man #20 is relevant to the Hobgoblin’s blackmail efforts in Amazing Spider-Man #249-251.