Marvel Masterworks volume 16: Amazing-Spider-Man 31-40 & Annual 2


By Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, John Romita Sr. & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 0-87135-730-5

After a shaky start The Amazing Spider-Man quickly became a popular sensation with kids of all ages, rivalling the creative powerhouse that was Fantastic Four. Before too long the quirky, charming, action-packed comics soap-opera would become the model for an entire generation of younger heroes impatiently elbowing aside the staid, (relatively) old thirty-something mystery-men of previous publications and hallowed tradition.

The rise and rise of the wondrous Web-spinner continued and even increased pace as the Swinging Sixties unfolded and, by the time of the tales in this third sumptuous hardcover (re-presenting Amazing Spider-Man #31-40 and including Annual 2, originally released between December 1965 and September 1966), Peter Parker and friends were on the way to being household names as well as the darlings of college campuses and the media intelligentsia.

Sadly by 1966 Stan Lee and Steve Ditko could no longer work together on their greatest creation. After increasingly fraught months the artist simply resigned, leaving Spider-Man without an illustrator.

In the coincidental meantime John Romita had been lured away from DC’s romance line and given odd assignments before assuming the artistic reins of Daredevil, the Man Without Fear. Before long he was co-piloting the company’s biggest property and expected to run with it.

In this momentous compilation of (mostly) chronological Arachnoid adventures, the World’s Most Misunderstood Hero successfully challenged the dominant Fantastic Four as Marvel’s top comicbook both in sales and quality.

Ditko’s off-beat plots and quirkily bizarre art had reached an accommodation with the slick and potent superhero house-style that Jack Kirby had developed (at least as much as such a unique talent ever could), with a marked reduction of signature line-feathering and moody backgrounds plus a lessening of concentration on totemic villains.

Although still very much a Ditko baby, The Amazing Spider-Man had attained a sleek pictorial gloss whilst Lee’s scripts were comfortably in tune with the times if not his collaborator. Although Lee’s assessment of the audience was probably the correct one, disagreements with the artist over the strip’s editorial direction were still confined to the office and not the pages themselves.

However an indication of the growing tensions could be seen once Ditko began being credited as plotter of the stories…

After a period where old-fashioned crime and gangsterism predominated, science fiction themes and costumes crazies started to return full force here as the world went gaga for superheroes and the creators experimented with longer storylines and protracted subplots…

When Ditko abruptly left, the company feared a drastic loss in quality and sales but it didn’t happen. John Romita (senior) considered himself a mere “safe pair of hands” keeping the momentum going until a better artist could be found but instead blossomed into a major talent in his own right, and the Wallcrawler continued his unstoppable rise at an accelerated pace…

Change was in the air everywhere. Included amongst the milestones for the ever-anxious Peter Parker collected here are graduating High School, starting college, meeting true love Gwen Stacy and tragic friend/enemy Harry Osborn and the introduction of arch nemesis Norman Osborn. Old friends Flash Thompson and Betty Brant subsequently begin to drift out of his life…

The fabulous four-colour fantasy opens – following the standard Stan Lee Introduction – with  ‘If This Be My Destiny…!’ from issue #31 which depicted a spate of high-tech robberies by the Master Planner and a spectacular confrontation with Spider-Man. Also on show was the aforementioned college debut, first sight of Harry and Gwen and Aunt May on the edge of death.

This led to indisputably Ditko’s finest and most iconic moments on the series – and perhaps of his entire career. ‘Man on a Rampage!’ showed Parker pushed to the very edge of desperation as the Planner’s men made off with the chemicals that might save Aunt May, resulting in an utterly driven, berserk Wallcrawler ripping the town apart trying to find them.

Trapped in an underwater fortress, pinned under tons of machinery, the hero faced his greatest failure as the clock ticked down the seconds of May’s life…

This in turn produced the most memorable visual sequence in Spidey history as the opening of ‘The Final Chapter!’ took five full, glorious pages to depict the ultimate triumph of will over circumstance. Freeing himself from tons of fallen debris Spider-Man gave his absolute all delivering the medicine May needed, to be rewarded with a rare happy ending…

Russian exile Kraven the Hunter returned in ‘The Thrill of the Hunt!’ seeking vengeance by impersonating the Web-spinner whilst #35 offered ‘The Molten Man Regrets…!’: a plot-light but inimitably action-packed combat classic as the gleaming bandit foolishly resumed his career of pinching other peoples jewels…

Amazing Spider-Man #36 featured a deliciously off-beat, almost comedic turn in ‘When Falls the Meteor!’ as deranged scientist Norton G. Fester began stealing museum exhibits whilst calling himself the Looter

In retrospect these brief, fight-oriented tales, coming after such an intricate, passionate epic as the Master Planner saga, should have been seen as some sort of clue that things were not going well, but the fans had no idea that ‘Once Upon a Time, There was a Robot…!’ which featured a beleaguered Norman Osborn being targeted by his disgraced ex-partner and some eccentrically bizarre murder machines in #37 and the tragic comedy of ‘Just a Guy Named Joe!’ – wherein a hapless sad-sack stumblebum boxer gains super-strength and a bad-temper – were to be Ditko’s last arachnid adventures.

When Amazing Spider-Man #39 appeared with the first of a two-part adventure that featured the ultimate victory of the Wall-Crawler’s greatest foe no reader knew what had happened – and no one told them…

‘How Green Was My Goblin!’ and ‘Spidey Saves the Day! (“Featuring the End of the Green Goblin!”)’ calamitously changed everything whilst describing how the arch-foes learned each other’s true identities before the Goblin “perished” in a climactic showdown. It would have been memorable even it the tale didn’t feature the debut of a new artist & a whole new manner of story-telling…

Issues #39 and 40 (August – September 1966) were a turning point in many ways, and inked by old DC colleague Mike Esposito (under the pseudonym Mickey Demeo) they still stand as another of the greatest Spider-Man yarns of all time, heralding a run of classic tales from the Lee/Romita team that saw sales rise and rise, even without the seemingly irreplaceable Ditko.

Earlier in 1965 however the artist was blowing away audiences with another oddly tangential superhero. ‘The Wondrous World of Dr. Strange!’ was the lead story in the second Spider-Man Annual (October of that year and filled out with vintage Spidey classics).

The entrancing fable unforgettably introduced the Webslinger to arcane other realities as he teamed up with the Master of the Mystic Arts to battle power-crazed wizard Xandu in a phantasmagorical, dimension-hopping masterpiece involving ensorcelled zombie thugs and the stolen Wand of Watoomb.

After this story it was clear that Spider-Man could work in any milieu and nothing could hold him back…

Also included from that immensely impressive landmark are more Ditko pin-ups in ‘A Gallery of Spider-Man’s Most Famous Foes’ – exposing such nefarious ne’er-do-wells as The Scorpion, Circus of Crime and the Beetle, making this astounding tome one of the most impressive Spider-Man books you could ever read, even if later editions have slightly altered contents. If you want to experience the quintessential magic of the Amazing Arachnid this book has to be your first stop…
© 1965, 1966, 1996 Marvel Entertainment Group, Inc. All rights reserved.