Spider-Man Newspaper Strips volume 1: January 3rd 1977-January 28th 1979

By Stan Lee & John Romita, with Frank Giacoia (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-8561-1 (TPB)

By 1977 Stan Lee had all but surrendered his role as editor and guiding light of Marvel Comics for that of a roving PR machine to hype-up the company he had turned into a powerhouse. In that year two events occurred which catapulted Marvel’s standout and signature character into the popular culture mainstream. One was the long-anticipated release of the Amazing Spider-Man live action TV show – a mixed blessing and pyrrhic victory at best – whilst the other, and one much more in keeping with his humble origins, was the launch of a syndicated newspaper strip.

Both mass-audience outreach projects brought the character to a wider audience, but the later offered at least a promise of editorial control – a vital factor in keeping the wondrous wallcrawler’s identity and integrity intact. But even this closely-aligned creative medium dictated some tailoring of the Merry Marvel Madness before the hero was a suitable fit with the grown-up world of the “Funny Pages”.

Which is a longwinded way of saying that completists, long-time fans and lovers of great artwork will enjoy this collection of periodical strips, as will any admirer of the stunning talents of the senior John Romita (latterly inked by the great Frank Giacoia); but the stories, tame, bowdlerised and rather mediocre, struggle without the support network of a Marvel Universe, and might feel a tad toned down and simplistic for readers not familiar with the wider cast or long history.

The strip was first posited and peddled around the papers in 1970 (Lee & Romita’s initial proposal and two weeks of trial continuities are included at the back of this book) but The Amazing Spider-Man only began on January 3rd 1977. It ran as a property of the Register and Tribune Syndicate until 1985, briefly switched to Cowles Media Company before becoming part of the King Features Syndicate in 1986. The strip went on hiatus following Lee’s death with the final new strip appearing on March 23rd 2019. Lee was still credited as writer even though Roy Thomas has been the ghost writer since 2000.

Romita illustrated the strip for the first four years, after which Stan’s brother Larry Lieber (in two separate stints), Fred Kida, Dan Barry and Alex Saviuk – all aided by a legion of artistic stand-ins – provided the visuals.

This initial collection – available in both landscape paperback and in digital formats – is a modified rerelease of a hardback tome from 2008, offering extra editorial and commentary as it re-presents the first two years of the strip, with traditional single tier monochrome dailies supplemented by full-colour, full page Sunday strips.

If the reader is steeped in the established folklore of the comicbook Spider-Man, the serials here – solidly emphasising Peter Parker’s personal relationships in the grand manner of strip soap opera drama – introducing Dr. Doom and Dr. Octopus are merely heavy-handed, light on action but intrinsically familiar riffs on what has gone before. However, for the presumed millions of neophyte readers the yarns might have been a tad confusing: presented as if all participants are already fully-established, with no development or real explanation of backstory.

After the full-on Marvel villains are successively trounced, serpentine new baddie The Rattler stalks the city, followed in turn by the more appropriate and understandable (for strips at least) gangster The Kingpin who combines seditious politics with gun-toting thuggery.

Only then do the creators finally get around to a retelling of the origin, albeit one now based on that aforementioned TV show rather than the classic Lee/Ditko masterpiece. It’s safe to say that in those early years the TV series informed the strip much (too much) more than the monthly comicbooks…

A revised Kraven the Hunter debuted next, presenting an opportunity to remove glamourous good-time girl Mary Jane Watson from the strip in favour of a string of temporary girl-friends, more in line with the TV iteration. This also signalled a reining-in of super-menaces in favour of less-fantastic and far-fetched opponents such as a middle-Eastern terrorist.

The launch of a Spider-Man movie (surely the most improbable of events!) then takes photojournalist Peter Parker to Hollywood and into a clash with a new version of deranged special-effects genius Mysterio, before Dr. Doom returns, attempting to derange our hero with robot pigeons and duplicates of Peter Parker’s associates….

This is followed by an exceptional and emotionally-stirring run of episodes as three street thugs terrorise senior citizen Aunt May for her social security money, after which Spider-Man must foil a crazed fashion-model who has discovered his identity and is blackmailing him… These human-scale threats are a far more fitting use of the hero in this more realistic milieu – which pauses here with a protection racket romp set in the (feel free to shudder) discotheque owned by young entrepreneurs Flash Thompson and Harry Osborn, courtesy of newly-returned corpulent crimelord Kingpin…

To Be Continued…

Adding to the time capsule of arachnid entertainment is that aforementioned proposal by Lee & Romita; archival interviews with both creators conducted by John Rhett Thomas and Alex Lear plus a gallery of six Sunday title panels (used to summarise events and set the tone for reader who only read the sabbath colour strips), as well as a classic Romita pin-up page starring the artist and his greatest co-creations…

Sadly, the stunning art can’t fully counteract the goofy stories that predominate in this oddball collection, nor has time been gentle with much of the dialogue, but there is nonetheless a certain guilty pleasure to be derived from this volume, if you don’t take your comics too seriously and are open to alternative existences….
© 1977, 1978, 2019 Marvel. All rights reserved.