Personal Best: UNTOLD TALES OF SPIDER-MAN ANNUAL #1, 1996

UNTOLD TALES OF SPIDER-MAN was the series that brought me to the attention of fandom, the first truly successful title that I worked on, at least from a critical standpoint. And this didn’t have so much to do with me as it did Kurt Busiek and Pat Olliffe, the creative team that produced most of the issues. The book lasted for 25 monthly releases, plus a “Flashback” issue numbered #-1 and a pair of Annuals. Eventually, we later did a new squarebound one-shot, and other editors since then have called upon Kurt to contribute additional similar stories under the series banner.

UNTOLD TALES was one of a series of comics designed to retail at a 99 cent price point. There was a ton of complaining in the 1990s about the cover prices of comic books having grown too high, and so this was an attempt to see if there might be some value in releasing a cheaper alternative. Spoiler warning: there wasn’t. The newsstand accounts, for whom the initiative had been created, didn’t want 99 cent comics–they weren’t going to be able to deliver enough profit to make the books worthwhile when they could stock a $1.95 comic in the same space. So the whole idea was doomed from the beginning–but UNTOLD TALES was the one book among the line to outlast its origins and to continue on for some time. Eventually, that 99 cent cover price caused its cancellation–nobody wanted to bump up the price to $1.95 and continue, it seemed.

With there already being four tightly-interlocking Spider-Man titles being produced every month in the mid-1990s, my assistant editor Glenn Greenberg and I needed to find some way to add another book into that production cycle. Our brainstorm was to set the series in the past–Glenn had specifically been thinking about his favorite period, the John Romita era when Spidey was in college–but when Kurt wrote up his pitch for the series, he wasn’t aware of that and instead went back almost to the beginning. And his approach and story concepts were so spot-on that we went with it. While we had worked together briefly on NIGHT THRASHER for a hot minute, and I had known Kurt a little bit from when he was on staff in the sales department, this was truly the beginning of my working relationship with him–a relationship that would ultimately lead to THUNDERBOLTS and AVENGERS and JLA/AVENGERS and a lot of other projects besides, all the way up to the current THE MARVELS.

Part of the fun of UNTOLD TALES OF SPIDER-MAN was in playing fair with the early Spider-Man continuity and utilizing the early Marvel Universe in our stories. Coming off of MARVELS for which he’d done extensive reference, Kurt was fastidious about finding ways in which our stories could slot in seamlessly (most of the time) among the original Stan Lee/Steve Ditko Spidey adventures. We also had the benefit of hindsight, so we could do stories featuring characters such as Norman Osborn or Mary Jane Watson with an eye towards where they’d eventually end up. By editorial fiat, every issue of the 99 cent books was intended to contain a complete story in and of itself, and we kept to that all the way through the run, even though we also introduced subplots that played out across a bevy of issues (and integrated subplots from the 1960s as well.) It was crucial to us that a reader in 1996 be able to enjoy these stories without having read the source material. But we were still fanboys enough to create a pair of charts illustrating just where in the continuity all of our stories fell.

All of this, though, is preamble to talking about this particular Annual, which was the absolute high point of the series and one of the single comic books I’m still most happy about having worked on 25 years after the fact. And while it’s not quite as boundary-pushing in the 21st century as it had been when we came out with it, it still holds all of the same appeal. My memory is a little bit foggy here, but I think we hit on the idea of doing the story first, and then got the Annual approved as a way of putting it out there, rather than beginning with an Annual that we needed to fill. But Kurt likely remembers better than I do–he’s got an amazing memory when it comes to this sort of thing. At a buck ninety-five, this Annual retailed for the same price as a regular issue of a typical Marvel series, while providing more pages (and hopefully greater value.)

The story came out of a conversation that Kurt had at a convention in I believe the Portland area. Paul Dini was a guest there as well, and he suggested that Kurt do a story that followed up on the events of a back-up in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #8 in which Spidey tangled with the Fantastic Four’s Human Torch, and he left a big webbed heart behind for Sue at the close of the adventure. Again, I’m not certain who came up with which bit as they bounced these thoughts around, but what we ended up with is a story in which Spider-Man asks Sue out on a date to spite her brother–one she agrees to in order to make Reed Richards pay a bit more attention to her. And the Torch ups the stakes by seeking out the Sub-Mariner and setting him on the web-slinger by lying to him and telling him that Spidey has abducted Sue. And hilarity and adventure ensues. Kurt and Paul even had the perfect person to draw this special: Mike Allred, who was also a guest at the selfsame convention, and whom Kurt spoke to about this in person. So almost the entire package fell into my lap without me having to do anything other than to get the thing approved.

It’s strange to think this today, after Mike (who is one of the most beautiful and dedicated comic book practitioners in the field, a wonderful individual) has done extended runs for Marvel on X-FORCE/X-STATIX and FF and SILVER SURFER and a whole lot more. But in 1996, his work was considered “too weird”, too out there, for the Marvel mainstream. I’m not sure how I got his involvement approved, or even if I bothered telling anybody that I was going to use him on the book (though I would have had to have gotten him set up with Marvel rates, so it wouldn’t have been a State secret or anything.) But I can recall that most people in editorial at the time didn’t quite get it–didn’t understand why I was having such a weird artist work on this Annual. Mike had gotten some notice even then for MADMAN and his other creator-owned projects, but the parameters for what constituted “good” Marvel artwork were extremely narrow.

Mike was up to take on the Annual when I spoke to him, he just had one important request; as this might be the only time he got to draw the Fantastic Four professionally, he wanted Joe Sinnott to ink the story. Joe had retired from regular work a few years earlier, but I knew him relatively well, having given him plenty of assignments when I was working in Bob Budiansky’s Special Projects Department, so getting him on board was no problem. Keeping him there was another story–we had a minor crisis shortly after I sent Joe the first batch of pages. He called me up and told me that he didn’t think he would have time to do the story, and so he wanted to turn it back. I don’t know if this was a reaction to the work or if he was legitimately jammed up with stuff (and Joe was a gentleman, he never would have said that he didn’t like the pages.) But his involvement was critical if I was going to keep Allred on board. So I laid it on think concerning just how important this was to Mike, and how much he loved Sinnott’s work. I then had Mike call Joe directly so that he could tell Joe the same in his own words. Our full court press worked, and Joe did end up inking the whole of the issue (apart from the cover, which Allred produced solo.) And it’s honestly a pretty strange match-up, veering from panels that are clearly Allred compositions and body language to others that look almost as though Sinnott had drawn them whole cloth. (The Thing in particular always looked straight off of Joe’s drawing board, so much had he codified how to render the character over the years.)

The whole thing came together wonderfully, and it infused with the zany spirit of those early Marvel books. This wasn’t heavyweight material, this was simply fun comics, produced at a time when “fun” was something of a dirty word, when “gritty” and “intense” was what so many people were striving for. As a result, it really stood out and made an impact.

Because this was an Annual, we had twice the number of pages to work with that we usually did. And so, in addition to making the lead story a bit longer than a regular issue (but not the full book–I believe this was in deference to Allred’s schedule; he could only fit in a certain number of pages.) we took our cues from the earliest AMAZING SPIDER-MAN ANNUALs in terms of loading this book up with similar back-up features. Like in those early Annuals, we devoted a number of pages to a Gallery of Villains pulled not only from the pages of UNTOLD TALES OF SPIDER-MAN but also the painted AMAZING FANTASY series that Kurt had worked on during that same timeframe. We tried to pull in a variety of different artists who had worked on Spider-Man for this feature, including Sal Buscema, Jim Mooney, Gil Kane, Mike Wieringo, Mark Bagley and Ron Frenz along with UTOS’ regular artist Pat Olliffe. I did reach out to Steve Ditko to see if he might be amenable to doing one of these pieces, given that it wasn’t a Spider-man piece per se and wasn’t a character that he had any direct connection with. But to no surprise, he turned the offer down.

We also did a facetious behind-the-scenes feature purportedly illustrating just how Kurt and regular series artist Pat Olliffe put together each issue of UNTOLD TALES OF SPIDER-MAN, based heavily on the similar story that Lee and Ditko had done for their first Annual. This actually wasn’t far from the truth, and the couple of story ideas that Kurt tosses off in the course of the story were ideas that we had talked about previously, albeit in a different context. This also allowed Pat’s work to be present in this Annual without knocking the schedule of the main book out of whack, which seemed important. When most people talk about UTOS (myself included, it seems like) it’s Kurt who gets the most notice. But I believe that Pat’s artwork was a crucial component of the book’s success, especially in the way that it was able to evoke the early Marvel Universe without looking dated to 1996 readers’ eyes. It had been Glenn Greenberg, again, who had first suggested Olliffe for the UTOS assignment.

Pay also illustrated the final feature in the issue, a Guide to the World of Untold Tales of Spider-Man. This functioned largely as a cast roster while also providing a look at some of our frequent locales and the design work that Olliffe had done to realize them. I’m not sure that we ever used “Fabulous Flo’s” in an actual story, but its name (and logo in the distinctive Fantastic Four logo font) was an obvious tribute to Flo Steinberg, who was back proofreading at Marvel. This piece also contained Aunt May’s recipe for Wheatcakes–actually provided by Kurt and based on a family recipe. Still, it’s one of the things this book was remembered for.

8 thoughts on “Personal Best: UNTOLD TALES OF SPIDER-MAN ANNUAL #1, 1996

  1. I don’t remember if the idea to do an annual came first or the story did — it might have been the story, because otherwise I think I’d have already had a story in mind when I went off to that convention, and I don’t remember anything like that.

    I do think that Paul’s suggestion was pretty much, “Spider-Man should go on a date with Sue Storm, to piss off the Torch,” and I came up with the rest, particularly the idea that Johnny would run to tell Namor. But I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere without that opening suggestion.

    I also think Paul’s comment came after we’d seen Mike’s pencils for some Marvel pogs that were very perfectly early-Marvel in tone, and that made me think, “What if we do that idea and Mike draws it?” And I got the okay from Paul to build on his idea and the interest from Mike in drawing it. Now that I’m typing this, I think adding Namor into it may have been what tipped Mike over the line — this was a chance to draw a whole bunch of characters he had the itch to draw, and get them out of his system. That and getting Joe Sinnott.

    And if we’d been able to get Chic Stone to ink one, Mike would have agreed to do another!

    It was a very easy story to write — everything just flowed from Paul’s idea, and it all fit together beautifully. And Mike and Joe did an amazing job.

    And I heartily agree that Pat Olliffe was the secret weapon of UNTOLD TALES. Pat took my wonky plots and made them feel both current and classic, and he also made them very energetic and bouncy. I was continually hitting him with 5-6 panel pages in the plot, and he’d draw them as 3 panel pages that delivered every beat of the story in big exciting panels.

    I’d forgotten Fabulous Flo’s — we should have gotten that into a story somewhere.

    And that wheatcakes recipe was not a family recipe — I found it in an out-of-copyright cookbook from the early 1900s. But I did ask my mom to try making it and to adjust it to modern cooking directions. She did and said that they came out a little heavy, but tasted fine. And I figure that’s good enough for Aunt May! A growing boy need his fuel.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve baked bread based on old recipes, and it’s an adjustment. Plus I have a book of my grandmother’s with recipes like brain sauce and sheep’s head soup (not metaphors). I do not think I will ever attempt those.

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  2. I loved the series and don’t why I never read this annual. Maybe it was Alred being (stupidly on my part) being too weird for me at the time. I’m gonna have to rectify that soon!

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  3. That was the first time I followed a Spider-book regularly (didn’t read Marvel in the 1960s, read my brothers in the 1970s). Great fun. Interesting to hear the behind-the-scenes stuff.

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