This is a weirdly awkward cover, but one that works nonetheless. And I think it was new to me when I got this book, although I had read the story in this issue both in the third AMAZING SPIDER-MAN Pocket Books collection of classic issues, and MARVEL TALES (where a new cover had been commissioned.) And like everything in this section, this was another book that I would up paying 33 cents for as a part of my big Windfall Comics purchase in 1988.
The Stan Lee/Jack Kirby FANTASTIC FOUR run is my favorite of all the Marvel material, but I must confess that, as much as I loved those books, Lee and Steve Ditko’s AMAZING SPIDER-MAN tenure was better. Better-crafted, better-realized. Much of the early FANTASTIC FOUR was about throwing ideas at the wall and seeing what stuck, and it wasn’t until Ditko was on the verge of departing Marvel that all of the gears really clicked on FF and it hit the high points of its existence. While they show their age like any media that’s close to 60 years old, these early Spider-man stories still possess an elemental power, and are still crackling good reads despite the passage of time and the growing sophistication of the audience. It’s really no wonder that AMAZING SPIDER-MAn lapped FANTASTIC FOUR as the best-selling book in the Marvel line so quickly.
Looking over these early issues again, while they’re chock-a-block full of action and adventure, it’s interesting to see just how many pages are devoted to Peter Parker out of costume, interacting with his supporting cast and trying to manage his myriad of personal problems. Stories are told about how the DC editors of the time didn’t get any of this–they’d talk about how the kids must be getting so bored through these sequences. but as much as anything, it was these pages that made audiences fall in love with Peter Parker. They were also often very funny as well as being dramatic–a perfect synthesis of Stan Lee’s wiseacre dialogue and Ditko’s rock-solid plotting sense.
This issue features the return of the Green Goblin, a villain who would look largest among Spidey’s gallery of foes in just a few years. This was only the Goblin’s second appearance, but his shtick is already in place: even the readers aren’t clued in as to his true identity. Ditko obscures his face repeatedly whenever the soon-to-be-Norman Osborn is on panel. This gave the Goblin a certain mystique about him, and made trying to work out his identity something of a guessing game among the fans. (Given that Osborn hadn’t been introduced yet, the game was fixed at this point.) There’s also a fun early sequence where Spider-man crashes in on what he thinks is a robebry in progress only to learn that he’s actually disrupted a film set–oops! These sort of comical moments at Spidey’s expense also served to make him more lovable and relatable. If you were a super hero, you coudl imagine this happening to yourself as well.
There’s also a very fun sequence that brings Spider-Man into contact with his recurring rival, and Fantastic Four’s Human Torch. Peter winds up getting an autograph from Johnny Storm on teh street, whether he wants one or not. The core story, though, focuses on flash Thompson and Liz Allan putting together a Spider-Man Fan Club, and promising that the web-slinger will attend the inaugural meeting at Allan’s father’s club. Peter sees an opportunity to generate some good vibes for his alter ego, but the Green Goblin looks at this as a prime opportunity to wipe out his enemy once and for all. And a jealous Torch will be in attendance as well, seeking out an opportunity to upstage his nemesis. And the rest of Peter’s cast whirls about the occasion as well: J. Jonah Jameson, looking for a story and an opportunity to discredit the wall-crawler, Betty Brant, who is afraid that Peter has come to the meeting with her rival Liz, and of course Flash and Liz.
A quick pause here for one of those great Marvel ads highlighting three concurrent releases. In this instance, it’s one focusing on that years Annuals. The early Marvel Annuals were really something special, and they got across the feeling of each one being a genuine event. In particular here, the awesome first AMAZING SPIDER-MAN Annual which introduced the Sinister Six 9and which contained absolutely no reprinted content in its many pages. ) It’s also worth noting the first reprint of the origin of Spider-man from AMAZING FANTASY #15 was in this initial MARVEL TALES ANNUAL. That story was only two years old, but like many of the earliest Marvel sagas, the growing number of fans who’d discovered the new company had missed it, making it a highly-desired collector’s item.
The Goblin crashes the party, intent on wiping out Spider-Man once and for all. At the same time that he’s fighting the grinning gargoyle, Peter is also having to protect his secret identity by turning up amidst the crowd in his civvies so that Liz, who expects him to be there and who is becoming suspicious of his behavior, won’t connect him with the als-present Spider-man. This proves to be an easier Dobie Gillis maneuver for him to accomplish than he’d thought once the Human Torch joins in the battle (despite promising his long-suffering girlfriend Dorrie Evans that he’d stay out of things.) With the Torch providing momentary cover for his absence, Pete is able to put in a perfunctory appearance before getting back to the fight a page or two later. Along the way, though, Spidey overhears a call coming in for Peter Parker. The hospital is trying to locate him, as his Aunt has suffered another heart attack. This leads into a multi-issue sequence set off by the fact that Spider-Man runs away from this fight in front of the entire crowd in order to get to his stricken Aunt’s side.
There had been running subplots that had spanned issues before, but this climax represented the first true multi-part adventure that Spider-Man had been involved with. At the close of the issue, with his Aunt still fighting for her life, the city completely turned against him thinking him a coward, and the Green Goblin still at large, Peter has had enough. He tosses away his Spider-Man costume for the first time. The entirety of the following issue is devoted to Peter not being Spider-Man, while the city goes to hell. It’ll only be a pep talk from feisty old Aunt May that will put Peter back in harness by the end of that story, and he’ll need to redeem his reputation in the one after that. Still, the Green Goblin will be in the air for several issues, not returning to the book until #23 some six months later.
The format of a full-length Marvel issue had standardized by this point, so the issue closes out with the usual two-page letters page, including the Special Announcements Section in which editor Lee plugged what was going on in all of the other Marvel titles. This installment includes a letter from Doug Moench, who would go on to write for Marvel in the following decade, on such features as MASTER OF KUNG FU, MOON KNIGHT and DEATHLOK, and Bill Dubay, who while he didn’t do much for Marvel became an editor and writer for Jim Warren’s line of magazines. Lee’s letters pages were really wonderfully fun and inclusive–he would crack cornball jokes and fanfare the place up in an incredibly ingratiating way. The whole thing was like a big party where the reader was teh special guest. This Special Announcement Section contains two items of note. First, Lee indicates that the new Hulk series in TALES TO ASTONISH will be by himself and Dick Ayers, rather than Ditko who wound up doing it. Was this a brain-fart on Lee’s part due to the fact that Ayers had drawn the Giant-Man story that introduced the Hulk to ASTONISH? Secondly, there’s a blurb heralding the return of artist Dick Rockwell to TALES TO ASTONISH. But as we went over in the piece linked below, this didn’t wind up happening, and that story was a bit of a mess.