It was on a shopping trip to the Smith Haven Mall that I came across this Pocket Books paperback reprint of early Spider-Man stories in one of the three bookstores that were located within that mall. Despite the fact that it was the second volume in the series and I didn’t know whether I would ever be able to lay hands on the first volume, I bought it. As the cover indicates, this book collected issues #7-#13 of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN from 1963, and was really the item responsible for me becoming a true Spider-Man fan. Despite the fact that I’d been buying his comics for a number of months, I still wasn’t entirely in love with the wall-crawler. But this book of early adventures turned me around.
I have to say, I really loved these Pocket Books editions. Sure, the pages were small, but I had young eyes then. And the producers didn’t chop the pages up into individual panels as they typically would in these paperback collections. It was also in full color, which was a plus. This volume was really the thing that made me a fan of artist Steve Ditko, and in these early stories I encountered a Spider-Man who was an underdog, a bit of a klutz, a science nerd who couldn’t get along with other kids. So I immediately empathized more with this version than I did with the modern more swingin’ Peter Parker of the later college days. This guy was a lot more like me. Hell, he even wore glasses for an issue and a half, before they were broken and discarded.
The one thing I didn’t love about this volume was that it didn’t reproduce the original covers to the issues in question. The page count was simply too tight, especially since this book collected 7 stories rather than the 6 that filled the other volumes that I owned. But that didn’t stop this from bugging me–so much so that I took it upon myself to draw up covers for the assorted issues at scale, which I then cut out and inserted into my copy at the appropriate places. Eventually, I’d get to see the actual covers to these issues and work out how well I’d done. The only one of my homemade covers which even slightly resembled the actual Steve Ditko one was for AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #12, in which Spidey is unmasked by Doctor Octopus. Those hand-drawn covers are long gone today, sadly.
I’ve said all along that, while I enjoyed the comic books being produced during the 1970s, it was really the material reprinted from the 1960s that connected with me the most, and this volume was no exception. In particular, I really liked Ditko’s artwork, the look of his characters, the atmospheric way that he’d depict Spider-Man in motion and use shadows for effect. Again, this was very different from the Spider-Man of the late 1970s, who had become much more of an icon, and so was always a bit more powerful and put together looking than his earlier self had been. He was slicker, more commodified, more of a package, more of a brand. A good brand, but a brand nonetheless. This early Spider-Man, though, he lived and breathed.
I got to experience a number of Spidey’s greatest villains in this book as well, some of whom I had encountered previously but none of whom had made much of an impact on me until this volume. I knew a few of them–the Vulture, Doctor Octopus–from the 1967 Spider-Man cartoon which was still in syndicated reruns on Channel 5 in my area at this time. But the comic book versions were a lot more menacing, a lot more interesting. Together, Lee and Ditko gave Spider-Man one of the best collection of enemies in all of comicdom, which was certainly a part of the reason for the strip’s success.
Spider-Man was also funny, a quality that I found very appealing. This part of the web-slinger’s appeal can really only be chalked up to scripter Stan Lee, who leaned on his many years writing teen humor gag strips to provide similar jokes for his super heroes–a cross-breeding of genres that nobody had ever thought to make before. And Lee’s dialogue was genuinely funny. I’m sure I laughed out loud at least once an issue throughout this volume, at some line or the other. (This was also part of the appeal of the Thing for me, the wise-cracks)
Stan was also highly influenced by radio comedies, and many of publisher J. Jonah Jameson’s best bits of business grew out of that form. He was a radio personality come to life on the page. Betty Brant, meanwhile (whom Ditko based visually on Stan’s gal Friday Flo Steinberg) was a voice of sanity and reason. Watching Lee and Ditko set up a romantic triangle situation between Peter, Betty and Liz Allan over the course of several issues was something of a master class in how to build interesting supporting storylines that would help to illuminate and accent teh central theme in each issue. Again, no other comic book of this period paid as much attention to its supporting players, and none of them would have filled so many pages with their titular hero out of costume and just doing stuff in his civilian identity.
So this was really the mother lode for me in terms of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN stories. These seven issues still hold a special place in my heart. Eventually, when I did manage to get a copy of Volume 1 via an order through Superhero Merchandise, I found that I was a bit disappointed by it. Those earlier Spidey tales were more crude, more formative. The strip hadn’t yet jelled into its final form. So it turns out that this was perhaps the perfect place for me to drop in, as had I gotten that earlier book first, I might not have been so crazy about the material. That said, while the Stan Lee and Jack Kirby FANTASTIC FOUR run of the 1960s is my favorite of all of those early Marvel books, I must confess that the best run is the Stan Lee and Steve Ditko AMAZING SPIDER-MAN issues.