by Jarrod Jones. Peter Parker is nearly clocking in at 60 years old, and still he hurtles over his beloved New York City with the same spritely energy he’s had since the Swingin’ Sixties. From his days of missing out on go-go dances with Mary Jane Watson to his stint as Parker Industries’ resident genius, billionaire, playboy philanthropist—and beyond—Spider-Man has long captivated readers with his unique brand of style, sass, and knack for getting into unfathomable trouble.
Power is his shield, responsibility is his sword. (Action is his reward.) Throughout the years, Spider-Man has been put through an aesthetic gauntlet of soaring highs and bruising lows by some of the greatest artists the comics industry could possibly boast. Try to run a quick Top 5 list of the best Spider-artists of all time, and you’ll quick amend that sucker to a Top 10. Then a Top 25. And on. It’s ludicrously difficult to zero in on the pieces of art that have come to define the character, yet ScreenCrush managing editor Matt Singer—a self-confessed life-long Spider-devotee—is up to the task.
“For someone who loves Spider-Man as much as I do, writing about him is easy,” Singer admits to me. “Trying to fit almost 60 years of great comics into a single book is the hard part.”
And so we have Marvel’s Spider-Man: From Amazing to Spectacular, a new art collection curated by Singer with a forward by “Kraven’s Last Hunt” scribe J.M. DeMatteis and a brand new cover by Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man‘s Andrew Robinson. Ahead of his book’s October 15 release, Matt Singer spoke with DoomRocket about—what else?—Spider-Man, the eras that have come to define that character, and what artists helped to make Marvel’s resident Wall-Crawler go from amazing to… well, you know.
1. You’re writing on the visual history of a world-famous character who has undergone far too many iterations and variations to count—and we’re just talking about the comics, here. When you began work on ‘From Amazing to Spectacular’, was there a feeling that you might have just been thrown into the deep end? How did you go about zeroing in on the Spider-Man eras you focus on in this book, when there’s so much to work with?
Matt Singer: That was certainly one of the more challenging parts of writing this book. For someone who loves Spider-Man as much as I do, writing about him is easy. Trying to fit almost 60 years of great comics into a single book is the hard part.
The first thing I did was make an outline, and I used that to break down Spidey history into different eras. I mostly went by creative teams—Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, Lee and John Romita, Gerry Conway and Romita and Gil Kane—and also in some cases by series or storyline. The nice part about Spider-Man is he does have some very clearly delineated eras—like “Brand New Day,” for example—that helped when figuring out how to structure the book.
2. What’s your history with Spider-Man? To be specific, would you share with us the first-ever Spidey comic you read? What did the character mean to you when you first read it, and what does he mean to you now?
My bio on the dust jacket for the book mentions that my parents say my first word as a baby was “Spider-Man,” which sounds ridiculous but is basically true—Spider-Man (or the garbled equivalent for a 10 month old) was among my very first words. So my history with Spider-Man goes back way before I could even read. It started with seeing him as a character on The Electric Company on TV.
Growing up in the 1980s, I would watch Spider-Man cartoons, and I’d get the occasional comic here or there at the supermarket or on long car trips or whatever. The first issue that really turned me into an obsessive reader was The Amazing Spider-Man #365 by David Michelinie and Mark Bagley. That was part of the 30th anniversary celebration of Spider-Man, and my dad took me to a video store that had some spinner racks and bought me that issue. I read Amazing #365—a Spider-Man and Lizard story—over and over. It ended with this incredible cliffhanger involving Peter Parker’s parents. Bagley was in top form on the art. And that was it; I was hooked forever.
As for what he meant to me then and now, certainly as a kid, I was more drawn to Spider-Man; the powers, the costume, the wisecracking in the face of danger, and the cool drawings by Bagley, Todd McFarlane, Erik Larsen, and others. The older I got, the more I fell in love with Peter Parker, and everything he represents as a character.
3. What ingredients do you think are necessary in order to make the ultimate iconic illustration of Spider-Man? I mean, this is one character who looks great in broad daylight and the dead of night.
That’s true. I think every great Spider-Man image involves him in motion; swinging or crawling or swooping through the air. Standing still, he’s not quite the same. He’s just such a dynamic character, which is part of why he’s so perfect for the world of comics; his bug-like physicality lends itself to exaggerated, dramatic poses, which makes for really exciting reading. I haven’t counted how many images of him in motion verses how many at rest there are in the book, but I’m guessing it would be way more of the former than the latter.
4. Let’s talk about the Steve Ditko era of Spidey for a bit. His work defined the weirdo essence of the character—here’s a guy who crawls on walls and shoots sticky webs at criminals in a full face mask, which is at once peculiar and kinda gross, totally off-putting to the fictional citizens of New York City who idolized the Fantastic Four. Plus, when he’s walking around as Peter Parker… well, he has a heart of gold, but he kicks himself around when the world’s not busy doing it for him. Ditko embraced that downtrodden underdog element of Peter Parker, embraced his innate peculiarity. What about this era stands out to you the most, and how does Ditko’s work continue to inform the continuing adventures of Spider-Man?
When I look back at the Ditko era in 2019, the thing that stand out to me is the incredible burst of creativity it represents. Within the first ten issues, Ditko and Stan Lee introduce Vulture, Doctor Octopus, Sandman, the Lizard, Electro, along with many of the key supporting characters that have been fixtures in the book for almost 60 years. Those two created a blueprint that, in many ways, is still followed today.
5. When Ditko left ‘Amazing Spider-Man’ with issue #38, Spider-Man’s first artist shift introduced to the world John Romita Sr.’s version of the character: Muscular, handsome, a college-aged Archie Andrews decked out in a bodysuit. Spider-Man became a romantic lead thanks to Romita’s experience on romance comics. He gave the book a more palpable sense of sophistication, which in turn allowed Peter Parker to mature. What do you think this aesthetic shift in ‘Amazing Spider-Man’ did for the character? Did we lose something essential about the character during this shift?
Yeah, Peter Parker changed when John Romita replaced Steve Ditko. You could look at it as certain things were lost—but you could also look at the things that were gained, because Romita brought some wonderful new elements to the book. He introduced more romance to the series, and some classic villains like the Kingpin, and all of the stuff with organized crime in New York. And if Peter Parker got a bit more handsome, he wouldn’t be the first late bloomer who went away to college and gained some confidence and a cooler wardrobe.
6. It sometimes feels as though Marvel would prefer to keep Spider-Man to this Lee-Ditko-Romita dichotomy. Do you think that’s a benefit or a hindrance to the character?
To me, the fact that every few years someone else comes in and brings their own unique take to Spider-Man is one of the things that makes the series great. I love reading the Ditko issues and the Romita issues and the Gil Kane issues and the Gerry Conway issues and the Ross Andru issues, and on and on. One of the best parts of writing my book was rereading all of that history, and seeing just how well so much of it holds up.
7. The Eighties rolled around and Spider-Man got dark. The symbiote costume, “Kraven’s Last Hunt”—these are but two examples of how Spider-Man responded to the changing superhero comics subculture. But nudging Peter Parker into his “dark night of the soul” was a crucial element to the Lee-Ditko years, where Parker would ceaselessly brood over the consequences of his double-life. How does this era illustrate the malleability of Spider-Man, do you think?
Spider-Man did get darker in this period, in part as a response to the increase in adult content across all of comics. And “Kraven’s Last Hunt” is widely regarded as one of the best Spider-Man stories ever—and it’s also one of the darkest Spider-Man stories ever, which does speak to the fact that this character is so flexible and adaptable.
While people do have this image of Spider-Man as this guy who’s constantly cracking jokes, when you go back and read those early Lee/Ditko issues, they are pretty dark. Many of them end with Peter Parker, having screwed up royally as either Spidey or Peter or both walking off alone into the New York City night. Then the next month, he comes back, tries and fails some more, and walks off alone again. It really puts the lie to the notion that superhero comics are pure escapism. Spider-Man comics, at least, are less about escaping from reality than grappling with it.
8. You were tasked to single out the most iconic bits of imagery from one of the more ripped-apart eras of Spider-Man’s history, “The Clone Saga”. What did this particular experience, including having access to speak to some of the creators who worked during this era, do to your opinion of the Clone Saga overall? Justly malined or under-appreciated spider-saga?
Can it be a little bit of both? Rereading the Clone Saga in the process of writing the book, I found a lot to like, including the character of Ben Reilly, Spidey’s wayward clone. And the notion of Spider-Man encountering this double is a clever variation on the metaphorical Spidey vs. Peter conflict that’s at the heart of almost every great Spider-Man story.
With that said, the story drags on way too long, and the indecision of those in charge of whether to completely replace Peter with Ben bleeds into the story itself; the Clone Saga has more endings than The Return of the King. On the whole, it’s not one of Spider-Man’s finest hours, but I do think that era is better than its reputation.
9. Let’s talk Spider-Verse. There’s untold Spider-tie-ins, from spin-off characters like Spider-Gwen, Spider-Man 2099 and Silk to countless takes on Peter Parker himself, such as ‘Spider-Man Noir’ and ‘Life Story’. There’s even a new Spider-Man, in the form of Miles Morales. Yet the more the Spider-Verse expands, the richer the mythos gets. Why do you suppose that is?
Spider-Man is such an inspirational figure that it only makes sense that he would start to inspire other heroes within the Marvel Universe. People often argue that one of the reasons Spider-Man is among the most popular superheroes is because that full face mask allows any reader to imagine themselves under it—making him more universal than a character like Superman or Batman. The concept of Spider-Verse took that notion and turned it into a story unto itself, imagining all these heroes united by their mutual belief in power and responsibility. And all those Spider-Men and Women reinforce the notion that anyone who buys in to Spidey’s values can become a hero as well.
10. Bagley and Pichelli, Ditko and Romita (Sr. and Jr.), MacFarlane and Larsen, Garney and Quesada. Spidey has been illustrated by virtually every single great comics artist at one point or another. Not to put you on the spot or anything, but who, in your opinion, has captured the essence of Spider-Man best?
I put almost everyone I interviewed for the book on the spot too, and they were pretty evenly split between Steve Ditko and John Romita Sr. While I love a lot of the modern Spider-Man artists like Bagley, Sara Pichelli, and Marcos Martín, I would probably vote for Steve Ditko. Again, you look back over those 30-odd issues, and you see all the concepts he created. He not only captured the essence of Spider-Man, he basically defined it as well.
‘Marvel’s Spider-Man: From Amazing to Spectacular’ hits bookstores October 15.
Check out this 14-page preview of ‘Marvel’s Spider-Man: From Amazing to Spectacular’, courtesy of Insight Editions!
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