Marvel Masterworks: Amazing Spider-Man vol. 2 & 3
Written by Stan Lee
Plotted and Illustrated by Steve Ditko
Lettered by Sam Rosen & Art Simek
Color Reconstructed by Michael Kelleher & Kellustration
Published by Marvel
For the longest time, I’ve told myself that reading a run of Marvel Masterworks – specifically of Lee/Ditko Amazing Spider-Man and/or Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four or Thor – would be my next comic book archival priority. Of course, so many amazing archival projects have been popping up that I keep deferring the Masterworks – Will Eisner’s Spirit Archives, Kirby Omnibuses, and all these gorgeous compilations of strips by masters of the form such as Caniff, Raymond and Foster. Plus, there are Nexus Archives, E.C. Segar’s Popeye reprints, and dozens of other high-scale projects that seem to eternally delay my diving into the classic Marvel era.
Thus, Marvel’s recent decision to republish their Masterworks’ line in softcover edition, while not necessarily being the high-end format I’d prefer, fits in very well with my budgetary restraints at the moment. The second and third volumes of Marvel Masterworks: Amazing Spider-Man collect issues 11 through 30, plus two over-sized Annuals, of the legend-making stories by Spidey’s creators, Stan Lee and Steve Dikto.
I read a handful of these issues, years upon years ago. When I first got into comics, Marvel was publishing a monthly series titled Spider-Man Classics that reprinted those earliest issues, and I readily devoured them. Of course, the Classics serial ended after only 16 issues, which means that most of the stories here were entirely new to me.
Among the famed faces who make their first appearance in these books: Mysterio, Kraven the Hunter, The Green Goblin, the Molten Man, an obscured Mary Jane Watson (John Romita eventually gets the job of actually presenting MJ to readers for the first time), and the Sinister Six. But the really important aspect of these comics isn’t seeing how characters debuted; it’s understanding just why the characters held the appeal that they do.
Lee and Ditko manage several impressive feats here. I’ve always felt that part of Spider-Man’s appeal is how effectively Lee and Ditko follow the classic Superman superhero model, yet utterly subvert it as well. People recognize the classic superhero tropes: the newspaper job, the nebbish alter ego, the red and blue costume, elderly foster parents, yet Clark Kent always winks at the reader when things go wrong, letting us know it’s all in good fun. Poor Peter Parker, though, no matter his triumph over evil, always winds up lamenting a failure beyond his control. For the younger readers who grew up reading Amazing Spider-Man, often feeling the same way themselves, I can imagine it was a powerful moment to see a hero caught in the same emotional turmoil.
Sure, some of Peter’s dilemmas are overly melodramatic, but just as often, Lee and Ditko craft solid and legitimate lose-lose scenarios for our hero. Peter even spends an entire issue sulking, with nary a fight to be found. (Honestly, the issue drags a bit, but its intention was good.) The villains … well, they’re colorful and fun, a bit absurd and inept, but they play off Spider-Man effectively, allowing Lee and Ditko to come up with creative victories for Spidey and inevitable losses for Peter Parker.
The Fantastic Four’s Human Torch makes frequent guest-appearances that contrast his celebrity against Peter’s downtrodden nature. The contrast is one of the less heavy-handed themes evident throughout the book, which makes it also one of the series’ most effective.
Ditko’s artwork, despite a few moments of clear deadline haste, is very solid, a blocky style that suits its “square” protagonist to a tee, yet manages to sell the aerial, acrobatic action sequences. Lee’s dialogue is ham-fisted, but full of heart. The duo’s plots are creative, and one of the best (which presages the argument that would – by many accounts – eventually split the creative team), the revelation of the mysterious Crime Master’s alter-ego is pitch perfect.
In terms of quality cartoon storytelling, it’s not (close to) on par with the Caniffs or Eisners or Fosters of the cartooning world, but Marvel Masterworks: Amazing Spider-Man v. 2 & 3 retain a sense of invigorate energy and intelligence, combined with the subversive hero-who-fails motif that redefined and continues to define the adventure comic field. One could argue that only a half dozen or so superhero comics have mattered in all the years since.