Amazing Spider-Man Epic Collection Volume 1: Great Power
Reprints Amazing Fantasy #15, Amazing Spider-Man #1-17, Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1
Written by Stan Lee
Art by Steve Ditko & Jack Kirby
In hindsight, it’s often hard to see the chronological order that something iconic in our culture came about. If you were born decades after, you usually just see it as all mashed together. Take Spider-Man, for instance. He debuted in the pages of Amazing Fantasy in 1962. This was over a year (June 1961) that the Marvel Comics brand was created out of the former Timely/Atlas Comics. Fantastic Four #1 was published in November of ‘61, which many see as the start of what we know as Marvel Superheroes. Amazing Spider-Man #1 came out in March 1963 and was bi-monthly for its first three issues. What really makes this wild for me is realizing I was born 19 years after Spider-Man’s debut, a number that feels a lot smaller at 40 than it would have when I was eight years old. That’s the equivalent of something in 2021 that debuted in 2002. So from this perspective, it doesn’t feel so long ago.
I don’t assume I’m going to tell you anything about these early Spider-Man stories that any fan of comics hasn’t already seen in a myriad of other places. These are pseudo-religious texts for some, outlining a fundamental concept of what the superhero is. I find it interesting that when you go back and read them, you can see that many elements of what we associate with Spider-Man are being figured out on the page. Peter Parker is not a fully realized world when he appears on the page. Stan Lee and Steve Ditko are trying to decide who this character will be and what other figures will populate the setting.
The element present from the start is Parker’s angst. With the death of Uncle Ben, it is cemented that Peter’s life will be a series of trials and triumphs, roller coaster-ing through existence. It’s that aspect of the character that makes Spider-Man so endearing to readers well into adulthood. I certainly love Superman, Batman, and the like, but it is hard to find anything as relatable as Peter Parker struggling to balance his love life, finances, and family. Oh, and the fighting supervillains part too. Lee’s writing is incredibly soap-operatic, which I think came from his experience on Marvel’s romance comics prior. It’s a genre that doesn’t really exist in American comics, but romance comics force the writer to create relationships in which the reader will be invested.
Related to the angst and another vital component to Spider-Man is his immediate vilification by authorities. J.Jonah Jameson comes onboard relatively early, and right away, he is slandering Spider-Man’s name and leading the police to turn against the hero. That feels like an incredibly fresh concept when the fatherly versions of Superman and Batman dominated comics. Even among the Marvel roster at the time, framing Spider-Man as facing an ungrateful public was a pretty interesting move. The only adult consistently shown as decent is Aunt May; the rest are either Spider-Man’s villains or rather dim-witted citizens and cops.
Let’s look at those villains for a minute. Within this collection, you’ll find the debuts of The Chameleon, The Vulture, The Tinkerer, Doctor Octopus, Sandman, The Lizard, Electro, The Enforcers, Mysterio, Green Goblin, and Kraven the Hunter. Along the way, Spidey will face off against a few other heroes’ villains (Dr. Doom, Ringmaster), but this is more about his rogues. While Green Goblin has become more of Spider-Man’s arch-nemesis in both comics and media, Lee & Ditko seem to view Doctor Octopus as his main enemy. Doc Ock appears four times in these issues, once as a member of The Sinister Six. Because of his frequent appearance, we get more development of that character than the other bad guys. Ock is incredibly arrogant and never like his more sympathetic portrayal in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2. This is a mad scientist through and through whose hubris is his greatest weakness.
While Green Goblin’s identity has deeper connections to Peter’s personal life, I grew up seeing Doc Ock as the arch-nemesis. He meets Spidey on the level of intellect and scientific prowess. Both are victims of accidents, but whereas Peter was in his formative years with Uncle Ben to shape his philosophy, Ock is firmly in adulthood and leans into the flaws that got him in trouble in the first place. Doctor Octopus becomes entangled in the Betty Brant subplot and even reveals Peter’s identity to the public. Thanks to some clever writing, no one believes a weakling like Parker could be Spider-Man. Betty immediately thinks he dressed up this way to try and help her, and Jameson thinks Ock is dumb to fall for such a prank.
I’d also like to note how silly these stories are. Almost everyone is a “one and done” affair, so Lee & Ditko have to deliver every act in a single issue. Today, some of these stories would be stretched into three or more issues, but there is something more satisfying about getting a complete tale in one. They are also exposition-heavy, with Parker’s internal dialogue doing a tremendous amount of heavy lifting. Every techno gadget he employs or plans he concocts to take out a villain is explained to the audience by our protagonist.
I can also see how a reader tired of simplistic plots of D.C. Comics at the time would find Marvel so appealing. While the villains and conflicts are so silly, there are some interesting ideas dropped into our laps. Parker voices constant concern over Aunt May’s health and finances, driving him to push himself harder than he should. Class is a significant part of Spider-Man’s stories, while someone like Batman never has to worry about putting food on the table. Working-class superheroes don’t get explored enough, and when they do, I find them to be some of the more interesting characters and stories. In Spider-Man’s world, the wealthy (J. Jonah Jameson, Norman Osborn, Wilson Fisk) are never to be trusted.
I would posit that many fans of the MCU’s Spider-Man might not enjoy these stories. They aren’t fast-paced, and the scale is relatively simple. It’s usually a one-on-one fight with a lot of time spent on Peter out of costume and his relationships with others. It makes me think that, given a decent budget and strong writing, a Spider-Man live-action series would better suit those elements that made the character who he is. That weekly check-in, as Peter argues over his payment from J.J. or misses school because he was up late at the hospital with May, is never going to find its way into the films as they are now. But a smaller format program with 13 episodes a season will have more room to calm down and let stories naturally build. However, Marvel will never go that route with such a major property as Spider-Man, which is why I recommend reading these books to get a slightly different flavor than you might be used to.