Comic Book Review – Amazing Spider-Man Epic Collection: Spider-Man No More

Amazing Spider-Man Epic Collection: Spider-Man No More (2018)
Reprints Amazing Spider-Man #39-52, Amazing Spider-Man Annual #3-4, and Not Brand Echh #2
Written by Stan Lee
Art by John Romita, Larry Lieber, Don Heck, and Marie Severin

Steve Ditko was gone and with him ended the first era of Spider-Man. This second era wasn’t going to be a downturn in quality, though. Stan Lee brought in artist John Romita whose style would become the standard for how Spider-Man was presented even outside the comics for decades to come. Romita’s art is different from Ditko’s. Where the former artist portrayed Spider-Man/Peter Parker as a spindly, almost spidery lanky fellow, Romita bulked the character up a bit. His muscle mass increased, but not too much, and the glasses disappeared. This wasn’t a Spider-Man who was a 90-pound weakling anymore. However, he was still an outcast to a degree. His dual identity was even more of a problem going forward as Peter tried to engage in serious adult relationships. The power and the responsibility that followed plagued every chance Peter had at happiness.

Lee & Romita kick off their run at a high mark, wrapping up some plot threads surrounding the Green Goblin. At this point, Lee was positioning the Goblin as Spider-man’s potential archnemesis, and the villain’s identity was made into an ongoing question until issue 39. Under Ditko, Peter’s social circle had been expanded in college, introducing Gwen Stacy & Harry Osborn into the mix. With that came Harry’s father, the wealthy industrialist Norman Osborn. In issue 39, the fraught relationship between Harry and his dad is established, the father showing a lack of pride in his son, which actually bonds Peter & Harry as friends. We also learn that the Goblin is a separate persona from Norman, and he’s unaware of what his dark side gets up to. The Goblin follows Spider-Man and discovers his identity as Peter Parker. The Goblin defeats Peter and brings him to his lair, where the truth is finally revealed to Peter. 

The initial reveal of Norman as the Goblin doesn’t have as much emotional weight as we might imagine today because it happened a year after the character was introduced. The Green Goblin first appeared in Amazing Spider-Man #14, so it’s evident that Stan Lee didn’t know who the character would be under the mask at the time. This reveal works best as something Peter has to wrestle with. He doesn’t want Harry to be ashamed of his father, and because the Goblin is part of a more significant mental health issue, Peter tries to be gentle while ensuring Norman has purged his other half. A fight causes the Goblin’s lair to go up in flames, and Norman is struck so hard that it genuinely seems to shake him out of his stupor. Peter covers for his enemy, hoping that it’s all behind him. Now, we can look back and know that the Goblin would go on to make our hero’s life so much worse in the future.

The Rhino/John Jameson (41-43)

It’s crucial to note that Stan Lee bills issue 41 as “A Great New Era” for Spider-Man, signaling that the previous two issues with art by Romita were wrapping up the first chapter Lee & Ditko began together. The book has a different feel due to the artwork, so this matches. Lee is also pushing the supporting cast into more prominence, which makes Spider-Man’s world feel like a richly developed pocket of the greater Marvel Universe. Spider-Man felt separate from the other books, like Claremont’s X-Men began its little mini-universe in the 1970s/80s. 

While Romita introduced fewer long-lasting villains than Ditko, he kicked things off by making Spider-Man face off with The Rhino. We also see the prominent return of JJ Jameson’s astronaut son John who hadn’t appeared since Amazing Spider-Man #1. John does not share his father’s passionate hatred of the web-slinger and reminds new readers about the events of that issue. Meanwhile, the Soviets have sent the tank-like Rhino into the United States, with the villain making a beeline to New York City, where he kidnaps John Jameson, the country’s space-faring hero. Spider-Man isn’t going to sit by, of course, and a fight ensues with the hero using his agility to confound and exhaust his foe. This is followed by a story where John’s exposure to a strange radioactive meteor turns him into a super-powered being. Jonah convinces his boy to use his power to stop Spider-Man as the hero has been framed for a bank robbery. More fighting with Spidey doing his best not to hurt the clearly disoriented and incoherent John. Meanwhile, the authorities have trouble containing The Rhino who subsequently breaks free. John is held and depowered. 

Peter finally manages to attend a dinner Aunt May & her friend Anna Watson have been planning for weeks. At this dinner, he meets Anna’s niece, the now-iconic Mary Jane Watson. Interestingly, in drawing Gwen Stacy, Romita still uses Ditko’s style guide as she resembles his work. On the other hand, Mary Jane’s design is straight from Romita, so she looks more “modern.” Talking about Romita allows us to bring up the popularity of romance comics in the 1950s and early 1960s. Romita previously did art for DC Comics, drawing on titles like Secret Hearts, Heart Throbs, Falling In Love, Girls’ Romance Stories, and Young Love. 

While today, comics are associated with violent masculine fantasies, the medium was very open to readers of all kinds during this time. Romance comics were exceptionally popular after the Comics Code Authority was implemented. Of course, sexual intercourse couldn’t be further from these tales, but the audience for these books was enormous. You can see the influence of romance comics in Spider-Man with how many pages are spent on Peter ruminating over his love life and falling in & out of favor with Gwen & Mary Jane throughout the series. The same was happening in regards to Liz Allen & Betty Brant when Ditko was drawing the title. Stan Lee also shows what a sexist thinker he was because these are some of the pettiest women I’ve read about in a comic book. 

Issue 44 starts with Peter seeing Aunt May off a vacation. All she can do is worry about who will care for her nephew while she is gone. Meanwhile, Dr. Curt Conners is feeling his Lizard persona attempting to resurface and is also at Grand Central to pick up his wife and child. I do not understand why Stan Lee loved putting The Lizard in stories so much because the villain is incredibly one-note to me. It’s the same story every time he shows up: Conners tries to fight the transformation, he loses, Spidey & The Lizard tussle, and the hero uses Conners’ family plus scientific know-how to restore Conners to his human self. Then, the next time he shows up, it all happens again. Little twists have been added over the years, but even today, if you read a story where The Lizard shows up, it’s this again. Maybe Lee sees something I don’t, and perhaps you can convince me in the comments why there is any point in telling the same Lizard story again and again. 

In this fight, Spider-Man breaks his left arm and has to be put in a sling. This creates problems for going back and forth between his heroic & civilian identities, as seeing both with a broken arm might give the game away. It also proves Aunt May right that her idiot nephew can’t go one day without fucking something up. Poor woman. Peter has to cancel a date with Mary Jane beginning the first of many disappointments he will bring to her life. After stopping The Lizard, Spidey follows it up by having his first fight with Romita’s next addition to the rogues’ gallery: The Shocker. It’s pretty straightforward, with the broken arm adding some drama to the conflict that would otherwise play out with pretty low stakes. More long-lasting for Peter is that this story marks the end of his time living with Aunt May. Harry needs a roommate for his swanky Manhattan apartment and Peter has proven a good friend which nabs him an invite. 

The following narrative arc begins with the return of Kraven the Hunter and a bit of retconning. Stan Lee reveals that Norman Osborn had bankrolled Kraven in his previous fight with Spidey. Kraven is unaware of the connection and thinks Norman and the Goblin are working together. There is the matter of a bill to be paid, and Kraven plans on taking it out of Osborn one way or another. The villain decides the best way to strike out is to kidnap Harry, which pulls Spider-Man into the picture. Romita illustrates a very modern, for the time, party between Peter and his friends, where we begin to see him making Gwen’s design his own and shifting away from Ditko’s work. He manages to save Norman, who gets attacked by Kraven and furthers the complicated relationship between Spidey & the Goblin.

Things don’t get any better in the following issue as Peter is coming down with the flu or some illness connected to his powers. Adrian Toomes, The Vulture, is on his deathbed in prison and offers a way for his cellmate Blackie Drago to escape by disclosing the location of backup wings he had hidden away. A sick Spider-Man has to tussle with a brand new Vulture and Kraven, who is still roaming around the city and nursing his bruises from the last issue. This leads to a fight between the villains, and when Spider-Man gets involved, they reach a tentative truce to take on their shared foe. 

These are the types of stories that Lee excelled at in the comic, piling it on Peter and seeing what happened. Facing down multiple villains, dealing with the fallout of being an unreliable friend, and random things like the flu make Spider-Man feel like a character the average working-class person can connect to. Unfortunately, while we don’t fist-fight villains, we are overwhelmed weekly with far more than we can handle.

The final arc in this collection begins with one of the most iconic covers in comics’ history. With his head down, Peter Parker walks towards the reader, while in the background, Spider-Man looms large with his back to us, glancing over his shoulder at the downtrodden Parker. The title hyperbolically proclaims, “Spider-Man No More!.” Spidey takes out some bank robbers and rushes across town to find out Aunt May is in the hospital again. She must have had some insanely good health insurance or was in mountains of debt. Peter’s grades are suffering at university, and he just can’t manage his personal life. Finally, a rant by Jameson leads our hero to toss his red & blue tights into a garbage can and walk away. 

This all comes when the mob boss, the infamous Kingpin, is about to make his move. While Jameson comes on The Tonight Show to present the discovered costume of Spider-Man to Johnny Carson, one of his reporters, Frederick Foswell, goes undercover in The Kingpin organization. This new enemy plans on performing a hostile takeover of New York’s organized crime families and forming something more like a sleek, efficient corporation (shadows of Coppola’s The Godfather Part III plot?). So Peter does some soul-searching and remembers the words of the dying Uncle Ben, snatches his costume back from Jameson, and Spider-Man is back in business.

The rest of the story involves Spider-Man taking on a near-endless parade of nameless thugs thrown at him by The Kingpin until he faces the big guy himself. Stan Lee reminds us that while appearing to be a fat tub of lard, The Kingpin is actually pure muscle and a formidable fighter. This reminder will continue every time the Kingpin shows up down the road, making us understand that he’s not fat; he’s just big-boned. Jameson & Spidey end up in a death trap together, where the hero saves the man who regularly maligns him. Does Jameson learn anything? Nope. Foswell also bows out, ending his life and saving that of Jameson. The Kingpin escapes to fight another day, and Spider-Man embraces this confounding life he has chosen, ready to fight another day. But, as the final caption of the issue tells us, Doctor Octopus is lurking just around the corner again.

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