Charting the many origins of Marvel’s Wall-crawling Web-head
Everyone loves a good origin story, and comics have some of the best in the business. They’re so good in fact that people can’t seem to leave them alone. Aside from the fact that they were first told anywhere up to 80 years ago, classic origin stories have been told and retold so many times that it’d be easy to get confused. Batman has one of the most successful retelling with “Batman: Year One”, and just a few years ago Scott Snyder retold his version in “Zero Year“.
In the last few years the Amazing Spider-Man has had two series attempting to fill in some of the gaps of his early years. Firstly there was 2014’s “Volume 1.1: Learning to Crawl“ by Dan Slott and Ramon Perez which, much like its numbering suggests, sets out to fill in the gaps between the early panels, pages and issues that cover the origin of everyone’s favourite wall-crawler. It’s aim was to flesh out one of the more famous origins in comics while still remaining faithful to the original. Nothing is getting rebooted here; everything that happened has happened, but as the introduction insisted, “you don’t know the whole story”.
More recently was the ongoing series from 2015 -2016 (because yes, ‘ongoing’ these days at Marvel means ’12 issues’) “Spidey” by Robbie Thompson and Nick Bradshaw. Much like an earlier, (and most would acknowledge more successful) series called “Untold Tales of Spider-Man“, “Spidey” attempted not to retell any stories but to weave new tales between the existing ones.
So all of this is great right? This way the early years can be explored and retold in a way that doesn’t invalidate anything that’s come before it, plus you get to squeeze in extra stories. It’s win-win. Except…except these aren’t the first times Marvel’s done this. Hell, it’s not even the first time Marvel’s done this with Spider-man. There have been a number of books that have ‘filled in the gaps’ of those early days of Peter Parker, so I’m going to highlight some of the more prominent ones. I’m going to focus specifically on the origin itself, and see if they all complement one another nicely, or contradict one another completely. After that we’ll try and sort out some kind of timeline, because continuity is fun!
Honourable mention – “Spider-man: Chapter One” (1998-99)
Back in the glory days of the late nineties comics were rarely better. OK, I couldn’t write that with a straight face. Unfortunately the nineties weren’t very kind on our superheroes, and while a lot of good came out of that era, a lot of terrible things did too. Take “Spider-Man: Chapter One“.
Written and drawn by John Byrne, this was a retelling unlike any other. Designed to be a revamp for new audiences before the reboot of the main “Amazing Spider-Man” title, Byrne cherry picked his favourite parts of the origin story –
Like the covers…
– and completely disregarded the rest. The worst offenders? Well apart from updating the way people spoke and dressed:
He completely changed the setting. Did you catch that subtle change above?
Yep, turns out Peter’s fatal spider bite happened not at a Midtown High Science Exhibit: Experiments in Radio-Activity (Room 30) –
– it was actually in one of Doctor Octavius’ Great Radiation Chambers, in a crude attempt to link their destinies.
Obviously things go wrong:
And the rest is history. Horribly rewritten history.
That’s not all John Byrne changed. Wanting to reboot the burglar’s origins (you remember, the one that shot Uncle Ben? Keep up), he has it so that the reason the burglar broke into the Parker residence is because he saw Spider-Man leaving…
…and assumed he was ‘casing the joint’.
It’s only an honourable mention on this list because for all intents and purposes it’s been completely erased from history. It didn’t even get a convoluted Mephisto handshake – it’s just quickly and quietly been brushed under the rug as a sort of awful dream…
Ah yes. One of the more famous retcons in Spider-Man’s history, ‘Parallel Lives’ is a Marvel Graphic Novel from 1989 and follows Peter Parker and Mary Jane’s lives in tandem as they grow up in the same circles.
These truly are…Parallel Lives.
Again it goes over Peter’s origin –
Yet apart from the odd phrasing there are no real changes to the birth of Spider-Man. For the most part, Peter’s side of things is a fairly faithful adaptation of the source material. There’s even a great page that recreates and expands on two panels from AF #15 –
Most of the new material comes from Mary Jane’s side of things. Her back story gets fleshed out some more in order to change her from Party Girl into Party Girl…with emotions.
The major retcon however comes about a third of the way through the book…
Yep. Turns out all these years – before they married, before Gwen died, hell before they even officially met – MARY JANE KNEW PETER WAS SPIDER-MAN.
This was a pretty huge change in the Spider-Man mythos at the time and one that caused quite a bit of controversy. People could accept that MJ could suppress years of family tragedy, but ask people to believe that she knew all along about Peter, even when she was stood there at the door –
– That seemed like too much for a lot of folks. Thing is though, aside from having to view those early interactions differently, it doesn’t really affect anything else too seriously. In the long run it also adds a lot of depth to Mary-Jane that wasn’t there before, and helped her become one of the best supporting characters in comics. So for that reason it’s slowly just been accepted that yeah, she always knew. Onto the continuity pile it goes!
Now here is a strange miniseries. Writer David Lapham (of Stray Bullets fame) attempts to fill in the gaps between two panels in Amazing Fantasy #15, namely this one…
…and this one…
It’s a great idea in theory. It’s always confused me how Spider-man goes from being the ‘sensation of a nation’ to a superhero seemingly overnight, and no one ever mentions his wrestling career again. Clearly things get glossed over. So this is where ‘With Great Power…’ comes in. Set after the spider bite, but before his Uncle Ben’s death, this mini suggests there was about… a week and a half maybe?… where Peter kind of bumbled around becoming a flash in the pan success, all the while moping over Liz Allen and receiving the gift of a car from Uncle Ben. Which he promptly sells, along with his wrestling money to buy a better car, just to impress Liz Allen.
Anyway, the whole point is he has all the power but no idea what it means to be responsible.
Then this happens.
Like a mid-eighties Cher mixed with a mid-nineties Cher, Tiffany Lebeck enters Peter Parker’s world and for some reason she’s his perfect woman?
As the story progresses we see the usual plot points get hit – he becomes a wrestling star:
…plus it also covers the infamous scene with the burglar, because that takes place between those two panels in AF #15…
The series ends with a news report telling of that same burglar still on the loose, in a typically ominous fashion.
Overall it’s an odd series. I get the point that it was going for: there was a gap in the story that needed filling, but five issues was way too long, and the characters were in sort of a holding pattern. Peter couldn’t really learn anything because that had to happen when his Uncle died. Besides, back in AF #15 before Ben is killed Peter is kind of a jerk, so all the way through this Peter is also a jerk, and whiney to boot.
It does have some interesting ideas. Jameson’s editorials brandishing Spider-Man a menace start to annoy his promoters…
…so they’re the ones that encourage him to be a hero, in order to clean up his personal image. Ok, that’s a strange angle to take, but not entirely unbelievable. Peter doesn’t take too well to it though…
So yeah, I get it. Even when given the opportunity to be a hero on a plate, Peter can’t handle it because he hasn’t had that one hard lesson yet.
Oh that reminds me! After he got his powers, but before he became a superhero, Peter Parker wussed out on helping the Fantastic Four in stopping a monster invasion, and wound up indirectly killing a man:
Ok, not really, he tried to help him but just sucked really hard at it.
So yeah, not a great series this, and while the premise was good the execution was pretty awful. If it wasn’t Spider-Man it’d be a great examination of a teenager taking on the responsibilities of a superhero, but for Peter Parker? It just doesn’t sit right. It just further reinforces the notion that Peter Parker isn’t inherently good or heroic, and that unlike other heroes like Superman, he needs one of his family members to die before he learns the “hard” lesson that helping others is the right thing to do? Still, it doesn’t actually contradict anything that’s come before, so I guess it goes in the pot.
Amazing Fantasy #16 – #18 (1995)
Extremely similar to “Amazing Spider-Man 1.1″ in both premise and execution, these 3 issues aimed to fill in the gap between “Amazing Fantasy #15″ and “Amazing Spider-Man #1″. Here’s where we’ll potentially have troubles, because there are discrepancies between this and “Learning to Crawl”.
Written by Kurt Busiek (the writer of previously mentioned “Untold Tales of Spider-Man”) in 1995, with art by Paul Lee, these are three standalone stories that all deal with the themes of power and responsibility: the first issue sees Peter fight a ring of scam artists that pick on widows and widowers (including Aunt May):
…the second deals with a fellow teenager Joey Pulaski who also has superpowers –
But uses her powers to help the mob target select buildings to destroy, so they can reap the benefits in insurance and construction.
The third issue takes a similar tack, pitting Spidey against a villain called Supercharger who charges himself up in a super way –
Overall this is a pretty awesome, if seemingly forgotten series. There’s a definite feel of “Marvels” about it, which Busiek also wrote:
…and because it’s Busiek it’s extremely faithful to the source material. Anyone who’s read “Avengers Forever” knows how much he loves his continuity. So because of that there’s nothing here that really contradicts anything that came before it. Spidey’s manager is called Maxxie Shiffman here instead of Monty Caabash in “With Great Power…” but with a little artistic license you can easily see these stories fitting together. Just about.
Spidey has never experienced ‘Spidey Sense’ before either, and gives the sensation its name in these issues.
There are a few other things, like apparently he’s never met Jonah Jameson before –
…and Busiek shows you Uncle Ben’s funeral…
…both of which get contradicted by later storylines. The Jameson thing in ‘With Great Power…’:
…and Uncle Ben’s funeral gets shown again in Amazing Spider-Man 1.1 Learning to Crawl, which we’ll get to shortly. In either case they’re stories that came after Busiek’s issue, so if anything they contradict his work and not the other way around.
Now, as much as people may lampoon Mr Slott, there’s one thing he’s good for and that’s continuity. He knows this character inside and out, so a flashback to Peter’s early days shouldn’t be too much of an issue for him, and this story is no exception.
Picking up literally one second after Amazing Fantasy #15… (seriously, check it out:)
…this series aimed to fulfil the same promise that Busiek’s issues did, i.e. fill in the blanks between “AF #15″ and “ASM #1″. So the question is, can there possibly be enough room between those books for another 3 issues?
This book covers a lot of ground that’s already been covered in the books mentioned above. For example, as mentioned earlier, here’s Uncle Ben’s funeral…
…Jameson’s beef with ol’ Webhead…
…as well as introducing a fellow teen who is like Peter but not…
All in all though it’s not bad. It doesn’t majorly contradict anything continuity wise –
… so there’s no reason it can’t sit alongside everything else in that regard. Plus the art is just gorgeous. Ramon Perez is fantastic and it’s clear he loves the source material.
So yeah, I think it’s fine to go on the continuity pile! The trouble comes when you try and make one coherent whole however…
Piecing it all together.
So. Now that we’ve seen all the various attempts at filling in the blanks, do they all come together to form a coherent story? Well, if we put them in order…
- “Amazing Fantasy #15” is first, at least the first part up until he starts to become famous. Then we cut to
- “With Great Power #1-5″. Taking place between the panels before cutting back to
- “Amazing Fantasy #15″ where we find out what happens after the burglar shoots and kills Uncle Ben. As Peter leaves his bedroom at the end of the third page of part 2 however we jump over to
- “Amazing Spider-Man: Parallel Lives”, where we see (Shock, Horror!) Mary Jane catching him leaving and figuring out that (Horror, Shock!) Peter Parker IS Spider-Man! Back to
- “Amazing Fantasy #15″, and right as it ends, it gets picked up in
- “Amazing Spider-Man vol 1.1: Learning to Crawl” (Can you see now why the numbering is stupid?) Then
- “Amazing Fantasy #16 – #18″ which would then take us up to
- “Amazing Spider-Man #1″. The first one. The first number 1. Ergh.
So that’s it. Does it make sense from a continuity stand-point? Meh, I’m going to go with a solid “Just about”. Does it make sense on a story-telling perspective? Probably not. If you read them all like that, you’d end up with a bit of a mess. Peter learns, then forgets, then re-learns – twice – that with Great Power there must also come Great Responsibility. Plus reading them this way means he has a tendency to forget people and places, meet people for the first time twice, and be surrounded by characters that change names and motivations.
If I had to choose, I’d say you could probably remove ‘With Great Power…’ (Sorry Mr Lapham, love your other works!), and then most everything else sort of works itself out.
Ooh I forgot to mention Silk! She also gets bitten by the radioactive spider in “Amazing Spider-Man (2014-2015) #1“:
– but seeing as her story doesn’t effect Peter’s origins in any way and rather just runs parallel to what I can only assume is Peter running off to immediately fall in love with Cher, we can just acknowledge it as a fun extra.