Essential Spider-Man Vol. 2
by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko
(Art by Steve Ditko, John Romita and Mike Esposito)
An omnibus containing twenty-four issues-worth of Spider-Man's adventures from the 1960s. Here we see Peter Parker, perpetually broke and lovelorn, graduate from high school and move up to Empire State University, making friends such as Harry Osborn, Gwen Stacy and Mary Jane Watson on the way. Meanwhile, in his other life as Spider-Man, he battles iconic foes such as the Beetle, Mysterio, the Green Goblin, Scorpion, Kraven the Hunter, Doctor Octopus, Molten Man and the Rhino.
These stories, covering 1965 to 1967, represent Spider-Man at his purest. These are the tales and the comic book style which made him Marvel's most bankable superhero as well as an enduring pop-culture icon. That's not to say they're all great, some drag pretty heavily, but they are among the best work of superhero comics of the time and remain largely enjoyable to read more than fifty years later.
This book also contains some pretty iconic Spider-Man moments which any true fan of the character should at least be aware of, including the reveal of the Green Goblin's identity, the wall crawler being trapped beneath tons of machinery in Doc Ock's underwater base (a scene referenced in both Spider-Man 2 and in the MCU's Spider-Man: Homecoming) and Peter's much-built-up first meeting with MJ ("Face it tiger, you've hit the jackpot!").
The big downside to this (and all of these) Essential collection(s) is that to make it more affordable it's printed in black and white. It means you still get to enjoy the old stories, not to mention the legendary artwork of Steve Ditko, but they lack some of the colour and vibrancy that was an integral part of Spider-Man's world.
3 out of 5
Essential Spider-Man Vol. 3
by Stan Lee & John Romita
(Art by John Romita, Mike Esposito, Don Heck and Jim Mooney)
A collection of twenty-four classic issues of The Amazing Spider-Man from the late 60s. Struggling to balance his dual identities, Peter Parker quits being Spider-Man, suffers memory loss and is caught between his feelings for both Gwen Stacy and MJ Watson. Meanwhile, he also has to battle foes such as the Lizard, Kraven the Hunter, Mysterio, the Kingpin, the Vulture, Shocker and Doctor Octopus.
Much like the previous volume of these Essential collections, the stories presented here are Spider-Man at his most iconic, representing everything that makes the character my favourite Marvel superhero (second only to Batman for me in comics overall). In a weird way it's not even the supervillain-battling antics that were the most appealing part of this book for me; it was Peter Parker's social life. One of the most interesting things about this character is just how much he struggles to balance his two lives and it's in full play here, even including the iconic 'Spider-Man No More' storyline. I also enjoy Peter's romantic entanglements, but I'll never quite forgive the writers for edging out MJ in favour of Gwen here (although, I guess Gwen gets a worse deal eventually...).
It's not all gold, of course (because no comic run from the 1960s is) and this book has two things in it that I really didn't like. The first is an amnesia storyline and I always find that if we, the readers, know the truth then amnesia stories are just pointless wheel-spinning until the protagonist inevitably catches-up with what we already know. The other thing I didn't like, and which happens a couple of times here, is that this book features one of Stan Lee's worst habits; having heroes fight each other for little or no reason. It's the literary equivalent of bashing action figures together and almost always feels unjustified, which is certainly the case here.
3 out of 5
Essential Spider-Man Vol. 4
by Stan Lee, John Romita, John Buscema & Larry Lieber
(Art by John Romita, Jim Mooney, John Buscema, Larry Lieber, Mike Esposito and Gil Kane)
Twenty-two issues of classic Spider-Man stories from the 1960s and 70s. Here Spider-Man battles foes such as the Kingpin, Shocker, the Lizard, Chameleon, Electro and Doctor Octopus, as well as tangling with a new costumed adventurer walking the line between hero and villain; the Prowler.
Whilst Spider-Man's adventures remain entertaining overall, this is definitely weaker than the preceding two volumes of these collections, showing the noticeable shift away from Spidey's peak in the 1960s. By this point co-creator Steve Ditko had long-since left and Stan Lee had taken a less-involved approach thanks to the so-called 'Marvel Method', giving this a very different feel to earlier stories of the Wall Crawler.
Among the missteps on offer here are the introduction of several new supervillains who just don't have the same iconic quality of the most famous members Spider-Man's rogues gallery. The two main examples here are the appallingly badly-named Man-Mountain Marko (although I'm sure Lee was pleased with the alliteration) and the Kangaroo. Yep. The Kangaroo. Who gained superhuman jumping powers by... living with kangaroos. And whose motivation for villainy is that people make fun of him (for some unknowable reason). I hope Marvel wrote an apology to the entire nation of Australia for this character.
Really, what saves this book overall from being a massive slump is that an element of social commentary is introduced that wasn't there to any great extent before. Here the writers address the issues of the civil rights movement, primarily through Daily Bugle editor 'Robbie' Robertson and his student son, two black men. We get to see a frank dialogue between these characters as they explore the concepts of whether Robbie's influential position is a victory or a result of him collaborating with the white supremacist system, as well as whether the son's desire to literally fight for black people's rights is what is needed for true social change. To the writers' credit, they don't try to draw any conclusions on behalf of these black characters, they simply air the grievances openly and sympathetically. Which in America at that time was (depressingly) a brave thing for any popular media organisation to be doing, especially in their biggest-selling title.
3 out of 5
Essential Spider-Man Vol. 5
by Stan Lee, Roy Thomas & Gerry Conway
(Art by Gil Kane, John Romita, Sal Buscema, Frank Giacoia, Tony Mortellaro and Jim Starlin)
Spider-Man storms into the 1970s in this collection of twenty-three issues of 'The Amazing Spider-Man'. Peter Parker's personal life is tested to the limits as Captain Stacy is killed, Gwen flees to England and Aunt May disappears under mysterious circumstances. Meanwhile, as Spider-Man, he has to fight villains such as Doctor Octopus, the Green Goblin, the Beetle, Kraven the Hunter and a new foe; Morbius the Living Vampire.
There's a really interesting tonal break in the middle of this book that caused me to taker a wider look at where Spider-Man is, narratively-speaking, at this point. Stan Lee's run on the series is broken up by a few issues in which Roy Thomas takes over the writing and what we get for those few issues include Peter sprouting extra limbs, the introduction of Morbius and an impromptu trip to the Savage Land to fight dinosaurs and an alien giant called Gog. These whacky and bizarre stories are totally different to the ones either side of them and it made me realise something significant: Lee's writing had gotten stale. Now, the more over-the-top stories don't fit with the more grounded street-level adventures of Spidey that we're used to but it's clear here that the narrative mileage of having Spidey beat up random hoodlums or have overly-familiar run ins with his more famous foes had run out by this point.
The out-of-nowhere detour to the Savage Land shows this best. Whilst it's corny and I'm not at all okay with the fact that Jameson invites Gwen along so she can lounge around in a bikini for photos (dirty old perv), there's a great sense of fun to the story. Also it was the most interesting use of Kraven the Hunter I've read so far, having the character try to carve out a kingdom in the Savage Land in opposition to Ka-Zar. This is further highlighted later in this book when Kraven returns in a Lee-penned story that feels actively regressive for the character.
If you want any further proof that Lee was past his A-game by this point, I will direct you to his creation of what was clearly intended to be the next great Spidey villain; the Gibbon! Never heard of him? Exactly. However, this is not all to say that there's not still great Spidey stories on offer here, they just tend to be the ones not penned by the character's co-creator sadly.
3 out of 5
Essential Spider-Man Vol. 6
by Gerry Conway, Stan Lee & Len Wein
(Art by John Romita, Tony Mortellaro, Jim Starlin, Jim Mooney, Gil Kane, Ross Andru, Frank Giacoia, Dave Hunt, Paul Reinman, Mike Esposito, Don Heck and Al Migrom)
A collection of twenty-two issues of classic Spider-Man tales from the 1970s. This book sees Spider-Man trying to cope with not only the deaths of his enemy Norman Osborn and his beloved Gwen Stacy but also with being blamed for their murders. Meanwhile his best friend Harry Osborn descends into a hell of drug abuse and madness. Spidey confronts foes as diverse as the Green Goblin, Doctor Octopus, Hammerhead, Morbius and Man-Wolf, as well as finding new allies in Shang-Chi and the Punisher.
This book couldn't be more 70s if it tried, marking a notable departure from the style and tone of Spider-Man's original adventures in the 60s. Among the Seventies zeitgeist tapped into here is blaxploitation, with an appearance by Luke Cage; horror of the era, with vampires, werewolves and Dracula himself (yes, literally Dracula); gritty and violent revenge thrillers, pretty much embodied by the Punisher; as well as the kung fu craze, represented by a team up with Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu. If these things are not your cup of tea, then you'll probably struggle to enjoy this book. For me, growing up in the 80s with re-runs of 70s TV and movies, it was all good (if occasionally silly) fun.
Where I'm a bit conflicted about this book is how it deals with the emotional impacts of some of the major story points. The death of Gwen Stacy is handled really well, as is the harrowing scene where an enraged Peter refuses to offer sympathy to Harry, who is on the verge of total mental breakdown. I also enjoyed seeing Peter and MJ slowly rekindle their relationship in the aftermath of Gwen's death (I'll always be an unapologetic MJ+Peter fan). What doesn't work quite so well is how Peter's grief and depression are handled, as if the writers wanted to acknowledge them but didn't want to risk putting off readers by being a downer. What this results in are scenes where Peter tells himself that he should just cheer up and get on with his life a mere ten days after he witnessed his girlfriend's murder at the hands of his best friend's dad, who then died trying to kill Peter. I'm pretty sure you could be justified in having a few long-term hang-ups about something like that.
3 out of 5
Essential X-Men Vol. 1
(Art by Dave Cockrum, Bob McLeod, Sam Grainger, Frank Chiaramonte, Bob Layton, Bob Brown, Tom Sutton, Dan Green, John Byrne, Terry Austin, Tony DeZuniga and Ric Villamonte)
A collection of twenty-six issues of the 1970s relaunch of the X-Men. When the original X-Men disappear on a mission Professor X and Cyclops recruit a new international team consisting of Colossus, Storm, Sunfire, Nightcrawler, Banshee, Thunderbird and Wolverine to rescue their fellow mutants.
The original X-Men (created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby) were fine, but by the 70s they had largely played out. Then along comes Len Wein's 'Giant Size X-Men #1' and introduces a whole host of new mutants and comics were never the same again. This new roster of X-Men had a distinctly international feel, with each member being from a different part of the world, offering a rich variation in cultural backgrounds quite apart from the diversity of their superpowers. Chris Claremont would then go on to develop these individuals and give them interesting and engaging character arcs, be it Wolverine's harshness softening or Storm's slow appreciation of finally not only having colleagues but those colleagues becoming the family she never had. This team of X-Men is quite simply the most interesting group of characters put together as a team in Marvel's history.
That's not to say that everything here is brilliant stuff. The X-Men's stories are completely no-holds-barred bonkers and this book takes them into space, to the Savage Land, to an alien world and to an island which is itself a mutant, whilst having them fight robot duplicates, be mesmerised into becoming carnies, meet actual leprechauns and battle dinosaurs. With all that going on, it's safe to say that some of the storylines are either too silly or too contrived to be any good (the second time they fight evil duplicates of the original X-Men, I had to double-check that my copy didn't accidentally have a misprint, but no, they just did the same story again).
Also, it's interesting to go back to these early stories and see that both Cyclops and Xavier are just horrible people, constantly berating their teammates and generally being dicks. I'd long thought that Cyclops' descent into villainy in more recent Marvel stories like 'Avengers vs X-Men' (reviewed here) was unfair on the character but having now read this book, I take that back. Not cool, Scott. Not cool.
3 out of 5
Essential X-Men Vol. 2
(Art by John Byrne, Terry Austin, Brent Anderson and Josef Rubinstein)
Twenty-four issues-worth of X-Men adventures from the late 70s and early 80s. Including the Dark Phoenix Saga and Days of Future Past, this book sees the X-Men face foes such as Arcade, Proteus, Alpha Flight, D'spayre and the Hellfire Club, as well as introducing characters like Kitty Pryde, Emma Frost and Dazzler.
This book constitutes what is probably the most important X-Men run of all time and has both Chris Claremont and John Byrne at the top of their game. The episodic adventures of previous years has largely fallen away and instead we get much longer and better developed storylines which are given enough time to mature and build to a crescendo. Perhaps the most famous of these storylines (partially because Fox have failed to do it justice on the big screen twice now) is the Dark Phoenix Saga. It begins with Jean Grey sacrificing her life, only to be reborn as the Phoenix with her powers increased exponentially. We then get a slow and impressively subtle slide towards darkness as Jean struggles with the exhilaration of her godlike powers and then has the darker side of her nature slowly manipulated by a mysterious enemy, until finally she loses control. It is a perfectly-paced and brilliant epic tragedy.
As well as the Dark Phoenix story, we also get the iconic Days of Future Past (adapted for film much better, it has to be said), whose basic premise of heroes from a post-apocalyptic future time-travelling to put things right has become a Marvel mainstay (even the MCU has done it) and is a rich narrative vein to mine.
Perhaps the best thing about this book is that the move towards longer-form storytelling means that the main X-Men are given some genuine character development over time, feeling a natural progression for them. Jean Grey is the most obvious example, but I also enjoyed seeing Wolverine and Storm coming to realise that they no-longer have to be loners and even Cyclops is shown to have changed and matured through working with this particular X-team.
There are a few less than stellar moments, the somewhat silly battle with Arcade in Murderworld being one such, and the fact these collections are printed in black and white means that these stories don't look as vibrant as they once would have, but overall these are just good-quality X-Men stories.
4 out of 5