Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing email@example.com.
Geek obsession: Spider-Man comics
Why it’s daunting: Clones. Alternate universes. Mystical spider totems. A deal with the devil that rewrites a huge chunk of the character’s timeline. Like most superheroes, Spider-Man’s history is a total clusterfuck; and as one of Marvel’s flagship characters, he gets so much exposure that it makes it even harder to figure out a good jumping-on point for the character. Further complicating matters is the recent death of Peter Parker in Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man and his heavily publicized replacement with the half-black, half-Latino Miles Morales. There are now two Spider-Men for readers to follow, and each exists in his own separate continuity. It’s not as confusing as it sounds, but that doesn’t make it any less intimidating for the casual superhero comic-book reader.
Potential gateway: Ultimate Spider-Man
Why: While the mainstream Marvel version of Spider-Man was in the middle of arguably the worst story in his 50-year history, Marvel launched a new line of comics in 2000 that stripped its characters of past continuity and re-imagined them for a modern audience. Ultimate Spider-Man was the first Ultimate title, and continues to be one of the company’s strongest comics 12 years after its debut. Written by Brian Michael Bendis, who is joined by artist Mark Bagley for the book’s first 104 issues, Ultimate Spider-Man immediately sets itself apart with its emotional opening arc. Expanding Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s classic origin story from Amazing Fantasy #15 into six issues, Bendis and Bagley take their time developing the relationship between Peter Parker and his uncle Ben, making Ben’s murder all the more impactful.
Bendis gives Norman Osborn an integral role in Spider-Man’s creation and writesAunt May as a strong working woman who constantly steps up to meet the challenges life throws her way. The writer’s strength with teenage dialogue shines in the high-school setting, and his Peter Parker has a self-deprecating wit that makes him an incredibly charming character. At the core of the series is the relationship between Peter Parker and Mary Jane, which is considerably different from their mainstream Marvel counterparts. In Ultimate Spider-Man #13, one of the best Spider-Man single issues ever, Peter reveals to Mary Jane that he’s Spider-Man—because why wouldn’t he tell his best friend/crush about this totally awesome thing that happened to him? Bendis’ characters act like real people, and the Ultimate universe allows the writer to explore new directions without worrying about how they affect a plethora of other titles.
The biggest reason why Ultimate Spider-Man makes a great gateway is because it’s a story with a beginning, middle, and end. If readers like the first collection, they can keep reading through the end of Peter Parker’s journey. “The Death Of Peter Parker” is one of Spider-Man’s finest moments, building on years of stories as Peter makes his last stand to protect his family and friends. Reading the entirety of Ultimate Spider-Man is an extensive lesson in the Spider-Man basics, and will help make the transition into the mainstream Marvel universe easier. Although Peter might be dead, the adventures of Miles Morales in Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man are proving just as intriguing as his predecessor’s (if not more so), and Bendis continues to explore the storytelling possibilities the Ultimate line allows.
Next steps: Marvel tends to steer away from completely erasing character histories the way DC does, with the major exception being Amazing Spider-Man’s “Brand New Day.” Then-editor-in-chief Joe Quesada wanted to break up Peter Parker and Mary Jane’s marriage to make Spider-Man appear younger, so rather than divorcing the two, he had Mary Jane make a deal with the devil to erase their marriage from history. The storyline leading up to the status-quo change is idiotic, but “Brand New Day” revitalized the character by doing away with years of continuity and bringing in all-star talent like writers Mark Waid and Dan Slott and artists Steve McNiven and Marcos Martin. While the move initially seemed like back-tracking for the character, it’s given the writers a clean slate to rebuild Peter Parker’s life, and since Slott has taken over full-time, Spider-Man has grown as a character immensely.
For an introduction to pre-“Brand New Day” Spider-Man, Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca’s Sensational Spider-Man Annual #1 is a beautiful one-shot issue that looks at classic periods in Spider-Man history through the lens of Peter and Mary Jane’s relationship. Spider-Man fans abandoned the Amazing title en masse when the Watson-Parker marriage was dissolved, and “To Have And To Hold” is a bittersweet coda to their relationship that shows why fans got so pissy. The issue serves as a stunning tribute to one of the most well-developed partnerships in all of comics, and as Fraction’s story jumps through time, Larroca’s artwork mimics the style of classic Spider-Man artists like John Romita Sr. and Ross Andru. There’s some crossover with the Civil War event, but all that’s really needed to understand the story is the knowledge that Peter Parker and Mary Jane are on the run from the law and still very much in love. Fraction condenses years of history into one emotional package, creating an issue that works as an entry point to Spider-Man, but also a fitting end.
Before Slott was given reins of the main Amazing Spider-Man title, he wrote the heartwarming 2005 Spider-Man/Human Torch miniseries. Like the Sensational Spider-Man Annual, this comic takes a look at Spider-Man’s expansive history through the context of his relationship with the Human Torch, with each issue covering a different time period. Slott’s encyclopedic knowledge of Spider-Man’s history makes this book the perfect primer to classic Spider-Man stories, giving new readers a sampler of different eras in the character’s publication history. From there, they can take the leap into the extensive back catalog of Spider-Man comics with the knowledge of Peter Parker’s friends, enemies, and station in life at different points on the timeline.
Where not to start: The early issues of Amazing Spider-Man are worth a peek for Steve Ditko and John Romita Sr.’s artwork, but Stan Lee’s scripts don’t hold up to modern standards. These issues have their charms but are very simple, as most superhero comics tended to be back then. In the complete opposite direction is Kaare Andrews’ Spider-Man: Reign, a failed attempt to give Peter Parker his own Dark Knight Returns. The artwork is striking, but the less said about the plot the better. (Mary Jane dies from cancer caused by Spider-Man’s radioactive sperm. ’Nuff said.) The biggest thing to stay away from is “The Clone Saga,” the abysmal storyline that ran through the Spider-Man titles for most of the mid-’90s. A bunch of convoluted nonsense stretched out over years, it’s the work of an editorial team that nearly killed Marvel Comics.