My Misspent Youth — Marvel Treasury Edition #28 by Jim Shooter and John Buscema

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

Through a good chunk of the nineteen-seventies and -eighties, Marvel Comics did their best to expand the reach of their comics storytelling, experimenting with different formats and presentations. The Marvel magazines line was fairly robust, in part because it was free from the smothering content controls of Comics Code Authority, which especially benefited the adventures of a certain Cimmerian. Those felt out of reach to me, mostly because they struck me as too adult for a wee lad such as myself. Instead, I longed to get my chunky little hands on the various Marvel Treasury Editions.

The Treasury Editions were essentially oversized comics, printed on heavier paper. Usually they reprinted earlier adventures of the publisher’s most famed characters, occasionally collated according to theme. For the issue that proved to be the last of the series, it was instead a whole new adventure, and a highly significant one. In a rare feat of cross-company cooperation, the most famed superhero in the Marvel stable teamed up with the DC Comics Kryptonian who started it all. At a time when getting a special edition like this required an arduous trip this rare, wondrous place called a comic book shop, I forced a weary adult to take me to shell out a whopping $2.50 to acquire a momentous meeting of Spider-Man and Superman.

A similar unlikely pairing happened five years earlier, and it was a true merging of talent from the two  publishers. In this instance, it was a heavily Marvel affair, which suited my youthful preferences. Jim Shooter, Marvel’s editor-in-chief at the time, wrote the story, and mainstay artist John Buscema provided the pencils. Accordingly, it was especially comfortable with the internal lore of the Marvel universe, including a depiction of Peter Parker’s clumsily ineffectual love life, complete with a requisite Elvis Costello reference.

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So this comic was released in 1981, when Costello played three straight nights at the Palladium in support of the very strong album Trust. Squeeze opened, and Glenn Tilbrook routinely came out to join Costello on “From a Whisper to a Scream.” Tickets were $12.50. These were good shows, people. Cindy would probably still be with Peter to this day if he could have scraped up the bread.

Naturally, the story also peeked in on mild-mannered Clark Kent as he went about his day. Superman’s alter ego was a bit more adept at dealing with the nettlesome challenges that came his way.

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With a staggering sixty-two pages of story at their disposal, the creative team was able to pull out all the stops. Besides the main protagonists, other celebrated stalwarts of the respective periodical lines showed up. For example, the eternal schoolyard question as to who would win in a battle between Superman and the incredible Hulk was addressed.

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And ol’ Webhead encountered a certain Amazonian, who offered him some advice about his general sartorial approach.

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This mix and match was highly enjoyable, especially when fellow newspaper employees Kent and Parker participated in a sort of exchange program between the two metropolitan dailies. The main event, though, was the scintillating skirmish with supervillains. Relative obscure Superman foe Parasite represented DC Comics (Lex Luthor, the more obvious choice, was evidently busy with other nefarious endeavors). More to my personal liking, the Marvel baddie who stepped into the fray was none other than the despotic ruler of Latveria, Victor Von Doom.

As a Fantastic Four fanatic from the very beginning of my superhero collecting days, I was always ready to watch Doctor Doom throw down. He wasn’t a prime member of Spider-Man’s rogues gallery, but Doom got around. Besides, there was no more fearsome fellow in the mighty Marvel saga. In a story this big, only Doctor Doom would do.

Shooter was often maligned for the mediocre writing he delivered when stepped from behind the editorial desk during his days at Marvel, but he wrote a great Doom.

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In those panels, the dismissiveness of referring to Superman as simply “alien” is bested only by the send-off “Farewell, cretins!” I also loved — even then — that this clash between titans is ended when the villain essentially invokes diplomatic immunity by retreating to the Latverian embassy. Some stories end with a whimper and some with a bang. This ends with a legal technicality.

I added this jumbo story to my collection fairly early in my time obsessively following superheroes, and read and reread this issue until it was as worn as the oldest dishrag in the drawer. Even when I occasionally consume comics these days, I lack the time and wherewithal to consume them at that insatiable level. More than even the comics themselves, I think that craving is what I miss. No matter the competing impulse, I always wanted to read more, even if it meant — especially if it meant — reading a favorite story one more time.

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

My Misspent Youth — The X-Men Companion II

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

Once I locked into superhero comics as a youngster, my appetite for them was insatiable. The array of colorful wonders available for purchase at the local grocery store underwent fierce scrutiny from me every time I was toted along on a shopping trip, the adults undoubtedly pleased to leave me rustling through the periodicals in an eager hunt for exciting new issues. (Otherwise, I would have been following close behind them making a plea for every sugary nightmare foodstuff with a clownish character on the package.) By financial necessity, I needed to be selective, but that didn’t prevent me from doing my level best to glean what was happening in every odd corner of the Marvel Universe from the studying beautifully bombastic covers and snatching the occasional glimpse at the pages within.

That craving to know everything about the fictional adventures that captured my imagination led me to further seek out reference material that both provided creative background and traced character continuity with a reverence usually reserved for musty detailing of the mythology around the United States of America’s founding fathers. Magazines and other more modestly priced periodicals, difficult as they were to come by, were my usual source of such material, but on occasion I whined just relentlessly enough to get a surrendering caretaker to shell out the extra money required to get something a little thicker. In appreciation, I would usually read those books until they were worn down like an ancient shoe. That was certainly the case with one of my most prized possessions: The X-Men Companion II.

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The trade paperback was published by Fantagraphics, home to peak-of-the-form comic series and, more pertinently, periodicals offering news and criticism of the various sequential art creations. According to Gary Groth, co-founder of Fantagraphics, it was the fearsome reputation of the the company’s flagship magazine that helped secure the material needed for a book covering Marvel’s merry mutants.

“I cut a deal with Jim Shooter, who gave us carte blanche to use all the X-Men images we wanted to for the X-Men Companion,” Groth later remembered. “They even supplied black-and-white stats for us. My gut told me that there was a sort of quid pro quo implied, that we would be nice to Marvel in The Comics Journal as a result of this largesse. I chose to ignore that implication, of course.”

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The second volume of The X-Men Companion focused intently on the era of the superhero team that had just concluded, but was already on its way to legendary status. Written by Chris Claremont, pencilled by John Byrne (who also co-plotted most of the run), and inked by Terry Austin, this stretch of issues took a reinvention of the team book that had already begun to a whole new level. Claremont was able to convey a deep sense of character with a few quick strokes and had a knack for storytelling with a soap opera momentum. And Byrne’s art was crisp and vivid, especially when boosted by Austin’s finishes. It practically popped off the page at a creative intensity almost unseen since the heyday of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.

The issues were middling sellers upon release and developed a heightened reputation not long after, mostly because of the informally dubbed “Dark Phoenix” saga. Most of the comics hit stands before my time as a true blue collector, and the back issues had already skyrocketed in value, putting them well beyond my means. And this was before comic stories were routinely collected into bound volumes. For me, the generous reprinting of panels and thorough recounting of story elements — in long-form interviews with the creators — was my entryway into comics I longed to read, but felt were nearly impossible to attain.

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Eventually, I properly read every comic the Claremont-Byrne run. The experience was tinted by memories of my countless hours with The X-Men Companion II, because of both individual pages that were instantly familiar from the reprinted chunks and the retrospective perspective of the creators on what elements worked best. Byrne, in particular, was a completely unguarded interview subject, spilling opinions on every bit of the experience. I could see what was on page, but also the specter of what the artist felt should have been there. It was like having a commentary track embedded into my brain, always there for easy access.

It’s entirely possible that these X-Men issues were my favorites from the era of Marvel when I joined the grand saga. (As I’ve previously recounted, my inaugural purchases took place the same month that the monumental X-Men #137 was released, though I sadly didn’t acquire it at the time.) That I my exposure to those issues was shaped far more by The X-Men Companion II than the original comics themselves doesn’t diminish my affection one bit. It probably enhances it.

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All images in this post nicked from elsewhere.

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

My Misspent Youth — What If? #19 by Peter Gillis and Pat Broderick

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

When I was snapping up as many Marvel mags as my humble boyhood budget allowed, the regular adventures of my Marvel superheroes weren’t always quite enough to sate my need for wild imaginings. Because a diligent adherence to continuity was one of key ways Marvel set itself apart for their distinguished competition, the publisher was far less likely to indulge in so-called “imaginary stories” or, say, dropping in Don Rickles as a supporting character (though other real life figures were known to cameo). But Marvel had a space where creators could fully follow their thought experiments: a bi-monthly, double-sized comic called What If?

Those extra pages meant extra silver to secure a copy, so I needed to be selective, but when a premise caught my eye, I was helpless. One of the very first issues I bought posed the question, “What if Spider-Man had never become a crimefighter?” and featured a cover with everyone’s favorite neighborhood being introduced as the host of last night talk show. As much for the snazzy showbiz milieu as anything else, I eagerly grabbed it off of the comics rack at the supermarket.

Written by Peter Gillis and pencilled by Pat Broderick, the story began with the usual recounting of Spider-Man’s origin story. Peter Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider and tries to use his newfound powers to win some cash at a wrestling match where audience members are challenged to last a round with a burly grappler. In the established lore, it’s Peter’s callous refusal to stop a fleeing burglar that sets into motion a chain of events that results in him fighting crime, at least initially to assuage some guilt. In this alternate version, Peter makes a different choice.

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As explained by Uatu the Watcher, the title’s usual narrator, Peter’s motivation is still selfish. He envisions the positive headlines that will follow his act of bystander intervention, guessing they will help him leverage his colorful personage into fame and fortune. As the cover promised, the resulting notoriety even nabs him a gig filling in for Johnny Carson.

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There’s a big Hollywood movie about his exploits (starring Marlon Brando and Gene hackman, natch) and a familiar fearsome feud with J. Jonah Jameson, the publisher of the Daily Bugle, who’s angered that the public is more enamored with the empty showboating of the webhead than the tragic heroism of his son, John Jameson, an astronaut who perished on a mission. Jameson’s investigative reporters are a little more talented in this particular timeline, and they wind up uncovering Spider-Man’s secret identity, which is printed onto the front page of the paper as a major scoop.

In the main continuity, Peter Parker is worried about being unmasked because of the way it might put his loved ones in harm’s way. When he’s just another celebrity hustling for the next gig, he simply uses the revelation as a prompt to start his own PR firm, recruiting a bunch of other costumed do-gooders into his stable of clients.

what if 19 spiderman productions

This is What If?, so things are bound to go very, very bad. It was practically a requisite of the issues to have every road untaken lead to a dire outcome, as if to reassure readers that the Marvel writers got it correct in the first place. In this instance, the ill will between Spider-Man and J. Jonah Jameson escalates until our hero seeks revenge, ruining the newspaperman’s career with a story about supposed mob connections. Later, Spider-Man is confronted by a band of super-powered foes and discovered the mastermind behind their attack.

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Spider-Man collapses in shame, realizing Jameson’s accusations of villainy are basically true. The cosmic comeuppance is that the heavy guilt that has been part of Spider-Man’s existence since the beginning managed to find him after all.

It was a fairy heavy-handed morality fable, and I loved it unequivocally. And I still wouldn’t mind seeing Spidey host The Tonight Show.

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

My Misspent Youth — West Coast Avengers by Roger Stern and Bob Hall

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

When West Coast Avengers first hit comic shops, in the summer of 1984, it pressed in on a lot of my weak spots. I had already proven to be ludicrously susceptible to Marvel’s limited series, then still a relatively new part of their publishing model. If one of the planned shortened series held even the most meager of appeals to me, I sought it out, swayed by the promise of a finite store and — probably — because of the collector’s urge to nab every possible first issue.

Written by Roger Stern and pencilled by Bob Hall, West Coast Avengers held the added promise of introducing a major new group in the Marvel Universe, promising a Pacific Coast branch of the Avengers, back before there were about a jillion spinoff iterations of Earth’s mightiest heroes. That it also had a central role for Hawkeye — a favorite character whose own limited series I’d recently consumed eagerly — absolutely mandated my investment in all four promised issues.

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A longtime figure on the main Avengers squad, albeit one who could be a touch cantankerous about his membership, Hawkeye was dispatched with his newlywed bride, Mockingbird, to California with instructions to assemble a satellite branch of the super-team. Although the Avengers often had a few major heroes on the roster, the title was also something of a holding pen for characters without enough appeal to anchor their own books. This is the tradition West Coast Avengers upheld. Except for Iron Man (whose armor was then being worn by James “Rhodey” Rhodes), the team was further populated by a Marvel B-Team, including Tigra and Wonder Man, with weirdo Batman analog Shroud hanging around, as well.

Accordingly, the newly aligned heroes were beset by minor league troublemakers. They first tussled with a loopy empty void who went by the Blank (so dubbed by a bystander at a bank robbery he tried to perpetrate as his inaugural criminal act). In his bad guuy endeavors, the newcomer was joined by an old supervillain from the pages of The Avengers, the probably self-explanatory Graviton.

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Sorry, I guess I shouldn’t disparage Graviton. According to Wonder Man, he’s one of the most dangerous men the Avengers ever fought.

It was a strangely epic piece of storytelling, stretching the main conflict across most of the four issue series. This was well before the era of decompressed storytelling, so the mechanics of the story felt novel, almost exciting because it suggested an authorial purposefulness apart from the more common pinging from one villain to the next. For me, those qualities were central to the appeal of the limited series format.

I also really liked it when superheroes stayed in full uniform to perform mundane activities, like grilling dinner.

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Marvel might have launched the limited series format to tell stories they didn’t quite have any other place for, but it quickly dawned on the editorial chiefs that these short runs were a fine avenue for tryouts. Less than a year after the limited series was completed, West Coast Avengers launched as an ongoing series. It had surprising longevity, stretching to over one hundred issues.

The shiny promise of a decisive endpoint eliminated, I didn’t follow the team in their ongoing efforts (at least until a certain writer-artist took over the title in the midst of its run). Hawkeye, Mockingbird, and the rest of the gang were going to need to save residents of the Pacific Time Zone without my attention and monthly contribution of sixty-five cents to the Marvel coffers.

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Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

My Misspent Youth — Raiders of the Lost Ark by Walt Simonson and John Buscema

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

Raiders of the Lost Ark was released into theaters less than two weeks after my eleventh birthday. That should have made me an ideal member of the film’s target audience, ready to scrape together whatever nickels I had to plop myself down front row center to see this zingy adventure story, practically constructed out of goods mystically extracted from the hive mind of American boys who knew more about the world from comics and movies than any actual ventures into the woolly world.

The significant impediment I faced was a home located a significant distance from any theater and a dearth of adults who were interested in taking me to the movies. Although I was eager to meet Dr. Henry Jones, Jr. (whose given name was “Indiana,” given to him by him), I sadly knew it would take an extensive amount of cajoling before I would ever have a ticket stub in hand. So my introduction to the thrills and spills of Steven Spielberg’s masterwork happened via an entirely different format than the flickering beauty of a wide screen.

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In 1981, Marvel Comics highly valued their relationship with Raiders of the Lost Ark producer and co-writer George Lucas. By all accounts, the licensed ongoing Star Wars comic book series had saved the publisher from going under in the mid-nineteen-seventies. (Imagine the drastic difference in the current cinematic landscape had the various Marvel titles gone the way of E-Man and Doomsday + 1 four decades ago.) So any new film project spotted by his fingerprints was something Marvel wanted to quickly bring into their stable.

Written by Walt Simonson and penciled by Marvel legend John Buscema (with highly distinctive inks by Klaus Janson), the adaption of Raiders got the same oversized “Special Edition” treatment of other transposed film properties. It also made its way to spinner racks as a monthly comic book. This wasn’t an entirely unique situation. Other film adaptations were similarly multi-purposed. But it felt a little different seeing Indiana Jones in his own Marvel corner box, as if there were a new hope for an ongoing periodical to help supplement the coffers, further ensuring the continued presence of merry mutants and cosmic-irradiated heroes. Spread across three issues, the series had the interesting challenge of finding the optimum cliffhangers in a story that happily indulged in placing characters in nearly inescapable threatening situations with the regularity of the old serials that inspired it.

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Before I watched Raiders of the Lost Ark repeatedly, I read it with similarly inexhaustible zeal. Like all my favorite comics of the era, it wasn’t preserved with delicacy and care. Instead, it was worn to near tatters. By the time I was through with it, it felt like it was printed on homemade paper.

Of course, my war of attrition eventually yielded results, and I sat in a showing of Raiders of the Lost Ark before the summer was up. As I’ve shared previously, the movie was momentous for me, for all sorts of reasons. And even though I was seeing it for the first time, it had the happy comfort of the familiar. Thanks to my visits to the newsstand, it was like I was already revisiting moviedom’s most famous archeologist.

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Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

My Misspent Youth — Black Panther by Jack Kirby

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

Well before there was a comic book industry press eager to cover every instance of a noted creator signing up to work with one publisher or another, there was only person whose place on the payroll was notable enough to be an event in and of itself. And he was the King.

Artist Jack Kirby effectively co-created the Marvel Universe, and it’s reasonable to infer that the loftiest, boldest inventions came straight out of his pencil. When, fed up with his treatment, he left Marvel to join the distinguished competition, it was an event touted with breathless excitement in full-page ads. And when Kirby had his House of Ideas homecoming, it was similarly cause for fevered promotional celebration.

Reflecting his rampant, restless creativity, Kirby largely devoted himself to crazy new concepts, even if he had to shoehorn them into titles based on licensed material. There were exceptions, including a return to Captain America, a character he’d helped create over thirty years earlier. Because of my abiding affection for the Fantastic Four — and Kirby’s legendary, transformative original run with the characters — nothing from the King’s nineteen-seventies Marvel stretch so quickly stirs up for joy for me than his tenure on Black Panther, a series he launched with a first issue cover dated January 1977.

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Kirby was the co-creator on Fantastic Four #52, published in 1966, which introduced Black Panther and much of the lore around the character, including the African nation of Wakanda. According to his son, it was Kirby’s idea to introduce some notable diversity into the Marvel Universe, though, as with all things in the fruitful, fraught partnership between Kirby and writer Stan Lee, differing memories abound.

“I recall during the winter or early spring he asked me what I would think of a black superhero in the comics. Of course he was very much for it, as we all were at the time,” Neal Kirby recently told The Hollywood Reporter. “My father was a very social liberal person. He would have been the Bernie Sanders of his day. He very much believed in social justice and equality, so he honestly thought it was time. Why shouldn’t African Americans have their own superhero?”

Some ten years later, Kirby was both writer and artist on a series starring Black Panther, largely ignoring the history of the character that had built up in the interim, opting instead to plunge him into bold, colorful stories that bent reality in a way only possible in the comics and allowed for plenty of patented Kirby Krackle.

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Marvel Comics in the nineteen-seventies were inclined toward wild flights of fancy, but no one could go wilder than Kirby. His opening storyline involving frog statues imbued with metaphysical powers that could send or beckon figures hurtling through time. This, naturally, led to Black Panther being pressed into battle from a strange being from millions of years in the future. And there was more and more, the universe of Kirby’s ideas truly so boundless even he sometimes couldn’t describe what he concocted.

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As Kirby’s son Neal noted, the great comic book creator had strong political beliefs, but those usually didn’t intrude in an overt way to the stories he created. Social issues were given no more than glancing attention. Instead, Kirby honored a character like Black Panther by simply giving him the same platform he’d give any other figure. Although I doubt he would have used this precise language, he knew that representation mattered. He was a hero. And he was super.

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Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

My Misspent Youth — The Amazing Spider-Man by Roger Stern and John Romita, Jr.

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

I believe Spider-Man was supposed to be my generation’s gateway into superhero comics. When I transitioned from ravenous consumption of the childish fare published by Harvey Comics — particularly the boy plutocrat Richie Rich — into highly mature tales of physically-alarming beings who squeezed into spandex outfits to fight crime, I larger steered clear of Marvel’s famed wall-crawler, for reasons that are entirely unclear to me. This was the character who regularly appeared on Electric Company — and starred in a corresponding kid-friendly comic series — so he should have been the likeliest character to ensnare my attention. I bought loads of Marvel comics, but I resisted Spider-Man’s titles.

But I also learned my Marvel Comics history quickly and with studious devotion. As new comics hit the spinner rack, I knew a major event when I saw it. So when Amazing Spider-Man #238 arrived, bearing a cover dominated by a new villainous character who evoked the stylings of Ol’ Web-Head most fearsome — and long-departed — foe, I knew I had to get it. This, I was certain, was going to be big.

In a story written by Roger Stern and drawn by John Romita, Jr. (and inked, in the first issue, by his namesake pop, who plied his pencils on some of the greatest Spider-Man stories ever published), our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man is up to his usual do-gooding, but one the small-time crooks he’s after slips away. The miscreant finds his way into a secret underground lair.

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The Green Goblin was Spider-Man’s arch-enemy, having delivered the cruelest emotional turn in the hero’s life many years earlier. The Green Goblin himself perished not long afterward, and the various creators never quite filled the hole left by the character’s absence, despite some misguided attempts. (Back then, characters who perished largely stayed dead, a standard Marvel abandoned with increasingly tiresome frequency later.) Stern’s fine idea was bypass any sort of strained revival and instead start anew with a character who evoked the bygone adversary.

The hood who found the Goblin costumes and weaponry leads a shadowy figure to the stash of goods. Bringing his own panache to the design, this dastardly fellow emerges as the character sensation of 1983.

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With the Hobgoblin, the Spider-Man saga was jolted by the familiar presented as something striking and new. Although it was technically a new character, Stern was able to take advantage of transferable menace before our hero had even set eyes on the crafty criminal.

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In setting up the new foe, Stern even replicated a bit of storytelling lore around the Green Goblin. The earlier villain’s secret identity was hidden from the readers for ages, with little hints parceled out, always implying it was a member of Spider-Man’s supporting cast. By some accounts, the creators themselves weren’t all that sure about the Green Goblin’s alter ego, even squabbling about it so much that the dispute is often cited as the motivation for artist Steve Ditko — Spider-Man’s co-creator — jumping ship from Marvel.

With the Hobgoblin, the strategy was repeated (as were the internal disagreements). The reveal was teased out to a ludicrous degree. And I loved every bit of it. I couldn’t have named it at the time, by the ongoing tale was exactly what I was looking for in my superhero comics. It was twisty and thrilling and rewarded an appreciation for the arcana of Marvel continuity without being overly reliant on a knowledge of it. Individual issues read fine in isolation, but familiarity with the whole span of the story made the material seem richer and little more audacious. It might have taken me a while to get to The Amazing Spider-Man, but its web was all but inescapable when I finally arrived.

 

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.