Too often, the artistry of older superhero comics is underestimated. They were, after all, “kids stuff,” good for their time but quaint by today’s more sophisticated standards. That’s the image the industry presents to the mainstream, echoed by traditional critics and many fans of the genre. Even former Marvel Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada used that word in discussing old Lee-Ditko Spider-Man stories: “quaint.” On one level, you can certainly see that in the first volume of Marvel’s black and white Essentials collection for Amazing Spider-Man (collecting the first twenty issues, the first annual, and Spider-Man’s first appearance in Amazing Fantasy #15): Stan Lee‘s prose is as purple as ever, and Steve Ditko‘s art, while dynamic, can be seen as a little rough. They’re also figuring out what works and what doesn’t–the second issue’s story of the Tinkerer as an alien invader and the fifth issue, featuring the first appearance of newly-minted film villain the Lizard, are much goofier and out of sync with the direction the rest of this collection takes–and don’t hit their stride until later, particularly the iconic issue 33. None of this, however, makes those early stories merely quaint, or whatever other condescending term is used to give false sense of sophistication to the modern age, as Lee and Ditko were examining a harsh yet oddly hilarious existence through the prism of a teenager.
Peter Parker in these early issues is a selfish curmudgeon; his introverted, self-pitying nature was a character flaw, something that is lost in the current “Spider-Man is pure awesome” direction Dan Slott has taken with Big Time, Spider-Island, and Ends of the Earth. Many of the stories end with Peter alone, such as when he walks away at the end of issue eleven after failing to save Betty Brant’s brother, the image of Spider-Man bearing down on him like the massive boulder Sisyphus had to push up the mountain. While we’re definitely supposed to sympathize with him, I don’t think it was meant for this attitude to be sanctified by comics readers: in a great bit of dramatic irony, issue fifteen closes with Spider-Man at the docks trying to forget his girl troubles, wishing he was on a ship heading out to sea (unaware the issue’s villains, Kraven and Chameleon, are on that ship). Here, Peter is as myopic as teenage outcasts get, especially when he bitterly decides to ask out Liz Allan when Betty spurns his advances (notice that Ditko will draw him slick and smug in some of his interactions with his love interests?); the death of Uncle Ben may have started him on the path to responsibility, but Lee and Ditko weren’t so naive as to think that Peter instantly became a saint deserving of our eternal praise. Contrast this with the turn Joe Quesada and company foisted on the comics with One More/Brand New Day, which takes the “Parker Luck” at face value. The brashness Peter develops both as a result of his powers and his brush with the adulthood does lead to moments that are both entertaining and righteous–webbing J. Jonah Jameson’s mouth in the seventh issue, his telling off of then-perpetual tormentors Flash and Liz in the twelfth–but more often he’s entertaining in the same manner as Dr. Gregory House.
Like House, Peter Parker is descended from a line of anti-social protagonists: of course, there’s Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, Jim Stark, mythical tricksters like Anansi, and even Ebenezer Scrooge. Stan Lee’s style, often unsucessfully imitated, is a parallel to Dickens both in his tendency to fill every page with words and focus on the alienated and the downtrodden. While Spidey often fought criminals from his own social strata, he also dealt with a dictator (Dr. Doom in #5), media moguls (a movie producer in #14, Jameson always), and the aforementioned Chameleon and Kraven, who definitely came from money judging by the posh trappings of their hideout, reinforcing Dickensian morality. Even the Green Goblin counts as Spider-Man fighting against the powers-that-be, despite Lee and Ditko not deciding Norman Osborn was behind the mask at the time, given his industrial safehouses and large array of gadgets (though this was Ditko’s idea, Lee originally wanted the villain to be an actual goblin). That the hero was a neurotic with the same self-centered urges as the villains was the real innovation of early Marvel comics, bringing some much needed humanity to superheroes. The villains represent behaviors that Peter learns he doesn’t want to emulate, while the memory of Ben gives him a (secular) ideal to believe in, climaxing in a three-part tale (#17-19) where Peter, panicking after Aunt May falls ill, decides he can’t be Spider-Man because she needs him, only for her to remind him that she can take care of herself and that he shouldn’t dote on her. Hardly quaint, this volume shows why Spider-Man became the model for comic books.