Spider-Man is one of the most popular and enduring superheroes in the comic book medium’s history, who has also starred in five feature films, countless animated series, and a wide array of video games, books and other media.
And with the news that Tom Holland is the next Spider-Man, we figured he had a lot of catching up to do. So, we’ve curated the actor a bit of an essential reading list that will not only him (and you) learn more about Spider-Man, but also help prepare him for some potential storylines that might incorporate the Wall Crawler in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
1. The Stan Lee/Steve Ditko Run (Amazing Fantasy #15, Amazing Spider-Man #1-38, Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1-2)
This is a big batch of Silver Age issues but they truly represent the entire foundation of the Spider-Man mythos. In Amazing Fantasy #15, we get what many consider to be one of the greatest origin stories in comic book history. And not only is the story famous, it’s tight plotting and story efficiency is the stuff of legends (the entire origin story, from Peter Parker’s spider bite to his Uncle Ben’s death and the famous ”with great power there must also come, great responsibility” closing takes up about 13 pages).
From there, pretty much every significant supporting character and villain in Spider-Man history is introduced in these issues, including the wheatcake making Aunt May; Daily Bugle publisher/editor J. Jonah Jameson (who, starting in Amazing Spider-Man #1, uses the press to lambast Spidey as a “public menace”); Doctor Octopus (Amazing Spider-Man #3); Sandman (Amazing Spider-Man #4); Lizard (Amazing Spider-Man #6); Electro (Amazing Spider-Man #9); and Green Goblin (Amazing Spider-Man #14). Even future Peter Parker love Gwen Stacy makes her first appearance in this run of issues (Amazing Spider-Man #31), though the character wouldn’t be fleshed out until after Ditko left the book.
About halfway through the run, Ditko famously plotted entire issues, leaving just fragments of dialogue for Lee to fill in. One of those arcs handled nearly entirely by Ditko came in Amazing Spider-Man #31-33, which is considered by many to be one of the greatest Spidey stories of all time. In these issues, Spider-Man is faced with finding a serum to save his dying aunt (who was accidentally poisoned by Peter’s radioactive blood). In one of the most iconic scenes in comic book history, Spider-Man is pinned to the ground by tons of machinery, with the serum just beyond his reach. He is resigned to failure before finding his last bit of strength to lift the machinery up and grab the serum to save his aunt.
Overall, every major theme and trope that's associated with Spider-Man is introduced in these issues: Spidey’s moral code to always use his powers responsibly, his poor “Parker luck,” his relationship with his Aunt and the lengths he goes to not expose his identity to her and most importantly, his youthful reltateability (at that point in time, there weren’t many teenage superheroes).
Obviously, original copies of these stories cost a hefty sum, but they’ve been reprinted all over the place. All of these comics can be found on the Marvel Unlimited app, and those seeking hard copies can affordably read them in black and white via the Marvel Essentials series.
2. “Power and Responsibility” and “Learning Curve” (Ultimate Spider-Man #1-13)
In the early 2000s, Marvel introduced a new line of comics based in an alternative timeline dubbed the “Ultimate” Universe. Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley (who had illustrated a long run of Amazing Spider-Man in the early/mid-90s) were tasked with reimagining Spidey, setting the character back in high school and tweaking elements of his origin story to appeal to younger/teenage audiences.
For many, Ultimate Spider-Man is THEIR Spider-Man. Bendis honors the original Lee/Ditko issues while also using the power of hindsight to expand upon the mythos. Characters like Aunt May and Uncle Ben, who were only seen in short snippets in Amazing Fantasy #15, are more fully developed, better engaging the reader (and generating a true sense of loss when Ben is murdered). The series also more closely links Peter with Norman Osborn, aka, the Green Goblin, his arch nemesis in the “mainstream” Spider-Man universe.
The final issue of the first two arcs (which have been collected in a single paperback edition) includes what many believe to be the great standalone Spider-Man story ever produced. In it, Peter reveals his secret identity to his high school sweetheart Mary Jane Watson. The issue just oozes with sincerity and authenticity and anyone who has ever been young and in love will instantly connect to it.
3. “Spider-Man Unmasked” (Amazing Spider-Man #39-40)
While many fans credit Steve Ditko with the co-creation of the Spider-Man universe, his artistic successor, the great John Romita, is considered by many to be the definitive Spidey artist. In his very first arc, Romita and Lee unleash two huge revelations that have had a long-term impact on the Spider-Man mythos: First, Spider-Man is unmasked by the supervillain the Green Goblin, which allowed an adversary to learn his civilian identity for the first time (a moment that would later come back to haunt Peter in a big way). In the very next issue, the Goblin unmasks as Norman Osborn, the father of Peter’s college classmate, Harry. Having this sociopath actually be somebody Peter knew from his civilian life, would further complicate the dynamics of this hero with his supporting cast.
4. “The Night Gwen Stacy Died” (Amazing Spider-Man #121-122)
Remember when the last entry mentioned how the Green Goblin discovering Spider-Man’s civilian identity would come back to haunt Peter? In a story that was so groundbreaking, some have credited it with ending the more innocent “Silver Age” of comics, Peter’s girlfriend, Gwen Stacy (who still doesn’t know that her boyfriend is Spider-Man), is murdered when she’s thrown off a bridge by the Green Goblin … or was she killed by Spider-Man’s webbing when he attempted to save her? Ah, that’s just one of the great cruel mysteries of this story that has made it so famous for so long.
Prior to this story, innocent characters, especially the love interests of superheroes, were rarely killed off, and there certainly wouldn’t be any indication that the hero himself might be responsible for her death.
In the second part of the story, the Goblin is accidentally killed in battle with Spider-Man when he is impaled by his own glider device. Spider-Man wanted revenge for Gwen’s death, but because of his moral code, he was never willing to cross the line and “lower” himself to the villain’s level. As a result, Spidey famously says he feels empty after the Green Goblin’s death.
5. “Nothing Can Stop the Juggernaut” (Amazing Spider-Man #229-230)
Roger Stern gets a lot of credit as one of the best Spider-Man writers in the character’s history. When he took over scripting duties of Spidey’s flagship series in the early 1980s, Stern adamantly wanted to switch things up with Spider-Man’s rogues gallery, creating new villains (like Hobgoblin), reinvigorating older ones that had been long neglected (Vulture), and bringing in bad guys who were more traditionally associated with other superheroes. While this approach produced a number of brilliant stories, none may be more famous than “Nothing Can Stop the Juggernaut,” which pits Spider-Man against the Juggernaut, a villain that had been tormenting the X-Men for decades.
Stern’s script hit upon a core characteristic of Spider-Man’s that played nicely off a core characteristic of the Juggernaut’s – namely Spidey’s never say die spirit versus a villain who is physically unstoppable. As such, the story established a template that a number of future creators would follow regarding Spider-Man battling a physically more imposing/dominating foe. Spider-Man threw everything he could at the Juggernaut but is finally able to defeat him by outwitting him, showing that, indeed, something COULD stop the Juggernaut.
6. “Kraven’s Last Hunt” (Amazing Spider-Man #293-294, Web of Spider-Man #31-32, Spectacular Spider-Man #131-132)
While it was published within the confines of Spider-Man continuity, “Kraven’s Last Hunt” by J.M. DeMatteis and Mike Zeck, has an almost standalone, evergreen quality to it that makes it one of the most enduring Spider-Man stories to ever be published and a must read for anyone trying to learn more about the character.
Plot-wise, the story focuses on longtime B-list Spider-Man rogue, Kraven the Hunter, who finally succeeds in defeating his adversary when he shoots Spidey with a tranquilizer and buries him alive. While Spider-Man is out of commission, Kraven replaces him as a hero, seeing the world from Spidey’s eyes before deciding that he has reached a state of fulfillment and no longer wishes to live. Peter, meanwhile, has to face the demons of loneliness and abandonment while he is buried six feet under.
Adding to the drama is the fact that Peter had just recently married Mary Jane Watson. “Kraven’s Last Hunt” is a complex and nuanced story that also takes a shockingly violent turn in the final act making it one of the more controversial arcs in Spider-Man history. Still, there’s no denying its greatness. DeMatteis’s grasp on the story’s characters and their individual situations is without peer
7. “Venom” (Amazing Spider-Man #300, 315-317)
Of all the villains created after the initial Lee/Ditko run in the 60s, none has had quite the impact on Spider-Man and the comic book world as Venom – an unholy alliance of disgraced reporter, Eddie Brock, and an alien symbiote that was rejected by Spider-Man. The “Venom” arc, which formally kicked off in the landmark Amazing Spider-Man #300, marks Spidey at the apex of his popularity. At this point in time, Spidey was one of Marvel’s premier properties, and was maybe second only to the X-Men in terms of sales and overall pop culture recognition. His popularity would play a huge role in the surge of sales that ushered the comic book industry into the speculator era of the 1990s.
As for what made Venom so special, the character was essentially depicted as the dark mirror version of Spider-Man. Dressed in the same black costume that Spider-Man had once wore, Venom was a stronger, more sinister iteration of the hero, who was hell bent on murdering Spidey for his perceived slights against Brock and the symbiote. Adding to the story’s legendary status is the fact that it’s the arc that made superstar artist Todd McFarlane into an icon.
There are no doubt some better stories out there than the first Venom comics, but there are few that are quite so memorable and have such a passionate fanbase behind them. Plus, with constant chatter that Sony wants to develop a Venom film, it’s worth it for readers to familiarize themselves with these issues.
8. “Coming Home” (Amazing Spider-Man vol. 2 #30-35)
As was the case for a handful of other iconic heroes, the 90s were a rough time for Spider-Man. He was replaced by a clone for a few years and had saw the end of the first volume of his flagship series in a poorly received reboot from Howard Mackie and John Byrne. By 2001, Spider-Man was a hero in desperate need of saving, especially with a major motion picture in the works courtesy of Sony.
Enter television writer J. Michael Straczynski and prodigal son John Romita Jr., a former Amazing Spider-Man artist himself whose father famously illustrated Spidey in the 60s/70s. Together, they crafted a character defining arc that switched up all the rules about Spider-Man. They had Peter Parker get a job as a high school science teacher, introduced a new villain named Morlun (the current antagonist in the recently concluded “Spider-Verse”) and most importantly, integrated some questions about the origins of Spidey’s powers (was it from a spider bite as we long believed, or was there something more mystical in play?).
There’s no telling exactly where Spider-Man would be today without “Coming Home,” but it unquestionably pulled the character and his book out of the morass upon its publication. Even in how it challenges the status quo, JMS and Romita manage to capture everything longterm readers love about Spider-Man, while developing an arc with enough verve to attract new readers who became lifers. “Coming Home” is the epitome of a modern classic and fans of superhero comics in general should go out of their way to read these issues.
9. Spider-Man: Blue
Putting aside the fact that in the late 1960s, Amazing Spider-Man kinda resembled an Archie Comic with Gwen Stacy and Mary Jane Watson fighting over Peter’s affections (rather than Betty and Veronica), Spidey’s love life has always been a central subplot in the Spider-Man universe. Spider-Man: Blue, by the Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale creative team, might be one of the most mature, sentimental and heartbreaking looks at Peter’s romantic history that has ever been published.
The 2002-03 miniseries is set in the (then) modern day with Peter and Mary Jane married. However, as Peter is going through some old possessions, he starts to reminisce about the love that was tragically cut short a few years earlier – the relationship he had with Gwen. On the surface, it might seem odd to have a character thinking back to an old flame when his wife is standing a few feet away. But what makes Blue such a transcendent read is how it gently demonstrates that Gwen was Peter’s first true love, and that if it wasn’t for the villainy of the Green Goblin, the two of them would have probably ended up together. All the same, the love Peter shared with Gwen, doesn’t diminish the power of his marriage to MJ, and the fact that Mary Jane understands how heartbroken her husband is over Stacy’s death (without being jealous), makes their current connection all the more profound.
Blue is an acknowledgement that love is complicated and comes in many shapes and forms. It’s also another reminder of the amount of loss Peter has suffered in his young life – all of which can be directly tied to his time as a superhero.
10. “Breakout” (New Avengers #1-6)
There are still a number of questions relating to how Marvel is going to use Spider-Man in its cinematic universe going forward, but it can be almost guaranteed that the character is going to have some level of interface with the Avengers. So if you’re one of those disconnected fans who used to read Spider-Man back in the days when he was a proud loner who declined joining “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes” and now wants to see what all the hubbub is about, look no further than “Breakout,” the first arc in 2004’s historic New Avengers series.
The story shows Spider-Man responding to an emergency at the superhuman prison, the Raft. After teaming up with Captain America and a few others to fight off a prison break (led by Spider-Man rogue Electro), Cap asks Spidey to become a member of a newly formed Avengers team. When Spidey talks about his longtime loner status, Cap convinces him that maybe going at it alone isn’t the best thing for his career anymore. The arc does a great job of depicting Spider-Man functioning as part of a team, allowing the character plenty of moments to shine, while also not being afraid to relegate him to the background/jokester when need be.
11. Civil War
Spider-Man plays a central role in this huge, mid-2000s event, which is going to be the focus for next year’s Captain America: Civil War film. In fact, going back to when there were first rumors percolating about a Sony/Marvel deal, most of that speculation was connected to the fact that Marvel had just announced that its third Captain America film was going to be a Civil War adaptation in some shape or form … and you can’t have Civil War without Spider-Man.
Now, this is where the whole “how” is Marvel going to use Spider-Man comes into play. In the comics, Spider-Man, a character that has long protected his secret civilian identity (see No. 4 if you forgot why), unmasks as part of a public demonstration in favor of the Superhuman Registration Act – a federal law that mandates that all super-powered individuals need to register their identities with the government. By doing this, Spidey has effectively sided with Tony Stark, who’s pro-registration stance has cause Captain America to defect from the Avengers and form a “Secret Avengers” group filled with anti-registration members.
Where things get complicated in terms of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that very few Marvel movie heroes currently have a secret identity that warrants protection. So it’s still unclear as to what everyone is going to be fighting about in Captain America 3, or how Spider-Man figures into it. But just to be safe, it’s probably smart to reread this miniseries anyway, and pay close attention to the Spider-Man parts.
12. “Spider Island” (Amazing Spider-Man #666-673)
Under the stewardship of writer Dan Slott, the current Spider-Man comic book universe is fast paced with a ton of moving parts. So singling out one story or arc is a little tough. But to get a good sense about where Spider-Man comics currently stand, readers should definitely check out 2011’s “Spider Island,” which came a few months after Slott started writing Amazing Spider-Man full time and is, in many ways, the high watermark for the series before its transition into the Superior Spider-Man era in 2013 (when Doctor Octopus effectively switched minds and bodies with Peter Parker, leaving the hero to die in a cancer-ridden body … but that’s a story for another day and probably not the best introduction for a new/casual reader).
“Spider Island” gives readers a sense of how Spider-Man interacts with the Avengers, while also demonstrating what sets him apart and makes him so special. The premise of the story focuses on an outbreak in New York City that initially gives all non-superhumans Spider-Man-esque powers, before transforming them into monsters. In effect, the storyline ends up being a celebration of Peter – with everyone in NYC swinging around and acting like Spider-Man, it’s up to the man under the mask to find a way to save the city and his neighbors.