Comics, by their very nature, seem nearly impossible to break into. With a television show, you can usually start at the beginning with the pilot. With a book series, you simply track down the first volume and go from there. Marvel superhero comics, on the other hand, are part of an incredibly complicated fictional multiverse spanning some eighty years, hundreds of different titles and publications, and dozens of alternate timelines, reboots, do-overs and continuity snarls. To top it all off, it's very hard to get your hands on an a reliable, affordable omnibus of sequential stories, let alone a series of individual comics. What's a geek girl to do?
For me, the solution to all this mess was the first volume of Essential Amazing Spider-Man, an extremely handy series of books collecting every issue of the original run of The Amazing Spider-Man. Volume one of the Essential was perfect for me, both hefty and relatively inexpensive. It collects the first twenty issues of The Amazing Spider-Man, as well as the character's debut in Amazing Fantasy #15, and Spider-Man Annual #1, a sort of bonus season finale.
The Essential is probably as close to a complete, cogent "beginning" as you're likely to get from a comic-book character. Everyone knows the story: Peter Parker, a high school science whiz and total nerd, gets bitten by a radioactive spider and turns to crime-fighting after the death of his uncle. As Spider-Man, Peter faces down nefarious supervillains while also fighting to make enough money to support his Aunt May by selling "crime pictures" to the volcanic J. Jonah Jameson. Much of the classic Spider-Man characters are introduced here (Mary Jane only gets a mention, though) and most of his rogues' gallery, including the Green Goblin, Doctor Octopus, Vulture, Kraven the Hunter, Sandman, Electro, Lizard and Mysterio.
The important thing to know about these first twenty issues is that they're fun. Stan Lee's writing style (a mixture between circus-showman bombast and squeaky-clean pulp) is aggressively cheesy, building up suspense through goofy, breathless narration. The villains have delightfully creative and often bizarre powers, and the fight scenes, energetically depicted by artist Steve Ditko, are a campy delight. Lee and Ditko take the characters and their struggles seriously, but never too seriously. There's a true sense of childlike enthusiasm to the storytelling that's entirely infectious.
People with superpowers yelling dopey insults and punching one another is all well and good, but what makes Spider-Man work as a character is that he's genuinely complicated and interesting. Bruce Wayne isn't just Batman; he's also an incredibly rich playboy. Peter Parker, on the other hand, is given a raw deal in every area of his life other than superpowers. He's lonely, poor, unpopular, shy, reserved and seriously unlucky when it comes to the ladies. Just like any other teenager, he has a lot of anger and rage boiling just under the surface (I was surprised to find how close he comes to turning to a life of crime himself). No one in Peter's life understands him at all, a situation that kid readers must have identified with immediately. As I understand it, before Spider-Man, superhero stories were about how great and virtuous your life would be if you had unlimited power. The story of Spider-Man is about just how difficult such a life would be, and how many sacrifices you would have to make. Ultimately, though, Peter still always does the right thing. Lee's great accomplishment in creating the character was writing a superhero who always seems like he could be you, but who was a still an entirely heroic and noble character.
The supporting cast is also drawn quite well from the beginning, even if the female characters are fairly one-dimensional and display plenty of antiquated, sexist traits. The breakout star of the series is clearly J. Jonah Jameson, the vitriolic, cigar-chomping editor of The Daily Bugle. In a world where morality is still pretty much black and white, Jameson is a true antihero. He's devoted to bringing down Spider-Man and he's willing to play very dirty to do it. His motives are complicated, though; in one of the most memorable moments in the collection, Jameson admits that the reason he hates Spider-Man because the superhero makes him feel weak, makes him feel cowardly and inferior. That's some pretty nuanced character work from a story about a guy who dresses up in a unitard and fights bad guys with mechanical limbs. JJJ, as depicted by Lee and Ditko, is a figure who's a serious character and a legitimate threat to Peter while also being very funny.
I do love the format of serial fiction - which the Spider-Man comics definitely were - but having multiple linked narratives that aren't all one big story means some will be weaker than others. Some of these issues are absolutely rock-solid bursts of smart, colorful entertainment. Others are. . . not. Villains like the Living Brain or (God help us) the Tinkerer are obscure for a reason. And while I appreciate the inventiveness on display, I'm always going to enjoy the soap-y stuff more than the sometimes endless action. Not to mention that Lee's style is charming, but limited: the dialogue is so wooden you could build a cabin with it, and the villains all have basically the same blustering, menacing personality. If you were in the mood, you could have a lot of fun tearing these comics down.
A few flaws, however, don't change the fact that the story of Spider-Man is one of the most enduring pop-cultural narratives of the twentieth century. These first twenty issues are only the very, very beginning of that story, and it's a remarkably confident and clear-eyed opening. After the first couple of issues, I found myself getting genuinely sucked in by the stories and emotionally involved by the characters. These old comics were silly, absolutely, but that doesn't make them bad, by any means, and it doesn't make the genuinely great storytelling any less effective. Too often in today's fiction, we correlate darkness and seriousness with quality; these goofy, glorious tales of good guys and bad guys prove that that's a fallacy. Although I initially started reading the Essential as a bit of an experiment, I find myself genuinely looking forward to volume two. Like all good serialized stories, The Amazing Spider-Man makes you want to find out what happens next.