Over the last six decades, our Spider-Man has made thousands of appearances across the Marvel Comics universe. And sure, he’s varied by degrees, depending on who was writing and when a comic came out, but what stays constant is the character’s commitment to using his great power with great responsibility.
The key to Peter Parker’s beloved status is his relatability and accessibility. Peter’s problems aren’t just clones and alien symbiotes — he has trouble holding down a job, he rarely has enough money, and he makes a lot of terrible decisions. Who can’t relate to that? But no matter his hardships and hurdles, he continues to work to Do Good. And when he fails — and he fails often — he feels it intensely, but he doesn’t relent.
Distilling the best of Spider-Man into ten comics is a near impossible task. These picks are often less about the specific story, or the ramifications on the larger comics-verse, and more about how Peter exists within the narrative. You’ll find some classic favorites, but some truly exciting Spider-Man lore is coming out of the modern era, too. So expect surprises!
By Chip Zdarsky and Chris Bachalo
Chip Zdarsky is writing some of the best Spider-Man stories of today, with a real handle on how to pull out new ways of looking at Peter Parker. Case in point, issues 308 and 309 of his Spectacular Spider-Man run. In it, Zdarsky tackles a classic Spidey rogue, Sandman. Marko Flint is, like so many of the best villains, complex. He’s been unrepentantly evil, but he’s also saved lives.
This issue opens with Sandman remembering old fights between him and his nemesis, while he struggles to literally hold himself together in human form. The internal dialogue is fractured, and we get the hint that something isn’t quite right. By way of J. Jonah Jameson, Peter gets wind and goes off to see a hospitalized Flint to find out what’s going on. Empathy is a big reason Peter differs from some of his superhero counterparts. Despite Jonah pushing for Flint’s immediate imprisonment, Pete talks to him, realizes he’s about to die, and takes Marko to one of his favorite parts of the city so he can drift away in a safe place.
There’s a great exchange between Jameson and Peter after Marko’s ‘death’ — and Peter finally snaps, “I know you think my life, this role, is to just beat up super villains, but it can’t be just that it’s — I have to make decisions. All the time. What’s best, what helps.” Spider-Man often hides behind his jokes and silliness, but internally there’s always an anxiety about making the right call, doing the right thing.
Then, of course, everything goes off the rails. It turns out a future version of Sandman has traveled billions of years back in the past so he can control the sand — and it leads to some really fun action sequences where Spider-Sandman fights Future Sandman. Chris Bachalo’s gorgeous version of the Spider-world provides the perfect elastic complement to Zdarsky’s totally out-there situations, and in classic Zdarsky style, we get some zany antics leading to a thoughtful, melancholy end.
If you like this: “No One Dies,” issues #655 and #656 of Amazing Spider-Man (1999) written by Dan Slott with art by Humberto Ramos, Marcos Martin, and Stefano Caselli — on the heels of yet another funeral, this two-arc issue is an in-depth character study of Peter’s commitment to stopping death for both the good and the bad. “Spider-Man No More!” is issue #50 of the original 1962 run of The Amazing Spider-Man, written by Stan “the Man” Lee and John “Ring-a-Ding” Romita, this comic contains the infamous page of Peter tossing out his Spidey suit, promising to move on. (Spoiler alert: he comes back!)
By Stan Lee and Steve Ditko
Older comics can contain a decent amount of casual misogyny. Peter will be going through his day to day, and then Betty Brant will say something, and Peter’s basically think “Ugh, women.” It’s of the time, and very much reflective of who had the opportunity to write, edit, and create comics back then, and despite it all the era contains powerful stories.
Stan Lee and Steve Ditko created Spider-Man, launching the character in Amazing Fantasy #15 in 1962. Over the next few years, they introduced Peter’s powers, his foes, his family, and his friends. At the end of 1965, they kicked off a three-issue arc with The Amazing Spider-Man #31, “If This Be My Destiny…!” which contains one of the most iconic moments in Spider-Man history: Spidey stuck under a fallen piece of machinery, half-broken but still fighting.
These issues are historical for more than just a few panels: They also include the introduction of Gwen Stacy and Harry Osborn. Issue #31 beings with Peter starting at Empire State University and the chaos of balancing his home life, school life, and Spider-life ramps up from there. May’s sick, Pete’s so worried he ignores all his new classmates until they think he’s a huge pill, and all the while a mysterious Master Planner is wreaking havoc in the city, stealing scientific gear and atomic gizmos.
Over the course of five pages in #33, “The Final Chapter”, Spider-Man monologues through his anxiety, frustration, and pain, and on the fifth page he lifts the broken machinery and frees himself. We tend to focus on pages 3 and 4, when he’s in the midst of working himself up to succeed. But that last full-page panel is just incredible work from Ditko. As readers, we look up at Spider-Man from an angle, so we can see the straining of his muscles, from his palms against the heavy metal down to his toes.
A few pages later, in the midst of literally regaining his strength while a gang of minions wail on him, he thinks, “A man may lose! A man may be defeated! It’s no disgrace — so long as he doesn’t give up!” This is what makes the issue iconic; putting in plain English what is so fundamentally human about Spider-Man. He tries and he tries and he tries, and he doesn’t always get it right, but he’ll always try.
If you like this: Pick up Insomniac’s Spider-Man for the PS4 — seriously. Pieces of it are heavily inspired by this series of issues, and it’s basically my favorite Spider-Man movie. Also, try “Kraven’s Last Hunt” for another truly classic Spidey story.
By Dan Slott, Olivier Coipel, and Giuseppe Camuncoli
Spidey’s had a really eventful (geddit?) life over the last few decades, but 2014’s Spider-Verse might have taken the cake. After a few years stuck in the back of his own brain as Otto Octavius had control of his body, Peter had only been back in the corporeal driver’s seat for about six months when the event kicked off. Dan Slott’s Spider-centric story had all sorts of versions of the webhead crawling out of the woodwork: the newly minted Silk aka Cindy Moon, Spider-Gwen, Pavitr Prabhakar (what up, Spider-Man India!!), Billy Braddock — I could go on. This series centered on the Spiders’ greatest foes: the Inheritors, a species who fed on the energy that Spider-people put out and so went from world to world exterminating their prey. There’s not always a lot of Marvel mysticism threaded through Spider-Man’s stories, but this time the Spider-Verse pulled the magic in. It was an ambitious project, but the combination of Slott’s understanding of the world and Olivier Coipel’s stunning art really works.
If you like this: Check out Spider-geddon — so many more stories of all our favorite Spider-People coming together! And obviously, watch Into the Spider-Verse, because it’s the best movie that came out last year.
By Brian Michael Bendis, Stuart Immonen, David Lafuente, David Marquez, and Mark Brooks
Peter Parker’s death in the Ultimate series will make me cry every time I read it, it’s a great issue but really, it’s #200 — where on the second anniversary of his death, we see the impact he still has on his friends and family — that shines. MJ, Gwen, Aunt May, Miles, Johnny, Bobby, Kitty… the list goes on, but they all imagine what Peter might be doing if he’d lived, and what he’d want them to be doing now.
As much as Peter tends to self-isolate to try and protect those he’s closest to, he rarely succeeds. MJ, May, Johnny, all the people whose lives he touched? They will always have his back whether it’s in the Ultimate universe, Renew Your Vows, or whatever else series he shows up in. So, it’s a great look at the way they see Pete. Plus, it has beautiful full-page collages of potential futures for Earth-1610’s Peter Parker, and for those images alone I’d put this on the list.
If you like this: Amazing Spider-Man #698-700: “Dying Wish” is definitely one to grab. It’s when Peter “dies” and Doctor Octopus takes over his body, bringing about the era of Superior Spider-Man. You can also pick up Ultimatum: Spider-Man Requiem, in which J. Jonah Jameson writes an obituary for an assumed dead Spidey.
By Robbie Thompson and Nick Bradshaw
Marvel’s 2015 Spidey series was sort of a back to basics for the character. It starts up in current times, but Peter Parker is a teen again. And if there’s something I’ve learned in my career in kid lit, it’s that kids freakin’ love Spider-Man. He’s an easily digestible super hero for them, with bright colors and funny one-liners. But if going back in time to read through the original 1960s issues seems too daunting with your child, Spidey’s a really great introduction to the character!
The issues are pretty self-contained, every one of them opens with a one-page explainer for Pete’s backstory, and they’re well-written and have great art to boot! You’re not going to get a ton of new information about Spider-Man out of these, but you’ll get a familiar feeling from some original stories. Also, we get to see Spidey fight alongside some of his heroes from the Marvel universe, and that’s always a good time.
If you like this: Brian Michael Bendis’ Ultimate Spider-Man series is the next one to pick up. Bendis and artists Mark Bagley and Stuart Immonen set Peter Parker back in high school … in the year 2000. You’ll both love and cringe at the millennial specificity of it all.
By J. Michael Straczynski and Ron Garney
I love a good introspective Peter Parker story, and Amazing Spider-Man issues #539-543 (dubbed “Back in Black” in the trade) have that aplenty. During the events of Civil War, Peter Parker revealed his secret identity to the world, and, eventually his nemesis Kingpin puts out a hit on him from prison.
But the assassin shoots Aunt May instead, and Peter loses his goddamn mind. He beats the hell out of everyone to find out who ordered the hit, and then he comes for Kingpin. And during all of this are moments where he thinks, “I should feel guilt for this” or “Would I have killed him? Yes.”
When Spider-Man is pushed beyond his limits, it’s usually because people he loves are hurt, and his anger is fueled by the guilt of not making the right choice. In “Back in Black,” Peter’s anger pushes him to make emotional, violent calls. This is just one example of how the story strips back familiar Spider-Man-isms in order to unsettle the reader. It throws us off our axis. Something big is coming, something momentous. And what that is is a reckoning of Peter Parker without the mask.
The story ends on — understatement of the year — kind of a downer, but I do love the way Straczynski reinvigorates the conversation around the idea of Peter’s character.
If you like this: Spider-Man: Blue is a great look at one of Pete’s earliest stories through an experienced eye, as Peter records a message to a long-since passed Gwen Stacy, reflecting on their lives.
By Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli
This limited series penned by Ultimate Spider-Man creator Brian Michael Bendis is the first meeting of Earth-616’s Spidey and Miles Morales, the Spider-Man heir of the Ultimate universe. 60 years of Spider-Man history has given us another gift beyond just Peter Parker: Spider-Man no longer automatically means “that brown-eyed bookworm from Queens.”
In Spider-Men, Bendis brought the worlds of Peter and Miles together. It’s a great series, where Peter of The Amazing Spider-Man falls through a portal and is forced to contend with a reality where he didn’t make it past 16. It’s a trip watching Pete confront his own mortality as he’s forced into the kind of mentor role he’s managed to avoid in most of his time on our Earth. And it’s truly great getting to see Miles take advantage of the mentorship that his Peter’s death denied him.
If you like this: Pick up Saladin Ahmed’s current run on Miles Morales: Spider-Man, where he’s the first writer to take over a solo Miles book since Brian Michael Bendis. And for even more Miles, you can turn to Miles Morales, a great prose YA novel by Jason Reynolds.
By Eve L. Ewing and Joey Vazquez
Team-ups! The best opportunity for ridiculous superhero shenanigans, and therefore, some of the most fun storylines that exist. And there are many, many Spider-Man team-ups from which to choose, but Eve L. Ewing’s deserves special mention. Ewing kicked off her Spider-Man/Ms. Marvel book earlier this year, and my biggest regret is that there are only three issues out.
When Ms. Marvel burst onto the scene back in 2014, the comparisons to Peter Parker were immediate. She’s a teen in Jersey City, doing it on her own, struggling to balance family, school, friends, and super-heroing. It was Spidey but for a new generation. They’re both awkward nerds who second guess themselves, and in Ewing’s first issue, both are pining to be younger or older than they actually are. And then they Freaky Friday.
This is the version of Peter that takes us back to being kids again, and it’s the version of Spider-Man that today’s kids love. It’s a glimpse at the timelessness and cross-generational power of Spider-Man that is a complete joy to read.
If you like this: Amazing Spider-Man #677/Daredevil (2011) #8 is an easily digestible two-parter crossover story for Spidey and Daredevil with a cameo from Black Cat. See also: FF #17, in which Johnny Storm moves into Peter Parker’s apartment. And of course, there’s always Amazing Spider-Man (2014) #7, with the original Spidey/Ms. Marvel crossover.
By J. Michael Straczynski and John Romita, Jr.
In 2002, 40 years after his first appearance, Peter Parker finally talked to Aunt May about his double life. May isn’t happy about it, but not for the reason you might think. She calls Peter out for taking the easy road: Of course it would be easier for her not to know. If she doesn’t know, Pete never has to deal with her questioning his judgment or judging him for his decisions.
Deciding that your loved ones need to be protected from important truths is a difficult position to defend, and the story doesn’t end on a particularly happy note. But it is hopeful. There is catharsis in seeing both Parkers coming clean about the guilt they felt over Ben’s death.
If you like this: The Amazing Spider-Man issues #257-259 tell the story of when MJ finally comes clean that she’s known about Spider-Man since almost the beginning. And then Brian Michael Bendis’ Ultimate Spider-Man #13 (2002), when Earth-1610’s Pete just tells MJ about Spidey (due in no small part to a crush he’s nursing on one of his best friends).
By Paul Jenkins and Humberto Ramos
Norman Osborn has been a thorn in Peter’s side since Lee & Ditko introduced him in The Amazing Spider-Man #14. But one of his best appearances is a four-issue arc in Peter Parker: Spider-Man. It’s an atmospheric comic, full of grays, blues, greens and purples. It rains nearly the entire time, and Ramos’ exaggerated art style works well against a muted palette.
In the story, Norman’s back, this time to terrorize Peter with his own guilt — but rather than have consecutive pages of the Goblin’s mania and Peter’s fighting, the comic takes on a more pensive tone. We get a significant amount of perspective from both characters — the arc all but opens with four pages of Norman speaking to his dead son’s grave — both paralleling and diverging at times. Here, the villain matters not as a monster of the week for the sake of an exciting fight sequence, but because of what he means for Spider-Man. Norman and Peter are inextricably tied together, and this book highlights just why Peter won’t let that tie control him.
If you like this: The Amazing Spider-Man #39-40 is when we find out the Goblin’s true identity and starts the ticking time bomb of knowing that Norman’s amnesia can’t last forever. “Goblin Nation” (Superior Spider-Man #27-31) is the epic, Goblin-filled conclusion to the Superior Spider-Man series.
Preeti Chhibber is a YA author, speaker, freelance writer, and Spider-Man enthusiast. She has written for SYFY, BookRiot, and The Nerds of Color, among others. Her short story, “Girls Who Twirl and Other Dangers” was published in the anthology A Thousand Beginnings and Endings (HarperCollins, 2018), and her first book, Peter and Ned’s Ultimate Travel Journal came out this year (Marvel Press, 2019). You can find her co-hosting the podcasts Desi Geek Girls and Strong Female Characters (SYFY Fangrrls). She’s appeared on several panels at New York Comic Con, San Diego Comic Con, and on screen on the SYFY Network. You can follow her on Twitter @runwithskizzers.