Ah, Spider-Man...! Has there ever been a better-marketed super-hero? I mean, okay, I grew up reading The Amazing Spider-Man, then I stopped because it got so bad, and then it got really convoluted and fetishistic (bulgy muscles, boring Venom-related baddies...) and then they made those movies and all that money. And, oh. my. gawd! Now the guy's everywhere! It's kind of freaky as a parent seeing how every, single boy in my kid's preschool and kindergarten classes knew about Spider-Man and wore Spidey gear and played Spidey games (even if they hadn't read the comics or seen the movies...) It's like a pop culture mega-super, ultra-meme! Yikes!

Still, I've been a secret Spidey fan all these years and was happy to find a few graphic novel collections that were fun... Although I really don't want to keep up with the main Spider-Man mythos, there are a few really great titles that are worth checking out and are still pretty kid-friendly, even in this hyper-violent modern age. Here are some recommendations I think you might like. Also feel free to browse my Comics For Kids section, linked to below...




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"The Amazing Spider-Man, Marvel Masterworks, v.1" (Paperback)
Written by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko
Illustrated by Steve Ditko
(Marvel Comics, 2009)

It is amazing, as the parent of a very young child, to see how universally known the Spider-Man character has become: pretty much every kid in every preschool or kindergarten class in America seems to know about Spider-Man, even though very few have been allowed to see the Toby McGuire movies. Fewer still have actually read the original comic books, so when my daughter asked me one day of Spider-Man was "a bad guy" (like her friend Zach said at school) I broke out the old 1960s episodes and we read some classic Spidey adventures. She was really into it, but we soon got bogged down by the super-talky scripts and the soap-opera elements. I guess what was fun to collect as an eleven-year-old nerd is less enthralling as a preschooler's bedtime story. Anyway, we do like Spidey, and the old stories (the good stuff!) is waiting for us whenever we're ready. The new Masterworks reprint series, launched in 2009, makes the early issues available in paperback form, the most affordable they've ever been since the Kennedy era. If you want to explore Spider-Man from the very start, this is the way to go. (This volume reprints Spider-Man's origin story in Amazing Fantasy #15, along with Amazing Spider-Man 1-10.) (A)


"The Amazing Spider-Man, Marvel Masterworks, v.2" (Paperback)
Written by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko
Illustrated by Steve Ditko
(Marvel Comics, 2009)

Collects Amazing Spider-Man 11-19, as well as the Annual issue #1. Ditko and Lee are really hitting their stride here, in particular with the increasingly stylish Ditko artwork. I should maybe note here that I'm not into the new Spider-Man comics, and haven't been into the book for decades: too violent, too fetishistic with all the vein-y, rippling muscles and overly-sexualized female characters, not to mention some of the stagnant, self-involved plot elements (such as Spawn and the various Spidey clones...) But I do still love these old issues and can also recommend the newer Ultimate Spider-Man series, reviewed below, which gets back to the more innocent feel of these early adventures... (A)


"The Amazing Spider-Man, Marvel Masterworks, v.3" (Paperback)
Written by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko
Illustrated by Steve Ditko
(Marvel Comics, 2009)

Collects Amazing Spider-Man 20-30, as well as the Annual issue #2. (A)


"The Amazing Spider-Man, Marvel Masterworks, v.4" (Paperback)
Written by Stan Lee
Illustrated by Steve Ditko & John Romita
(Marvel Comics, 2010)

Collects Amazing Spider-Man 31-40. And so on... Note: towards the end of this volume, a new artist takes over the series, the ever-fab Joltin' John Romita, who is probably my favorite Spidey penciller. It just gets better from here on out... (A)


"The Amazing Spider-Man, Marvel Masterworks, v.1" (Hardcover)
Written by Stan Lee
Illustrated by Steve Ditko
(Marvel Comics, 2003)

The original Masterworks series came out in hardback and (so far) is more extensive than the paperback editions, covering all the years with artist John Romita, as well as the first penciller, Steve Ditko. It's great stuff. I don't really have any opinion about the superiority of hardcover vs softcover; I suppose it depends which matters more to you -- durability or affordability. Either way, these are some really fun, classic superhero comics. As noted above, though, they might be more appropriate for slightly older kids, mostly just because the stories tend to have so much wordy dialogue and narration that they might get boring after a while. Cool stories, though! (A)


"The Amazing Spider-Man, Marvel Masterworks, v.2" (Hardcover)
Written by Stan Lee
Illustrated by Steve Ditko
(Marvel Comics)

(A)


"The Amazing Spider-Man, Marvel Masterworks, v.3" (Hardcover)
Written by Stan Lee
Illustrated by Steve Ditko
(Marvel Comics)

(A)


"The Amazing Spider-Man, Marvel Masterworks, v.4" (Hardcover)
Written by Stan Lee
Illustrated by Steve Ditko & John Romita
(Marvel Comics)

(A)


"The Amazing Spider-Man, Marvel Masterworks, v.5" (Hardcover)
Written by Stan Lee
Illustrated by John Romita
(Marvel Comics)

(A)


"The Amazing Spider-Man, Marvel Masterworks, v.6" (Hardcover)
Written by Stan Lee
Illustrated by John Romita
(Marvel Comics)

(A)


"The Amazing Spider-Man, Marvel Masterworks, v.7" (Hardcover)
Written by Stan Lee
Illustrated by John Romita
(Marvel Comics)

(A)


"The Amazing Spider-Man, Marvel Masterworks, v.8" (Hardcover)
Written by Stan Lee
Illustrated by John Romita
(Marvel Comics)

(A)


"The Amazing Spider-Man, Marvel Masterworks, v.9" (Hardcover)
Written by Stan Lee
Illustrated by John Romita
(Marvel Comics)

(A)


"The Amazing Spider-Man, Marvel Masterworks, v.10" (Hardcover)
Written by Stan Lee
Illustrated by John Romita & Gil Kane
(Marvel Comics)

(A)


"The Amazing Spider-Man, Marvel Masterworks, v.11" (Hardcover)
Written by Stan Lee & Roy Thomas
Illustrated by Gil Kane & John Romita
(Marvel Comics)

Some Marvel old-timers may tell you that when Stan Lee left The Amazing Spider-Man, the glory days were over. But I think there was plenty of juice left during Gil Kane's tenure as artist (fun, kinetic, rubbery stuff), and writer Roy Thomas delivered some fab, fun stories early in his run. This volume also features the brief return of artist John Romita, and lots of groovy, gimmicky story arcs. There are the Morbius episodes, (where Spidey grew four extra arms, and Gil Kane drew an awesome version of The Lizard); also, the journey to the Savage Land and a crossover with the then-canceled Doctor Strange -- this was all great stuff. The book really lost it when Ross Andru took over as the artist: ugh. After about issue #115 or so, the stories became dull and strained, and the book slid into tedium. But this volume is still solid, vintage Marvel merriment. Go for it! (A)


"The Amazing Spider-Man, Marvel Masterworks, v.12" (Hardcover)
Written by Stan Lee & Gerry Conway
Illustrated by Gil Kane & John Romita
(Marvel Comics)

Collecting Amazing Spider-Man #110-120... (B)


"The Amazing Spider-Man, Marvel Masterworks, v.13" (Hardcover)
Written by Gerry Conway
Illustrated by Gil Kane & Ross Andru
(Marvel Comics)

Collecting Amazing Spider-Man #121-131... (B-)


"The Amazing Spider-Man, Marvel Masterworks, v.14" (Hardcover)
Written by Gerry Conway
Illustrated by Ross Andru
(Marvel Comics)

Collecting Amazing Spider-Man #132-142, Giant-Size Marvel Super-Heros #1, and Marvel Treasury Edition #1... Lots of absolutely horrible artwork from Ross Andru, and yet, that was Spidey: I read and re-read every single one. A bunch of times. (B-)


"Marvel Team-Up, Marvel Masterworks, v.1" (Hardcover)
Written by Gerry Conway
Illustrated by Ross Andru, Gil Kane & Jim Mooney
(Marvel Comics, 2011)

This title was sort of Marvel's answer to DC's Brave And The Bold team-up series, but with Spider-Man as the permanent hero, partnering up with a new hero-of-the-month. I grew up reading these ones, too, and looking back I have to admit these are pretty terrible stories, often with sub-par art. Still, they hearken back to simpler times, and are hardly as gory or grim as comics today. Spidey was still nebbishy and self-doubtful, but he enjoyed spinning around... The stories were simpler and often nonsensical and could be pretty fun in a no-brainer kind of way. If you yearn for the free-wheeling mediocrity of the 1970s, Marvel-style, here it is, True Believer! (Gathers issues #1-11... ) (B)


"Marvel Team-Up, Marvel Masterworks, v.2" (Hardcover)
Written by Len Wein
Illustrated by Ross Andru, Gil Kane & Sal Buscema
(Marvel Comics, 2011)

Gathers issues #12-21... (B)


"Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane"
Written by Sean McKeever
Illustrated by Takeshi Miyazawa
(Marvel Comics, 2007)

Author Sean McKeever's brilliant, intricate, sensitive graphic novel series focusses on the early teen years of Mary Jane Watson (later to become "Mrs. Spider-Man"), her infatuation with the new local superhero, and the complex social and emotional world of high school. This is a rare comic book in which each character is keenly defined, and Mary Jane's life is in an emotional turmoil that will remind many readers of their own adolescent angst. After science geek/cutie pie Peter Parker starts going out with Gwen Stacy, Mary Jane swallows her hurt and gives up her claim on Peter's affections. In the place of the intimacy she desires, MJ instead substitutes popularity and glamour: her acting debut in a school production of Shakespeare makes her the talk of school, and the "new" Mary Jane emerges as the glib, fast-talking, devil-may-care flirt that readers first met in the original 1960s Spider-Man. It's all a facade, however. Mary Jane is "going plastic," becoming a shallow fake and a school celebrity, rather than face up to and feel her real emotions, and eventually this falseness comes back to bite her in the butt.

If this sounds like heady stuff for a comic book, that's because it is. This series is, quite simply, one of the psychologically complex and real-feeling super-comics ever published, reclaiming both the superhero and romance genres from their pitiably one-dimensional historical roots. Spider-Man makes a few cameos, but they are almost afterthoughts -- the writing and emotional tone of these books are absolutely pitch-perfect. The manga-ish artwork is also a delight, packed with tremendous visual nuance, warmth and wit. Sean McKeever and Takeshi Miyazawa's glimpse into highschool life is doubtless tamer and more benign than what kids today are really going through, but it still has resonance and depth far beyond any other teen-themed comicbook I could think of... Besides, this isn't meant to be an issue-oriented teen book, filled with public service announcements about teen sex, drugs or Columbine-like obsessions -- it is, instead, an interior study of one of the key female characters in the superhero universe. And it succeeds on every level.

If the goal of these books is to draw more girls into reading comics, more power to 'em! I have a little girl who is interested in comics, but most of what's out there is wildly inappropriate for little kids, especially young girls. This title ranks alongside Scott McCloud's late, lamented Zot! as one of the few comics I could think of that I would actually recommend for parents who are looking for wholesome, substantive, engaging comics to give their kids. It's pretty darn good! (ReadThatAgain children's book reviews) (A+)


"Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane, v.2"
Written by Sean McKeever
Illustrated by Takeshi Miyazawa, et. al
(Marvel Comics, 2008)

In this second collection of Spidey Loves MJ, the social interconnections between the various highschoolers deepen, as does the two-tiered relationship between Mary Jane, Spider-Man and Spidey's alter-ego Peter Parker becomes more complex. So does Mary Jane's character, as she examines her life, makes new choices and builds a persona more to her liking. As with the first volume, this is a remarkably rich set of stories -- super-comics for girls, but in a way that really works. It was a sad day when Sean McKeever announced he was leaving the book -- he'd done a stupendous job creating a kind of comicbook narrative that really hadn't been explored before. The title was later revived with a new writer, but it was obvious that another special pop-culture moment had come and gone. If you get a chance, pick this book up: it's quite good. (A+)


"Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane: Sophmore Jinx"
Written by Terry Moore
Illustrated by Craig Rousseau
(Marvel Comics, 2009)

This third volume of Spidey Loves MJ was welcome, though anticlimactic: a great book had been brought back from oblivion, but with a new creative team, and without the exact same sparkle and bounce as before. I thought Terry Moore did an okay job with the characters, and I was glad to see this narrative followed up on, but these episodes were clearly an echo and not an innovation, work for hire as opposed to a labor of love. If you enjoyed the first two collections, by all means check this out as well -- it doesn't ruin the story or disrespect the characters in any way... It just doesn't have quite the same magic. It's still good; intelligently written and far better than most mainstream comicbooks, particularly for female readers who might be a little less into the ultra-bulging muscles and ridiculously hypersexualized T&A seen elsewhere. This is a nice alternative. (B)


"Ultimate Spider-Man, v.1: Power And Responsibility"
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Illustrated by Mark Bagley
(Marvel Comics, 2002)

The "Ultimate" series was kind of an alternate-reality version of the Marvel superheroes, featuring several titles where the stories and characters were harsher and more realistically violent than the regular Marvel books. The experiment was okay at first, but fell apart and was abandoned after a few years. The big exception was the "Ultimate Spider-Man" series, which went back to Spider-Man's teenage roots and played him up as a fairly normal, modern American kid -- a science whiz, but not a total nerd. The series was consistently well-written, exciting and full of good, humorous dialogue, and way more kid-friendly than the mainstream Spider-Man book had been for years: kids from middle-school on could certainly latch on to this book and find a lot to enjoy; adult readers, too. In this version, Spidey's alter-ego, Peter Parker, reveals his secret early on to his girlfriend, Mary Jane, and she becomes his sounding board and confidant, giving Spidey a much-needed pressure release valve, so that he doesn't get so stressed out about his life. It's nice to see a Peter Parker who's so relaxed and at ease with his place in the world. There are other differences as well -- Aunt May is a much more resilient, more interesting, three-dimensional character than the mawkish soap-opera biddy of the 1960s original. Instead of spending all his time worried that Aunt May will get a heart attack, Peter actually gets to have some grown-up conversations with her, which is another nice change of pace. Although it was part of the gimmicky, violent Ultimate experiment, this book had a much different feel, and was worthwhile from start to finish, a genuinely fun read that I would recommend as good, family-friendly fare. There were, um, twenty-plus volumes of the first series -- I'll just list the first few, and if you like those, track down the others on your own. They are all quite good. (A)


"Ultimate Spider-Man, v.2: Learning Curve"
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Illustrated by Mark Bagley
(Marvel Comics, 2002)

Still on board? Cool. This series really does stay good right up until the very end... A welcome return to the giddy, just-for-fun feel of the best 1960s Marvel books. 'Nuff said! (A)


"Ultimate Spider-Man, v.3: Double Trouble"
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Illustrated by Mark Bagley
(Marvel Comics, 2002)

(A)


"Ultimate Spider-Man, v.4: Legacy"
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Illustrated by Mark Bagley
(Marvel Comics, 2002)

(A)


"Ultimate Spider-Man, v.5: Public Scrutiny"
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Illustrated by Mark Bagley
(Marvel Comics, 2002)

(A)


"Ultimate Spider-Man, v.6: Venom"
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Illustrated by Mark Bagley
(Marvel Comics, 2002)

Venom? Really? Even in an alternate-reality Spidey title? How boring. Oh, well. Yawnnnnn... (A)


"Ultimate Spider-Man, v.7: Irresponsible"
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Illustrated by Mark Bagley
(Marvel Comics, 2002)

(A)


"Ultimate Spider-Man, v.8: Cats And Kings"
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Illustrated by Mark Bagley
(Marvel Comics, 2002)

Peter Parker dating Kitty Pride, from the X-Men? I dig it! (A)


"Ultimate Spider-Man, v.9: Ultimate Six"
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Illustrated by Mark Bagley
(Marvel Comics, 2002)

(A)


"Ultimate Spider-Man, v.10: Hollywood"
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Illustrated by Mark Bagley
(Marvel Comics, 2002)

(A)


"Ultimate Spider-Man, v.11: Carnage"
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Illustrated by Mark Bagley
(Marvel Comics, 2002)

Venom, again? Or whatever...? Yawnnnn. Still, the secret identity stuff with Peter Parker's life makes this worth it, despite the lame super-villain. (A)


"Ultimate Spider-Man, v.12: Superstars"
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Illustrated by Mark Bagley
(Marvel Comics, 2007)

This series' take on the Spider-Man/Human Torch rivalry/friendship is also pretty good... More fun stuff! (A)


"Ultimate Spider-Man, v.13: Hobgoblin"
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Illustrated by Mark Bagley
(Marvel Comics, 2007)

(A)


"Ultimate Spider-Man, v.14: Warriors"
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Illustrated by Mark Bagley
(Marvel Comics, 2002)

(A)


"Ultimate Spider-Man, v.15: Silver Sable"
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Illustrated by Mark Bagley
(Marvel Comics, 2002)

(A)


"Ultimate Spider-Man, v.16: Deadpool"
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Illustrated by Mark Bagley
(Marvel Comics, 2002)

(A)


"Ultimate Spider-Man, v.17: The Clone Saga"
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Illustrated by Mark Bagley
(Marvel Comics, 2002)

Clones? Yawn. But still a great series. (A)


"Ultimate Spider-Man, v.18: Ultimate Knights"
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Illustrated by Mark Bagley
(Marvel Comics, 2002)

(A)


"Ultimate Spider-Man, v.19: Death Of A Goblin"
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Illustrated by Mark Bagley
(Marvel Comics, 2002)

(A)


"Ultimate Spider-Man, v.20: Ultimate Spider-Man And His Amazing Friends"
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Illustrated by Mark Bagley
(Marvel Comics, 2002)

(A)


"Ultimate Spider-Man, v.21: War Of The Symbiotes"
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Illustrated by Mark Bagley
(Marvel Comics, 2002)

Symbiotes? Is that kind of like Venom and Carnage and clones? Well, then... yawnnnn. But the rest of the book is cool. (A)


"Ultimate Spider-Man, v.22: Ultimatum"
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Illustrated by Mark Bagley
(Marvel Comics, 2002)

Wow. So, I guess this is the last volume of "Ultimate Spider-Man," at least the first series. Anyway, if you're going to go out, go out with a bang, right? In this volume, Bendis starts out with a teen-scene domestic drama -- Peter and Mary Jane talking about whether they should have sex yet -- that picks up the slack left by the cancellation of the also-superior, girl-oriented "Mary Jane Loves Spider-Man" series (reviewed above). After this strong, thoughtful beginning the book slips into the apocalyptic "Ultimatum" storyline, in which the X-Men baddie known as Magneto lays waste to the New York City and, I guess, Marvel cuts loose the various Ultimate titles. Spidey's role is central and gripping, as he webs his way through the ravaged metropolis, saving as many lives as he can. Each episode builds on the last, coming to a conclusion that has a believable air of tragedy and finality. Along the way, Spidey's team-up with the brutish Ultima-Hulk is stunning, one of the best portrayals of Hulk I've read, and a great showcase for Bendis' version of the patent-pending Peter Parker/Spider-Man sense of humor. This was a great book, and a fine accomplishment on the part of Brian Michael Bendis. He definitely had the right bead on the Peter Parker character, and never let this book dip in quality or fall into the violence-for-simple-shock-value quagmire that brought the other Ultimate books down. From start to finish, USM has been a great book, with great heart, intelligence, wit and warmth. Congratulations on a job well done. Oh, but wait: there's a reboot right after this came out. Whew!! (A)


"Ultimate Comics Spider-Man, v.1: The World According To Peter Parker"
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Illustrated by David LaFuente
(Marvel Comics, 2010)

Totally fun, despite the unwieldy new title. This book, the start of the second series of Marvel's Ultimate Spider-Man, is completely in keeping with the earlier books. Brian Michael Bendis writes with the same lighthearted, entertaining feel as before; Peter's internal narration has the same ingratiating tone, and the stories mix action and character development just as before. The artwork is fine; those who moan about the supposedly shocking "manga" look are either oversensitive or exaggerating -- I didn't think it was that different than the template set by Stuart Immonen in the first series. In short, this is pretty much the same book as before and not a "reboot" or shark vaulting exercise. Still a top-notch super-book, and still one that's a keeper, as far as I'm concerned. (A)


"Ultimate Comics Spider-Man, v.2: Chameleons"
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Illustrated by David LaFuente & Takeshi Miyazawa
(Marvel Comics, 2011)

Oh. My. God. This book is so very, very good. There's snappy dialogue that pops off the pages, stylish artwork, lots of interpersonal character growth-y type stuff and a little bit of action, too. In this volume, Peter Parker's Aunt May has taken in several strays, including the Ultimate versions of the Human Torch and the Iceman, and this trio of super-teens are a lot of fun to hang out with. This book comes close to being a perfect read for the younger young readers, although there's a teensy tilt towards more PG material - the boys talk about girls (often referring to them as "chicks") and there are a few mild swear words -- "hell," "pissed" -- that make this more of a tweenie/teen thing. But it's a great read... Indeed, the book seems to be shifting closer to the feel of the Mary Jane Loves Spider-Man series, with more emphasis on the high school romance aspects, and the friendships between all the kids. Well-paced and well-written, with a strong sense of humor... this title is miles ahead of the other Ultimate books. Highly recommended. (A++)


"Ultimate Spider-Man: Death Of Spider-Man"
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Illustrated by Mark Bagley
(Marvel Comics, 2011)

Although story arcs in which superheroes are killed are, almost by definition, gimmicky, this volume (which gathers Ultimate Spiderman issues #156-160) is a fitting end to a great comicbook series. Yeah, yeah, I know -- the series continues with another kid taking up the mantle of Spider-Man, but most fans can stop here, with the death (no, really!) of the alternate-reality USM/Peter Parker. It's a fast-paced, gripping super-story, with traces of the crisp writing and humorous dialog that made USM one of the best Marvel Comics of the last few decades, but also with a crushing sense of finality and doom that is borne out in the remorseless battle sequence in which the Green Goblin finally kills Spider-Man. Peter Parker's nobility in the face of his own death carries real tragedy and pathos -- technically this may be an "alternate" version of Spider-Man, but it's really the same Peter Parker we grew up with, and he really does die, and it has surprising resonance. There's a loss in the real world, as well: the USM book has consistently been the only title in the "Ultimate" brand that was worth reading, the only one not subsumed by a quasi-fascistic worship of violence for violence's sake. Indeed, USM was truly a great comicbook, consistently entertaining and full of the wide-eyed sense of innocent, kinetic adventure that Marvel exemplified in the 1960s, and gradually lost touch with from the '70s onward. Bendis may be able to sustain some of that elegant momentum in the re-re-rebooted series, but not for long, if at all. A pity. And, of course, there's always the possibility of a Peter Parker clone lurking in Ultimate-land... they had plenty of them popping up when the original Spider-books began their great decline, lo, those decades ago. But let's hope not: this was a powerful, heroic death, and it would be best if Marvel left well enough alone. (A+)



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