Retcons, Remakes & Retellings: SPIDER-MAN's Many Origins and Early Days
CREDIT: Marvel Comics
The origin of Spider-Man is one of the most well-known stories in pop culture, and at its heart, it's shockingly simple: Boy bitten by radioactive spider, gains spider powers. However, comic readers have learned there’s more to the story than just what Stan Lee and Steve Ditko put down on paper in 1962’s Amazing Fantasy #15. In conjunction with the relaunch of the Amazing Spider-Man series, Dan Slott and artist Ramon Perez are revisiting the early days of Peter Parker in a five-part miniseries subtitled “Learning to Crawl” and published as Amazing Spider-Man #1.1 to #1.5. But this is far from the first time comic storytellers have revisited, revised and expounded upon Spider-Man’s early days.
While changes are expected in movies, television and other media, even in the original medium of comics the early days of Peter Parker isn’t set in stone. There have been over a dozen stories, arcs and entire series that have revisited the first year – or even the first months of Peter Parker’s heroic career. For readers and comic professionals alike, that period, best classified to be the issues Ditko drew, is a halcyon time – for many, the measuring stick of every Spider-Man story since. But despite all that, subsequent writers and artists have returned to those fundamental days and told stories that weaved in and out of the original moments; in some cases, they’ve added to what was already there, while in others they introduced new elements that change the context of the original stories.
Newsarama takes a look at some of the most memorable attempts by Marvel to retell Spider-Man’s origin in comics, from revisionist takes in alternate universes to respectful approaches showing the origin in a new light.
Spider-Man: Chapter One
Primary Creators: Writer/artist John Byrne, artist Al Milgrom
Year(s) Published: 1998 - 1999
Number of Issues: 13
Over a decade after he redefined Superman for DC Comics, John Byrne was tapped by Marvel do something similar with the masked wall-crawler. Proposed as an updated look at Spider-Man’s early days very similar to the recent Season One graphic novels Marvel has published, Byrne took the original Lee/Ditko stories and expounded on them and pushed them into a modern context – all set in Marvel’s core universe.
At the time, Marvel’s hopes were that these new stories would become canon to the 616 universe (an inside term for the main Marvel Universe) going forward, but due to the middling reception the series had upon release, the publisher chose to forgo these stories, sticking with the original stories by Lee and Ditko. Despite that, Marvel reportedly approached Byrne to continue the story in a Spider-Man: Chapter Two series but the writer/artist passed.
It’s interesting to note that not even one year after the end of Spider-Man: Chapter One, the new Marvel regime headed up by Bill Jemas and Joe Quesada greenlit the Ultimate universe and Ultimate Spider-Man. That series took a very similar approach to Spider-Man: Chapter One, but avoided fan uproar over it “over-writing” the original stories by setting it in a separate universe.
Primary Creators: writer Brian Michael Bendis and Bill Jemas; artists Mark Bagley and Stuart Immonen
Year(s) Published: 2000 – 2011
Number of Issues: 160
When Bill Jemas and Joe Quesada took charge of Marvel’s then-floundering business in 2000, they had a problem: for the most part, the comics were out of touch with both their core and broader mainstream audiences. They could – and they did – rehabilitate their core titles, but they also saw an opportunity to remake some of their franchises for modern audiences. Thus came Ultimate Comics.
Unlike previous attempts that tried to weave modernized storytelling into the 1962 origin of Spider-Man, Ultimate Spider-Man took from those early stories and refashioned it for modern tastes. It had its detractors at first, but once the series had a chance to show itself it earned hundreds of thousands of fans. Through decompressed storytelling and an emphasis on the personal moments between characters, Bendis and Bagley created a modern-day Peter Parker that was still true to his origins – a similar approach that film and TV adaptations take with comic book characters. It was a comic book adaptation of a comic book.
Amazing Spider-Man Annual #5
Primary Creators: writer Stan Lee, artist Larry Lieber
Year(s) Published: 1968
Number of Issues: 1
Whereas all of the other stories featured in this list are multi-issue arcs, entire series and graphic novels, this standalone 40 page story is rare but still potent for what it did. Released just six years after Spider-Man’s debut, this story opened the door on Peter Parker’s parents for the first time.
In the story, Peter Parker traveled to Algeria searching out his parents after discovering an old newspaper clipping claiming they were traitors to the United States. For his entire life Peter thought they died in a plane crash in Algeria, but the sudden discovery of this clipping in Aunt May’s storage prompts the adventurous hero to find out the truth – both as possible traitors, and about their believed death – in Eastern Europe. In Algeria Parker runs afoul with the Red Skull (their first meeting), who in the heat of battle reveals that Spider-Man’s father was a double agent for the U.S. against the Red Skull and that his parents didn’t die as traitors.
If this kind of story were to have told today it would have sent shockwaves in the online comics community, but back in 1968 it was overlooked and soon forgotten in most all subsequent Spider-Man stories. Still, Richard and Mary Parker would become more important to the backstory of both Ultimate Spider-Man and the new cinematic universe of Amazing Spider-Man.
Primary Creators: writer Jeph Loeb, artist Tim Sale
Year(s) Published: 2002 - 2003
Number of Issues: 6
Continuing in a trend of color-coded takes on the formative years of Marvel’s major heroes, Spider-Man: Blue revisited the early days of Peter Parker – specifically the events of Amazing Spider-Man #43 through #48 and also #63. Loeb and Sale add layers of emotion to the original story, creating a story that isn’t about cliff-hangers and revelations but about added context and poignancy to the original texts.
The story expounded on core moments from the original, adding new insight to the completed love triangle between Peter, Gwen and Mary Jane, but also insinuated that Kraven the Hunter had been working behind the scenes up until that point in Amazing Spider-Man, organizing the various villains who attacked Peter in the first 50 issues of the series.
The Amazing Spider-Man: Parallel Lives
Primary Creators: writer Gerry Conway, artist Alex Saviuk
Year(s) Published: 1989
Number of Issues: A 64 page original graphic novel
Created during the height of Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson’s romance, The Amazing Spider-Man: Parallel Lives recounts their stories leading up to their union. In the process, it plays fast and loose with some then-key elements of the Spider-Man identity. Whereas in the original continuity Mary Jane fell for Spider-Man months before she realized he and Peter Parker were one in the same, in this flashback story it shows Mary Jane seeing Peter Parker sneaking out as Spider-Man on his first escapade as a hero.
Dan Slott has called this twist a “retro-active revelation” in a post on CBR, and thoroughly changes the context of Mary Jane and Peter’s initial courtship. Spider-Man: Chapter One writer/artist John Byrne applauded the change however in an interview years later for Wizard, as in his opinion it showed why a gorgeous woman such as MJ would go for a self-admitted geek like Parker.
Primary Creators: writer Mark Millar, artist Terry Dodson
Year(s) Published: 2003 - 2004
Number of Issues: 5
When Trouble was announced, people didn’t know what to make of it. That feeling persisted upon the miniseries’ release and continues to this day. Positioned as a romance comic set in the early days of Marvel continuity, Trouble followed a quartet of teenage friends on the cusp of adulthood, engaging in youthful pursuits and dealing with adult problems.
At the time, Marvel and its creators carefully danced around the true identity of the characters but by putting two-and-two together you can see it is follows a young Aunt May, Uncle Ben, and Peter Parker’s parents Richard and Mary. But by the end of the story, the true identity of Peter’s parents were in doubt. Why? Because it showed that Aunt May, the woman who raised Peter as her own, was in fact his biological mother. In the story, May has an affair with Richard Parker and is pressured to give up the baby to be raised by Parker and his future wife, Mary.
Readers didn’t know what to make of the story given it’s somewhat salacious look at Aunt May’s past, as well as the story contradicting numerous previous stories about these four. And comic professionals too have similarly danced around it, with the events of Trouble being near universally ignored in subsequent Spider-Man stories.
“The Clone Saga”
Primary Creators: writers Terry Kavanagh, Todd Dezago, J.M. DeMatteis, Tom DeFalco, et al.; artists Mark Bagley, Sal Buscema, Steven D. Butler, John Romita Jr., Alex Saviuk, et al.
Year(s) Published: 1994 - 1996
Number of Issues: 75+ issues
The mid-1990s were a tough time for fans of Peter Parker, because for a two year period they didn’t know if he was Spider-Man – and they didn’t even know who Spider-Man was if it wasn’t Peter. The story was originally envisioned as a fall event to revitalize Spider-Man similar to DC’s “Death of Superman” (this was before annual summer event books from both publishers were “a thing”). But as time went on and outside forces pushed in, the story that Peter Parker might be a clone became multi-layered, with multiple clones, nearly a dozen titles, villains new and old, as well as an ever-changing modus operandi.
It all started when a clone of Spider-Man from a decades-old story was brought back into the mix and revealed not to be the clone, but the original, with Peter Parker being the clone. Faced with the revelation, Parker breaks from his life – both as a hero and as a husband – and the “true” Peter Parker, named Ben Reilly, takes his place. The story goes back and forth with revelations about Parker’s parents, additional clones, and numerous villains each with their own goals. In the end virtually everything was said to be a lie, with Parker back in place as Spider-Man and as himself and the various clones and new villains cast away into the Marvel archives for years afterward. One of the few things about the storyline that did stick was Peter and Mary Jane’s unborn daughter, who spawned an entire alternate universe where she grew up and carried the mantle of the spider. Her fate in the 616 is a loose end to this day.
“The Other” Crossover
Primary Creators: writers Peter David, Reginald Hudlin and J. Michael Straczynski; artists Mike Deodato, Pat Lee and Mike Wieringo
Year(s) Published: 2005 - 2006
Number of Issues: 12
What if everything you knew about Spider-Man’s powers and their origin were wrong? That’s what J. Michael Straczynski proposed in this four-act event he dreamt up for the various Spider-Man titles at the time. Hinted at previously with the then-newly introduced Morlun character (who plays a central role in the forthcoming Spider-Verse event), Peter Parker learned his powers are tied to larger spider-based cosmic forces and that he is one in a number of Spider-centric individuals who is involved in a broader animal-based hierarchy that battles one another.
Over the course of the story, Parker has a series of mental breakdowns before he eventually sheds his skin, dies and is reborn anew in what Tony Stark refers to as a resetting of Spider-Man’s odometer. This reborn Spider-Man fights rogue spider creatures who have taken over the husk of his old body, and Peter eventually wins thanks to newly acquired powers from this transformation.
Spider-Man: With Great Power
Primary Creators: writer David Lapham, artist Tony Harris
Year(s) Published: 2008
Number of Issues: 5
Talk about weaving through the raindrops; this entire five-part series takes place between two consecutive panels in Spider-Man’s origin story fromAmazing Fantasy #15. Lapham and Harris focused on a teased but overlooked time period in which Peter Parker used his then-newfound abilities for celebrity and fortune, before being brought back down to earth by the death of Uncle Ben. This covers his short-lived professional wrestling career, crosses with the mafia, a romance straight out of The Graduate, and even giant monsters.
At the time of release, Spider-Man: With Great Power was overlooked by most. A hardcover collection of it was released in late 2008, but a subsequent paperback edition was solicited but cancelled before release.
Untold Tales of Spider-Man
Primary Creators: writer Kurt Busiek, artist Pat Oliffe
Year(s) Published: 1995 to 1997
Number of Issues: 26
Untold Tales of Spider-Man had two things going for it: the “untold tales” from the hero’s early days as promised in the title, and also a low price point: the series was priced at 99 cents at a time when most comics were $1.50 and $1.95. Marvel had an eye for talent, hiring writer Kurt Busiek during an early creative period: he was coming off the success of Marvels, and would launch Astro City the same year Untold Tales of Spider-Man debuted.
The goal for this series was to recapture the magic of the original stories by Lee and Ditko by revisiting that time period and status quo for Peter and his cast, filling in the gaps between stories and explaining some inconsistencies seeded 30 years prior by the original creators. In the first issue alone, Busiek and Oliffe reveal Norman Osborn’s machinations well before he would be revealed in continuity as the Green Goblin, showed Parker’s first meeting with Captain Stacy, and also created a then-new villain inserted into classic continuity called the Scorcher – something Slott hopes to do again in “Learning To Crawl.”