*Warning: Very mild Spider-Man spoilers ahead. Nothing major, just enough to explain the general gist of each story.*
The 1980’s were an amazing time in comic book history. Pioneers like Alan Moore and Neil Gaimen took the medium to new heights, writing stories with depth and gravitas. Frank Miller, on the the other hand, took it to new lows, in the best way possible, telling street-level, gritty tales. Some of the best story arcs were written in the 80’s, especially for Spider-Man, who was previously known for light-hearted romps. Here are the web-slinger’s best stories from the 1980’s!
Amazing Spider-Man #200
The decade started with a bang for the web-head: Amazing Spider-Man #200 was published in January of 1980.
This landmark issue features the return of Uncle Ben’s killer, The Burglar. Peter hunts down his first foe, seeking revenge, and willing to stoop to great depths to get it. The whole notion of “closure” permeates the issue, and many elements from Amazing Fantasy #15 are revisited. Marv Wolfman and Stan Lee clearly did everything they could to ensure that their readers felt fulfilled after reading. Whether or not Peter achieves closure, though, is better left unsaid.
“The Spider and The Burglar…A Sequel” is a story full of angst and rage, an early indicator of what the new decade would offer.
The Alien Costume Saga
Up until the 1980’s, costume changes were just for C and D-List characters on the brink of disappearing. So when Marvel took their most iconic character and put him in a stark black outfit, the world went nuts. It may have been a pure marketing ploy, and an effort to sell more toys, but it made for a classic storyline.
Peter Parker didn’t just sew up some new duds out of boredom; the black costume is actually an alien symbiote! The symbiote bonds itself to Spidey, slowly tries to take him over, and generally screws up his personal life. That’s what makes this story so great: it’s a Peter Parker story even more than a Spider-Man story. It marks a landmark moment with Mary Jane, and showcases one of the darkest periods in the character’s life.
Do not let Spider-Man 3 spoil this story for you; the original comic is far superior to its campy big screen adaption.
“Venom” is the natural follow-up to “The Alien Costume Saga,” and the start of a legendary run on Spider-Man by Todd McFarlane.
Eddie Brock has inherited the symbiote, and they both seek revenge on Spider-Man. Their hatred runs deep, fueling one another. And, because the symbiote was previously bonded with Spider-Man, that means that Brock now knows all about Peter Parker’s life and secrets. He’s even invisible to Pete’s spider-sense. Never had Spidey faced a villain so lethal before this terrifying tale.
McFarlane just wanted to draw a jacked up version of Spider-Man, and, in doing so, he created one of the webhead’s greatest rogues.
The Death of Jean DeWolff
This may be the best Spider-Man story that you’ve (probably) never heard of. Police Captain Jean DeWolff, close friend to the web-slinger, gets murdered in cold blood by the Sin-Eater, and the hero seeks justice.
“The Death of Jean DeWolff” is great because it is not a super-villain tale; it’s Spider-Man versus a maniac with a shotgun. It’s dark; it’s gritty; it’s real. The notion of justice gets explored (with a little help from a blind attorney from Hell’s Kitchen), as do mental health issues. Peter David writes Spider-Man at his best: as a street level hero, fighting street level crime.
Most importantly, this story humanizes Peter Parker. Whereas Superman and Captain America have always symbolized ideals to strive for, Spider-Man is supposed to be relatable. His reaction to his ally’s murder, and the lines he crosses thereafter are not very hero-like, but they are genuine.
The Green Goblin has always been one of Spidey’s greatest rogues, but it was the Hobgoblin that captivated readers during the 1980’s.
Writer Roger Stern created Hobby without any strong idea of who was under the mask. He decided on an answer after three issues, but wanted to keep it a secret for just one issue longer than Stan Lee had done with the Green Goblin (Hobgoblin may have been a knock-off, but he was a great knock-off). To complicate matters further, Tom DeFalco took over writing duties before Stern could do his reveal. He disagreed with Stern’s choice for the Goblin’s identity, and thought that the mystery should go on even longer. Then, editorial disputes led to more disagreements and sabotage, prolonging the process, until Hobgoblin’s identity was finally revealed in Amazing Spider-Man #289, more than four years after his introduction.
This may sound jumbled and convoluted, but it actually led to one of the greatest mysteries in Spider-Man history, and Hobgoblin was a better character for it. Read his full publication history here.
Kraven’s Last Hunt
Kraven hunts down Spider-Man, shoots him, buries him, and then spends weeks trying to prove himself the superior vigilante.
Pretty dark, right? It gets darker. “Kraven’s Last Hunt” is probably the Spidey story that stands out most from the 1980’s. It visits themes of mortality and purpose, and it’s actually pretty terrifying to boot. J.M DeMatteis took a lame villain and went full Dostoyevsky, all because he was flipping through a Marvel Universe Handbook and noticed that Kraven was Russian.
Peter digging himself out of his grave (no spoiler; he obviously didn’t die) is also one of the most chilling sequences of his publication history.
Kid Who Collects Spider-Man
Break out the tissues. In this one-issue story, the hero reads about a boy claiming to be his greatest fan, with a collection of every article ever written on him. He swings into his fan’s bedroom, and the two converse for hours. It’s a deeply intimate tale that’s left its mark on Spider-Man history. Google “Best Spider-Man Stories of All-Time,” and this will be on every list.
For the record: the above image may be considered a spoiler by some, but trust that it wouldn’t have been used if the story wasn’t much larger than just that one panel.
The Commuter Cometh!
Here is another outstanding single-issue story from the 80’s. Spidey tracks a common crook out of the city and into the suburbs, and quickly realizes how ill-equipped he is without any skyscrapers to swing from. While it’s amusing watching the hero interact with suburbanites and get stuck in trees, writer Peter David throws some existentialism into the mix for good measure.
Simple Spider-Man stories are usually the best, and “The Commuter Cometh!” is all the proof that you need.
Is your favorite story missing from this list? What other characters thrived during the 1980’s? Frank Miller revolutionized Daredevil and Batman, but what’s your top pick? Sound off in the comments below!