Spider-Man is my favorite Marvel superhero but I am, admittedly and by all measures, nowhere near as versed in his origins and early history as I should be. Sure, I’ll lose my mind if I ever see Amazing Fantasy #15 in person (like that’ll ever happen), and one of my favorite trivia tidbits is that Peter’s last name originally vacillated between “Parker” and “Palmer,” but I have never seen his first journey into the alternate dimensions that are the norm for one Dr. Stephen Strange, nor the stories that sparked his friendly rivalry with The Human Torch.
Decades: Marvel in the ’60s, focused entirely on Spidey’s earliest and arguably strangest adventures, and containing an absolutely astounding smorgasbord of work from some of the medium’s legends including Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, and Jack Kirby is the perfect collection for someone, like me, looking to find those aforementioned stories conveniently collected in one place. It is a great encapsulation of the kind of thing I might want from a company celebrating its 80-year anniversary.
That does not, however, mean that these stories have necessarily aged well or that they are essential reading by any means. In fact, their contents are so far off from the Spider-Man and Peter Parker we know today that, in the face of truly tremendous stories that have come out since their release like Kraven’s Last Hunt or Into the Spider-Verse, these feel more optional than ever. They are, at best, novelties.
Like deep fried Twinkies, palm reading for $1, or the ring toss at your local fair, though, novelties can be fun! Certainly, there’s a lot of fun to be had here in an almost vaudeville sense as well. One story collected focuses on Spider-Man deciding to show Johnny Storm’s girlfriend that The Human Torch is a bad boyfriend by dating her instead. But first! He has to break up a party she’s hosting with…bats made of webs? Another sees him sitting atop the Statue of Liberty – “Hey Johnny! I thought I’d see you around here!” And that Dr. Strange story, one of my favorites included, absolutely astounding in its artistic aesthetic thanks to an uncompromising Ditko in his prime. All separated, too, by covers which I think really emphasize the P.T. Barnum-ness of it all: “Special Tribute-To-Teen-Agers Issue!!” and “Does the Green Goblin look cute to you? Does he make you want to smile? Well forget it!” are amongst my favorites.
Spider-Man, perhaps unlike any other hero at the time, was uniquely positioned to be the perfect spokesperson for everything comics could be: silly, serious, fun, and fantastical. Reflecting the realities of the world but in a Wizard of Oz way that was digestible for children, conveying messages for the coming ages. This collection, jam-packed with great art, some great stories, and some fun tid-bits gets that.
However, deep fried Twinkies are also bad for you, and that palm reding is probably a rip-off. To that end, it’s absolutely astounding to me that Marvel has decided to collect stories where Spidey is needlessly chauvinistic and flippant mostly to women, and the organization of this collection is lackluster at best. One story in particular, featuring Hank Pym and the Wasp chalks Peter’s horrible attitude towards Janet up to “Wasps and Spiders never getting along!” – Oh what fun we’re having at irrational women’s expenses! Even beyond that, which is arguably a digestible relic of the time depending on your view, there are multiple stories featuring Spider-Man’s first run-in with the Fantastic Four included that amount to the same narrative from different perspectives. Hardly worth the price of admission for a celebration of unique storytelling or for a premium trade ($24.99).
I wouldn’t go so far as to say these weird additions ruin the experience — and any budding historian such as myself will want to check this collection out anyways as it is truly a good deal — but they do make this a hard sell for anyone looking to get into Spider-Man or to even check out older Spidey stories. They’re popcorn kernels in your shoe that amount to a less than fun time at the carnival.
Ultimately, Decades: Marvel in the ’60s is a fun, but not amazing or fantastic addition to the Spider’s web. It’s a well-conceived but half-heartedly executed portal back to a different time that feels right for Marvel’s 80th anniversary but isn’t worth the price of admission for anyone who doesn’t want to start from the very beginning. Those that do, however, will find quite a bit to love.