In a collection including Amazing Spider-Man #68-85 and a single Amazing Spider-Man Annual issue, the iconic pairing of Stan Lee and John Romita Sr. display why the famed web-slinger is such an eternal figure in the pop culture sphere, creating an enthralling series of stories taken right from Lee’s heyday. The plot Lee invents involves a Dead Sea Scrolls-like tablet with inscriptions that lead to the secret of the Fountain of Youth, setting the stage for Spider-Man to engage with a whole swath of villains. This a package that illustrates why Lee and Romita Sr. are so integral to the history of the character and superhero comics overall.
Its biting social commentary is just as relevant today as it was at the close of the 1960s. A discussion, and, ultimately protests, around using a college house for affluent alumni instead of creating a space for low-income students feels ripped from a 2020 political debate about income inequality and student debt forgiveness. While college administrators, the wealthy and the powerful are worried about getting their hands on that tablet that’s being displayed at Empire State University, Peter Parker and his peers are witnessing a struggle for affordable housing. Spider-Man is simply transcendent.
Spider-Man has been that timeless character for nearly 60 years not solely because he represents the plight of the average Joe, middle-class everyman struggling financially, professionally and romantically, but because the topics that his comics frequently touch upon are universal. Lee’s most famous creation was already establishing his iconic status less than a decade after his inception because of the realistic stakes of Peter Parker’s world and the empathy he generates from readers.
While Lee and Romita Sr.’s approach to societal problems was forward-thinking, their writing is still a product of this era, as African-American characters like Joe “Robbie” Robertson’s son Randy and his fellow college friends fall into stereotypical “jive speak” that portrays people of color as inarticulate. Wrongs like this were commonplace in comics in the period of Blaxploitation and seen in the dialogue of Luke “Power Man” Cage and James “Rhodey” Rhodes’ War Machine. Despite this flaw, it’s commendable that Lee and Romita Sr. attempted to progress superhero comics forward in a way other series from the Silver Age of Comics didn’t even remotely approach.
Romita Sr.’s art has a multitude of influences. In the shadows of Steve Ditko’s spell-binding Amazing Spider-Man illustrations, Romita Sr. takes pieces from Ditko’s trademark trippy linework and infuses it with Andy Warhol-like pop art coloring. There’s a greater level of realism to Romita Sr.’s character work as well than young readers may be accustomed to from Romita’s Sr., John Romita Jr., a superstar in his own right. The end result is spectacular artwork that is worthy of the epic story Lee is spinning.
This installment in Amazing Spider-Man‘s Epic Collection series has a classic set of villains lined up to battle the wall-crawler, showcasing why Spider-Man has the deepest rogues’ gallery in all of Marvel Comics. Lee and Romita Sr. introduce Silvermane in issue #73, a staple of the Maggia crime family who would become a pain in Spidey’s sides for years and years to come. The tragic nature of Dr. Curt Connors and his Jekyll and Hyde-like transformation into the Lizard is on display as well, a prime example as to why not all comic book villains have a simple black and white moral compass.
The villain who stands the tallest here, both literally and figuratively, is the Kingpin. Due to Frank Miller’s iconic run on Daredevil and the character’s popularity on the Daredevil Netflix series, Wilson Fisk has long been considered the archenemy of the Man Without Fear. Lee and Romita Sr. remind readers why they created Fisk back in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man #50 in 1967. The Kingpin is a physical and intellectual match for Parker all the while possessing the connects and power of any Maggia-like crime leader. Fisk is ruthless and fearless, never hesitating for even a moment to beat the web-head to a pulp. He’s a frightening figure and this story arc suits his overpowering presence perfectly.
If someone wanted to know why Stan Lee appears in nearly every Marvel Cinematic Universe movie, simply hand them this collection of stories about the ultimate underdog from Queens.