The Amazing Spider-Man: Ultimate Newspaper Comics Collection! 1985-1986 is a fascinating look back at some of the more humble origins of everyone’s favourite friendly neighbourhood webswinger.
Anyone looking for Mysterio, Doc Ock, Vulture or Kraven the Hunter is going to be sorely disappointed as these comic strips are far more grounded in what was, then, the here and now. Rather than saving the universe, Spidey is more concerned with helping Aunt May cover her rent cheques. Instead of tussling with Venom, Spidey is instead dealing with a obsessive cop driven to unmask him.
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The first main story arc in this collection sees Spidey teaming up with super secret agent of “DARE” Simon Smith, to foil the plans of Dr Mondo and his evil organisation Dar Harat, who want to start WW3 between the US and Russia for… reasons. Reasons of terrorism. Quite what the end goal is isn’t actually clear, but as this collection picks up mid-story that might have been explained previously. Seeing Spiderman swinging through a jungle is just sort of odd, and much of the main action is focused more on Smith than on our titular hero.
The next big arc follows Spidey as he attempts to not only woo a fellow journalist called Jenny Saxon, but also tries to figure out why her daughter is terrified of Spider-Man despite them having, to his knowledge, never met. By the time the storyline ends, he’s been branded a paedophile and there are almost literally pitchfork-wielding mobs on the streets chasing him. One interesting thing in these stories is how quickly the public can be swayed to turn on Spiderman! One accusation is all it takes and the knives are out.
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But it’s okay, the next arc sees Mary Jane (MJ) return to town and it’s immediately “Jenny who?” as she is never mentioned again. Continuity! We’ve heard of it! Mary Jane than immediately dumps Peter when he has to run off to go be Spider-Man and the rest of this arc mostly revolves around Peter moping and feeling sorry for himself and MJ being nasty to him. There’s also a subplot about cash machines being tampered with and money stolen and a missing scientist but honestly it’s mostly background noise compared to the ongoing soap-opera relationship dramas of Peter and MJ.
The next arc is about a mobster and a crooked millionaire running for governor trying to get a judge (who happens to be MJ’s uncle) to step down. Once again it only seems to take one little suggestion and the mobs are out for Spider-Man, this time accusing him of peddling drugs! It reaches the point that even MJ seems to doubt Peter’s innocence, which is just awkward to read. The constraints of this sort of serialisation mean that, unfortunately, character motivations are sometimes left by the wayside to move a storyline along.
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The stories here are a mixed bag. Peter spends a lot of his time moping around about how he never gets the girl and how he doesn’t have any money. J Jonah Jameson is at his cigar-chewing, frothing at the mouth best, happy to immediately throw Spider-Man under a bus at the first HINT of wrongdoing. This is why we have the Press Complaints Commission, folks! All in all the stories are very mundane, honestly not massively interesting. Bank machine fraud, terrorists, a mobster doing what mobsters do… it’s all a far cry from punching Thanos in the face and then heading off to Italy to tangle with Mysterio, really. These stories were, though, relevant to the themes and fears of the day in the mid-eighties. The fears of terrorism, child abuse, drug addiction, poverty in the face of gentrification, corrupt officials and the like.
This collection is one for the completionists and the hardest of hardcore fans; no massive character revelations are present here (with the exception of a conversation Peter has about his own experience of child abuse), no memorable villains. Newspapers are always constrained in what they can get away with and how much they have to work with in terms of space and time, as opposed to today’s comics and graphic novels where the target audience is perhaps more willing to go the extra mile into the fantastic and bizarre than Joe Bloggs reading his daily paper would be. There are flashes and hints of the wisecracking hero we all know and love today but most of this collection is very, very mundane. It serves as an interesting snapshot of not only the comics but also the thoughts and fears of the time, but in the grand scheme of Spider-Man canon nothing earth-shattering is added.
The Amazing Spider-Man: The Ultimate Newspaper Comics Collection Vol.5 (1985-1986) is available now from IDW Publishing.