Now this is my Spider-Man sweet spot....I was introduced to Spider-man through the stories collected in this volume back when they were presented in the pages of MARVEL TALES in the mid-'70's, and they remain some of my all-time favorite comics.
ESSENTIAL AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, VOLUME 6 collects THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #'s 114-137, GIANT-SIZE SUPER-HEROES #1, and GIANT-SIZE SPIDER-MAN #'s 1-2. Primarily written by the great (And vastly underrated...) Gerry Conway, with an assist from Stan Lee and Len Wein, these are some of the most important issues in Spidey's storied career...
This volume starts off mid-story, as Spidey is caught in the crosshairs of the warring factions of Doctor Octopus and Hammerhead, who are both vying to take over New York's underworld. From there, we get a three-parter that is actually a reworked version of the story from the first issue of the SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN magazine. I was amazed at how well Gerry Conway and John Romita were able to repurpose the story and art to fit the ASM continuity, which it does fairly seamlessly. Next up is a lackluster two-part story that finds Spidey confronting The Hulk in Canada, and from there, business really picks up with the legendary "Death of Gwen Stacy" storyline, which was a massive turning point, not only in the life of Spider-Man, but for comics in general. I've read this story umpteen times, but this is, to the best of my recollection, the first time I've read the stories that immediately followed it. Gerry Conway does a phenomenal job of taking Spidey/Peter Parker through the various stages of grief, and does so in a believable, realistic way. (Collected edition aside: This would have been a perfect volume to collect the classic "What If...Gwen Stacey Hadn't Died" story from Marvel's "WHAT IF..." series. Missed opportunity!)
Spidey's luck being what it is, he doesn't get a lot of time to mourn, as he finds himself hunted by Luke Cage, and mixing it up with returning baddies such as Man-Wolf, Jonas Harrow, The Kangaroo, and a faux-Vulture, who was probably the lowlight of Conway's run. We then start the extended story arc that would go on to cause trouble in Spidey's life for decades: The Jackal/Spider-Clone storyline, which also featured the first appearance of The Punisher. The Jackal would weave in and out of the title for the next few years, but for now, Spidey has his hands full with the return of the Doc Ock/Hammerhead war, which reaches a temporary conclusion in a two-part epic that featured, among other things, THE WEDDING OF DOCTOR OCTOPUS AND AUNT MAY.
Let that sink in for a minute.
Doc Ock and Aunt May...getting married.
Still with me?
OK, shake it off....
I have no idea how old Doctor Octopus is, but he looks to be, maybe, in his fifties. Aunt May looks like she's in her late hundreds. She must be dynamite in the sack to nab a youngster like Doc Ock, right? Wrong! Turns out, he was only marrying her so he could get at the CANADIAN ISLAND/URANIUM MINE/NUCLEAR POWER PLANT THAT SHE JUST INHERITED.
From who, you ask...?
Unimportant, Gerry Conway answers! (Seriously, this is never addressed at all. You would think that, since this entire series is predicated on the fact that Peter and Aunt May are desperately poor and completely alone in the world, someone might have said to them, at some point, "Hey, I know they're about to foreclose on your house.....Why not call Uncle Schmeckie, your relative who owns a Canadian island/uranium mine/nuclear power plant, and see if he can float you a few bucks? Just a thought. Another great thing about this wedding story is how Hammerhead, a desperate, violent mobster, has his minions use guns with "Stun pellets", so as to not hurt anyone. What a guy!
In the same vein as "Stun pellets", we next encounter The Molten Man, who is now literally molten...His skin temperature is 300 degrees, hot enough to melt anything near him, except for the little gold bathing suit he wears to cover his molten wiener. Gotta love the backflips they did back then to get approved by The Comics Code. (Although...he does appear to be naked on the cover to issue #133. Way to stick it to the man!)
This is followed by a battle with the team of Morbius, The Living Vampire and The Man-Wolf, from GIANT-SIZE SUPER-HEROES #1. I love the way that Marvel actually, you know, pays attention to ancillary books that tie into continuity when they compile their collected editions, unlike other companies that just have no clue. (DC, cough cough.)
I was reading MARVEL MASTERWORKS: THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN VOLUME 14 at the same time as this book, since they had some overlapping issues, and I was surprised to find a pair of issues included here that weren't collected in the MASTERWORKS volume. First up was GIANT-SIZE SPIDER-MAN #1, which features the Lord of the Undead, Dracula. Len Wein penned this throwaway tale, which finds Spidey and Drac both chasing down a Doctor who can cure a new strain of Influenza that is crippling New York. Spidey and Drac never actually cross paths, aside from two panels that feature Peter Parker literally bumping into Dracula. A pointless story, and I can see why they may have elected to omit it from the MASTERWORKS collection, but still...completeists will be upset.
Next up is a two-parter that features the introduction of The Tarantula (A Hispanic guy with pointy shoes...I could make a million racist jokes that probably no one today would get!) and the return of The Punisher. This is followed by the second issue that is left of of the MASTERWORKS edition, and it's a real find. GIANT-SIZE SPIDER-MAN #2 features Spidey teaming up with Shang-Chi, Master of Kung-Fu. I was shocked to find this issue here, since it features Sax Rohmer's Doctor Fu Manchu, whose presence in the book has kept Marvel from printing any MOKF collections. How the inclusion of this story slipped past Marvel's radar, I have no idea...but I'm glad it did. Len Wein handled the writing on this one, and it was head-and-shoulders above the Dracula story he wrote in the previous issue. This really whetted my appetite for some MOKF, and I hope Marvel can come to some kind of terms with the Rohmer estate at some point....I've been hearing about MOKF my whole life, and I'd love to sit and dig in to an omnibus collection or three of the legendary '70's action series. This issue also features a Chinese man being called a "slant", which I'm happy to say hasn't been removed or replaced in this collection. I know it's not PC to name-call, but I'm totally against censoring old works of art to fit in with modern sensibilities, so good for Marvel for leaving this story as is.)
The book closes on a poignant note, as Spidey must fight his best friend, Norman Osborn, who has taken up his deceased father's Green Goblin identity. (Nit-picky aside: If Spidey knew that there was an entire abandoned warehouse filled with Norman Osborn's Green Goblin suits and weapons, couldn't he have, I don't know.....NOT LEFT IT SITTING THERE, WAITING TO BE DISCOVERED????? Dude, break the stuff up, hide it, throw it away, burn the joint down...don't get lazy and just leave it there for some other nut to find! Come on, man..."With great power..." and all that jazz. Seriously.)
Huge, HUGE props to Ross Andru, who assumes the art chores about 11 issues into this collection. I grew up on his art, and, to me, he's one of the handful of artists who define Spidey. He seems to be pretty much forgotten/ignored by today's fans, and that's a real shame.....His clean linework, detailed backgrounds, and expressive faces all earn him a place among Marvel's greats. His art never fails to bring a smile to my face, and take me back to those carefree days of my childhood when I first discovered The Amazing Spider-Man and his exciting world. Highly recommended.