There are certainly some hopeless villains in some of the issues of Steve Ditko’s spell on Spider-Man, but the importance of a creative force credited only with the art really shows when John Romita joins writer Stan Lee on the title. The first 38 issues (Ditko’s run) introduced, among others, Doctor Octopus, Kraven, the Green Goblin, the Sandman (among my all-time favourite super-characters), Mysterio, the Vulture, Electro, the Lizard, Scorpion, the Beetle and the Molten Man – not all characters I love, but they’ve all come back again and again.

Once Ditko leaves – and remember he was only credited with art, then co-plotting in some later issues – he’s replaced by Romita. The art is still good, though no longer great, for me. Romita is better at drawing women, I think, and the teen romance* element of the title increased, though it remained entirely fatuous. Still, once again Stan can’t actually come up with anything much on his own in the way of memorable characters, and Romita isn’t much help there. New villains in the next 27 issues (this arbitrary cut-off comes from my having just read Essential Spider-Man 3, covering up to #65) are the Rhino (he is strong; his intro is a three-part epic, bewilderingly), the Shocker and the Kingpin (a crime lord who has been made into a very good character since, but wasn’t at this point). It’s the same everywhere in ’60s Marvel – Stan claims to have written and created everything, but if you look at what got created, when he worked with Kirby Lee created characters with the exact quality and style that Jack Kirby showed before and after his time with Stan; and similarly with Ditko. Without them, he’s barely come up with a single notable character in several decades – I guess his most famous is She-Hulk, which is a female version of the Hulk, in case you were wondering. The conclusion that his role was rewriting the dialogue after the ‘artists’ had done everything else is inescapable.

Mary Jane's first appearanceThese comics aren’t bad, by the way. I think Spidey is a really good character, and Stan’s contribution was hugely important in managing some approximation of swinging youthfulness in the dialogue and editorial presence – we shouldn’t underestimate these factors in Marvel’s success. Romita was always an excellent artist, if not terribly exciting, and our first sight of Mary Jane (later Mrs Spider-Man) couldn’t have been bettered by many (and certainly not by Ditko – was it Kubert who said his women all look like Polish tarts?). The stories are often laboured and without fresh ideas (oh no, this issue the Vulture is the threat again – and Spider-Man has a bit of a cold! And Aunt May is ill again!), but they are very readable. The supporting cast is a pretty good one, too – Aunt May is laughable, but important, Mary Jane and Gwen Stacy are both prominent, and jock Flash Thompson is much less one-dimensional by this point. It’s just that I love the first 38 issues, with very few exceptions, and I think they feature some of the best superhero comic art ever; and after that it becomes solid, pretty good, kind of routine, and rarely looks like climbing above that.

* I expect the Archie parallels are obvious to everyone in this period – Peter as Archie, Mary Jane as Betty, Gwen as Veronica, Harry Osborn as Jughead, Flash as Reggie…