We all have our favorite Spider-Man villain, but what about our favorite stories involving villains associated with another superhero or team? Why should Captain American or the X-Men get all the fun fighting the likes of the Red Skull or Magneto? This list celebrates the very best stories involving Spider-Man taking on a villain best associated with another hero.
Coming in at #8 is Amazing Spider-Man Annual #5 by Stan Lee and Larry Lieber:
Similar to a post I wrote last year about another Amazing Spider-Man Annual issue that marks an important milestone in Peter Parker’s personal life, ASM Annual #5, judged in isolation, is not a great story. But it’s a significant one for a number of reasons AND features a confrontation with one of Marvel’s oldest and most nefarious villains (who so happens to be a non-Spidey baddie), so with those ideas in mind, it finds a way to rank in this highly arbitrary list.
For the initiated, ASM Annual #5 is better known as the comic that explains the origins of Peter’s long-deceased parents — that they were both super spies that were initially charged with treason against the United States but were actually double agents working on the side of the American government.
The bait and switch regarding their allegiances to the good ol’ U. S. of A, comes courtesy of the Red Skull, who was first introduced in comic book canon as a leader of the German Nazi party while Captain America Steve Rogers was busy punching the real-world leader of the hate group, Adolf Hitler, in the face on the cover of Captain America Comics #1 (released 75 years ago BTW).
Peter’s parents apparently infiltrated the Skull’s crew during the Cold War and posed as his allies. Unfortunately, he snuffed them out and set them up on a fatal plane trip, framing them as traitors to the U.S. along the way.
The events of ASM Annual #5 are set into motion when Peter is digging through some “lost” items in the Aunt May’s attic and happens to find a newspaper clipping describing the death of his treasonous parents. It’s one of many, many contrivances found throughout this storyline that make it difficult for me to accept this comic as anything more than historically significant (as opposed to also being a great comic that I would urge everyone to read based on the merits of its writing and art). Being asked to just accept that Peter would randomly find this highly secretive newspaper clipping that describes how his parents disgraced the Parker family name is definitely a stretch. But without that suspension of disbelief, because of the way the Spider-Man mythos and biography had been developed since he was first introduced in 1962, there was really no other logical way to set the plot of ASM Annual #5 into motion.
Once Peter makes his discovery, the comic delivers what very well may be the most serious and driven version of Spider-Man we’ve seen since he tracked down the burglar who killed his Uncle Ben in Amazing Fantasy #15. He shows up at the Baxter Building demanding someone from the Fantastic Four give him a ride oversea so he can confront his parent’s killers. Once he’s overseas and fighting a bunch of the Red Skull’s goons, Spidey pulls no punches and even, sorta, kinda murders one of his adversaries when he tricks a heat-seeking missle into crashing into the vehicle where the goon was seated (and of course, the guy manages to give Peter a little more information about his parents before breathing his last breath).
Think about that, Spider-Man kills a guy in this issue. He should probably lay low for a while.
Once Spider-Man learns that the death of his parents was a frame-up, that conflict sets the stage nicely for his face-to-face confrontation with the Red Skull. This storyline does seem to get a lot wrong in retrospect, but one thing it totally nails is how it conveys the Skull’s aura of terror. At first glance, the Red Skull is not a physically imposing presence a la Thanos or Juggernaut, nor does he have extraordinary powers like Doctor Doom or Magneto. But he very well may be responsible (directly and indirectly) for more death and terror than any other Marvel villain. Because of the way this comic puts forward that idea succinctly and clearly, we see that Spider-Man does not take his foe lightly, even if Skull at first uses some surrogates to fight his battle for him.
Having Spider-Man draw his power from his emotional response to how the Skull sullied the name of his deceased parents adds another layer of tragedy — and eventually triumph — to this story. Marvel has obviously used Peter’s emotions about his Uncle Ben’s death to fuel numerous storylines over the years, but until this issue, steered clear of creating any kind of connection between him and his parents. Instead, the Parkers were more or less presented as being absent and unimportant to the story of the hero, which seems like a wasted opportunity for a character as complex as Peter.
Now the actual biography of Peter’s parents that this issue presents is another huge issue that I’ve long had with this comic book. Peter Parker, the tragic everyman and orphan who can’t catch a break in life, even with superpowers, is an essential part of what makes Spider-Man so great. Given that premise, having Peter’s parents killed in some randomly senseless way, a car wreck or a robbery gone awry (like Uncle Ben) seems fitting.
Instead, ASM Annual #5 ushers in the myth that the Parkers were actually heroes in their own right — super spies fighting for the U.S.A. against the evils of tyranny overseas. That story would be later expanded to the Parkers being S.H.I.E.L.D. agents which is even more absurd. Their backstory inadvertently adds a layer of inevitability to Peter becoming Spider-Man (a point which is further drilled home during the Ultimate series and more regrettably, the Marc Webb The Amazing Spider-Man film series). For everything to jive with how the character was first presented in 1962, Peter becoming Spider-Man should not even remotely be considered a fated occurrence.
But that’s the decision that Stan Lee made when he scripted this comic and for better or worse, the contents of ASM Annual #5 have been a critical part of the character’s biography ever since. However, it did also provided a valid reason for Peter to have a solid confrontation with one of the greatest villains Marvel has ever created, so for that point alone, I can put down my snobby Spidey fan card and endorse this story for my list.