In this feature, Mark Ginocchio, Superior Spider-Talk co-host and editor of Chasing Amazing, takes a look at significant “firsts” in Spider-Man comics, i.e., first appearances of supporting characters, phrases, images and/or general concepts that have gone on to play a critical role in the Spider-Man mythos.
Peter Parker’s secret identity as Spider-Man may be one of the worst kept secrets in Marvel history. And yet Spider-Man has gone to great lengths over the years to keep his alter ego shrouded in mystery as a means to protect his family and friends.
So let’s take a look back at the “first time” Spider-Man’s identity was revealed to another main character. Of course, in order to do that, we have to settle a quick little debate: call it a “first” for “It Feels Like the First Time.” Because controversy sells!
Spider-Man was technically unmasked for the first time by Doctor Octopus in Amazing Spider-Man #12. But the always arrogant Doc Ock dismissed that this puny teenager (who happened to be suffering from a cold at the time and thus, didn’t put up a good fight against Otto) could be his great and powerful nemesis, Spider-Man. So Peter’s secret was preserved … for the time being.
In terms of Spider-Man being unmasked for the first time, and it having a consequential impact on the character and the comics, look no further than Amazing Spider-Man #39, aka the first entry in the Stan Lee/John Romita Sr.-era of comics. In this comic, the Green Goblin hires some underlings to rob visitors at the top of the Empire State Building. During the battle, one of the goons throws a smoke bomb at Spidey, which causes him to temporarily lose his Spider-Sense. The Goblin uses this opening to stalk Spider-Man, inevitably learning that he’s Peter.
The Goblin confronts Peter in front of his house. The sheer look of panic on Peter’s face as the Goblin approaches him and reveals that he knows his secret sells the magnitude of this moment. Unlike the incident with Doc Ock in Amazing Spider-Man #12, Peter isn’t going to be able to explain his way out of this. Fortunately, when the Goblin strikes, one of his smoke bombs obscures Aunt May’s view out the window of her house and she doesn’t see her “dear, sweet” nephew battling a costumed villain. The Goblin eventually overpowers Peter, kidnaps him and reveals his own secret, that he’s Norman Osborn.
The long-term ramifications of this reveal are obviously significant. As a result of this issue, the Goblin is the first villain who is capable of striking at Spider-Man on a personal level. And over the years, that’s exactly what the Goblin does – killing Peter’s girlfriend, Gwen Stacy; orchestrating the “Clone Saga” in the 90s, kidnapping/killing his and Mary Jane’s baby, and much, much more.
Other people would go on to learn Spider-Man’s secret with disastrous results. In Amazing Spider-Man #135, Norman’s son, and Peter’s best friend and roommate, Harry, finds a Spider-Man suit in Peter’s dresser. Harry already resents Spider-Man for his role in his father’s “death” in Amazing Spider-Man #122. With this new information, Harry becomes the second Green Goblin and strikes at Peter by kidnapping Aunt May, Mary Jane and Flash Thompson and threatening to blow one of them up with a bomb.
During the same timeframe, Gerry Conway and Ross Andru introduce readers to a new villain, the Jackal. The Jackal has an unhealthy obsession with Gwen Stacy, and blames Spider-Man for her death. He unleashes a clone of Gwen on the world in Amazing Spider-Man #144. Five issues later, the Jackal, revealed to be Peter’s college professor Miles Warren, introduces a clone of Spider-Man, which means Warren somehow discovered Peter’s secret as well.
In the years that followed, Spider-Man’s secret is revealed to the original Burglar who killed his Uncle Ben, who, almost dies of a heart attack almost immediately after learning this information (in Amazing Spider-Man #200); the mysterious telepath Madame Web reads his mind and learns his identity (in Amazing Spider-Man #210); and he unmasks in front of his painfully awkward grad school classmate, Deb Whitman (in Spectacular Spider-Man #74).
Eventually, two of Peter/Spider-Man’s lovers learn his secret. After dating the Black Cat for some time as Spider-Man, he reveals his civilian identity to her in Spectacular Spider-Man #87. Unfortunately, once Black Cat knows Spidey’s secret, her fascination with him wanes, and the two break up. She does, however, maintain his secret, though on a few occasions she shows up in Peter’s apartment at inappropriate times.
During the famed Tom DeFalco/Ron Frenz run on Amazing Spider-Man, Mary Jane tells Peter she’s known he’s Spider-Man for “quite some time” (in Amazing Spider-Man #257). MJ tells Peter that she can’t have a serious relationship with him because she knows he’s out there risking his life as Spider-Man (she would obviously change her mind about that). Just to muddy those waters further, the 1990 Conway/Alex Saviuk original graphic novel, “Parallel Lives” explicitly says that MJ has known Peter’s secret since the night the Burglar killed Uncle Ben.
Other heroes also learn Peter’s secret. During Peter David’s critically acclaimed “The Death of Jean DeWolff” storyline in Spectacular Spider-Man, Daredevil discovers Spider-Man’s identity by comparing the heartbeats of Spidey and Peter. In a sign of good faith, at the end of the storyline, Daredevil unveils his own secret to Spidey, revealing himself as blind attorney Matthew Murdock. And after spending years exhibiting a sibling rivalry, Spider-Man reveals himself to his best frenemy Johny Storm/Human Torch in the Spider-Man/Human Torch mini-series, scripted by Dan Slott in 2005.
I really only scratched the surface when it comes to Peter’s identity. After bonding to an alien symbiote in Marvel Secret Wars, and then later rejecting the costume, the alien finds a new host in Eddie Brock, creating Venom and giving Spider-Man yet another homicidal maniac who knows his secret. While Brock always told Spider-Man his issue was with him and not his loved ones, that didn’t stop Venom from paying a visit to MJ in Amazing Spider-Man #299-300.
Fast forward a few years (jumping over Amazing Spider-Man (vol. 2) #35, Aunt May learns that her nephew is Spider-Man) to 2006’s Civil War mini-series. Prior to this mega, game-changing event, Spider-Man has forged a close friendship with Tony Stark/Iron Man (who, yes, knows Peter is Spidey). When the New Warriors try apprehending some villains for their reality show, and the supervillain Nitro explodes in Stamford and kills many innocent bystanders, the government demands that all super-powered heroes and villains register their identities publicly. Spidey initially fights the call for registration, telling a congressional hearing in Washington, DC, that outing heroes who choose to operate in secret could harm their friends and families. But Stark persuades Spider-Man that unmasking is the right thing to do. In one of the mini’s most iconic scenes, Spider-Man unmasks in front of a room filled with reporters, sending shockwaves throughout the Marvel universe.
Peter’s unmasking would naturally have horrible ramifications for him. Aunt May is shot by an assassin hired by the “Kingpin” Wilson Fisk, during a hit that had initially been ordered on Spider-Man. When Spider-Man turns on Stark and joins Captain America’s side during Civil War, he becomes a wanted man by S.H.I.E.L.D. When select members of Marvel’s editorial team started getting antsy about the status of Peter and Mary Jane’s marriage, the “One More Day” storyline was ushered in. While it controversially annulled the Peter/MJ union, it also reversed Peter’s unmasking, and wiped his secret identity from all of the heroes and villains who had learned this information over the years – all the way back to the Green Goblin.
And yet, it was only a matter of time before Peter finds himself blabbing his secret again. In a decision that Marvel’s editorial team did not “enter into lightly,” Spider-Man unmasks for his New Avengers teammates in New Avengers #51. The unmasking marks the very first time, post-“One More Day” that Spidey’s secret is out again, granted to a select audience of heroes.
Soon after, during a two-part storyline with the Fantastic Four (Amazing Spider-Man #590-591), Spider-Man unmasks for his long-time friends, who immediately remember everything about Peter. Over the course of the next year or so, we also learn that Peter’s old flame MJ (who now is a girl he was engaged too and lived with for a while), knows that he’s secretly Spider-Man (please don’t make me explain “One Moment in Time” as background for this).
We’re almost there … Slott’s epic “Spider Island” storyline in 2011 is an important milestone when it comes to Spidey’s secret identity. For one, Peter’s then-girlfriend Carlie Cooper uses her intellect as a police detective to deduce that her boyfriend is actually a superhero. But even more critical to Spidey’s secret is a scene in Amazing Spider-Man #668: while everyone in New York City is getting spider-powers, Peter goes on television revealing himself as average “Peter Parker,” a guy who just recently got powers like everyone else, and pleads with his fellow New Yorkers to use their newfound powers for good.
We later lean that in doing this, Peter has officially removed the “blind spot” from the cosmic universe, and now anyone is capable of learning his identity. Cue Doctor Octopus using his special helmet to discover Peter’s brainwaves and eventually switching bodies with him.
That’s been the status quo since January, 2013. In the most recent issue of Superior Spider-Man #28, Spider Ock has reason to believe that the Green Goblin and his army has discovered his secret identity (as Peter Parker – we already know that the Goblin knows Spider-Man is Doc Ock). Whether this was a major reveal done off-camera or just more misdirection from Slott remains to be seen, but either way, with Spider Ock’s girlfriend, Anna Maria getting abducted at the end of Superior #28, methinks Otto is about to learn hard and fast the lesson of what happens when a villain get strike at the hero in a personal way. Don’t believe me? Just go back to the first time this all happened for Spider-Man.