Spider-Man’s not a mutant, but he has hung out with them enough times over the years to warrant another SuperiorSpiderTalk.com list! This countdown will take a look at some of the very best stories involving Spidey and a mutant — including team-ups, battles and everything in-between!
For entry No. 6 we look at Untold Tales of Spider-Man #21 by Kurt Busiek and Pat Olliffe:
On several occasions I’ve made no bones about my adoration for the 90s series Untold Tales of Spider-Man (sidebar: become a member of the Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Talk Members Club for your chance to win a hardcover copy of the COMPLETE series). The comic’s main writer, Kurt Busiek, is one of my favorite scripters to never get a real run on Spider-Man. But beyond my love for Busiek, I think the concept for the Untold Tales line is just plain fun. The fact that the “untold” tales all took place during designated points of Spidey’s Silver Age run was a clever way for Marvel to retcon a number of events, including interactions with heroes and villains that were otherwise neglected, ignored or forgotten about during the Stan Lee/Steve Ditko/John Romita Sr. days.
And Untold Tales #21 is a prime example of how the book’s premise could be so effective. Set immediately following the events of Amazing Spider-Man #17, this issue marks the “first” official interaction between Spider-Man and the original Uncanny X-Men lineup of Cyclops, Jean Grey, Iceman, Beast and Angel. Pat Ollife’s artwork matches the visual and tonal aesthetic of the Lee/Ditko years perfectly, but it’s Busiek’s script that begs the biggest question to me: how is such a fantastic “Silver Age” meet-up between two similarly cast sets of characters in reality just a retcon? In other words, how does Stan Lee — the master of cross promoting his titles — fail to bring together Spider-Man and the X-Men during this era?
It’s not a major leap of faith to know that these characters are absolutely made for each other. While Spider-Man and Human Torch form an excellent teenaged odd couple, that entire dynamic was predicated on petty bickering and jealousy, a la Archie and Reggie. But Spider-Man and Lee and Jack Kirby’s original line-up of teenaged mutants could have had a real emotional connection to each other, leading to sincere, heartfelt stories that would have resonated with fans of each respective series. Beyond the storytelling potential, Uncanny X-Men was not a successful property for Marvel financially until some folks named Wolverine Storm, Nightcrawler, Colossus and co., took the world by storm and made the X-Men into the billion-dollar franchise it is today. If Lee put as much effort into teaming Spider-Man with the X-Men as he did with Human Torch, perhaps the title wouldn’t have been on the verge of extinction until the “all-new” cast saved the franchise in the mid-1970s.
My exasperation by this missed opportunity is not only about the fact that both Spidey and the X-Men are teenaged outcasts who inspire fear from their peers despite their heroic actions (though that’s certainly a critical factor in my thinking). In Busiek’s story, Spider-Man recognizes how much they have in common pretty quickly when he arrives at a crime scene and he tells the X-Men that he’ll trust their word over anything the Daily Bugle has published based on his own personal experience with a certain anti-hero publisher/editor-in-chief. But beyond the “the public thinks they’re all menaces” angle, there are some more subtle things that make Spidey and the X-Men a natural team-up.
The original X-Men presented a good mix of personalities that are on display in Untold Tales #21, creating a really interesting dynamic with Spider-Man, especially if they had been given additional stories to gel with each other. You have the stoic leadership of Scott Summers, the snarky brilliance of Hank McCoy and the brashness/egotism of Warren Worthington and Bobby Drake (Warren’s aloofness stems more from wealth, while Bobby’s comes from a place of immaturity). All of these archetypes have been proven to play off Spidey’s personality well, especially during the 1960s. I would have been especially intrigued by some more interactions between Beast and Iceman (beyond a rather bland Spider-Man/Iceman team-up/face-off in the early 1970s).
And then there’s Jean, a character that REALLY could have been used in interesting ways in the Spider-Man universe. While I hate to relegate every female character as a potential love interest, especially when Jean was all but betrothed to Scott during the first 15-20 years of X-Men comics, but giving Spider-Man/Peter a teenaged female with superpowers to flirt with and pine over could have marked a fun transition into the more soap opera-esque stories once John Romita jumped on the book. Of course Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley picked up on the brilliance of romantically pairing off Spider-Man with a mutant during their run on Ultimate Spider-Man (more on that to come).
For the record, Busiek doesn’t even make the slightest hint that these two should pair off (though he does write the most sympathetic Liz Allan I’ve ever read), and perhaps me speculating like this about a late-90s retcon of 60s continuity is defeating the purpose of the “just for fun” premise of the Untold Tales series. Either way, kudos to Busiek to at least taking the reader halfway on the potential journey that could have transpired between Spidey and the mutants in the 1960s.