The Marvel Unlimited app is a gigantic, messy cache of awesome and terrible old comic books: a library of 13,000 or so back issues of Marvel titles, available on demand for subscribers with tablets or mobile phones. Like any good back-room longbox, it’s disorganized and riddled with gaps, but it’s also full of forgotten and overlooked jewels, as well as a few stone classics. In Marvel Unlimited Edition, Eisner-winning critic Douglas Wolk dives into the Unlimited archive to find its best, oddest and most intriguing comics.

In this week's edition: Replacing Peter Parker with Otto Octavius for 31 issues was a neat demonstration of how strong Spider-Man's supporting cast is -- and The Superior Foes of Spider-Man has removed its title character from the equation altogether and gotten a terrific series out of it. Even before the big mind-swap, though, there was a little tradition of Spider-Man comics without Spider-Man in them. (He doesn't appear in Amazing Spider-Man #654.1 or #676, for instance, both among 2011's best done-in-one issues of the series.) Here are some of the most entertaining examples on Marvel Unlimited.

  • Spider-Man's Tangled Web #4 (2001)

    "Severance Package,"
     a terrific one-off story by Greg Rucka and Eduardo Risso, focuses on the aftermath of some never-seen tussle between Spider-Man and the Kingpin's henchmen. The guy who planned the job that went wrong has been called in to see the Kingpin, and he knows what that means. But this is a story set within Spider-Man's moral universe: everything hinges on its characters' terrible responsibilities, and the distance those responsibilities and what they would prefer to do. Risso (who drew this issue after 100 Bullets had already been running for a few years) sets his imagery within that universe, too--there are long, spindly shadows everywhere.


  • Untold Tales of Spider-Man #-1 (1997)


    In 1997, Marvel published special issues of most of its titles numbered minus one -- the idea being that they took place before the beginning of the series. For Untold Tales of Spider-Man, which was normally set very near the beginning of Peter Parker's heroic career anyway, writer Roger Stern and artist John Romita, Sr. (who'd drawn Amazing on and off from 1966 to 1973) went back before Peter's birth for a romance/espionage one-shot involving his parents working for S.H.I.E.L.D. and encountering Baron Strucker and "Agent Ten," a.k.a. Wolverine. Inexplicably, the Marvel Unlimited version doesn't include the issue's original backup story -- one of Fred Hembeck's "Petey" strips about pre-radioactive-spider Peter Parker, in which he also encounters Baron Strucker -- but that one appears on Hembeck's own site.

  • Secret Invasion: Spider-Man - Brand New Day #1-3 (2008)


    The covers of this Brian Reed/Marco Sanucci miniseries actually called it Secret Invasion: The Amazing Spider-Man, but the ways of Marvel Unlimited are mysterious. When Marvel did their big "shape-changing aliens attack Earth" crossover in 2008, its plot didn't give Spider-Man any time to spare, so this is actually a Jackpot miniseries. Still, it's a frantically paced thriller about Spidey's absence from his supporting cast's surroundings during a crisis -- that's actually a Skrull wearing his costume in the image above, and the real Spider-Man only shows up on a pair of recap pages and in a brief scene at the very end. Sadly, Jackpot didn't have long to enjoy her star turn: that incarnation of the character was killed off in Amazing Spider-Man Annual #35, one week after this miniseries' final issue was published. (It's listed on Marvel Unlimited as Amazing Spider-Man Annual (2008) #1, for some reason.)

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