Celebrating ‘Amazing Fantasy’ #15 And The First Appearance of Spider-Man!
He's one of the most recognizable figures in all of popular culture. He's amazing, he's spectacular. He's been the subject of countless animated and live-action adaptations, starring in everything from Saturday morning cartoons to public television educational shows to big-budget motion pictures. He's been a nebbishy student, a professional wrestler, a schoolteacher, a fugitive, a technological entrepreneur, an intrepid photographer, and an Avenger. He catches thieves just like flies, he's got radioactive blood, and he does whatever a spider can.
But on June 5th, 1962, he was simply a crazy new character vying for space on newsstands, and by any conventional measure, the odds were stacked against him.
In fact, when one thinks of Spider-Man now, it's pretty difficult to picture just how different he was from other comic characters at the time, and to think how astounding it is that he ever made it past his initial appearance.
Marvel Comics was just beginning to find its feet at the time, and was firmly in the midst of transitioning from a company that chased trends into one that created them. What we now know as the Marvel Universe was still in its infancy --- prior to this moment, the company's only superhero offerings had been five issues of Fantastic Four and two issues of Incredible Hulk.
But these new titles had already proven more popular than much of the line, and accordingly, June brought a trio of new costumed characters from writer/editor Stan Lee and his creative collaborators. Journey Into Mystery #83, which featured the first appearance of Thor, and Tales To Astonish #35, which remade the previously-introduced character Dr. Henry Pym as the intrepid Ant-Man, landed on shelves the same day as the web-slinger's debut.
Spider-Man faced more obstacles than his fellows. Lee had originally looked to his regular collaborator Jack Kirby to develop the visuals for a "Spiderman" feature but, unsatisfied with the result, instead asked artist Steve Ditko to take a crack at the concept. And what resulted was a take on the superhero genre that turned the existing playbook inside-out.
We all know the basic story: shy, awkward teen Peter Parker gets bitten by a radioactive spider, gains amazing powers, decides to use said powers to make money, uses his scientific know-how to invent a super-strong "webbing", designs a bizarre costume, embarks on a career as an entertainer / professional wrestler and, reveling in his newfound success, declines to help a policeman detain an escaping thief.
A few days later, Parker returns home to find his beloved Uncle Ben has been killed by a burglar. Furious and distraught, he dons his suit and swings into action --- only to discover that his uncle's murderer is very same criminal that he stood by and let escape not long before.
An amazing amount happens within those eleven pages, with Lee's torrid prose and Ditko's terse, expressive art lending the entire affair an emotional scope that was far from traditional superhero fare. The nervous energy of the thin pencil lines, the unconventional perspectives in the web-slinging action sequences, the rapid-fire dialogue, the transformation of the lead character as he goes from shy and withdrawn to cocksure and arrogant to anguished and lashing out to, in the closing panel, both sadder and wiser.
Unusually for the time, it featured a teenage hero in a starring, rather than supporting (or sidekick) role, and it depicted him as moody, multi-layered, and deeply human. Spidey himself looks like nothing that had come before, clad in a suit of primary red-and-blue broken up by intricate weblines and blank white, sharply angled eyes. The entire affair is a masterful piece of work, one so good that it reached readers despite being dumped in a comic that nobody was paying attention to.
Amazing Fantasy #15 was the last gasp of a series that had started life as Amazing Adventures, then changed its title to Amazing Adult Fantasy with issue #7, in hopes of finding an audience for the sort of twist-ending short stories that Lee and Ditko were churning out, but continued to limp along. And as legend has it, Lee had faith in Spider-Man, but publisher Martin Goodman was skeptical of the concept, so they compromised by placing the character's debut in the final issue of a series that was already being cancelled.
The cover art (pencilled by Jack Kirby, with Ditko inks) was stark and iconic, a red-and-blue figure swinging in midair, clutching a clearly-terrified criminal, tall city buildings looming in the background. And while the final page of the lead story promised that the next issue would see Spidey's return, and a text page later in the issue explained that the series would be transformed into a showcase for its new character, it was, in fact, the end of the line for Amazing Fantasy.
Within a few months, though, sales figures began to trickle in, and it became clear to all involved parties that they had a hit on their hands --- what was expected to be a quickly-forgotten curiosity had instead become one of the company's best-selling issues to date, and Lee and Ditko quickly began work on a new ongoing title starring their wall-crawling creation.
By December, the first issue of The Amazing Spider-Man was on newsstands, and the rest is history.