Spoilers in review

This collection of stories from 1973 and 1974 are those on which Gerry Conway’s reputation as Spider-Man writer rests, featuring him at his best and his worst.

The absolute killer story, still ranked among Spider-Man’s best ever, opens the volume. It was reportedly former artist John Romita’s suggestion that if one of Spider-Man’s cast was to die, it should be his girlfriend Gwen Stacy. In interviews since Conway noted that once the suggestion was made, the story fell into place. He felt Mary-Jane Watson was a far stronger character, and it made little sense for Peter Parker’s mate to be her boyfriend. Thirty years on it’s still disputed whether this was a good idea, which indicates the resonance.

Even discounting the controversial elements, Conway sets up a good story with the Green Goblin making use of knowing Spider-Man’s civilian identity by targeting Gwen Stacy. The second chapter sees something new, a tormented and rampaging Peter Parker in no mood to let anyone stand in his way, leading to a well choreographed final confrontation with the Green Goblin pretty well used as storyboards in the first Spider-Man film.

Also with lasting impact is the later tale introducing both the Punisher and the Jackal to Spider-Man’s world. The Punisher’s lack of ambivalence about murdering those he considers criminals adds an interesting new dimension to Spider-Man’s world and while the Jackal remains more a tease here, he’d have a lasting impact. So would Man-Wolf, Conway’s update on werewolf legends and a more feral opponent than Spider-Man was used to.

There’s also a confrontation with Luke Cage, hero for hire, set on Spider-Man by Daily Bugle proprietor J. Jonah Jameson, well characterised throughout Conway’s run, and an interesting return for old foe the Vulture.

The volume closes, though, with the extraordinarily ill-conceived wedding of Doctor Octopus and Aunt May. If that idea weren’t better left in the pub, there’s also the inclusion of the ill-advised Spider-Mobile, that at least not Conway’s fault, the concept forced on him from above. The other main element of the story, re-igniting the gang war between Dock Ock and Hammerhead, works until a daft conclusion.

By that time Ross Andru has settled in as regular penciller, and he’d be around for some while. His layouts are exemplary storytelling, and while his Aunt May falls too far into comedy relief, he delivers a comely Mary Jane Watson and fine Spider-Man action sequences. So does Gil Kane, who illustrates the remaining material.

Those who don’t mind their reprints in black and white on pulp paper can locate the same content along with much more in Essential Amazing Spider-Man volume six. All but the Punisher and wedding stories are also available in the U.K. in the pocket sized The Night Gwen Stacy Died. Those just wanting the two-part ‘Death of Gwen Stacy’ story can also find it in Spider-Man: The Death of Gwen Stacy, or alternatively in Spider-Man: Death of the Stacys, while the Punisher’s introduction is also in Essential Punisher volume one.