Comic book characters are extremely logical leads for pulp novel series. After all they’re basically the modern versions of characters like Doc Savage and Sherlock Holmes. Their series provide a clear template for self contained adventures. You put the character through the template and deliver a satisfying episode. It’s just logical.
For my money, no character has thrived in words the way Spider-Man has. Sure, there were some damn good Batman anthologies and the Justice League series from 2002-2004 was superb. Spider-Man trumps them all though with a rather vibrant run in prose reaching from the 70s to today that merits study.
Now to be clear, I’m not covering every book. In fact I’m completely skipping the YA Super Thriller books because I haven’t read them and I’m not paying $10 a book to do so. I’m trying to touch on at least a bit of every era though. I’ve read all of the Boulevard novels and I’ll give them a healthy amount of focus, but I’ll also look back at the 70s novels, the 2000s Pocket novels, and even the oddity of Mary Jane.
So let’s get swinging!
Mayhem in Manhattan: The very first Spider-Man novel. Normally when I look at first adaptations of characters, I have to cringe because the writers clearly don’t grasp the characters at all, such as with the rather sad Avengers and Captain America pulps. However, this is a special case. One of the writers, Len Wein, cocreated Swamp Thing, Nightcrawler, Storm, Colossus, and Wolverine. The other writer, Marv Wolfman, cocreated the Black Cat in addition to writing Crisis on Infinite Earths and The New Teen Titans. These men didn’t understand the material. They created the material, complete with both writing sizable Spider-Man runs.
Needless to say the book is one of the best I’ll cover here. It’s very brief, half the word count of most of the books to come in fact. But it feels like a lost arc of the comic. The villain’s plan is a fittingly silly yet of the cultural moment one. Also, while it starts as if the villain is some random character we’ve never heard of, he’s eventually revealed as good old Doctor Octopus, giving us a really solid plot. All the characters sound dead-on, especially J. Jonah Jameson.
What really makes this stand out though is the depiction of New York. Both men were NYC natives and the book feels like it’s set in a real place. It’s not just generic big city. There’s nice texture to it. This one isn’t too hard to find, thankfully, and well worth the read.
As for the follow ups, Crime Campaign and Murdermoon, I’d call them just OK. The rest of the 70s prose was really bland. They did at least tend to use A-list villains but there wasn’t much energy and they were rushed. They’ve aged poorly.
The Venom Trilogy: Diane Duane kicked the Boulevard/Byron Press era with three books: The Venom Factor, The Lizard Sanction, and The Octopus Agenda. I remembered enjoying the trilogy in my initial read and couldn’t wait to reread the books. I was sorely let down. Duane’s bloat in the books is almost unconscionable. These books read like the most decompressed works in comic history. I’d barely call them books. There’s so little going on per book yet they charged hardcover prices for these. My best guess is that Duane, a gifted fantasy writer who worked great in Star Trek, was simply a bad fit. The pacing and subplots she dwells in don’t feel out of place if these were books in those realms. But as Spider-Man stories, they don’t work. There’s no hum here. There’s just a lot of dead air. This felt like a bad omen.
The Ultimate Spider-Man: No, not connected to the 2000 Universe. This is a set of short stories that by and large does the trick. There’s hits and misses. The extended origin novella played better before it was beaten to death. A second anthology, Untold Tales of Spider-Man is much stronger with some blissfully eclectic stories.
Carnage in New York: This was a far different story: A fluff piece about Spider-Man trying to stop Carnage from getting his hands on a trigger that turns people violent. Not the most original story but a great use of a solid villain in a highly compact 250 page story. It actually felt like an arc.
Venom’s Wrath: There were a lot of Venom stories. It was the 90s after all. This was a solid one. Venom’s a bit overhyped on the cover, more looming as a threat while the actual villains, a group of Puerto Rican nationalists, dominate the book. Fortunately I actually found that plotline quite gripping, especially as it focused on nationalism and identity. Something to note for tie-in writers: Since you can’t change the status quo, giving the reader fascinating stories you can control is a must.
Doom’s Day trilogy: Spidey shared the spotlight for this trilogy with other heroes, The Incredible Hulk on book 1, Iron Man on book 2, and Fantastic Four on book 3. What winds up happening is he never feels like he really belongs in any book. Honestly the entire trilogy feels like an attempt to do a megacrossover welded to the biggest title in the line. None of these books really work and despite the title, Doctor Doom only really gets anything to do in book 3. Pass.
Valley of the Lizard: Another book that had the same benefit as the above book. The villains here are great, gargoyle creatures that worship The Lizard as a messiah. They’re creepy and unnerving threats that provide nice contrast to the canon villain, who’s one of the more gripping enemies Spidey has. There’s even a nice portion told from The Lizard’s POV.
Time’s Arrow trilogy: Spider-Man teams up with the X-Men to fix the timeline. These are really X-Men stories with Spider-Man in them. They’re decent, having fun with the characters and Marvel’s various timelines. But ultimately not a must-read. I barely finished this trilogy myself.
Goblin Moon: The only time Norman Osborn actually appears in a prose novel and one hell of a great Green Goblin story. This really captures the complex rivalry between the hero and villain. One of the greats of the line.
Emerald Mystery: The only book in the entire line told in first person, which fits as it’s a riff on the detective story. A quick but nicely textured read that nailed the formula. Also the very last Spider-Man book issued by Boulevard.
The Sinister Six Trilogy: Follow this logic. Book one was a $7 paperback. The next two books jumped to a different publisher and became $25 hardcovers which were in print 2-3 years later and treated as stand alone while book one was out of print. The books themselves started great but sputtered to a halt sadly. Much of the trilogy is built on a reveal that we the readers know is impossible. A lot of wasted potential really.
Mary Jane/Mary Jane 2: Rarely do I read a “wait what!?!” tie in like this. These are books set in roughly the Ultimate universe centered around a teenage Mary Jane Watson and and her connection to Peter Parker. They’re honestly quite weird. They’re books that don’t satisfy any fanbase really. They’re only so-so romance novels and not in any way satisfying Spider-Man novels. Just…weird. But for that reason highly recommended.
Down These Mean Streets: The second Pocket era of Marvel books was nowhere near on par with the Boulevard run. The books just never had the same energy despite several writers coming over including series editor Keith R.A. DeCandido, who turned in this not bad but agonizingly bland read. The plot just isn’t anything to write home about I fear and the prose was meh.
The Darkest Hours: Jim Butcher writing Spider-Man was a big deal since he created The Dresden Files, a superb series which was exploding in popularity when this book was released. His name even scored this book a deluxe rerelease. So is it that good? Yes. It’s a solid read drawing heavily from JMS’ run on the character while bringing in Black Cat for flavor. It’s not world defining but it’s good.
Requiem: Unlike the other Pocket books, this one actually felt a bit different. It helped that Jeff Mariotte came from the Buffy/Angel books and brought a similar spirit, using the horror evoking Carrion and the Scriers as his villains. This was an interesting, genuinely creepy read. The one to seek out from this line.
So, what conclusions have I reached from this study? Really just one. Peter Parker has one of the most distinct voices of any character in comics and I think that enables him to work well in prose. Capture his spirit and the books almost always work. After all the character succeeds in both street level stories and cosmic adventures. Spider-Man is eternally malleable and that makes him pop where another character might get generic.
So, what character/franchise will I look at next? I’m batting around a couple. Possibly a slayer. Possibly a bit of Trek. But that’s in the future.