Re-Examining Spider-Man 05 — Part 1: Teenage Wasteland

I have previously explored the various issues pertaining to Spider-Man as a teenage superhero, and the specific cultural context in which the “teenager” originated. Today I intend to close my “Re-Examining Spider-Man” series (at least for 2021) by exploring “teenage” Spider-Man as it has come to signify in the Early 21st Century especially on account of the success of Ultimate Spider-Man. The level of research and background material to parse through proved extensive, so I am bifurcating this into two parts published one after the other. [The link to Part Two, will be available here in due course]. In this post I will explore how “teenage” Spider-Man as a construct is fundamentally a recent latter-day addition of Spider-Man as a franchise. I will do so by exploring several Spider-Man projects of the 90s, the editorial ideology behind them, and highlight the constant failures and hurdles encountered to make teenage Spider-Man the franchise default.

When I am not reading comics or thinking about it and other stuff, I do from time to time like to read fiction of various kinds. One novel that I read this year and was quite taken with is Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Lathe of Heaven, one of her classic science-fiction books more in the vein of Philip K. Dick than her other works. This novel centers around a man who having survived a nuclear holocaust gains superpowers that allows him to warp and rewrite reality (think Scarlet Witch at her most powerful, or Mr. Mxyzsptlk). Each time he warps reality, people around him adjust their histories, memories, and references accordingly and act as if the new and latest change has always been the status-quo.

In general, when one follows a franchise, the experience over time is a lot like the character in the book. Over time, people retrofit perceptions and confuse the new with the old, the latest with the first. The idea of “Teenage Spider-Man” for instance, is in the current decade widely seen in popular culture as the default setting so much so that when Insomniac Games released the Spider-Man PS4 game they were applauded for the brave step of aging the character to college when in fact in video-games, there’s only ever been one title to feature Spider-Man at high school and Insomniac is typical among Spider-Game videogames rather than exceptional in its choice of status-quo though divergent compared to other recent Spider-Man media. The amnesia in culture is quite odd because Spider-Man is a fairly overexposed character, and widely represented in mass media to start with. So one would think that stuff like this would be acknowledged and highlighted often enough but instead we have comics press and media observers regurgitate publicity without comment or reflection, or pushback.

In the case of The Lathe of Heaven: the protagonist’s ability to warp reality, to pull constant crisis reboots on the world and people’s memories around him, is accidental, unconscious and uncontrolled.

In the case of “Teenage Spider-Man” we have an instance of astroturfing: where the IP owners of Spider-Man, through their control over the levers of representation, allowed a narrow and rigid interpretation to disseminate in the wider culture, at the expense of a more organic conception of the character as had existed previously.


I have repeated this multiple times in previous posts but to retiterate, it’s a fact that in the mainline 616 Continuity, Spider-Man did age progressively. Editorially it doesn’t seem to have been especially controversial or problematic for Peter Parker to age. There have been rumors and stories cited behind-the-scenes from dodgy third-party sources (which are worth exploring separately in another post) but multiple sources clarify that Stan Lee and Steve Ditko had no issues or problems with the character aging.

ASM ANNUAL #21 – Cover by John Romita Senior.

Everything changed however when Spider-Man got married in the comics to Mary Jane Watson in 1987, on the character’s 25th anniversary of his publication history, in an event widely covered in the mainstream press. The issue with Spider-Man getting married was highly popular with readership and generated high sales but it was internally polarizing. Within Marvel personnel, there were editors, writers, executives in favor of Spider-Man aging and getting married and those who were opposed.

[ASIDE: The exact nature of the publication of the Spider-Marriage is so intricate and zig-zagged that it deserves to be covered separately. But for now I am going to only briefly summarize here, although I addressed parts of the controversy here].

The internal polarization over Spider-Man was quite strong. Tom Defalco reflected on this:

“Right before the wedding, Jim Shooter and Marvel came to a parting of ways and I was promoted to editor-in-chief. [Amazing Spider-Man Annual #21] had already been sent to the printer but it was still in my power to kill or let it go. A bunch of guys came into my office and said, “How are we going to get rid of this wedding?” [Laughs] I thought with all the steps we had already taken, we should continue to move forward.”

Tom Defalco [1]

In essence, the publication of the wedding and the occurrence in continuity right until the last moment, could have been halted and reversed and there were people within Marvel who wanted to halt it from seeing print. Which at least gives some idea of the behind the scenes controversy this created. In either case, the period of the marriage was followed by the high successful run on Spider-Man by writer David Michelinie in collaboration with artist Todd McFarlane and others. This lasted for 7 years which saw historical high sales for Spider-Man’s publication history.

Normally one would assume that success would settle the matter cleanly. But instead the grumblings about the marriage continued unabated behind the scenes.


The issue with Spider-Man getting married to Mary Jane had a range of objections and one must not assume that everyone who objected to the event in 1987 were an unified monolith by any means.

Still among the people who objected to Spider-Man getting married, there was one group who were the loudest and most influential, and most decisive. This group had an interpretation of Spider-Man that argued in effect :
1) Spider-Man shouldn’t age.
2) The little he had aged was a mistake and where possible, be reversed.
3) The changes that have happened must be de-emphasized within the story.

“Sixteen is the last year where you are allowed to be a total foul-up. You’re not yet an adult, but you’re no longer a kid. You’re at a very awkward age, and still haven’t figured things out. When the decision was made to graduate Peter, I felt that we needed to forget how old he actually was…I didn’t like the idea of letting him get married or have kids. If he’s still fouling up as an adult, he just isn’t a hero anymore. He’s pathetic.”

Marv Wolfman [2]

“Now many people would say that the biggest mistake of the Spider-Man continuity was the marriage. I would argue that things went askew earlier on with the Death of Gwen Stacy. One of the best stories ever written, but I think from that moment on Mary Jane and Peter were destined to get married. We had the perfect triangle between Gwen, Peter and Mary Jane. One which could have been exploited for years to come. No death= no marriage= no baby= no clones.”

Howard Mackie [3]

So the response to the marriage was to cultivate a discourse that essentially saw the problem of Spider-Man as related to the fact that Spider-Man in fact aged and grew up at the outset in the Steve Ditko era. A single change and direction towards growth, a major story event such as the death of Gwen Stacy, were all equally perceived as stepping stones towards the aging up of the character and preparing him for a direction that implicitly led to marriage and potentially parenthood. The alternative was to either pretend that the character did not change, did not grow up, that major story events and directions did not have effect on continuity.

How old is Spider-Man? “Physically, somewhere between 25 and 35, we’ll never peg it down,” Slott said. “Emotionally, 15.”

Dan Slott [4]

This longing for a Spider-Man that did not age or who never aged, governed the event of the 90s known as The Clone Saga (which is in fact “The Second Clone Saga”). The Second Clone Saga is also an intricate and complex story which provoked ambivalent responses among the readership, so I am going to summarize this very briefly.

The idea behind the Second Clone Saga was to argue that the Spider-Man between 1976-1996 was an impostor and that the real Spider-Man is someone who had spent the recent period as a drifter named Ben Reilly.

“The clone story, which I believe was responsible for the collapse of the comic book industry as we know it and possibly for the rise of terrorism based on what I’ve read everywhere [Laughs], was presented as a possible solution to get back to a young, un-entangled Peter Parker and Spider-Man, a way to get around this problem of the marriage without invoking divorce.”

Howard Mackie [5]

In the course of The Clone Saga, Peter Parker reunites with a character called Ben Reilly, who looks just like him but with dyed blonde hair. The story played a game of tease and fakeout with the audience over whether Ben was in fact ‘the real Peter’ or that the Peter that readers followed was the clone. The idea at the outset was to age out the Peter from the books and have him retired while Ben “the original single Peter” would take over as the protagonist of the books.

The Second Clone Saga has a contested legacy among its creators and its fans. Attitudes towards it are mixed and polarized. One thing isn’t in dispute. The decision to replace the current Peter Parker with Ben Reilly and to negate 20 years of continuity, as many perceived it, provoked a major backlash and rejection among fans. The 90s were generally speaking not the best time for the comics business. In fact the industry has never fully recovered to Pre-90s level sales, readership, and impact as comics first (as opposed to IP). So there were obviously several factors for the sales decline of The Clone Saga but the fact is the sales of Amazing Spider-Man dropped catastrophically after the attempt to make Ben “the real Peter” and negate the character’s continuity. The sales dropped and the titles have never recovered to the levels it had previously. There were high sales periods relative to the market in the 2000s and the 2010s but nothing to match the impact of what once was. [6]

So the Counter-Revolution to overturn the Spider-Man continuity had originally failed.


For Spider-Man, the 90s were notable for several projects which perhaps did not gather mainstream attention at the time and are perhaps cult titles at best. Yet put together all these projects laid the seeds for what we now call the “Spider-Verse”.

In the early 90s, Marvel commissioned a series called 2099 which projected how many of its IP and characters would be if they were set in (what seemed then) the far future. By far the most well known and successful was Spider-Man 2099 created by Peter A. David and Rick Leonardi. Just to make things confusing, Spider-Man 2099 which a reader might presume was published in 1999 to capitalize on the brief period of millennial hopes and expectations that were dashed on 9/11, was actually published in 1992, four years before the Clone Saga.

In publication history, Miguel O’Hara is in fact Spider-Man’s first legacy character and PAD created him to contrast him from the 616 Peter:

The Marvel editors approached me, as they did a number of free lancers, and said we’re going to be doing a 2099 line. And we would like you [meaning me and other writers] to submit a proposal on how you would do Spider-Man 2099 … the last thing I want to do is have him be a relative of Peter Parker. Because that’s the obvious thing. So I created someone completely from scratch. I made him of mixed ethnicity, because I felt that by the end of the 21st century mixed ethnicity is going to be more common than it is now. So I made him half-Irish and half-Mexican because I thought that was the most combustible combination I could come up with. And I decided I would zig wherever Stan and Steve zagged when they created Spider-Man. Peter Parker was a white bred WASP. So Miguel O’Hara was a combined ethnicity. Peter was an orphan. Miguel would have a living mother. Peter was alone. I gave Miguel a brother. Peter had no idea how to handle girls and was a teenager. Miguel was in his 20s and had a fiancée. I just made the contrary move all the way.

Peter A. David [7]

So Miguel O’Hara became Spider-Man as a fully formed adult resembling the character in continuity during David Michelinie’s run. And also the first Spider-Man to belong to a non-white ethnicity to carry his own title.

While PAD saw making Spider-Man’s legacy his descendant or relative as “obvious” the idea obviously did have purchase. It was taken up by Tom Defalco and Ron Frenz with Spider-Girl, the daughter of Peter Parker and Mary Jane, who made her debut in 1998 in What If vol. 2 #105. Mayday Parker in fact has a complex history tied to the 2nd Clone Saga that I don’t wish to get into right now. The popularity of the What If led to an AU series called Spider-Girl which centered on Mayday Parker, a teenage superhero who lived with her mother and father in Forest Hills. Peter and Mary Jane are shown to be in their 40s and are supporting characters to stories centered on their teenage daughter who is following on in the family business.

Spider-Girl has the distinction of being the first Marvel female superhero to reach 100 issues in a single serialized ongoing title run. A record which as of 2021 remains unbroken. It was also the first version of any Spider character to be wholly a teenager who did not age over the course of her ongoing. Mayday remained a high-school student and did not age up over the course of her story. Mayday was a teenage superhero far more than daddy ever was in the mainline continuity.

Yet changes weren’t far away with 616 Spider-Man.


In 1995, Kurt Busiek began a miniseries in collaboration with artist Pat Olliffe called Untold Tales of Spider-Man. This miniseries was set in the time of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s run when Peter was still in high school. Yet all the stories that Busiek did was in continuity and compliant with canon. In other words, Busiek wrote “new” stories of Lee-Ditko Spider-Man in high school, seamlessly locating gaps to insert new stories and concepts in a way that could be seen as “always already canon”.

In serialized storytelling there are always certain gaps and spaces that can be filled in at a later date. For instance — the Star Wars film Rogue One is set between the third prequel and the first film of the original trilogy but was made decades after the fact. The film filled in the blanks without altering any happening or occurrence. The concept of retroactively inserting stories and scenes in continuity had some precedents.
ASM#47 Art by John Romita Sr.

In the case of Spider-Man, the earliest instance was the flashback that begins Amazing Spider-Man #47 (which would be elaborated and retold in Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s Spider-Man Blue). In this issue Kraven visits Norman Osborn in the period when he was the evil mastermind Green Goblin but in the present day, Norman is an amnesiac and no longer the Goblin, and the earlier incident has no record in continuity. So Lee and Romita retroactively inserted a connection between characters without breaking canon.

Untold Tales of Spider-Man was a series that ran for more than two years and was a critical success. It was nominated for several Eisner Awards and won an award for Al Williamson’s work as an inker. Two years ago, I had the fortune to correspond with Kurt Busiek himself on CBR Community Forums and Mr. Busiek elaborated on the genesis and development of this project to me:

But initially, Marvel did intend for UNTOLD TALES to be set in the college years. They just forgot to tell me, so when I wrote up my pitch, I started at the earliest point that I thought made sense, so I could do a story around Aunt May’s reaction to Peter ditching his glasses, something that wasn’t explored at the time that I could build into a story.

And Marvel liked my pitch, so boom, high school.

Had they told me to start in the college years, I’d have looked for a starting point early in those days.

Kurt Busiek [8]

Untold Tales of Spider-Man generated new stories set in the period of Peter’s teenage years in high school in the period between Amazing Fantasy#15 and his graduation in Amazing Spider-Man #28. I have established previously that the majority of panel appearances and stories in the Lee-Ditko era actually centered around the Daily Bugle and not on Peter in high school among his peers. In order to find new points of entry into the Lee-Ditko era, Busiek focused on elaborating on the backgrounds and backstories of Peter’s high school cast and the result was that there’s far more high school Spider-Man in Busiek’s retrofitting of the Lee-Ditko era than in the Lee-Ditko era itself. When I brought this up, Mr. Busiek affirmed my observation:

I don’t think I’d ever realized that.

It’s probably because I was locked in to what we already knew with characters like Peter and May and Jonah, so I introduced Tiny, Jason and Sally (well, expanded on Sally) to do ongoing subplots with. Had I introduced a new Bugle reporter, I’d have doubtless done more Bugle stuff, too.

Kurt Busiek [9]
Untold Tales of Spider-Man (1995) #16 | Comic Issues | Marvel
Untold Tales #16

Untold Tales of Spider-Man is in my opinion a terrific series and I will admit that Untold Tales of Spider-Man#16 was in fact the first Spider-Man “in-continuity” canon book I ever read (having previously known the newspaper strip) which I procured second-hand in the early 2000s. So this series has always had a special place for me as a Spider-Man reader and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to a newcomer in terms of quality, value, and importance.

Still the fact is that Untold Tales of Spider-Man marked the start of a trend in the Spider-Man franchise — generating far more teenage Spider-Man content than had originally existed at the outset. With Untold Tales of Spider-Man, coupled with the earlier brief series Amazing Fantasy #16-18 (also by Busiek), Dan Slott’s “Learning to Crawl” backups among others, we have more content of Spider-Man in high school in the last thirty years than in the character’s foundational first thirty year period. The repetition served to rewrite and reshape the perception of the character.


Around the mid-90s, Marvel flirted with the idea of a full-scale continuity reboot in the mold of DC Comics. Marvel is unique for maintaining a single continuity dating back to the 1960s i.e. the characters in the current Marvel books are directly traceable to the comics runs originated by Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Stan Lee and others whereas the Batman in the current 2021 ongoing is in no sense directly traceable to the version written by Bill Finger. But nonetheless faced with sales crisis and the comic book crash of the 90s, an idea of a full-scale continuity reboot was explored internally. The first such plan led to a series called Heroes Reborn which attempted to explore what the Avengers would look like had they originated in the late -90s. After the Clone Saga, the Spider-Man comics had an uncertain and difficult five year period which saw it experience a spiraling sales slump. In this period, John Byrne as writer-artist became a prominent figure in the Spider-office.

Byrne, in collaboration with Howard Mackie, proposed a plan whereby Spider-Man’s continuity would be altered by a little known figure in Fantastic Four continuity called “Shaper of Worlds” who would make it so that Peter Parker never aged out of high school and that all his adventures and status-quo across his continuity happened while Spider-Man was a teenager [10]. This plan was rejected but instead a series called “Spider-Man: Chapter One” was greenlit. This series was a retelling of the entire Lee-Ditko era but updated to the 90s and the intent of this series has always been contradictory or puzzling. It was promoted originally as a reboot and Spider-Man satellite titles at the time, even made references that asked readers to refer to Byrne’s issues rather than the original Lee-Ditko issues. The Chapter One series was initially successful but over time fans, critics and editors turned away from the series and it ended with 13 issues.

Blue Electro Left-To-Right (John Byrne, MTV, Jamie Foxx)

Chapter One ran between 1998-1999. Despite its failure and critical disrepute (much of which is deserved, I’d argue) it’s worth pointing out that many ideas seen in Chapter One returned in other places and other forms. This includes Norman Osborn/Green Goblin as an over-villain connected to the origins of other Spider-Man rogues, Doctor Octopus and Spider-Man getting their origins at the same place. And also Electro with a blue suit which found its way into the MTV series and The Amazing Spider-Man 2.


The internal counter-revolution within Marvel, to mainline Spider-Man as a teenager, or to otherwise negate and overturn the developments in the ongoing continuity, was in full steam by the end of the 1990s. This despite repeated failures and only niche critical hits like Untold Tales of Spider-Man to speak of.

This legacy of failure is often ignored when talking of the success of Ultimate Spider-Man which hit the stands in 2000 (one year after the failure of Chapter One). I bring up this litany to drive home a certain truth:

  • Teenage Spider-Man has only rarely been the most successful version of the character. It has never been the universally default version of the character.

Marvel Editorial at various points in the Joe Quesada era, have used the expression “vote with your wallet” to justify certain controversial editorial decisions [11]. But if they had followed their own advice then obviously they would never have greenlit Ultimate Spider-Man (and as I will show in Part 2 there were those skeptical of USM at the outset). The question that one must ask is editorially why some ideas are given countless second chances, despite multiple rejection and lukewarm reception at best. The most successful period of Spider-Man in the 90s was unquestionably when the editors and the writing team supported the marriage status-quo. The period to undermine and overturn the marriage led to sales failures and a demoralizing period in Spider-Man titles. Attempts to reboot and rejig Spider-Man as a teenager, or otherwise go back to a “younger” Spider-Man achieved no success in this time.

Marvel likes to frame its editorial decisions as driven by free market considerations and careful survey of the numbers but the record of the 90s gives the lie to this perception. It’s far more apparent, it seems to me, that in comics as in elsewhere, the so-called “Free” so-called “Market” (since it’s not the case that Marvel always supplies what reader demands) is in fact driven by prejudices, echo-chamber of unexamined ideas, and wishful thinking. Which means that the success of Ultimate Spider-Man as a comic which I will explore in Part 2 need not be taken as a validation of the idea of a “Teenage” Spider-Man.

Likewise there were several viable alternatives to pursue rather than double and triple down on overwriting the main character. Spider-Man 2099/Miguel O’Hara for instance ran 46 issues in his first volume from 1992-1996 (nearly double that of Untold Tales of Spider-Man, and more than three times Spider-Man:Chapter One). Spider-Girl established herself as a teenage never-aging superhero for the first time in continuity, well before Ultimate Spider-Man and Miles Morales and Spider-Gwen and she was the daughter of Peter and Mary Jane. One might well ask if the second chances given to making a younger version of a white male established and successful hero, might not have been better spent towards establishing a more diverse field of characters, who could have used the patronage and support and backing. The double standard of “failing upwards for Teen Peter Parker”/”one strike you’re out for non-white male Spideys” is quite visible in the case of “Teenage Spider-Man” at least by the end of the 90s.


  1. Ben Moore & The Wizard Staff. “The Wizard Retrospective: Spider-Man and Mary Jane”. Wizard Magazine, Issue #192 (October 2007), Page 93.

    [SPECIAL THANKS TO @carlos_esconde for helping me transcribe this rare source]

  2. “Interview with Marv Wolfman”. Comics-Creators on Spider-Man edited byTom Defalco (editor and interviewer). Titan Books. 2004. Print. Page 78

  3. Interview with Howard Mackie. Spider-Man Crawlspace

  4. ECCC: Marvel: Spider-Man & His Amazing Friends Panel. Albert Ching. CBR. March 05, 2017.

  5. Ben Moore & The Wizard Staff. “The Wizard Retrospective: Spider-Man and Mary Jane”. Wizard Magazine, Issue #192 (October 2007), Page 96.

  6. Comichron. “Amazing Spider-Man Sales Figures Circulation as Reported in Publishers’ Statements of Ownership Filed with the United States Postal Service”

  7. “An Interview with writer Peter David”.

  8. Kurt Busiek. “Reply to Author’s Post on CBR Community Handle Revolutionary_Jack.” CBR COMMUNITY Post #114. 01-17-2019. 06:07 PM

  9. Kurt Busiek. “Reply to Author’s Post on CBR Community Handle Revolutionary_Jack.” CBR COMMUNITY Post #111. 01-17-2019, 05:25 PM

  10. “Resurrecting Gwendy and Other Bad Ideas”. Posted on November 11, 2012 by Thomas Mets.

  11. “How Not to Retcon an Origin: Spider-Man Chapter One” By Mark Ginocchio May 7, 2014. Chasing Amazing

  12. John Mayo. “The Mayo Report: Analyzing “Spider-Man: Renew Your Vows” Sales”. CBR. PUBLISHED JUL 09, 2015



3 thoughts on “Re-Examining Spider-Man 05 — Part 1: Teenage Wasteland

  1. I’m not sure where these writers and editors got the idea that making mistakes after 16 is pathetic, or that an adult can’t grow and change. The pro-OMD crowd generally seems to attract some really stuck up adults.

    See, I find their mentality very revealing. It shows that, deep down, what bugs them about adult Spider-Man is that he didn’t change. Peter grew up and held on to all of his positive qualities that we associate with “youth” (open-mindedness, growing as a person, etc.). I mean, there’s no reason we have to associate those with youth, but society in general does, and it bugs these guys.

    Spider-Man is about growth, but you can’t be about growth without triggering the most stuck-up, miserable, conservative adults. So they declared war on one of the best role models for why life doesn’t end at 25.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’ll probably explore this some day because it’s not like any of these guys sat down and explained what they mean or were asked to elaborate. They assumed people would understand without them explaining things. The bizarre thing is why these guys never got fired. I mean if a bunch of guys suggested an idea got one or two chances to put that idea into effect, crashed spectacularly and halved the sales of Spider-Man and had little to show for it…the usual thing would to be fire them. But instead a lot of the people behind disasters like the Clone Saga continued to work in Marvel afterwards and later they get asked to do testimonials over where Spider-Man went wrong and it’s like “Arsonists posing as Firefighters”. It’s an example where the free market simply slept on its job and it’s a sound example, if anyone ever wanted, why it’s always been BS.

      Glad to hear from you Kaitou. Please stay in touch. I believe I once shared you my email and twitter. Please let me know if you have it. You can also find me on reddit ( and on SpiderManCrawlspace Forums (which could use some activity) and comicboards.


  2. Good to hear from you too, Jack.

    As for why these guys never got fired… Honestly, it sadly has a lot to do with how prevalent that mentality is in society, especially among older people. I often think that grown-up Spider-Man was ahead of its time in how it viewed marriage and growing up. Most sitcoms and teen comedies don’t have the positive and progressive view of growing up and getting married that the Spider-Man comics did.

    Liked by 1 person

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