Dating back to the very first issue of Amazing Spider-Man, Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four have been intrinsically linked as allies, adversaries and frenemies. With the Fantastic Four starring in their own movie this summer, superiorspidertalk.com is taking a look at the 10 very best Spider-Man/F4 stories.
There’s a scene at the very end of Amazing Spider-Man #258 where a dejected Peter puts all that’s ailing him into perspective. In the span of one issue, we learn that Mary Jane knows he’s Spider-Man; he gets into a massive fight with his then-girlfriend, the Black Cat; he discovers that his slick black costume from Battleworld (aka, where the original Secret Wars miniseries takes place) is actually a demented alien that’s praying on him like a parasite; AND he’s the butt of one of Human Torch’s jokes.
In terms of life-altering drama, one of these things is not like the other. And yet Johnny’s ridiculously funny prank on Spider-Man, leading to the birth of the Amazing Bag-Man is every bit as memorable as all of the other events of this historic issue of Amazing Spider-Man.
Similar to the backup story featured in ASM #1, the Spider-Man/Fantastic Four dynamic is actually only a small part of ASM #258’s overall story. The issue stands as the final chapter of Tom DeFalco’s classic “Black Costume Saga” that had started about eight months earlier. As such, DeFalco and artist Ron Frenz are far more focused on resolving any loose ends (i.e. the existence of the black costume, which was reportedly wildly unpopular with fans until it was inevitably taken away and then became a phenomenon). The involvement of the Fantastic Four is more of a means to an end — get someone smart like Reed Richards into the picture to advise Spider-Man to drop the creepy costume and go back to the original red and blues.
But DeFalco and Frenz are such gifted storytellers, they were able to spin this otherwise throwaway scene into something far more substantial and iconic. Once they get Spider-Man inside the Baxter Building they turn screw after screw in setting up a precarious situation for Spider-Man: he discovers the suit is a parasitic alien, followed by him trying to remove it, Johnny threatening to use his flame, Reed warning that he would likely hurt Spider-Man if he did that and finally removing the alien only to have Spider-Man hiding his face (and half-naked body) because he still has a secret identity. And that’s how we get to Bag-Man.
Bag-Man may be one of the greatest one-off jokes in the history of Spider-Man comics, in large part because of how intelligently it connects to so many larger themes and subplots from the character’s history. There’s of course the old “Parker Luck” motif — how else do you explain how a veteran superhero of Spider-Man’s ilk could find himself in a scenario where he not only loses his costume but has no way to conceal his secret identity? But DeFalco and Frenz have decades of earlier Spider-Man stories to lean on, including numerous moments of “Parker Luck” from the celebrated Stan Lee and Steve Ditko years. Remember when Aunt May found Peter’s costume and hid it from him thinking he was being a stupid teenager and dressing up as Spidey? And to cover his losses, Peter picks up a spare suit from a costume shop and immediately finds himself dealing with the threads riding up on him and distracting him from fighting the Green Goblin? At its very core, Bag-Man is conceived from these Lee/Ditko moments more than anything else.
Then there’s the Spider-Man/Johnny Storm dynamic, which we’ve talked about at great length over the course of this feature series (and we still have one more entry to go — and trust me, this is the mother of all Torch/Spider-Man stories). Despite the fact that Peter and Johnny are relatively close in age if not exactly the same age, Johnny has long resembled the “big brother” in their relationship based on the fact that as a member of the Fantastic Four, he’s able to live his life out in the open without having to conceal his identity. The Fantastic Four are celebrated are true heroes and defenders of the planet, while Spider-Man is mostly viewed as menace and vigilante who operates outside the confines of the law. As a result, Johnny seemingly has the upper hand during his interactions with Spider-Man, even if rationally, they should be on equal footing.
The Bag-Man scene plays off of that big brother/little brother dynamic expertly. Johnny is initially concerned for Spider-Man when the discovery is made about the alien suit, but is quick to use Spidey’s despair as an opportunity to play a prank.
And the prank is just exquisite. Not only does Johnny dig out an out-of-date Fantastic Four costume from the Baxter Building attic, but he then has the wherewithal to find a brown paper bag to help conceal Spidey’s identity. And for the cherry on top of the sundae, he sneaks a “Kick Me” sign on Spidey’s back (which is not even revealed until after Spider-Man leaves the Baxter Building and has to subdue a crook in his Bag-Man attire).
This entire sequence is just a clinic in funny storytelling. On the surface, ASM #258 may not feel like much of a Spider-Man/Fantastic Four story, but everything about their interaction in this comic is so perfectly executed it’s impossible to pull this issue out of box and NOT think about Bag-Man and the ongoing Spidey/Human Torch prank war.