We all have our favorite Spider-Man villain, but what about our favorite stories involving villains associated with another superhero or team? Why should Captain American or the X-Men get all the fun fighting the likes of the Red Skull or Magneto? This list celebrates the very best stories involving Spider-Man taking on a villain best associated with another hero.
At #2 is “The Cosmic Spider-Man Saga,” by David Michelinie, Gerry Conway, Alex Saviuk, Sal Buscema, Todd McFarlane and Erik Larsen.
I think many of us who passionately identify with one specific superhero will go to great lengths to justify why “our guy” is the best. With Spider-Man, I’ve always been more connected to the hero’s dedication to his “great responsibility” than the actual “power” he possesses, but there have been a few times where I’ve gotten defensive because somebody casts Spidey as a physical lightweight. How can somebody say Spider-Man isn’t strong – he’s got the proportionate strength of a spider! He’s also incredibly fast, agile, can climb walls, smart enough to design himself webshooters and has a Spidey sense that warns him of imminent danger.
For unaware fans, let me introduce the sprawling “Cosmic Spider-Man” saga, which spanned Amazing Spider-Man #327-329, Web of Spider-Man #59-61 and Spectacular Spider-Man #158-160. The story sees Spider-Man acquire the power-set of Captain Universe after an experiment gone awry at Empire State University. Besides making Spider-Man physically stronger, these new powers give Spider-Man the ability to fly and to mentally control the flow and direction of his webbing. He can also control particles of matter, giving him the ability to shoot beams from his hands.
As a part of the “Acts of Vengeance” company-wide crossover, all of Marvel’s major villains got together and decided to “switch” which heroes they typically face off against (a wonderful bit of meta-commentary if there ever was such a thing). So for the purposes of this list of Spider-Man against other people’s foes, the “Cosmic Spider-Man Saga” has Spidey exclusively facing off against other people’s foes like Gravitron, Magneto, Titania and the ultimate killing machine, the Tri-Sentinel. And would you believe that thanks to the power of Captain Universe, Spider-Man is able to take down all of these villains that would otherwise be considered way over his weight class?
However, what elevates this story for my list is how “Cosmic Spider-Man” is as much a character study of Spider-Man/Peter Parker – an examination of how he responds when the power he receives is quite literally, the universe’s greatest power – as it is a moment of unashamed empowerment for Spidey’s fans. After being forced for years to accept Spider-Man as the world’s most plucky, lucky-to-still-be-alive underdog, especially in fights against guys like the Hulk, Juggernaut and Thanos, for 10 issues fans got to experience what it was like to root and cheer for a superhero who was physically unstoppable.
It’s also a very fun storyline to read. Keeping with the meta-commentary, in nearly every issue, Spidey bemoans the fact that he’s being randomly attacked by guys he has no personal issue with. And yet, despite the gimmicky smell that wafts over this whole arc,, the “Cosmic Spider-Man” saga’s significance to the overall Spider-Man comic universe cannot be denied. From a strictly procedural standpoint, the Amazing Spider-Man issues in this storyline mark the transition from the Todd McFarlane-era to the Erik Larsen-era (with both artists eventually leaving Marvel a few years later to join Image Comics).
McFarlane got to end his iconic run on ASM with one of the more famous Spider-Man comics of the 1990s. The cover to ASM #328 – which shows Spider-Man punching the Hulk to the top of the page and through the comic’s title – captures everything I love about 90s comics in one image. You have an amazing artists illustrating two of the greatest characters in comic book history, and he does it in a way that’s totally unique and edgy. I look at this cover and think “how can somebody see this on the spinner rack and not want to own it? He’s punching Hulk through the title!!”
ASM #328’s interiors are just as much fun. From a larger Marvel universe perspective, the Spider-Man/Hulk throwdown comes during Bruce Banner’s “Grey Hulk” stage. For the uninitiated, Grey Hulk was smarter and meaner than the traditional Green Hulk, but wasn’t quite as powerful. As a result, the fact that Hulk picks a fight with Spider-Man without realizing that he’s at the height of his cosmic powers, is both hilarious and satisfying. In this comic, Grey Hulk’s attitude towards Spidey is similar to those internet loudmouths who think Thor will just automatically crush Spider-Man in a fight. So when Spider-Man punches Hulk so hard he sends him into space (and Hulk wonders if this is the way he’s about to die), it’s a total “bleep” yeah moment for Team Spidey. And because this is still a Spider-Man comic, Spidey does fly up into space and rescues the Hulk from his almost certain demise.
It’s these displays of humanity from Spidey that ultimately elevates “Cosmic Spider-Man” saga from being just another example of silly 90s excess, and into a fairly engrossing story. There’s unquestionably a lot of filler here, as I really can only watch Spider-Man kick some unknowing villain in the tookus so many times before it gets boring, but the fact that Peter emotionally struggles so mightily with these newly acquired powers, keeps the arc grounded and well-meaning. Despite J. Jonah Jameson no longer running the Daily Bugle (that job now belongs to Thomas Fireheart, aka, the Puma), Spidey’s cosmic powers make him an even bigger menace in the eyes of the media, and even Mary Jane has her doubts about things. Aunt May is aghast when Peter asks her “hypothetically” about God-like power. Gerry Conway and Alex Saviuk sum up Peter’s condition quite perfectly when they show him eating a TV dinner on the floor, by himself.
In Amazing Spider-Man #329, the saga’s final installment, David Michelinie and Larsen manage to end things on a definitive Spider-Man “moment.” At this point, Spider-Man has become aware that his power is actually derived from Captain Universe and is now physically embodying the galactic hero. A new invention, a Tri-Sentinel, is on the loose and has been ordered by Loki to destroy a nuclear power plant in New York, which would wipe out thousands of innocent people. The powerful robot shrugs off any attempts from its creators to disable it mechanically, so it’s all up to a visibly exhausted Spider-Man and his cosmic powers to save the day.
It’s probably some of the best writing Michelinie has done on the title. In the moments leading up to Spidey successfully saving the day, Michelinie describes the hero as being in immense pain from the surge of cosmic energy that has taken over his body. And yet, in true Spider-Man fashion, he perseveres, channels that energy and disintegrates the Tri-Sentinel before returning to his “normal” non-cosmic form.
It seems somewhat fitting that even when all the cards are stacked in Spider-Man’s favor, ultimate success still boils down to him making a difficult choice between great power or his responsibility to be a hero (and Spidey, of course, making the right choice). Spider-Man had the power of a god, and yet he gave it all up when thousands of innocent people were in immediate danger. If that’s not heroism, I don’t know what is.