But, since both those groups wanted the same thing – fighting Electro in between bouts of girl trouble and money trouble, that sort of business – you just put out one book that caters to both of them, problem solved, bets hedged. A series set during Spider-Man’s early years would be recognizable to both groups (you get your teenage Peter Parker, but you also get the continuity-minded fans on board because it supposedly “counts”), and it sounds like a simple enough thing to pull off, until you really think about it. You try to balance appealing to old and new fans, but the new fans have a significant handicap – namely, that it’s the old fans writing the things, so who are they gonna look out for first?
Nostalgia and retro are infuriating in the wrong hands, because they're not demanding of a writer or artist – you just mix a bunch of elements that you loved as a kid together, recapture that warm fuzzy feeling, and call it a day. Now, Kurt Busiek clearly is a guy who loves old superhero comics, and he has a reputation as a total continuity freak, but if you actually sit down and read his stuff, you’ll find a superhero writer with some discipline. Busiek could just write a bunch of self-indulgent nostalgia-pandering and be done before lunch, but he doesn’t. Untold Tales is, make no mistake, crammed to the gills with in-jokes and callbacks for the thoroughly initiated (when you find out the Spacemen got their powers from gasses that were trapped inside a meteor, it’s a cookie and a pat on the head if you link it to the Looter’s origin, but it’s such a quick, understated aside that Busiek isn’t punishing you for not having memorized your Lee and Ditko).
But his love for the originals isn’t just surface, it isn’t just Silver Age for Silver Age’s sake; Busiek has very clearly studied not just what happens in the original tales, but how the stories are told. He’s interested in the mechanics of the thing in a way that a lot of writers aren't; he doesn’t just want to record in Abbey Road, he wants to figure out what made those Beatles songs work, anyhow.
Many of Lee and Ditko’s early Spider-Man issues follow a definite formula: Spider-Man meets villain, villain either defeats Spider-Man or manages to get away, Spider-Man learns his lesson, Spider-Man defeats villain. The first Vulture story, the first Doc Ock story, the first Electro story…they all do it! It’s quite brilliant, actually – what better way to demonstrate how Spider-Man doesn’t quite have the superhero thing down by having him need two tries to succeed? What makes Spidey a good superhero isn’t that he can beat a bad guy the first time he meets him, it’s that Spidey knows that you can learn from failure. Busiek’s Spider-Man can’t beat the Scorcher or the Sandman the first time around, either, but he taps into the endearingness of failure, which was always the hot air that keeps Spidey’s balloon afloat.
Perhaps even more interesting: Lee and Ditko’s Peter Parker initially wears a costume not to be a superhero, but to find applications for his unexpected powers. In Amazing Fantasy #15 he tries to become a TV star; in Amazing Spider-Man #1 he tries to join the Fantastic Four because he figures there's a salary in it; Amazing Spider-Man #2 has Peter figure out how to make money off Spider-Man by selling photos, and later issues even had him try to license his image and sell his web fluid to make some cash. Busiek, similarly, portrays a Spidey just trying to scrape by, who’s not yet necessarily a “career superhero”. He tries to become a police officer in issue #1; a politician hires him as a bodyguard in #2; another issue has him try to get hired by the military to protect the shipment of a device the Vulture’s after; another issue has NASA considering making him an astronaut. Untold Tales really splashes around in that whole seeming gray area of the early Spider-Man stories. What kind of “responsible” superhero charges for his services? The kind who keeps putting on that Spider-Man costume because Aunt May needs money for her meds. If not for her, that whole "Well, hell, I'll just take photos of myself if someone's gonna pay for 'em" gets a little ethically iffy when you take Aunt May out of the picture, doesn't it? Really, the whole reason he doesn’t throw away that Spider-Man costume at the start of Amazing Spider-Man #1 is for her, it’s always all been for her; pity she can never know because the shock would kill her (we’re always told) but hey, that’s Stan Lee for you.
Another thing Busiek’s learned well from the masters is how to use continuity as a tool, as another way of generating stories. Busiek truly was the King of Kontinuity in the 90s – anybody can memorize a bunch of Silver Age stories and reference them; Busiek looks at old stories as springboards.
Here’s what continuity is for! To be exploited! Not to drag your narrative down with chains and responsibilities, but to inspire! See, for me, the coolest thing about Doctor Doom in early Fantastic Four comics was that each story had him appear to buy it, only to reappear in a subsequent issue not only alive and well, but with a new scheme derived from that last appearance. Doom gets hurled into deep space, only to be found by aliens who teach him a mind-swap trick he pulls on Reed Richards. Caught in his own shrink ray, Doom appears to fade to nothingness, but subsequently finds a subatomic kingdom from which to strike at the FF.
And so, Busiek goes through Silver Age Marvels with his continuity comb, looks at what happened in the space between stories, and thinks, “Where could I go from here?” The Big Man comes out of nowhere in the original issues but is portrayed as an established threat; Busiek sees an opportunity. Remember how Spider-Man sorta flirts with the Invisible Girl in that one throwaway backup story (Amazing #8)? Busiek sure does, and if there’s mileage to be gotten out of playing it out to its (il)logical conclusion (and there is – plus Mike Allred art!), then he’s gonna get it.
“Untold Tales of Spider-Man” – what a chore that book could’ve been if it’d been predicated on continuity-as-obligation. But for Busiek, it’s continuity-as-opportunity, and he makes it look so easy! That’s why this book is on the list. A story set during a classic run that doesn’t set itself up as competition. The series is set chronologically in between issues of the original Stan Lee and Steve Ditko Spider-Man tales, and yet the stories are told according to modern conventions. Straight pastiche would be grating at best, condescending at worst, but these comics play by modern rules and aren’t trying to pass themselves off as Silver Age originals; not even the least-informed comics reader could mistake Busiek and Pat Olliffe’s work for Lee and Ditko’s (Olliffe’s style recalls Ditko’s general sweaty weirdness, particularly in the faces, but takes its storytelling and panel layout cues from then-contemporary comics).
It's a book very much trying to have its cake and eat it too, looking backwards while also venturing into some new places. You might consider Busiek taking apart his Lee-Ditko pocketwatch to see how it works merely a formal exercise, and maybe you're not wrong. But Busiek was given this little corner laboratory in 1995 to see if he could build “comics the way they used to be” and make ‘em work; fifteen years later and a lot of writers still haven’t got that one figured out.
Untold Tales of Spider-Man is a cleverer book than it gets credit for, and I think that’s part of the reason I like it so much. Busiek and Olliffe invested a lot of thought and work into what they were doing, and it would be a lot more apparent if they weren’t so damned elegant about their precarious balancing act.