Down one of New York's seedier alleyways, we see a gun-toting mugger attacking a woman, demanding her purse. Tears in her eyes, she begins to cave — before a voice from the shadows shouts: "Drop the gun, punk!"

In a flash of errant bullets and garish spandex, the man's gun is crushed and he's left strung up in the alleyway, wrapped in a cocoon of thick, gooey webbing — all courtesy of your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.

It's not the most inventive way to kick off a new Spider-Man book, but this opening scene from Todd McFarlane's Spider-Man #1 helped catapult the Web Slinger into the '90s. With a sharper edge than ever before, this landmark issue hit stands 25 years ago, in August 1990, and became a touchstone for a generation of readers.

Up until that point, Spider-Man comics held fast to the romanticized house style artist John Romita helped establish in the '60s — but this was a Spidey for a new decade and a different breed of reader. Gone were Peter Parker’s sideburns and Mary Jane’s bell-bottoms, in favor of a contemporary re-telling that brought their world – and the Marvel Universe – into (then) modern times. Also absent were the title qualifiers; this Spider-Man book wasn't Amazing or Spectacular, it just stood on its own, raw and to-the-point.

In many ways, Spider-Man #1 perfectly encapsulated everything that was so right and everything that was so wrong with comics in the early '90s. Part launching pad for McFarlane – a rock-star artist with little-to-no scripting experience – and part brilliant marketing stunt, Spider-Man #1 was the perfect storm of style over substance and variant covers over content.

But with more than 2.5 million issues sold and an entire generation of readers owning at least one (or in my case, four) copies of the issue, the question remains: is the story any good? I'm ignoring all of the sales figures, variant covers and background noise in order to just delve into what made this issue tick.

A New Look For A New Decade

At its heart, Spider-Man #1 doesn't stray all too far from a typical comic book script. After the Wall Crawler breaks up that back-alley mugging, Peter Parker lands back in the loving arms of Mary Jane, who plays armchair therapist to his neurotic musings. To McFarlane’s credit, the duo’s marriage comes across very naturally here, and you can see why a knockout supermodel like Mary Jane would go for a semi-employed photographer who looks like he chose his hairstyle off the wall of a Supercuts salon.

As their marital back-and-forth spills across the page, the Lizard emerges from the city sewers to wreak havoc on New York's underworld. He lashes and thrashes at everyone in his way, all while a mysterious figure pulls his strings from behind the scenes.

Ol’ Lizzy and Spidey don't even meet in the issue — Spider-Man #1 is just the first part of "Torment," a five-issue story arc that pits the Web Slinger against Lizard and Calypso. This issue is meant to introduce readers to McFarlane's Spider-Man, whom he had illustrated before but had never written for.

Of course, this being a McFarlane book, it’s filled with repugnant humans, violent criminals and a Lizard that literally rips people apart — splattering more blood in one page than Stan Lee did in 100+ issues of Amazing. For the '90s, though, this sort of thing would become the norm.

True Grit

So if Spider-Man and Lizard don't even meet in this issue, what does happen? Well, not a whole lot. Throughout the issue, McFarlane uses narration that is obviously inspired by the likes of Frank Miller's Batman stories, with one page giving readers this gem:

"Soon it is night. A time for the scum and vermin to play among the shadows. It is also a time when shadows move. When things start to crawl. Things like — Spiders."

McFarlane also uses the phrase "Rise Above It All" repeatedly in the narration, obviously meant as some sort of thematic tie-in for both Spider-Man and Lizard, but none of it ever actually lands the way he likely envisioned.

The tagline on the cover is "The Legend of the Arachknight," and it's obvious that McFarlane and Marvel were trying a grittier, more grounded take on Spider-Man here. Unfortunately, while Miller at his peak could pull off that neo-noir vibe without sounding like a bargain-brand Raymond Chandler, McFarlane's material comes off like a bad cover version, scraping only the surface of the genre without ever digging in and getting his hands dirty.

For a first issue, the script for Spider-Man #1 doesn't offer many reasons for longtime fans to return for #2, but this is Todd McFarlane we're talking about — and his true appeal is in the art.

It's All In The Eyes

Before August 1990, McFarlane was already priming the pump for his visual revolution at Marvel. Back then, he was the artist for Incredible Hulk and Amazing Spider-Man, where he helped bring to life one of Peter Parker's greatest villains, Venom. But once he had the ability to illustrate his own scripts, McFarlane's vision was complete — and Spider-Man #1 was an even bigger shakeup to the character than his Amazing run.

No matter your feelings on McFarlane as an artist, there’s no denying the cover for Spider-Man #1. Hunched over an endless bed of webbing literally crawling with spiders, this version of the Web Slinger throws out all the rules Romita established decades earlier. At the time, this felt like something revolutionary — like someone had looked at this 28-year-old institution and said “I can do better.”

Spider-Man’s trademark eyes now took up half his mask, the blue portions of the costume replaced by stark black, and the webbing itself had acquired a dripping, nightmarish quality. The interior art of the book was no different: McFarlane eschewed the typical superhero poses of an earlier era in favor of gangly, contorted positions that only Spider-Man could pull off.

"For the first issue, I wanted to make an impact visually," McFarlane said in the book Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World's Greatest Comics by Les Daniels. "I'm trying to break people of reading a comic book the way they've been used to for the last twenty years. I try to play with the storytelling, graphics and design of the pages, because people are acclimated to a certain style and I'm trying to keep them on their toes, if I can."

McFarlane is always at his best when he’s not actually drawing human faces — but the ones in this issue sport some hideously deformed eyes and voluminous hair (especially poor Mary Jane) that spits in the face of Earthly physics. Fortunately, outside of the scene with Peter and Mary Jane, there aren't too many human characters in the spotlight. This is the benefit of illustrating ones own script, as McFarlane is clearly playing to his strengths.

The Lizard is completely primal in this issue, with almost no trace of the character's former humanity. Spider-Man, for his part, soars above the streets — twisting and turning and getting into impossible positions. Unlike earlier Spider-Man stories that focused on dilemmas like Peter Parker not being able to make rent or find a date for the big dance, this story has very little of that trademark humanity to it.

Unfortunately, Spider-Man’s instant relatability is wasted when the stories depend too much on masks and monsters, and McFarlane’s art doesn’t actually do justice to that human emotion and grounded storytelling. That's why – despite the massive success of this issue – McFarlane was never truly a good fit for Spider-Man in the first place.

Still, it’s all worth it when he can pull out spreads like this:

For the average teenage boy – to whom this book was primarily marketed – a spread like this was more than enough to make him worship at the altar of McFarlane. It was bold, edgy and completely unlike anything else on comic bookshelves at the time. This wasn’t Spider-Man doing whatever a spider can; this was McFarlane doing whatever the hell he wanted to do — and for a brief time, that’s all that was needed to sell 2+ million comics.

Flash In The Pan

In spite of a record-breaking debut issue, the rest of Todd McFarlane’s Spider-Man tenure is barely worth scrounging the $1 bin at your local comic shop. It’s a mess of guest stars and crossovers that added nothing to the mythology. And beyond one brief return to the black costume in a fight with Morbius, you’d be hard-pressed to find anything of significance here.

Then, after 16 issues, McFarlane was gone from Marvel altogether as he went off to Image to create Spawn — another blockbuster #1 with sales topping 1.7 million copies.

Despite the shortcomings of the script and the divisive art, there’s no denying the importance of McFarlane’s Spider-Man. It was proof that a comic book artist could be the star of a book, and it helped pave the way for the likes of Rob Liefeld and Jim Lee, who absolutely ruled the '90s – for better or worse – with titles like X-Force and X-Men.

While the stories haven't held up, and the subsequent rock-star artist revolution hurt the books more than anything, Spider-Man #1 was an important moment for the character. At the very least, it broke the rules at Marvel and provided greater flexibility and artistic interpretation not only for Spider-Man, but all of its characters.

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