Fair warning: if your idea of a bad Spider-man story is when he fights a silly villain like the Hypno-Hustler, then the shit on this list is going to set your eyebrows on fire. This is a hardcore, no-holds-barred look at the absolute worst of the worst of Spider-man, and as you’ll see, the ‘80s and ‘90s and beyond let Spider-man comics get pretty motherfucking terrible. For all that Spider-man is one of the world’s most popular superheroes thanks to his combination of cool powers and everyday problems, a really bad Spider-man story is about as bad as superhero comics can get (well, until Chuck Austen is writing them). Be forewarned and forearmed with knowledge to avoid accidentally trying to read shit that will never, ever entertain you in a non-ironic way.
12) Spider-man Kills Mary Jane with his Radioactive Semen, Spider-man: Reign
Spider-man: Reign is a four-issue mini-series by writer/artist Kaare Andrews that is forthrightly an attempt to wedge Spider-man into the equivalent of a Dark Knight Returns dystopian story. How forthright? Why, there is a character named “Miller Jansen” featured in the book. It seems that at no point did anyone involved sit down and think about whether or not grim n’ gritty Spider-man was at all a good idea, or what the point of such an endeavor would be. Somebody at Marvel just wanted old, dark future Spidey.
Where DKR is a trailblazing classic, Reign is a derivative little ball of failure. The plot is at heart a generic “Spider-man’s villains team up to kill him” story drenched in ridiculously maudlin post-9/11 fear-mongering. Set 35 years in the future, Reign has a hilariously ancient J. Jonah Jameson push an over-sixty Peter Parker into becoming Spider-man again. It’s all part of a bizarre, nonsensical scheme to defeat a fascist government that’s taken over New York. Along the way there’s nonsense involving robot zombie Dr. Octopus, a laser killer death web projected around New York, and an impossibly stupid Dubya stand-in who works for Venom-as-Dick-Cheney.
What makes Reign memorably stupid instead of just forgettable is the truly, fantastically ridiculous backstory the whole thing hinges on. Throughout the book, our aging Peter Parker keeps having deranged visions of his long-dead wife Mary Jane. Later we find out that it’s not enough for him to be wracked by guilt because he was out fighting crime when she died of cancer; no, he also had to cause her cancer. Specifically, Spider-man gave Mary Jane cancer by tragically shooting her up repeatedly with his horrible radioactive Spider-Semen. His horrible radioactive Spider-Semen.
That’s not tragic. That shit is fucking hilarious. In fact, Reign could have worked really well as a Spider-man DKR parody, sort of in the Marvel Zombies vein. I mean, there’s a scene where Spider-man punches his way out of a coffin while singing the lyrics to his own '60s cartoon theme. A bit where J. Jonah Jameson is the pastor of a weird religion that believes in masks and bells. Peter even confesses his angst to Mary Jane’s corpse while a Doctor Octopus that consists of a rotting corpse attached to still-sentient robot arms looks on! That is totally the stuff of wicked black comedy. Unfortunately, Reign was content to be a shitty, dead-serious action showpiece with the concluding issues given over to stupid brawls, and the whole plot is resolved by Spider-man getting hold of a detonator that lets him blow up a building that is conveniently full of all the bad guys. This symbolizes, uh… freedom? Something? Fuck.
11) Peter Parker’s Parents Are Actually Evil Robots Programmed to Kill Spider-man, Amazing Spider-man #386-88
For most of the comics on this list I can articulate exactly what makes it so motherfucking stupid, why I hate it. With the "Lifetheft" storyarc, trying to think about the story too long results in a deep stabbing pain that shoots through either temple. I hate "Lifetheft" on a raw gut level, when it gets right down to it. The plot revolves around a very long series of utterly stupid and extremely coincidental events taking place, all as a build-up to a cataclysmic retcon that leaves the book worse off than it was before. The events of this story are used to send Spider-man into a spiral of self-pitying angst so intense and long-running that getting rid of it ended up as one of the motivations behind starting the godforsaken Clone Saga, which we’ll discuss in more detail in a later list.
Richard and Mary Parker were first mentioned in Spider-man Annual #5, a Stan Lee joint that established that Peter Parker’s parents were actually super-cool secret agents, ha ha, isn’t it funny that Peter appears to be a loser dork but is actually a super-cool action guy, too! Peter’s parents didn’t join the cast of Amazing Spider-man until #365, as part of a thirtieth anniversary sales-spiking stunt. It’s pretty obvious, reading the books at the time, that his parents were sincerely intended as a new recurring addition to the cast. Exactly why Marvel thought it’d be neat to see Peter interacting with his old depressed ex-secret agent parents who were traumatized by years in brutal Russian prisons is a bit harder to fathom, but their roles in the few years of stories they appeared in usually hinged on them being, you know, human.
As with a lot of other ideas that didn’t work out so well, it was eventually decided that Richard and Mary had to go, and as quickly as possible. Editors worked them into an insane clusterfuck of otherwise okay-ish stories involving the Vulture, the Chameleon, and the Harry Osborn iteration of the Green Goblin. The short version is that, basically, the Chameleon got a hot but unexplained tip from Harry Osborn that making evil android duplicates of Peter Parker’s parents would be a great way to discover who Spider-man was. This clever plan apparently was supposed to work via the evil androids hanging around Aunt May’s house until Peter up and spontaneously decides to reveal his secret identity to them after knowing them for maaaaybe a few months of his life, tops. Good thing Peter spontaneously became stupid enough to do that when it was time to write Richard and Mary out, huh?!
That’s the signal for everything to get all crazy-go-nuts. His parents report back to the Chameleon, Spider-man tracks them down for a big showdown, his fake dad becomes a lame-looking porcupine death cyborg and starts pounding on him, his fake mom starts burbling with all sorts of womanly emotions and refuses to be evil. Somehow the Chameleon never finds out Spider-man’s secret identity, both of the evil parent cyborgs are killed in various ways, and in the process the story creates that lame-ass young dude version of the Vulture who ran around the Spider-books for way too fucking long. The whole thing was such a mess of hopeless contrivances that it’s not even defensible if you subscribe to the idea that it’s okay for superhero comics to be dumb as shit. The only upshot was making Harry Osborn seem mildly threatening, in the sense he's willing to go waaaaaaay out of his way to fuck Spider-man's shit up.
10) Curt Conners Is an Asshole, Spectacular Spider-man #11-13
Paul Jenkins would be my candidate for the worst single Spider-man writer ever. This story should give you a good idea of why, although it’s not even the worst thing, or worst Spider-man story, he ever told. “The Lizard’s Tale” is Paul Jenkins’ stab at a Lizard story, but of course, with a post-modern twist. So, don’t expect any of the traditional pathos of Curt Connors’s struggle to control his evil alter ego here. Instead, Jenkins took the bold step of writing a story about how Dr. Connors was always, deep down, a hateful asshole.
The basic idea of “The Lizard’s Tale” is that Curt Connors could always control what the Lizard was doing, and just subconsciously chose not to so he could passive-aggressively lash out at those around him. Note that this revelation isn’t just boring by itself, but if taken at face value, would make all previous Lizard stories more boring except in the cases where it made them make no fucking sense at all. Jenkins also treats the Lizard a bit too much like the Hulk, with mild emotions like “angst with son” and “some jackass got a grant I wanted” being all it took to trigger Lizard transformations. Granted, Connors’s problem here probably isn’t helped much by Spider-man’s attempts to aid him by, say, locking him in a tiny cell in the fucking sewers.
Where the story gets really priceless is the ending. Once Connors realizes Spider-man knows what’s really up with him and the Lizard, he deals with it by making a lame attempt at a bank robbery so he’ll get locked up in jail. However, he gets put in a regular jail since he wasn’t committing a super-crime, and there’s no regular jail in the world that could hold the Lizard after a transformation. You could argue that Connors was going to try not to transform, but an environment like prison where everyone is trying to shank everyone else isn’t really conducive to that. Spider-man doesn’t even inform the jailers that they’ve got the Lizard on the hands—he just leaves Connors to his fate, which will probably involve eating a lot of other convicts once they get on his nerves.
9) Spidey Meets the Amazing Redneck/Trucker Superhero Razorback, Spectacular Spider-man #12-15
This is the only pre-'80s Spider-man story to make the cut for this list’s lofty standards of terribleness, but it’s bad in a very '70s way. Within the span of four issues writer Bill Mantlo manages to present us with a superhero who speaks in CB lingo, a cult of evil pseudo-Moonies, and Spider-man battling a cosmic menace alongside… uh, Flash Thompson?
Seriously, the story begins with Peter Parker playing tennis with Flash Thompson, who is moping because his Vietnamese girlfriend… uh, Sha-Shan is actually married to another dude. After the match Peter and Flash accidentally wander into the meeting of some sort of cult presided over by “Brother Power and Sister Sun,” who babble on about love and light and loves lighting lovingly and it’s all very sickening in a specifically ‘70s way. Flash recognizes the woman’s voice and goes nuts, believing Sister Sun to be his beloved Sha-Shan. After this it’s not long before Spider-man is trying to save Flash from a mob, and Brother Power and Sister Sun are shooting laser beams out of their chests at him. Concussive laser beams. And they can only shoot them when they hold hands.
The second issue of the storyline catapults it into all-time memorable insanity by abruptly introducing the senses-shattering debut of Razorback. Razorback is a new, mod hero for the ‘70s that hails from “Texarkana”, uses CB lingo in casual conversation, speaks in a thick Southern drawl, and wears a pig-shaped cowl complete with tusks and an electrified mane. He tussles with Spider-man for quite literally no other reason than to introduce himself (he heard that was proper superhero etiquette, and no, I’m not joking), then reveals that he, too, is seeking the Light Cult so he can try to rescue his disappeared sister “Bobby Sue” from it. Razorback is a gadget hero, so of course he can cruise around in a remote-control semi that he calls the “Big Pig” without any irony at all.
Razorback, and Spidey head to a big cult rally in a huge stadium to try and rescue Flash Thompson. The crazy button gets pushed and the insanity goes onto overdrive. The cult turns out to be a front for the Hate-Monger! The heroes get captured and chained to a wall! In defiance of all known established physics of how webshooters work, Spider-man helps everyone escape their bonds by managing a trick ricochet shot that hits a button on Razorback’s belt buckle, which sends the Big Pig crashing through a wall to save everyone! Hate-Monger tries to collapse the stadium and starts using his powers to send all the cultists into a frenzy of hatred! Spider-man has to hold everything up by himself, because nothing inspires in a Spider-man story like him lifting a really heavy thing!
Eventually Spider-man and the others face the Hate-Monger after Sha-Shan turns on her husband (who has the highly Vietnamese name Achmed Korba, by the way) and they start shooting light-beams at each other. The Hate-Monger unmasks and reveals himself as the Man-Beast, a guy so strong that he could go toe-to-toe with the Hulk and most recently fought Adam Warlock. Warlock devolved him into a wolf, but the Man-Beast eventually hated so hard that he reverted back to his usual form. During a frankly mind-blowing battle with Spider-man, the Hate-Monger hates so hard at Spider-man that it creates a giant ZAM sound-effect and shoots a death-laser at him. Spidey of course presses on through the wall of SHEER HATE to eventually save the day by hitting the Man-Beast really, really hard. Yeah, I’m sure nobody thought of that one before.
This story has so many little demented touches, from Razorback… just existing, really, to the total lack of anything Vietnamese about the Vietnamese characters, to the positively offhanded way crazy ‘70s cosmic mystic shit is thrown around. Sha-Shan it seems married Korba as part of her destiny as a priestess of the Temple of Light (destroyed by the last bombing raid of the Vietnam War!!!) and so was destined to, like, turn on him when she could no longer shackle his evil… and then there’s Razorback’s bizarre sister Bobby Sue, who does nothing in the story, and Flash Thompson hanging around the whole time just sorta punching guys… this is a bad and stupid comic, but a bad and stupid comic from an earlier era when even a total misfire could entertain a little just by virtue of sheer fucking insanity.