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Kurt Busiek on ‘Untold Tales of Spider-Man’s’ original pitch, potential sequels, and finding Peter Parker’s footing

The ‘Marvels’ author unpacks the fan favorite Spidey stories that fit perfectly between Lee and Ditko.

In celebration of everyone’s favorite web-head, July is Spectacular Spider-Month at AiPT!. We have a series of amazing articles in store for the month. Movies, television, gaming, and of course comics will all be covered with great responsibility as we honor one of comics’ greatest heroes.

Kurt Busiek is a purveyor of fine stories. From Avengers to Marvels to Action Comics and back, one would be hard pressed to find a famous hero property he hasn’t put a spectacular spin on at this point. Spider-Man, though, was one of the first. Untold Tales of Spider-Man, initially published as part of Marvel’s new $.99 line meant to attract new readers during the confusing and convoluted late ’90s was Busiek’s first ongoing take on the character alongside artist Pat Olliffe. What a take it was. Part in-depth reference to Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s inimitable run on Spider-Man and part new story cut from whole cloth, it is a sleek, fun, and sincerely sweet story that features a young, still in high school, Peter Parker struggling with power, responsibility, and a whole lot more. A personal favorite run of mine, I’ve always been curious about the pitch process for the book, the potential for sequels, and how Busiek feels Parker Spidey stacks up to other big names he’s written including the conqueror king Conan.

So, for Spectacular Spider-Month, we asked him! He was kind enough to answer all of our questions in-depth, and there’s more than few tantalizing answers for those that like Untold Tales as much as me, or are bound to as soon as they read it. Check it out below!

AiPT!: Hi Kurt! Thanks very much for joining AiPT! for Spectacular Spider-Month. To start us off, what drew you towards writing Spider-Man? Towards Peter Parker in particular? 

Kurt Busiek: Well, in the case of Untold Tales of Spider-Man, Marvel approached me — and at that point in my career, while I’d done Marvels and made a splash, I hadn’t done more than a few issues of anything in a row for years, so I’d have been very interested in an ongoing series no matter who it was about.

But I liked Spider-Man a lot, and I liked the early Spider-Man even more, so they were definitely offering me a book I wanted.

I liked Spider-Man’s youth and humor, and I loved how he felt like he was still figuring things out. He wasn’t as experienced as Superman or Thor or one of those guys; he screwed up and had to fix his mistakes. I could relate to that, and it made me like him a lot as a character. Plus, he’s got one of the all-time great superhero costumes and a terrific rogues gallery.

AiPT!: What are your favorite Spider-Man stories?

Busiek: If I had to pick just one story, I think I’d pick the Master Planner Trilogy in #31-33 — the one where he gets stuck under that huge machine and has to lift it and escape or Aunt May will die. Everything comes together in that story — the action and adventure, Spidey being stuck on the horns of a dilemma, with conflicting responsibilities in both his heroic life and his personal life, and amazing Ditko art.

Overall, I think the Lee-Ditko run is the best the book ever got, but the rest of Lee’s run, with Romita and Kane, was good stuff, too, and when John Romita was plotting it to focus on stuff he wanted to draw (the Stone Tablet saga and the Vietnam stuff later), it really showed. After that, I think Roger Stern and John Romita Jr. really captured the spirit of the book as well, in their run.

You know the one | Credit: Marvel

AiPT!: Do you have different favorite Spider-Man stories now than you did when you started writing Untold Tales? How do you think the character has stayed the same and how has it changed? It seems like a lot of fans like the character grounded in the high school years much more than later iterations.

Busiek: I haven’t read Spider-Man all that much in recent years, so I’m not the guy to ask how it’s changed. I do like Peter in school — whether it’s high school or college — because it puts more demands on his time, which is good for giving him responsibilities in multiple directions at once, and because it brings him together regularly with people he doesn’t necessarily get along with, which keeps things lively.

I think anything that keeps Peter trapped in a web of responsibilities, trying to do the right thing as a hero and the right thing for the people around him, but unable to get those responsibilities to quite fit together, makes the book distinctive and fun.

AiPT!: Untold Tales is especially famous for that honing in on Peter’s youth, too. You mentioned in a twitter thread a few years ago that this wasn’t always the plan, though. Could you take us inside the pitch process for the book? How did you land on the story that eventually was told rather than the one Marvel was soliciting at the time?

Busiek: Marvel wanted a book that was new-reader friendly, and the regular books were all tangled up in very complex and difficult-to-explain continuity, so they decided that this new series, Untold Tales of Spider-Man, should be set in the past. What they meant by that was that they wanted it set in the college years, so Peter would be attending ESU and hanging out with Harry, Flash, Gwen and MJ at the Coffee Bean Barn.

But when they asked me to pitch for the book, they forgot to tell me that. They just told me “early in his career.”

So I went looking for the earliest point I could fit in an “untold tale,” and the first place that stood out was the point early on in the run where Peter suddenly stopped wearing his glasses. The reason they gave in the story was that his spider-powered had fixed his eyesight, but the real reason must have been either that Ditko didn’t want to keep drawing them or that Stan wanted Peter to be more attractive. So they dropped the glasses and moved on. But I looked at that and thought, “If Peter stopped wearing his glasses, Aunt May would be worried, and she’d want him to get his eyes checked. And he wouldn’t want to, because what if the doctor sees something that shows he has spider-powers?”

Right there, I knew I had a story that felt like a Spider-Man story, so I built my pitch around that period and moved forward.

When I sent in my pitch, they realized that I’d been operating on faulty information, but they liked what I’d come up with enough to change their minds about it. So I had Peter in school, but I had Flash and Liz and Betty, no Harry or Gwen or MJ.

It’s possible the book would have sold better if I’d started out in the college years, but I guess you never know.

That’s not say the high school didn’t have plenty of drama, though | Credit: Marvel

AiPT!: I think the other big thing about Untold Tales, at least contextually, is the $.99 entry point, which was new for Marvel at the time. Do you feel that the lower cost brought in younger readers like it was intended to do? Did you write a story that was a good entry point intentionally?

Busiek: I tried to make sure every issue was a good entry point. That was the whole idea of the series. Single-issue stories that you could start reading at any point and get a full, enjoyable Spider-Man story that would make you want to read more.

But I don’t think the 99-cent price helped at all, not really. It was the whole reason they came up with the line — do a bunch of inexpensive comics, put them out on the newsstands where mothers might buy them for kids, and use that as an entry path to get new readers. But it didn’t work.

The big problem was that they hadn’t checked with their newsstand distributors before starting the program. And the newsstand distributors wouldn’t take the 99-cent books. They didn’t want to devote rack space to a book that made their retailers half as much profit as a full-price book, so they just wouldn’t take them. Ultimately, Marvel combined two of the 99-cent books together for the newsstand, so they had twice as much content for the same cover price, but unless you looked closely at the books you wouldn’t know that. So those casual readers they hoped to attract weren’t getting the package Marvel wanted to show them — cheap comics starring well known characters. Instead, the cover price was the same as the other books, there were just more pages, which didn’t present the deal with the same kind of hook.

And the 99-cent version of the books went to comics shops, where most of the customers didn’t need to be enticed into buying comics — that was what they’d come in for. And even they were suspicious of the 99-cent books. If they were so cheap, there must be something wrong with them, right?

So I’m glad to have done the book, had a good time and forged relationships that have lasted ever since. But I don’t think the 99-cent price helped the books any.

Heart-wrenching sadness for a low, low entry point! | Credit: Marvel

AiPT!: What was the research process like for fitting the stories you were telling into Lee and Ditko’s continuity? It’s an interesting iterative process, where you went back to find gaps, and now your works act as the perfect foundation for more writers to build on, but does it also feel like you’re lacking some creative freedom by fitting into those slots?

Busiek: I literally sat there with my back issues and Masterworks volumes, and read them, looking for gaps in the stories or plot lines that could be built on. Whether it was “Hey, there’s half a page here where Doc Ock is on a crime spree nationwide, why don’t I show people what Spidey was doing while that was going on?” or “When Norman Osborn was setting up to become the Green Goblin, did he test the equipment out with someone else first?” or even just “I want to guest-star Hawkeye, what was he doing at this point in Marvel history?” — I’d look up what was going on, figure out how to make it all fit together, and write a story.

And sure, it was in some ways confining. I couldn’t have Peter and Betty break up unless Stan and Steve did — and if they did, I had to follow that, whether I wanted to or not. Having an open-ended series is much freer than braiding stories through established Marvel history. But still, braiding stories through Marvel history is fun, too, so if you want to do that you kind of have to roll with it.

And we did make up new characters — Tiny McAllister, Jason Ionello, even Sally Avril, who wasn’t quite new but whose destiny was wide open because she never was seen again after her first appearance — as characters we could do new and different things with, free of the continuity constraints. New villains, too. So we balanced it out.

Beware the Batwing! | Credit: Marvel

AiPT!: Untold Tales went on to feature many of the famous villains of Spidey’s rogues gallery. Which is your personal favorite? Who do you think is the perfect villain for Spider-Man?

Busiek: I don’t know that there’s a “perfect” villain — I like the variety. Whether it was exploring the complicated world of Norman Osborn and the Green Goblin, or putting Spider up against someone he’d never fought before, like the Radioactive Man, the variety was what made it fun.

That said, I really liked writing Norman and Sandman and the Lizard. And of our new villains, Batwing was a favorite of mine.

AiPT!: How do you think the differences between a straight up and down character like Peter Parker and a more morally dubious one like Conan take shape on the page, how do you write the two while still making them likeable but nuanced? 

Busiek: They get different kinds of stories. Conan’s not a superhero, for one thing, so we don’t expect him to be all noble and self-sacrificing. We want to see him out for himself, but we also want to root for him to succeed. If he was going around stealing money from crippled beggars and murdering poor people for fun, we wouldn’t like it much. So we see him meet someone, and they’re in trouble, and there’s money or treasure or sex in it for him if he wins through, or there’s a villain who Conan might ignore but the villain pisses him off, and then you’ve got a conflict and you want Conan to win, even while he’s moody and self-interested.

With Spider-Man, he’s a kid learning to be an adult, or was during the period I was writing him in. He wants things too — money for Aunt May, a date with a nice girl, to stop bad guys from doing things that might get other people’s uncles killed — so you put him in a situation where he’s trying to get that sort of thing done, and you’re on your way to a Spider-Man story.

They’re different characters in different worlds with different goals, but as long as we can sympathize with their particular goal, then we can sympathize with them.

This two different worlds thing might get confusing soon enough | Credit: Marvel

AiPT!: What do you think a take on the world of Untold Tales would look like today? Have you ever felt the itch to tell a particular story or write a specific character? 

Busiek: There’s at least one more Untold Tales story that Tom Brevoort, Pat Olliffe and I want to do — the story of what Spider-Man was doing on the day Galactus first came to Earth. So at some point, maybe we’ll do a mini-series, building up to that as the ending.

But it’d be the same process, really — I’d read all the stories and figure out how to fit things together, find out where other characters I’d want to use would be, and how to fit them in, and make it all work as a story, and then Pat would make it all look great.

We wouldn’t do it for 99 cents, and maybe we wouldn’t do it all as single-issue stories, because that wouldn’t be the point any more. But we’d still do the kind of thing we did before. Just hopefully better, because we’ve had more practice.

Wherefore art thou, Spidey? | Credit: Marvel

AiPT!: Has writing Spider-Man or Peter Parker impacted your take on heroism or comics in a larger sense? Any specific instances? Where do you think folks can find similar ideologies in your more recent stuff?

Busiek: I don’t think there’s one ideal take on heroism or how to do comics, really, so writing Spider-Man taught me a lot about how to write Spider-Man, but it didn’t make me want to write Iron Man or Superman more like Spider-Man. I want to make the characters distinctive and interesting — so I want to figure out how to make them feel more like themselves rather than more like some particular take on heroism.

So while I might learn things like the value of having a good, strong, varied set of villains for a series, I don’t want to apply Spider-Man’s ideology to other characters. I want them to have their own ideology, and have it be as interesting as his.

That said, there’s a character I’m writing for Marvel next year who strikes me as having similarities to Spider-Man in that he’s still figuring things out, still finding his path and being pulled in a lot of different directions. But nobody’s killed his Uncle Ben, so he doesn’t have that object lesson that Spider-Man did. So we’ll have to see what happens.

That’s a wrap! Thank you to Kurt for his incredible insights on some tales told and others as of yet untold! Thank you, true believer, for joining AiPT! during Spectacular Spider-Month! Be sure to check back in every day for more Spider-Man content including interviews, features, opinions, and more!

Credit: Marvel

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