When you look back at how much comics used to cost, it's frightening just how big the increases in price have been. In the late 1970s, you wouldn't expect to pay more than 25 cents for a regular-sized issue. Nowadays, the going rate is about $3. Sure, there's inflation to factor in, but even so, the vast majority of the steep increases in cost have happened over the last ten or so years. It used to be that a new comic would set me back about £1.25. In today's market, you're looking at something more like £2.15 for an ordinary issue, more if it's a special or one-shot.
Back in the mid-1990s, Marvel decided that they would be well-served by putting out a line of comics which would retail for 99 cents apiece. Some of these - like the desperately gritty Over the Edge and the laughably poor Professor Xavier and the X-Men - were a case of Marvel coming up with a good idea but not wanting to pay top talent to do comics which weren't going to bring in a huge return for them. One book, though, stands up today as one of the best comics of the 1990s to involve a certain wall-crawling friendly neighbourhood character - Kurt Busiek's Untold Tales of Spider-Man.
The basic concept was quite a smart one. Busiek was writing old-school Spider-Man stories which were told in their entirety, soup to nuts, over the course of one issue. At a time when the awful and seemingly endless Clone Saga storyline was running in the main Spider-Man titles, Untold Tales was a refuge for those readers who weren't prepared to put up with rubbish villains, stories that went nowhere, terrible artwork and diabolically bad writing. Untold Tales was set during the early days of Spidey's career, with each issue slotting in between existing issues of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's original run on the character.
Busiek's stories have a lot to offer. They're unashamedly modelled on the classic 1960s Spidey tales, where Peter has cash problems, school woes and worries about his aunt's health. At this point in the character's history, he was forever running into bad guys who would beat him soundly, before he figured out how to stop them and came back fighting. There were no clones, no symbiotic costumes, no spider-armour or supermodel wives or Avengers memberships. It was just all about the essence of the character, with wisecracks and acrobatics and ingenious methods of defeating villains.
Joining Busiek on the book was artist Pat Olliffe (now most well known for his long run on Spider-Girl), whose art style managed to get across the gawky, uncomfortable side of Peter Parker without slavishly aping Ditko. His rough-edged figurework was in direct contrast to the over-rendered, anatomically improbable, cross-hatch-a-go-go style that had become so prevalent in the years following the establishment of Image Comics. There was also a special one-off turn by Mike Allred in the 1996 Untold Tales annual, which was a smashingly fun story about one of Spidey's early encounters with Namor and the Fantastic Four.
All in all, the art side of the equation matched the intent of the writing side - these weren't flashy, go-faster comics with nothing but empty calories behind them; they were, first and foremost, great stories. They also linked explicitly into Marvel's then-current continuity, notably by introducing a villain by the name of Sundown in the 1997 Untold Tales annual who then turned up (subjectively) years later in the 1997 Amazing Spider-Man annual. It's a bit of smart use of continuity which helped negate one of the most often-heard complaints about books set in a character's past - that they can't possibly have any bearing on the character, because what are they going to change? We already know how the character's life turns out. Untold Tales got round that by showing us that there were other facets of Spidey's past that we just hadn't been exposed to before, and that a story didn't have to "change Spider-Man... forever!" to be worthwhile.
Unfortunately, Untold Tales was cancelled after only 25 issues and a couple of annuals. Luckily, the issues themselves aren't that hard to come by, and if you wanted to read them you could probably pick them up pretty cheaply. Even if you're not enamoured by the thought of raking through back issue bins trying to pick out Untold Tales issues from the mountains of Web of Scarlet Spider or Funeral for an Octopus, all is not lost - Marvel have begun releasing trade paperback collections of the series under the brand name of "Spider-Man Visionaries: Kurt Busiek". If you're fed up of terrible, stunt-driven stories which completely miss the point of the character of Spider-Man (and let's face it, that's just as likely today as it was in the mid-1990s), you'll find a lot to love here, and it won't break the bank either.