The question of "prototypes" has come up again. These are listings in the Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide detailing pre-hero issues of Strange Tales, Journey Into Mystery, Tales of Suspense and the like, in which it is claimed that an earlier character is actually a test-case for a later popular Marvel Age character thereby justifying a higher price for the original book. The most compelling of these prototypes is in Strange Tales #97, June 1962 which is listed as "1st app. Aunt May and Uncle Ben by Ditko before Amazing Fantasy #15". (And discussed at greater length in an earlier PPP.) And, yes, the characters are named Aunt May and Uncle Ben and they look very much like younger versions of Peter Parker's relatives but unless you're willing to accept that Spider-Man has a step-sister who is actually a mermaid, we're all better off keeping this story far away from continuity. Definitely worth a look, though.
Most other prototypes are far less compelling. Some even qualify as shady. But you can judge for yourself. I have looked over the lists of prototypes and picked out the only other entries that seem to apply to the Spider-Verse. Let's take a look at them one by one and see if they're worth adding to your collection.
Journey Into Mystery #70, July 1961 is listed as "Prototype ish. (The Sandman 7/61), similar to Spidey villain". The story is called The Sandman Cometh! and is 13 pages with art by Jack Kirby and Dick Ayers.
An ex-fighter and ex-marine named Steve Bronson tells his wife Ann that he thinks his son Bobby is a "sissy" because Bobby always has his nose in a book. Steve decides a trip to Mexico will make his son shape up. Once there, the family hikes into the hills where Bobby finds a locked iron door inside a cave. Steve blows the door open with blasting powder. Inside they find a large blob of a creature made entirely of sand that introduces itself as the Sandman. The Sandman explains that he is an alien who came to earth ages ago. His ship crashed and the local humans found him and put him away in the cave. But now he is free to continue his mission which is to "conquer your puny planet Earth"!
Steve tries to use his brawn to stop the Sandman and fails. He is forced to surrender and promises to smuggle the Sandman into the United States. The Sandman's powers allow him to shape his body to look human but eventually Steve blows his cover and he returns to his original shape. The army battles him and cannot defeat him. But, in the end, he is stopped by little Bobby who uses his brain to deduce that water will make the Sandman "stiff and soggy... just like a mud pie". He dumps a bucket of water on the creature, saving mankind, and showing his father that "brains are much more important than brawn".
The Sandman Cometh! is a fun but predictable little story. The Sandman may be just another would-be world-conquering alien but he does have many of the powers of the later Spider-Man villain. And he's got the name, of course. I would judge this a legitimate "prototype" as prototypes go but at near-mint $260 hardly worth searching for. Maybe a decent "Fair" to "Good" copy will do.
Journey Into Mystery #73, October 1961 has a "Story titled "The Spider" where a spider is exposed to radiation and gets powers of a human and shoots webbing; a reverse prototype of Spider-Man's origin", according to Overstreet.
The Spider Strikes! is 7 pages with art (again) by Kirby and Ayers. It begins with Professor Robert Carter who works on "an ultra-powerful atomic machine" at a research center in the New Mexico desert. Robert goes to work one morning, unaware that a spider has climbed into his trouser cuff overnight. After Robert has powered up the atomic machine, he is informed that he has a phone call. So he goes to answer it, leaving the radiation-spilling machine on while he's gone! The spider, meanwhile, climbs out of his trouser cuff and is exposed to massive doses of radiation. In minutes, it grows "as big as a house". With its big body comes a big brain, which gives the spider the intelligence of a human being and an instant knowledge of the English language. The spider comes up with a plan to lead thousands of other spiders to the radiation thereby creating an invincible army. He starts by using his great strength and webbing to trap all the humans working at the atomic base. But one smart scientist talks the spider into showing off its power by snagging a guided missile that is flying by. When the spider pulls the missile off course, the army base that launched it cancels the test by hitting the "destroy button", killing the spider in the process.
So, is this any sort of prelude to Spider-Man? The Marvel books of the early sixties were filled with stories of plants or small animals becoming huge, intelligent, and evil after exposure to radiation. The monsters ran the gamut from mutated Weed (Save Me From the Weed! in Strange Tales #94, March 1962) in the pre-hero books to Ant-Man's enemy the Scarlet Beetle (The Vengeance of the Scarlet Beetle! in Tales to Astonish #39, January 1963) in the early Marvel age. Does this make these characters "reverse prototypes" of Plant-Man and the Beetle? Of course not. I'm not even sure I know what a "reverse prototype" is anyway. Or what it means to "get powers of a human". And check out the "near-mint" price of this book ($415) as opposed to the issues surrounding it with no "prototype" listing ($200). This "prototype" has all the earmarks of a scam. Not recommended.
Tales to Astonish #15, January 1961 is billed as "Prototype issue (Electro)". I actually breezed right past the cover and the lead story without ever thinking they featured the advertised "prototype". But after combing through the entire issue, I came back to take a second look. And, yes, the "prototype" in question comes from a seven page story by our old friends Kirby and Ayers entitled I Learned the Dread Secret of The Blip!.
Our hero this time is a radar operator who notices a "strange blip" on his screen one day. Soon after, all the electricity in the "nearby town of Oakville" goes out. Using an electrometer, the radar man traces an electrical current to a cave outside of town. Hiding in the cave is a giant creature made of electric bolts. The creature, dubbed the Blip by the radar man, explains that he is a peace-loving alien who became trapped in a "space and time warp" while flying through space. Escaping it took most of his energy and he landed on earth to rest and regain his strength. But a posse of Oakville residents also traces the electricity. They tote guns and a dynamo (with which to regain their electric current) and when they come upon the Blip, they shoot first and ask questions never. When the radar man explains that the Blip has come in peace, he is declared a traitor and is attacked by the mob. The Blip, disgusted by such a "pitiful, savage planet [which] still tolerates violence and physical injury", tosses all the posse members aside. Then he comes upon the dynamo and uses it to recharge himself. In the end, he declares humanity "too fearful, too suspicious" to be worthy of the secrets he might have told, and returns to the stars. The posse realizes that "in our ignorance we drove him away" but the radar man sees a lesson learned. "When next we meet a stranger from the stars, perhaps then we'll be worthy of his trust!"
Let's compare the Blip and Electro side by side. The Blip is an outer space alien. Electro is not. The Blip is a giant monster. Electro is not. The Blip is peace-loving. Electro is not. The Blip is made of electricity. Electro is not. The Blip causes an entire town to lose its electricity just because of his proximity. Electro does not. The Blip's name is "the Blip". Electro's is not.
So, are we saying, then, that ANY character who happens to use electricity is automatically an Electro prototype? Please. Not recommended.
Finally, we have the strange case of Tales of Suspense #7, January 1960 which is touted as having "1 panel app. Aunt May", which would make it the absolute first appearance of the character, more than two years prior to Strange Tales #97! Except I challenge you to find her. I looked forward and backward through this issue before I found the panel in question. (At least, I think it's the panel in question.) It comes from a story entitled I Come From the Shadow World! with art by Steve Ditko and it is nothing more than one head-shot (amongst a number of head-shots) of a worried-looking older lady in a montage of unsuccessful attempts to stop the monster of the story... the Shadow Man. Does it look like Aunt May? Yes. But the guy next to her looks like J. Jonah Jameson and the woman on the left side of the panel looks like Betty Brant and the man below-center looks like Norman Osborn. In other words... give me a break here. This is Ditko drawing his Ditko people. (Remember how every little bald guy with a mustache in the early Spidey books all looked like the High School teacher, Mr. Warren?) To call this a panel of Aunt May is disgraceful.
Is there a conclusion to all of this? Simply, if they call it a "prototype" it means it is not the real thing. Stan Lee didn't have a master plan to present monsters with powers and then redo them as heroes and villains several years later. Steve Ditko did not sneak Aunt May into uncredited cameos, waiting for the right time to spring her on the comic-reading public. If you're trying to complete your Spider-Man collection and you've got all the issues that have Spider-Man in them... then you're done. Don't let a price guide or a dealer tell you different.