You can't fault the guys at DK (Dorling Kindersley) Books. They have a licence to produce Spider-Man "factual fiction" books, and that's exactly what they're going to do.
This imposing "Spider-Man Chronicle" from 2012 introduces some fresh talent to DK's Spider-Man writing team in the form of Alan Cowsill. Alan is a writer from the UK whose previous Spider-Man credits mostly comprise a dozen-odd non-continuity Spidey stories from early issues of the light-hearted Spectacular Spider-Man (UK Magazine).
Alan is backed-up by Matthew K. Manning, a Spidey biographer with a much stronger track record, including writer credits for Spider-Man: The Ultimate Guide (Updated), Spider-Man: Inside the World of Your Friendly Neighborhood Hero, and the wider Marvel pre-cursor to this book, namely Marvel Chronicle: A Year By Year History.
Physically, "Spider-Man Chronicle" is an imposing tome. The book itself is 10.25" x 12" and is 1.25" deep. But those measurements exclude the attractive illustrated slip-case which further increases the heft of the product. Inside you will find 352 full-color, high-quality pages with impressive production quality. An envelope inside the cover also includes some "limited edition" prints.
All this sells for a mere US$32 on Amazon.Com, or the price of eight regular flimsy comic books. Based on sheer bulk, nobody can complain about not getting value for money! But what of the content?
Well, first there's the obligatory Introduction by Stan Lee. Despite being a world-famous writer, Stan never got around to writing a novel. But if you combined all the introduction pages he's ever written in his life, you'd probably get a decent novel's worth of text - albeit with a somewhat repetitive storyline.
We quickly get into the book proper, beginning with Chapter 1: 1960's. A pattern quickly develops. A comic book cover is presented, and a long paragraph (approx 150 words) describes the events of the comic, and it's relevance to the story of Spider-Man. Actually, we begin slightly before the origin of Spidey, covering a few issues of Tales of Suspense, Journey into Mystery, Fantastic Four, and Amazing Fantasy which lead-in to Spider-Man in various indirect ways.
But fear not, the web-slinger soon appears in Amazing Fantasy #15 and moves into his own title. At first, every issue of Amazing Spider-Man is described. But as the months pass, the focus shifts to cover only the most important issues and events. Key guest appearances are included too, along with comments about key changes to the creative team, and other events in the Marvel Universe. At the bottom of each page, a real-world time-line plots the connection between Spider-Man's reality and our own.
After the 1960's comes the 70's, 80's, and... all the way up to March 2012. There's no real change in the formula as the book proceeds. There are occasional double-page spreads which spotlight a specific event... sometimes even just a single panel... such as Spider-Man's epic struggle from ASM #33. But those are brief interruptions in the otherwise inevitable flow from classic comic to classic comic.
Within the constraints of pre-determined structure, I reckon Messrs Cowshill and Manning do a pretty good job of covering the countless highlights of Spidey's extended career. Pretty much every relevant comic or character gets a mention - including tie-in characters such as Mary Jane, Spider-Woman, Venom, Spider-Girl, Manga Spider-Man, Scarlet Spider, and a heap of other spin-offs.
There's also nice coverage of Limited Series, and special issues. Sadly the Super-Man/Spider-Man crossover doesn't get referenced, presumably because of legal complications. I guess the days of well-humoured gentlemanly cross-corporate adventures seem to be far behind us now.
From a technical point of view, the reproduced art-work seems splendid at first glance. The page layout strikes an excellent balance between interest and simplicity. The textual content is well constructed and offers a good balance between plot detail and general interest.
So what's the catch? Well, the catch is... despite being well-written and well-constructed, this is fundamentally nothing more than a coffee-table book.
Sure, it's a very nice coffee-table book. But all you can really do is pick it up, skim read a few pages, then put it down. Despite the various factoids, Spider-Man Chronicle doesn't really tell a story that you can "read" in any practical sense.
I suppose the fifty years of comics comprise a narrative in one sense - in the same way that half a dozen large bags of potato chips could be called a "six-course meal". But the way that the information is fragmented means that it's just impossible to develop any continuity in the reading experience. The paragraphs just don't build up to any particular idea. No concepts are expounded. The whole is nothing more than the sum of the parts.
And despite the well-intended six-page index, you can't really use it as an encyclopaedia or reference book either. For example, if you're interested in the Green Goblin, you would have to pick through fifty different pages of the book to get his back-history. And because each piece of information is so bite-sized and post-processed, you would only get a superficial and piecemeal view in any case.
So it's not a book you can read, and it's not a book you can use for reference. So, coffee-table it must be.
However, despite the apparent sense of text/image balance on each page, I also have my doubts about what kind of audience would actually appreciate this book even in that context. I fear that a non-comic-book fan could be overwhelmed by the detail, while a long-time Spidey fan would probably find little in here that they didn't already know.
Emotionally, I like this book on many levels, and I can certainly appreciate the amount of effort that has gone into it. It feels like it should be an important Spider-Man book. But I just can't see how.
Regretfully, all I can offer is Three Webs for a book that fails to acknowledge that Spider-Man is more than simply the sum of his various appearances.
If you want to know what happened in Spider-Man comics in any particular 5-year period, then Spider-Man Chronicle is not a bad option. But if you're looking for something that you can read start to finish and get a big-picture view, then something like Spider-Man: Inside the World of Your Friendly Neighborhood Hero, also by Matthew K. Manning, or even The Spider-Man Vault are probably going to be more satisfying.
Of course, if you're looking for practical reference material, you would be better off with a complete set of the 2008 series Official Handbook Of The Marvel Universe A To Z (Hardcover). Although, even in paperback that's quite an investment. A cheaper option is the Marvel Encyclopedia (Vol. 4) Spider-Man, although it was published in 2004 and is slightly more out of date.
If you want to know more about the history of Marvel, then we would recommend Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades, or even the unreliable but fascinating Stan Lee's Amazing Marvel Universe, in which Spider-Man features prominently.