Since 1952, Amalgamated Press' Lion title had performed very well in the boys' comic department, thanks to stories such as 'Robot Archie', 'Spot the Clue with Zip Nolan', 'Captain Condor', 'Maroc the Mighty' and 'Paddy Payne'. Along with Eagle and Valiant, it led the market with a mix of adventure, war, and science fiction strips.
However, by 1965, the Silver Age material from Marvel Comics was beginning to cross the Atlantic. In order to keep with the times, Fleetway decided to add a more up-to-date strip to Lion. 'Robot Archie' creator Ted Cowan was given the task of coming up with an American-styled script.
Instead of a superhero, he came up with a criminal anti-hero - a ploy which had worked initially for Valiant's 'Steel Claw' strip, while several other popular serials focused on criminals, such as 'The Astounding Adventures of Charlie Peace' (based on a real-life criminal ) in Buster. The Spider wasn't, strictly speaking, superpowered, but possessed a wide array of skills (including the ability to climb walls without apparatus, and hypnotism), a bullet-proof costume (which included a jet-pack), and a massive arsenal of gadgets (including a web-gun, gas pistol and his Helicar).
The character was without an origin, meaning his unusual appearance (including pointed ears and a hook nose) and incredible intelligence were never really explained - he just appeared in the 26th June 1965 edition of Lion, aiming to be the new king of crime by recruiting an army of criminals to assist his daring plans. The strip was set in New York, adding to the American flavour, and was printed in black and white. The artist was former 'Robin Hood' penciller Reg Bunn , whose pulpy style segued perfectly with Cowan's scripts.
The Spider's eponymous debut serial introduced his Army of Crime, most prominently safecracker Roy Ordini and criminal genius 'Professor' Pelham, as well as a pair of New York detectives trying to capture him - Pete Trask and Bob Gilmore, the nominal heroes of the piece. The first serial ran for ten weeks, normally at two pages per issue, with a three-page conclusion. It was enough for a second serial to follow. While this retained Gilmore and Trask, much of the story belonged to the Mirror Man, an illusionist in competition for the Spider's title of the uncrowned King of the Underworld.
It was midway through this second serial that Jerry Siegel, co-creator of Superman and having just unsuccessfully battled National Comics for the rights to the character, contacted Amalgamated Press (shortly to be bought out and renamed Fleetway) and indicated an interest in writing for their comics. Sample issues were sent over to him, and he decided 'The Spider' was the one he wanted. The January 8th 1966 edition saw his first work, opening the third serial, "The Spider v Dr. Mysterioso". This arc saw an even more overt shift towards a quasi-American style, with the titular Doctor Mysterioso possessing a wide variety of abilities, including shape-shifting, while The Spider's gadgets (and ego) would become ever more outlandish.
Siegel would help craft an enviable gallery of villains for the title, including The Android Emperor (who had unparalleled skill with robotics), the Crook from Outer space (a shape-shifting alien), the Sinister Seven (led by Limbo the Unknown, and including criminal genius Sylvester Jenkins, The Living Totem, The Mad Meckanoid, The Gas Man and Muto the Multi-Form) and the Snake. One of the most memorable was the Exterminator, an assassin The Spider couldn't defeat and instead formed an alliance with, only to double-cross him in the end. This was an experience The Spider found so enjoyable that he turned to crime fighting, taking delight in confounding the plans of would-be villains (at this juncture, all of his army of crime bar Ordini and Pelham would leave).
As well as the weekly appearances in Lion, The Spider would appear in two other forms. The Lion Annual carried new, self-contained stories, typically numbering 8 pages, and would carry a Spider strip from 1967 to 1970. The annuals also contained illustrated text stories, with Spider stories in this form appearing from 1969 to 1971, with a one-off revival in 1975. The other appearances came in Fleetway's Super Library line. These were digest-size books, containing ~120 page self-contained, unique stories. They had been a considerable success for war stories, and in 1967 Fleetway initiated the Fantastic Series. Each month a brand 132-page Steel Claw (odd numbers) and Spider (even numbers) adventure would appear (it should be noted that these stories were much simpler than the serials in Lion - where a Lion page would often contain up to ten panels, a Super Library page would often contain only one or two panels; the page count also included the covers and a picture quiz at the end).
These also had painted covers, usually showcasing Fleetway's penchant for making the Spider's costume yellow on covers, though later issues would also show it as green, purple or red The first Spider title, #2, was written by Siegel, but as this was running concurrently with the weekly strips, other writers would take over for the rest of the run, including the original co-creator Ted Cowan, M. Scott Goodall and David Morton. Similarly, while Reg Bunn would draw all but a handful of pages on The Spider's weekly run, the Super Library books would be illustrated by a variety of other artists, including Edmundo Marculeta, Giorgio Trevisan and Francisco Cueto. From the second batch of issues the series would be retitled Stupendous Series. These ran until January 1968, when a decline in sales saw them stopped after a total of 26 books, 13 featuring the Spider.
Later that year, the Lion serial would be retitled 'The Fantastic Spider', and after the first serial in this form, "Ordini the Terrible", Siegel would leave for Western Publishing. Ken Mennell, a Lion editor who had written three stories for the Spider in Stupendous Series, would take over for two more stories, but the 24th April 1969 edition of Lion would end The Spider's weekly adventures. The influx of 'pence edition' versions of Marvel and DC's smash hit comics was affecting Lion's sales considerably, and rather than compete with the 4-colour American superheroes, Fleetway decided on a back-to-basics approach, shifting their focus back to war stories, with 'The Spider' a casualty.
Since then, appearances have been sporadic. Text stories appeared in the 1970 and 1971 Lion Annuals, while a reprint run (covering the first six serials, though "The Spider v The Exterminator" would be compacted and given a new conclusion, drawn by John Burns) ran in Lion from 1972 to 1973.
In 1975, Fleetway struck on the idea of placing all their fantasy strips into one comic, and the classic reprint title Vulcan was born. Made in a US format, with high-quality (especially for the time) paper, the weekly comic contained reprints of 'The Spider', 'Robot Archie' (the redrawn coloured Bert Bus strips, originally printed in Holland), 'The Steel Claw', 'The Trigan Empire', 'Kelly's Eye', 'The House of Dolmann', 'Saber - King of the Jungle' and 'Mytek the Mighty'. After a well-received trial run in Scotland, Vulcan went national in March 1973. Sadly, the UK comic market wasn't quite strong enough to sustain the book, which stopped after 28 issues. 'The Spider' reprints usually occupied 4 pages of each edition, and printed the first five arcs, before ending abruptly midway through 'The Spider v The Crook from Outer Space'. As some small recompense, Vulcan did come out in annual form in the autumn of 1977, this one-off book containing a complete reprint of 'The Spider story', "The Death-Master".
For 15 years after this, barring a new one-off strip pitching the Spider against Robot Archie in the 1980 Lion Special, the character was largely forgotten aside from the odd reference in things like Alan Moore's Captain Britain stories (Yeh, the appearance of a gravestone in one frame is hardly noteworthy, but it was via this that I actually got interested in The Spider, so it's got to get a mention somewhere...).
In 1992 Fleetway decided to test out the viability of reviving their classic characters via their legendary 2000AD title. The 2000AD Action Special appeared in April 1992, featuring a revival of The Spider named "Vicious Games". Well, I say 'revival', it was more a case of Mark Millar brutally raping the character for ten pages. Well, I say the character, but John Higgins was under the impression he was drawing Namor, sadly. This would-be starting point for a new series got exactly what it deserved when it went no further (only Tim Kelly, of 'Kelly's Eye', would spin-off with any success, briefly guesting in the 'Universal Soldier' serial). This embarrassed 2000AD so much The Spider didn't even turn up in Zenith.
A less official (but, ironically, much more faithful) revival came in 2003, when a character named Alfred Chinard (A. Chinard being an anagram of Arachnid, you see), clearly an aged Spider, began appearing semi-regularly in Paul Grist's Jack Staff series.
Then, in 2006, Alan Moore conceived a comic series named Albion for Wildstorm, featuring all the Fleetway characters. The Spider had a key role, with much of issue #5 devoted to him. The interest from this mini-series saw Titan Books issue a large-format, hardback book collecting the first three serials, named 'King of Crooks' (for some arcane copyright/trademark reason, which would be far too exciting for me to risk a heart attack by finding out), later that year. Since then it's all gone a bit quiet, sadly, but maybe one day someone will give a proper revival to the King of Crime.