Note: While artists continue to furiously scribble away at submissions for our Spider-Man: Webhead 2.0 Design contest (deadline August 8!), we convened our inner circle of P:R writers to talk about the costumes that have come before. From the original 60s design by Steve Ditko to the garb from the year 2099 with a few stops inbetween, we try to make sense of it all. And yes, we left out some designs — that’s what the comment section is for, where you can weigh in yourself! – Chris A.
Original Costume (Designed by Steve Ditko)
Vito: Here’s something I want to really impress upon everyone. When I think of a “spider man,” I wouldn’t think of a red and blue costume with arbitrary webs. When Kirby came up with a design for Spidey, even HE didn’t think that! And yet, Ditko created one of the most indelible, most lasting designs for a superhero costume ever. One of the things that always sticks in my mind (and I’m not sure if I read this somewhere or if it was a natural leap in logic that my mind made) is that when I look at Spider-Man, specifically, this design, my mind makes a connection to Superman. Red boots, blue pants, and the chest design comes to a point facing down (Supes has a diamond; Spidey’s tapers down). Obviously, Spidey differs in many ways, but my mind just makes that leap. I find it strangely appropriate; while Spider-Man isn’t the first hero of the Silver Age (that would be either Barry Allen Flash or Martian Manhunter on the DC side and the FF on Marvel’s), he’s probably the best representative of the “Marvel Age” of comics, just as Superman is representative of the first age of comics.
Joel: Superman and Spider-man both have these costumes that are kinda impossible to really critique or improve upon, because they have always existed. They’ve been around longer than pretty much anyone reading this has been alive, and with a level of cultural ubiquity that means that you were probably exposed to them before you were forming long-term memories. We never had to be introduced to them, they were just there. You might as well critique a tree. Leaves? All over the top? Really? The only other superhero with the same level of cultural penetration is Batman, but he exists in so many variations, that his iconography easier to disassemble. Anyway, I honestly can’t tell you if this is a good costume. It’s just Spider-man.
Just as an aside, I’ll add that as a kid I hated it when artists remembered to add the arm-pit webbing, but as an adult I love it when they do.
Chris: What makes the original Spider-Man design work for me is the face mask. The racoon-ish eyes and that hypnotic web-pattern really do it for me. As a child I spent alot of time trying to perfect drawings of that web pattern, the same way I did the seven spikes on Bart Simpson’s hair. The red and blue really work for me, and the cut of the patterned red against the flat-blue of the suit was always something for me.
Glen: I agree with Joel — there’s just so much history behind this suit that it’s tough to critique. I mean, if we pretend that this design never existed and was being introduced today for the first time, I think it’d very likely get dinged for the level of detail. All that webbing! And, seriously, teensy web-circles on the fingers? So fussy! Where’s the big, bold statement? Where’s the clean, iconic look?
But that’s the point, of course. Spider-Man isn’t Superman, he’s smaller, more wiry, more intellectual — which is to say: nerdier. One of us. And say what you will about us, we are a fussy people. So all those details, those delicate patterns, that incongruous back-spider — they all set him apart from what’s gone before. Yes, they must be hell to draw, panel after panel, but take just one web-loop away, and it ain’t Spider-Man. That’s why it works.
Jon: Like everyone else, I’m finding it difficult to critique the costume, and as Glen suggests I don’t know what I’d think about it if it were brand-spanking-new on the scene this year. With that in mind, all i can think to add is about the colors – I do know that if this were handed to me as a new costume for a new character, I’d ask why a spider-based super-hero is red and blue, AND YET I have very clear memories of – during my childhood – coloring in the Spider-Man newspaper dailies all varieties of colors. Nothing ever worked as well as the red-and-blue. A lot of that may have to do with the familiarity of the costume, but I think it mostly has to do with the visual strength of it – it’s bold but not garish, just strong enough to set off the webbing and capture the body shading.
Also, the web-pits were exceptionally pleasing, I always like seeing those come back. Weird little highlights are the best.
Rachel: Like everyone else, I’m having trouble critiquing this like it’s new. It’s the superhero costume equivalent of blue jeans–so established that it’s defined the new zero-point.
So, treating it like a new costume: The first thing that jumps out, for me, is the simplicity of it. It’s a really clean design. The cutouts in the red on the arms and sides give it visual interest without being overly design-y or fiddly, and the texture tones down the primary-color combination (honestly, I’m not sure why more costume designs don’t use contrasting colors *and* textures together–it’s really effective). And the texture and the geometry of the panels keeps the idea of a red-and-blue spider costume from being overpoweringly silly.
One of my favorite incidental characteristics of Spidey’s costume is that it implies less that he *is* a spider than that he’s been caught by one–wrapped in web, spider sitting on his chest. You see that in the Venom suit, too–the way the legs wrap around the chest.
Also: Artists interested in working a waist-level V into your design: THIS IS HOW YOU DO IT. Note that it reads as a belt or waistline seam, not an arrow directing readers to the character’s crotch.
Black Symbiote Costume (Designed by Mike Zeck)
Vito: I remember the exact moment I saw this, and I remember thinking how cool it was. Made a great action figure, that’s for sure!
Joel: Man, I was thirteen when this came out, and I loved it! I loved the dramatic departure from the classic costume, I loved the simplicity, the high-contrast starkness of the design, I loved the ninjafication (it was the early Eighties, after all), and I loved weird powers that came with it. Pubescent-me spent a lot of time imagining that he had this costume, which is a pretty solid metric of success for superhero designs.
Today, it seems a little too simple, and a little too high contrast. Maybe I’ve just gotten so used to seeing Venom’s genital-horror mouth and tongue slavering all over the place, and the mask looks a little empty without it.
Vito: “Genital-horror mouth.” Someone add that to the P:RT dictionary please?
Jon: Between “genital horror mouth” and “crotch swatch”, The P:R Dictionary trends very swimsuit area.
Chris: I’d be holding back if I said I don’t prefer this costume over the original. The original will always be the classic, but the white-on-black spoke to me personally as I read it as a child. It owes a lot to the silhouetted look Spidey sometimes had in the shadows, but Zeck’s decision to exponentially increase the size of the spider to take over the chest of the design was a great idea all around.
Jon: Don Simpson has a gag about this costume in a story where Megaton Man gets an all-black costume made of scientific goop all his very own, and – dripping with ink, his arms and legs crossed indistinctly into the shape of his body – he asks something along the lines of “Isn’t this lazy?”
It really is a stunning design, but it didn’t translate under about half the artists who ended up drawing it – trying to make a dynamic figure out of an all-black silhouette led some artists to render Spider-Man as a paint splatter. It’s unfortunate, because in theory and under the right hand, this costume is striking, iconic and bold, and under the wrong hands it just melted into an indistinct puddle.
Such a good action figure, though, Vito, I remember it with fondness too.
Glen: First of all: “Amid the chaos, there comes a costume.” Sigh. Who among us does not love overheated Marvelspeak? As to the costume itself: As cool-looking as the symbiote suit’s design is (for the record: wicked cool), my favorite thing about it when I was a kid isn’t pictured here: The back-of-the-hand web-shooters. Dunno why I loved them — may have something to do with the fact that, while I loved the ol’ palm-up devil horns (thwip!), the symbiote suit’s overhand web-blasters seemed more direct and forceful.
That said, it’s impossible to intellectually distance this iteration of the suit from the whole Venom michegas. I dunno, the Spider-Man in my head is the Friendly Neighborhood sort, not the night-stalking, I Live in the Shadows sort, so the black seems incongruous to me. It’d be like putting Donald Duck in ninja gear. … Excuse me, I have just paid for my retirement.
Rachel: I love this costume. Assuming we’re taking each of these as an original design, this is the one that I’d say speaks best to the concept of Spider-Man.
The placement and size of the spider is really cool–you don’t really see many sigils that wrap around or otherwise interact with bodies like that one does.
Scarlet Spider Costume (Designed by Tom Lyle)
Vito: Homeless Spidey? I always wondered why he didn’t ditch the ripped hoodie. It was such an arbitrary addition. I’m betting that red outfit underneath had a spider logo on it…why not just go with that?
Joel: Oh, those ankle-pouches are just precious! I assume that, when Marvel reboots all their titles next year, they’ll be going with something like this?
Chris: This reminds me a lot of what DC is doing in 2011.
Jon: I’d like to say something in defense of the Scarlet Spider costume… I’d like to, but I have absolutely no idea how to begin, someone help me out.
I’m charmed by the idea of Hobo Spider-Man – particularly “Hobo Spider-Man with Super High-Tech Costume Accessories” – and there’s a pleasant something of the outer Boroughs about a super-hero in a broke-ass hoodie, but I never bought this one. Reversed colors might have helped, some detail in the bodysuit. Anyway, he’s dead now, as I understand it, so that’s good.
Glen: It can cut you like a knife!/If the gift becomes the fire!/On a wire between will and what will be!/He’s a maniac!/Maaaaaniac on the floor!
Rachel: You guys remember the punks at the beginning of Terminator?
2011 Ultimate Costume (Unknown Designer)
Vito: It’s certainly forward thinking. A lot of the shapes from the original are there, and the use of the red triangle below the logo is very eye catching. The use of black is…it’s interesting. It’s a weird combo of the original and the symbiote that, for me, works better than the Spider-Man 3 movie costume that did (or attempted to do) the same thing.
Joel: We covered this costume, not so long a go, but to recap: I don’t know anything about the story-context for this piece, but I like a lot of it. I think it has a little more variation in the visual elements than the original black costume, and the red pairs better with the black than the white did, creating a less value contrast. I love the gloves, and wish a bit more was going on with the boots. The only thing I really don’t like is the weird off-the-shoulder ball-gown decolletage element that they’ve got going on, there. Unfortunately, that’s kind of a big part of a minimal design.
Chris: This has a real potential to work in the Ultimate universe going forward, but I still feel as if it’s got a ticking time clock under it until they go back to the classic design.
Jon: I’m not sold on the red webbing – which seems distracting – but I otherwise like the cut of this’un’s jib. When we first went over this a couple months back, I seem to recall suggesting that an all-black costume is a bit of a cheat – but I like the larger highlights and the gloves quite a bit, and the charcoal-coloring shows off some dynamic physical shapes in the body.
Glen: Yeah, as I’ve said, this just reads Spider-Man Beyond to me. And they’ve managed to make the little circles on the fingers look even more fussy by adding fingerless gloves to the whole affair. (The fingerless glove hasn’t worked on anyone since the “Love is a Battlefield” video.) (Which makes for my second 80s music video reference, if you’re scoring at home.) (And in conclusion: Night Ranger.)
Rachel: I like the black and red. I don’t like the fine webbing on the mask, and I really don’t like the looooong field of black, and I think we’ve covered my feelings about crotch arrows already, although I guess this is more of a bellybutton arrow.
Jon: “Crotch Arrows” is going into the P:R dictionary, innit it?
Rachel: Right next to “Swimsuit-Area Fledermaus.”
2099 Costume (Designed by Rick Leonardi)
Vito: I never liked this one (as much as I liked/like Leonardi’s art). There was a skull motif on the chest, Batman like attachments on the wrist/forearm, and those weirdo finger talons. I don’t see anything that would attach this to a spider, or Spider-Man for that matter (the web cape, but really?). I’m not sure what went into this design, but it never struck a chord with me.
Joel: I don’t know what I’m looking at here. Why does he have a skull on his chest? Did Peter Parker and Frank Castle have a baby? A baby with spoons for feet?
Jon: The in-story explanation for the costume was the time-honored comic book chestnut of “it was originally intended for a costume party” – specifically a Dia de los Muertos celebration, thereby explaining the skull motif.
Chris: Maybe this is my personal weakness, but I’ve carried a long-time appreciation for Rick Leonardi’s design for Spider-Man 2099. For the first time, a character named after the oft-feared spider actually looked kind of scary. The ragged web cape and the flourishes with the chest and eye designs really got to me.
Joel: Yeah, I can see that there are some nice things going on with the red elements. The negative and positive space play off each other in a fun way. But, not knowing this character’s story at all, it seems more Tarantula than Spider-Man. Not just in that it’s mean-looking, but it is indistinct in a way that’s fine for a second-string villain, but doesn’t quite support a protagonist hero.
Jon: I’ve always loved this design – firstly because it’s madly futuristic in a way that very few of the other 2099 titles managed to achieve for their looks. I can believe that a red-and-blue mylar bodysuit and a tattered web cape are the fashion of the world-to-come, definitely more than the big shoulder-pads and old-people shades that made up so much else of future fashion motifs in 90’s comics. Secondly, I just like the cut and the design of the red highlights – it’s enough to evoke the cut of the original Spider-Man’s upper body design, but it’s unique to this guy. Really striking, especially under Leonardi’s linework.
Glen: The web-cape is fine — I mean, yeah, it’s a little Miss Havisham, maybe, but it’s fine — and the skull on the chest isn’t a deal-breaker, either. As for the barbs and talons and all the pointy bits — you know what? They say “spider,” albeit in an admittedly abstract way, so they can stay.
Here’s the thing: Spidey’s mask is a huge part of his iconography. Take a look at the other costumes we’ve discussed. Different designs, colors, approaches, but the the thing that stays largely consistent is that mask. You can change the size of the eyes, you can futz with the color, but once you get too far away, the whole costume’s Spidey-ness evaporates.
Which I’d argue is what happens with this … luchador/juggalo thing he’s got going on here.