The dark side of Spider-Man: Bellevue artist had a hand in black suit

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Spider-Man swings again above the Big Apple in his black costume.
By Tony Norman
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

There's an old saying that goes: "Success has many parents, but failure is an orphan." True enough. But sometimes even successful ideas sit around waiting for Brad and Angelina to adopt them.

Such is the case with Spider-Man's black outfit, a wash-and-wear alien parasite that made its debut in the pages of "The Amazing Spider-Man" No. 252 at the midpoint of the Reagan administration 23 years ago.

Spider-man's black costume debuted in 1984. For New Dimensions Comics, Ron Frenz re-created the cover with a Pittsburgh skyline.
Click photo for larger image.

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Though the identity of the comic book fan and aspiring writer who originally suggested Spider-Man's break with the familiar red and blue costume is lost to the mists of comic book obscurity, two Pittsburghers were instrumental in establishing Spidey's dark, minimalist look and story line.

"I wasn't the guy who designed the suit," said Ron Frenz, 46, of Bellevue, a Marvel Comics artist for nearly a quarter of a century.

"I was the guy who drew the first issue it ever appeared in. The suit was designed by [former editor in chief] Jim Shooter and Mike Zeck, the artist who worked on the 'Secret Wars' series. The design was also played with by a couple of different people in the office."

Still, being the first to draw the black Spidey is pretty impressive bragging rights. Artist Herb Trimpe didn't know when he drew an obscure runt of a character named Wolverine in the pages of "The Incredible Hulk" in 1974 that he was putting yellow spandex on what would prove to be one of the most popular characters in Marvel history.

Spidey's black suit hasn't achieved that level of cultural penetration yet, but its modified appearance in "Spider-Man 3" isn't going to hurt.

"The original concept for giving Spider-Man a new costume was from a fan writer who had sent an unsolicited idea to Jim," Frenz said. "In the course of the story, Spider-Man got a new outfit. It might even have been a predominantly black outfit. Jim liked the idea and assigned his executive editor, Tom DeFalco, to work with the writer to hammer it into an issue of Spider-Man."

Shooter, 55, formerly of Bethel Park, confirms Frenz's version of the origin of Spidey's black suit, but adds an intriguing corporate marketing dimension to how it came about.

According to Shooter, Kenner Toys' partnership with Marvel's rival DC Comics in the early '80s prompted Mattel Toys, the world's biggest toy maker, to approach Marvel about a similar partnership.

"Though Marvel dominated the comics market to a ridiculous degree," Shooter said, "we hadn't had the big movies or TV shows yet, with the exception of [Bill Bixby's] 'Hulk.' Mattel asked us to come up with a story line that would generate buzz. We worked with Mattel co-developing toys."

The result of this corporate synergy was "The Secret Wars," a limited series that made drastic changes to Marvel's signature characters.

"The story is mine, but I kept getting thrown curve balls by Mattel," Shooter said. "Since I was editor in chief, I told all the Marvel writers to get their characters in Central Park. 'Secret Wars' is the story of how they disappeared and how they returned to Central Park a year later."

"The idea was that the series would run 12 issues," Frenz said of what amounted to a Rapture of superheroes and villains. "Every hero would disappear at the end of one issue of their comic and reappear the following month at the back end of the Secret Wars with some major change that would be explained during [the limited series].

"The Hulk came back with a broken leg. The Fantastic Four came back missing the Thing and with a new member. And Spider-Man came back with a black suit. Their unexplained changes in the issue after they disappeared made the reader wonder what happened during the year they were gone," Frenz said.

The gimmick was profitable for Marvel and got cash registers ringing. Frenz was pleasantly surprised by the fan reaction to the costume change.

"There were vague rumors that we were gong to change Spider-Man's costume, and those rumors were [initially] greeted negatively," Frenz said with a laugh. "This was pre- a lot of the cynical things done in the comics market like the death and revamping of characters. This was pre-Internet and, to a large extent, pre-comic book specialty shop."

By the time the May 1984 issue of "The Amazing Spider-Man" came out featuring the first appearance of Spidey's black suit, the fans had moved on from skepticism to love.

The backlash Frenz feared never materialized, even though fans had to wait nearly a year to find out how Spidey got the black suit.

Frenz and Mr. DeFalco handled the story line up until Spidey found out the black suit was an alien parasite.

"Naturally, as soon as we got rid of the black suit, everyone was demanding its return," Frenz said.

When David Micheline and Todd McFarlane took over the creative duties, they created Venom and re-introduced the alien symbiote as a separate entity.

"I thought it was hokey [idea] at first," Shooter said, "but the way they did it made it good."

But what about the anonymous aspiring comic writer who got the ball rolling with the idea for a black costume a year before Mr. Shooter conceived the Secret Wars story line?

"He wasn't ready for prime time," Shooter said. "The story he sent wasn't any good, but his idea intrigued me. We paid him $500 for the idea. Then we decided [1983] wasn't the time to do Spider-Man in a black costume. The idea sat in a drawer until the Mattel deal came along."

Shooter doesn't remember the writer's name, but he believes it only fair that Marvel compensate him. "If he ever comes forward, I hope Marvel does the right thing," Shooter said, though he no longer works for Marvel and doesn't speak for the company.

Frenz will be appearing at New Dimension Comics in Cranberry tomorrow, at Century III Mall May 12, Butler Clearview Mall on May 26, McMurray on June 2, and Ellwood City on June 30. Call New Dimension Comics at 724-776-0433 for details.


Tony Norman can be reached at tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631.


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