Jul 6, 2015

The Amazing Spider-Man by DeFalco and Frenz, Part 1

The Amazing Spider-Man by DeFalco and Frenz
Part 1 – The Black Costume
Ben Smith

The year was 1984, a Secret War loomed on the horizon, and Roger Stern was finishing what would be considered one of the all-time best runs for a writer on the Amazing Spider-Man. Tom DeFalco had been the editor on the book during Stern’s run (Stern was leaving to start a lengthy and equally beloved run on The Avengers) but turned the book over to Danny Fingeroth after receiving a promotion. Fingeroth suggested that DeFalco fill-in as writer on the book until they could get a permanent replacement, but eventually ended up liking the team of DeFalco and Ron Frenz enough to make them the permanent team. (Amazing Spider-Man #252 featuring the first appearance of the “black costume” was DeFalco and Frenz’s first collaboration on the book. What became one of the most significant issues in the history of the series was produced by what was essentially, at the time, a fill-in team.)

I’ve always considered the DeFalco and Frenz run on Spider-Man to be one of my all-time favorites for the character. (It doesn’t hurt that it falls right in the sweet spot of when I became a comic book fan and collector, as a small kid on the mean streets of Illinois.) Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s seminal work creating the series is rightly considered to be the pinnacle of the character, and arguably the blueprint for Marvel comics as a company. The aforementioned Roger Stern run is often considered the next on the list of top tenures, with his creation of the extremely popular Hobgoblin, among other classics. After that you have varying degrees of love for Michelinie, and Dematteis, and others.

(Quick tangent: I don’t think anyone rational can deny that Dan Slott is producing one of the all-time best runs as the writer of Spider-Man. Big Time, Spider-Island, No One Dies, Superior Spider-Man, and Spider-Verse are all sure to be enduring classics. Slott is easily top three on the list of writers, and might be the best ever if you remove all the outside factors for Lee and Ditko (creating something revolutionary, setting the blueprint, establishing the characters and world) and just compare them story to story. That’s not to diminish Lee and Ditko’s work whatsoever, I just feel that strongly about what Slott has done with the character.)

DeFalco and Frenz don’t often get mentioned much with the pantheon creators, but if you take a long hard look at the stories they created, you’ll see what a major contribution they made to the character. There’s the black costume (an idea that was purchased from a fan and brought to life with a brilliant design by the legendary Mike Zeck) and the continuation of the Hobgoblin Saga. The return of Mary Jane and the rise of The Rose. Not to mention other significant contributions we’ll be covering in the weeks ahead.

I think you get the idea, so let’s get started.

Amazing Spider-Man #252
Plot: Roger Stern; Script: Tom DeFalco; Pencil Breakdowns: Ron Frenz; Finished Art: Brett Breeding; Editor: Danny Fingeroth

Spider-Man returns from the Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars with a new black costume, that mysteriously responds to his mental commands.

I liked: Ron Frenz does his best Steve Ditko impersonation, giving the book a dark and creepy tone it probably hasn’t had since Ditko left.

I always love Peter with a little stubble on his face. Makes him seem like less of a pantywaist. It’s a really nice standalone issue with Peter readjusting to normal life and appreciating New York more than he usually does. Nothing world-shaking.

I disliked: Not much. Some might complain that you need to read Secret Wars to understand what’s going on here, but I would call those people morons (unless they’re nice, in which I’d call them idiots).

Black Costume Update: The costume responds to Peter’s mental commands. It stores items, like a camera or a wallet, and produces them when needed. It mimics civilian clothes, and flows across the room and onto Peter’s body when prompted. Apparently, Reed Richards offered to take a look at the costume for him, to try and determine how it works. (The bottom of the white spider on the front of the costume comes to a point, instead of the two prongs that would become the permanent design.)

Favorite panel:
I know it’s technically two panels, but it’s my column so I can do what I want.

Amazing Spider-Man #253
Written by: Tom DeFalco; Penciled by: Rick Leonardi; Inked by: Bill Anderson; Edited by: Danny Fingeroth

A new crimeboss named The Rose is blackmailing a pro football quarterback into fixing games, until Spider-Man intervenes.

I liked: I have a soft spot for the Rose, no doubt because these comics were my formative introduction to the characters and the series. Regardless, I think he fits in perfect with the long history of masked crime bosses for Spider-Man, which Ditko loved to do, and I liked what he brought to the stories, becoming entangled with the Hobgoblin and the Kingpin in future issues.

I disliked: Look, we all know that Jim Shooter required all his writers to introduce every character and every situation in every comic, because any comic could be a new reader’s first (this was before the internet existed, my friends). Some were better at it than others, but most of the time it resulted in lots of heavy exposition that weighs the story down. In the effort to not repeat myself, just assume that the bad exposition and constant recapping that was representative of the style of the time will be an ongoing dislike in all of these comics.

Black Costume Update: The costume produces its own webs, without the use of Spidey’s web-shooters. Leonardi altered the legs and torso of the white spider logo on the front of the costume, which would be the permanent look of the costume moving forward.

Amazing Spider-Man #254
Writer: Tom DeFalco; Penciler: Rick Leonardi; Inker: Josef Rubinstein; Editor: Danny Fingeroth

The police recover Hobgoblin’s battle van from the Hudson River, and Spider-Man fights to keep it from falling into the hands of the mercenary Jack O’Lantern.

I liked: Unlike Steve McNiven, I like pumpkin-headed guy, aka Jack O’Lantern. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I like the way he mixed with Hobgoblin, The Rose, and The Kingpin during this era of Spider-Man. (I acknowledge some of my love might be due to nostalgia, but I don’t think that precludes me from being critical. After all, I have no idea why I ever thought He-Man was a good cartoon.) It was a nice blend of the street-level crime, and masked supervillains that work equally well with Spider-Man.

I disliked: I really couldn’t care less about the rift between Peter and Aunt May over him quitting college. (On a side note, this issue is on the short list for comics I’ve seen available at most comic book stores across the country. It’s weirdly prevalent.)

Hobgoblin Identity Update: Betty mentions that Lance Bannon hasn’t been seen in weeks (the Hobgoblin is presumed dead following the events of issue #251, leading one to believe Bannon might be the Hobgoblin).

Favorite panel:

Amazing Spider-Man #255
Writer: Tom DeFalco; Penciler: Ron Frenz; Inker: Josef Rubinstein; Editor: Danny Fingeroth

Spider-Man is caught between master thief the Black Fox, and the Red Ghost and his Super Apes.

I liked: Ron Frenz returns to take over as the ongoing penciler.

I disliked: If there’s anything I’ve always loved, its elderly supervillains, and this story has two! (That is sarcasm, by the way.) The only thing missing is the Vulture.

Black Costume Update: The costume repels dirt molecules. It’s attaching itself to him while he sleeps.

Hobgoblin Identity Update: A shadowy figure in possession of Hobgoblin’s missing battle wagon is disappointed that Spider-Man didn’t track it via the spider tracer he previously placed on it, preventing a confrontation.

Amazing Spider-Man #256
Writer: Tom DeFalco; Penciler: Ron Frenz; Inker: Josef Rubinstein; Editor: Danny Fingeroth

After Spider-Man and the Black Cat break up one of his operations, The Rose hires the Puma to eliminate Spider-Man once and for all.

I liked: I’m on the record for my support of the Spider-Man and Black Cat relationship. As far as ‘80s exposition goes, DeFalco is one of the better ones at handling it. Mary Jane shows up dressed like... this.

I disliked: I never liked the Puma. I don’t know if it’s because I don’t like furry human characters (except Tigra) or it’s because they job out Spider-Man to make him look more formidable. (I love anthropomorphized animal characters, like Rocket Raccoon, but not the furry guys, like Beast.) Or maybe Puma just sucks?

Black Costume Update: Peter Parker continues to be lethargic and tired from whatever it is the costume is doing to him at night.

Favorite panel:

Amazing Spider-Man #257
Writer: Tom DeFalco; Penciler: Ron Frenz; Inker: Josef Rubinstein; Editor: Danny Fingeroth

The Black Cat saves Spider-Man from the Puma, but the rematch comes during a visit by Mary Jane, after which she lets loose with a bombshell revelation.

I liked: Spider-Man with the hurt shoulder, arm in a web-sling, is a classic trope for the character. The Kingpin putting the Rose in check for ordering hits on his superhero enemies.

I disliked: Nothing.

Black Costume Update: The costume momentarily refuses to leave Peter’s body when commanded. The Puma’s heightened senses detect that the costume’s webbing is organic.

Hobgoblin Identity Update: The Hobgoblin returns, to align himself with the Rose.

Favorite Panel:

DeFalco and Frenz legacy points moment: Mary Jane knows that Peter Parker is Spider-Man!

Amazing Spider-Man #258
Writer: Tom DeFalco; Penciler: Ron Frenz; Inker: Josef Rubinstein; Editor: Danny Fingeroth

Reeling from Mary Jane’s suprising revelation, Spider-Man takes Reed Richards up on his offer to examine his new costume, and receives even more startling news, it’s alive.

I liked: Black Cat getting jealous of Mary Jane, and both of them yelling at him is a good time, in moderation. Hobgoblin’s impromptu audition for the Rose.

What can you say about the Amazing Bag-Man? It’s an all-timer.

DeFalco and Frenz legacy points moment: The Amazing Bag-Man!

I disliked: The costume being a symbiote was a pretty clever way to get rid of it, but unfortunately it led to thirty years of diminishing returns on the concept. I hate symbiotes. Hate them!

DeFalco and Frenz legacy points moment: Symbiotes!

Black Costume Update: The costume was taking Spider-Man out at night while he slept. The costume is a symbiote trying to permanently attach itself to Peter. It’s vulnerable to sonic waves and fire.

Favorite panel:

I love that even Reed thinks that the bag gag is funny.

Legend has it that the initial fan backlash to the black costume was so strong and so negative, that Shooter demanded they get rid of it in the next issue following its introduction. DeFalco convinced him that they should keep it at least as long as it takes for them to show how he actually got the costume in Secret Wars, which would be in the eighth issue of that series. By the time they got the sales numbers and overwhelmingly positive fan response to issue #252, they had to change their strategy again, and have Spider-Man alternate between the classic red and blue, and the black costume. Marvel would eventually find a permanent use for the black costume in the character of Venom, which is kind of a shame, because Venom sucks. (If you ask me, if you have two very strong costume designs like Spider-Man does, there’s no reason not to use them both. That’s something Slott has taken full advantage of in his run, introducing and using a wide variety of costumes for Spider-Man.)

For those keeping track, DeFalco and Frenz legacy points moments

  • Mary Jane knows that Peter Parker is Spider-Man
  • The Amazing Bag-Man
  • Symbiotes!

Next week, more Spider-Man!

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