Agent of S.T.Y.L.E. - SPIDER-MAN's Fashion Spider-Sense

After the deaths of his parents, Peter Parker was raised by his Aunt May and Uncle Ben in Forest Hills, Queens, New York. Growing up, Peter showed a great aptitude for science, especially in engineering and chemistry. At the age of fifteen, Peter attended a scientific demonstration of particle accelerators when a radioactive spider suddenly bit him and then died.

 

The spider’s irradiated venom altered Peter’s biology. He now had superhuman strength, reflexes, agility and dexterity based on the proportional abilities of a spider. He could cling to surfaces through “bio-magnetism” and now possessed a psychic “spider-sense” that warned him of hidden and oncoming threats. Peter tested out his powers at a local wrestling competition, disguising himself just in case he lost. After winning the competition and its prize money, Peter embarked on a career as a costumed television performer called “the amazing Spider-Man.” To complete the spider motif, Peter created wrist-worn “web-shooters” that used a special adhesive of his own design, web-fluid that was “strong as steel” and dissolved after an hour.

Over the next few weeks, Peter grew arrogant and self-absorbed. When a thief robbed the studio, Spider-Man ignored the criminal, saying it wasn’t his job to get involved. Weeks later, a burglar broke into Peter’s home and shot Uncle Ben. Peter apprehended the burglar and realized it was the same thief from the studio. Shocked that his actions led to his uncle’s death, Peter realized that great power brings great responsibility. He left behind entertainment, becoming a costumed hero.

Over the years, Spider-Man has become a formidable champion and has served alongside most of Earth’s champions. He’s traveled through space and time, and has faced off against aliens, terrorists, mobsters, super-villains, sorcerers and demons. He’s suffered horrible tragedies and has lost many loved ones, but he’s also seen victory and he knows that tomorrow could always be better. Whether it’s alone, alongside his buddies the Fantastic Four and the X-Men, or as a member of the Avengers, Spidey is willing to fight for others.

Got it? Good. Now let’s take a look at his web-slinging ensemble!

THE CLASSIC SUIT

 

In the mainstream comics, after wowing people at the wrestling arena, Peter gained the attention of agent Max Schiffman who immediately began booking him as a TV stunt performer, entertaining late night show audiences with his superhuman abilities. Of course, Pete needed a flashy outfit if he was going to have such a career and so he put together the snazzy spider suit we all know and love.

Unlike certain Bat-themed heroes, Spidey’s outfit was primarily meant to be flashy, cool and attention-grabbing rather than body armor. But there were also some practical factors involved. For one thing, Spidey found that his wall-crawling abilities didn’t work as well through thick layers (such as the soles of most sneakers or dress shoes). A skin-tight gymnast outfit or ski suit was necessary if he wanted minimal interference. This also made it easier for him to hide his uniform beneath civilian clothes when he became a full-on superhero later.

Another factor that came up in later comics was that Peter didn’t want to advertise that he was only 15 years old. People might suspect he was in college, but he didn’t want anyone taking him less seriously if they knew he wasn’t even old enough to vote. Hiding his eyes and face entirely held him pretend to be a little older. When he became a hero, this helped keep his identity secret. And as early Spidey comics revealed, the lenses are also tinted slightly to protect him from the sun’s glare, which is a key factor to consider if you’re going to web-swing through a city and somersault over tall buildings.

Notice that in his debut story from Amazing Fantasy, Spidey’s suit is actually red and black, following the coloring of some actual spiders. There is blue coloring here, but those highlights are meant to show depth and some muscle structure.

 

But when Spidey returned to comics months later in his own series, the inking style started changing. The cover of Amazing Spider-Man #1 (March, 1963) and the interior art of the issue’s second story had the hero’s suit colored red and blue suit rather than red and black. This continued for several more issues until it seemed that there was no longer any confusion: Spider-Man was now wearing a suit of the classic superhero colors of red and blue.

Many folks didn’t notice since several had already mistaken the original blue shading as an indication that the costume was red and blue anyway, similar to how many kids in the 60s honestly believed that Superman had blue hair back because of how artists highlighted it. Another small change to Spider-Man’s color scheme? Through most of Amazing Fantasy #15, the spider emblem on the back of his shirt was colored a bright blue. But then it became red in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man. It also quickly altered it’s shape a bit to be just a circle with eight legs, although some artists (and the movies) put their own spin on it, just as his chest emblem is often a different shape.

Over the years, artists depicting scenes from Amazing Fantasy #15 in flashback nearly always color the outfit worn at that time as red and blue as well. This, and the various films and TV show adaptations, has led many to believe that Spidey has always been red and blue.

 

After he became a full-fledged superhero, Spidey started wearing a belt that held his spare web-fluid cartridges for his web-shooters. This belt first appeared in Amazing Spider-Man #2 and Peter deliberately made it thin enough that it could slip beneath his shirt without interfering with his movements.

After a couple of adventures, Peter also installed a small spider-spotlight into the belt so he could shine it on criminals he felt like freaking out or so that he could announce his presence to folks while keeping his distance. And a compartment was built into the belt for Spidey to carry the camera that would later earn him a living as a photojournalist.

Point of trivia, Spidey ensures his camera captures pictures of him thanks to transmitters he’s installed in his belt and has sewn into his costume. As soon as those transmitted pass in front of the camera lens, a sensor picks them up and takes a few shots. NEAT!

 

Now, let’s talk about these things under Spidey’s arms. Web design on the outfit itself wasn’t enough for Ditko, so he added web-like netting at Spidey’s sides. I think it’s actually a cool idea, but the problem is they’re so large that they border on silly. You may as well call them web-wings, except they don’t help him glide or fly. Fashion is as much about editing things down as it is about throwing cool, new ideas onto the board. Sometimes you have to say, “You know what? The outfit works just as well without this extra thing.” If the web-wings are there, I’m personally fine with it, just as long as they’re not so large that I think they’re hampering the movement of our wall-crawling hero.

Occasionally, Ditko would drop the netting from Spidey’s arms and artists who came after often did this as well. When Steve Ditko left, John Romita, Sr. came on board and added his own touches. Like Ditko, he was truly a visionary when it came to drawing the web-slinging wonder and he added two tweaks that set the standard for many. The first was that he shortened the web-netting so that it went only from the rib cage to around the elbow. Sometimes, he didn’t draw it at all and left Peter’s arms completely free.

 

The other tweak Romita added was enlarging Spider-Man’s eyepieces. Just a bit at first, but it was noticeable and influenced some later artists who would take it a step further, making Spidey’s eyepieces cover most of his masked face. Romita’s tweaks have been influential to many and so it is this second red and blue outfit with the larger eyes and the small web-netting that many consider to be the truly “classic” idea of Spider-Man.

A while back, I discussed Spidey’s costume with Tim Gunn, one of the minds behind Project Runway and the Chief Creative Officer at Liz Claiborne, Inc. During this conversation, Tim remarked: “What I find interesting about it is it’s one of the few costumes where it’s really all of a piece. You can’t imagine taking any component out of it and replacing it with something. It’s of a piece, head-to-toe, literally. And it has huge graphic impact and amazing symbolism. I’m crazy about it!”

I think Tim’s absolutely right. You see this outfit, you are not going to forget nor confuse it with anyone else. The colors are great together and are nicely balanced, the web pattern is detailed without being overly-complex.

This design also helps underline the fact that Spidey is a character the reader is meant to relate to. Comic readers are of all ages, races, appearances and backgrounds and Spider-Man’s costume leaves the person beneath a complete mystery. Is he Asian? Is he black? Is he young and boyish? Is he in his 40s and unshaven? Does he have a facial disfigurement? Are those eye-lenses in the mask prescription? You have no clue. Any of us could be Spider-Man (okay, not all of us have that physique, but you know what I’m saying).

 

This look has become so memorable that now anyone with a mask remotely close to Spidey’s is immediately identified with him. Just ask any Deadpool fan. Not only are those eyes memorable, but they add a small creepiness factor to the character. If it’s dark enough where all you see are these two reflective, bug-like eyes staring at you from the darkness? Double-creepy. And that’s good. Spiders are often considered creepy and Spidey is meant to seem a little unnatural, the way he skitters up buildings and is completely comfortable walking on a ceiling.

Just as long as he’s only a little creepy. He still describes himself as “your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man,” after all. He can look spooky in the shadows, as many of us would anyway, but once he steps into the light and you see the proud primary colors and cartoonish eyes that resemble those of Felix the Cat, you can smile and relax again. This is your buddy, the guy who’s always got a great one-liner and will figure out a solution even if he doubts himself while carrying it out.

 

When he became artist on the series Amazing Spider-Man, Todd McFarlane gave the blue parts of the costume a much darker look. In fact, they were mainly black, with blue outlines giving simple depth and shape, just as Ditko had originally tried doing. And in scenes where the web-slinger operated in the shadows, McFarlane occasionally dropped the blue entirely, making the wall-crawler entirely red and black. The next artist on Amazing Spider-Man was Erik Larsen and he drew Spidey as a red and black hero quite often, as if this were now the hero’s official color scheme.

Now and then, other artists will do this as well, if Peter’s in the shadows or if it makes him look cooler against the background. The red and black look good, I will agree. But I prefer the blue because, as I said, Spider-Man has a bright personality for the most part. Despite all the crap he goes through and all the times he knows his luck will not hold out, he shrugs and grimaces and tosses a few jokes, because tomorrow is another day. So I think having black be so dominant on him makes the character seem too serious.

THE BLACK COSTUME

 

There are a lot of misconceptions about the famous black Spider-Man costume so let’s clear a few things up. First, yes, it is true that Spider-Man discovered this suit (or what he thought was a suit) on the gestalt planet called “Battleworld” in the crossover series Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars #8, published in December of 1984.

But this origin story came after Spidey had already begun wearing the black suit starting in Amazing Spider-Man #252 which was published in May of 1984, so that is actually the first time we saw our hero wearing it (not counting a previously published issue of Marvel Age where a red and black version of the design was advertised to fans).

 

Spidey discovered a glob of goo inside a machine that he mistakenly believed was meant to create clothes. The goo slid over his body and formed into a bodysuit and mask that resembled that of Spider-Woman II (Julia Carpenter), whom Spider-Man had only met earlier that day. Apparently, Spidey had been thinking about that design and so the goo responded to his thoughts.

Peter found that the goo actually altered its form to whatever clothing he wanted, in any color he wanted. It even had built-in web-shooters and could create pockets to hold his camera and other tools. Originally, the Spider’s lower body came to a single point, but then artists began drawing it with two points at the bottom, as had been depicted on the cover of Amazing Spider-Man #252.

As the weeks went on, Parker found he was tired more often than not and later discovered that he was fighting crime in his sleep. After further discovering that the webbing from this suit was apparently organic, he took it to the Fantastic Four for testing. Team leader Reed Richards realized this was not a suit made from alien material that responded to mental commands, this was an alien symbiote that was feeding off of Spider-Man and attempting to permanently bond with him. Spidey left the suit imprisoned with the Fantastic Four. This occurred in Amazing Spider-Man #258, published in November of 1984.

So Pete only wore the symbiote for about seven months and got rid of it a month before we learned its origin (which, granted, does add a few more months to the timeline since Peter wore the symbiote for the next four issues of Secret Wars).

 

A couple of months later, the Black Cat (Peter’s his girlfriend at the time) gave our hero a cloth version of the black costume that she’d made herself because she felt it looked “sexier” than his original costume. So for the next few years, Spidey went back and forth from the red and blue to the black and white, depending on the adventure.

Notice at no point did I say that the alien symbiote brought out Peter’s dark side. Because it didn’t. He did not act any differently and the suit originally seemed to have no personality beyond that of a simple animal. Only years after Spidey and the symbiote had parted company did writers come up with the idea that the suit had more of a personality and could bring out a person’s darker, baser emotions. And it goes without saying that the cloth version he later wore for much longer certainly did not affect his mind at all.

So because of that, the original use of this costume and Spidey’s later act of wearing a cloth version don’t work for me. Spidey is a colorful character not only literally but also metaphorically. Peter has his nights of angst or melancholic guilt, but he always returns to his core as a whimsical, outspoken guy with an obvious humor, habitually mocking his enemies while in battle and reminding himself that things can’t stay bad forever. This costume doesn’t say that. It speaks of a black and white philosophy and its minimalist design seems pretty boring compared to Steve Ditko’s classic design.

 

The alien symbiote later brought about the super-villain Venom and for him the design is pretty great. It spoke very much about Venom’s philosophy and single-minded nature.

During the crossover Civil War, Spider-Man went through some pretty bad times and was forced to fight those he considered friends and comrades. He wound up donning the black costume again and, in this case, I do understand it. Spidey was angry, distrustful, and now had to rely on stealth much more strongly than he normally did.

So in April of 2007, Spidey started wearing this suit again for several months. And I applaud that Marvel actually thought to give Spidey a reason to wear this suit again beyond simply to promote the then-upcoming film Spider-Man 3, which featured the symbiote in its story.

BEN REILLY, THE NEW SPIDER-MAN

 

I’ll try to keep this simple.

There was this story where Spider-Man encountered a perfect clone of himself. He thought the clone died and even made efforts to dispose of the body. Readers forgot about the story. About a couple of decades later, the clone turned up alive, using the name Ben Reilly (after Uncle Ben and using May’s maiden name). He returned to New York and became a new hero called the Scarlet Spider, whose costume was just a red bodysuit, a plain red Spider-Man-esque mask, and a sleeveless hoody with a spider on it that he picked up at a museum (and then had the hoody ripped off). This was back in the 1990s when people figured superheroes looked cooler if you threw on jackets or normal clothing items like hooded sweatshirts on top of a traditional costume.

A series of events I’m not going to begin to explain here led Peter Parker to decide to retire and leave the Spider-Man identity to Ben. So Ben dyed his hair blonde, pretended to be Peter’s identical cousin (don’t you dare start singing that song, older fans). Ben then took the time to design a new Spider-Man costume that debuted in Sensational Spider-Man #0 (January, 1996).

 

Oh, 90s Spider-Man, look at you. Why, why, why are you wearing biker-esque gloves? You’re not a biker? And you’ve gotten rid of the cool torso-leading-down-to-belt design, giving us just a shirt that’s identical from the back, thus taking away some of the outfit’s originality. And wait… someone’s stolen half of each of your boots?

No. My boy Tim was right when he specifically said it would be wrong to take away a piece of Spider-Man’s costume and you’ve done just that. You’ve literally taken away mere pieces of his boots and his gloves.

But don’t worry, boys and girls. Marvel realized no one was really digging the fact that Ben Reilly was now Spider-Man, so in December of 1996, Peter returned to his role and his classic costume in Spider-Man #75. Much rejoicing was shared by all.

THE STARK ARMOR

 

After joining the Avengers and becoming Tony Stark’s assistant, Spider-Man got a rather expensive gift. Tony Stark AKA Iron Man designed a new technologically enhanced suit for him, one with lots of fun gadgets, the ability to alter its appearance to Spidey’s classic costume or black costume, and three weird spider-legs that grew from a disc on the back and would move according to Peter’s thoughts. This armor first showed up in Amazing Spider-Man #529 (April, 2006) in a story that was acted as a lead-in to Marvel’s Civil War crossover. It has been called the Stark Spider Armor and the Iron Spider Armor.

This is what you do if you really want to give Spider-Man a new look. Throw out the red and blue and design almost from scratch. And you know what? This is interesting. Do I like it as much as the red and blue? No. And I don’t think it works for Spider-Man necessarily. It looks expensive, it looks flashy, it looks like something Batman keeps in a vault for special emergencies. And Peter, although a scientist, shouldn’t look too high-tech. He’s the bad luck penny who’s always struggling to make the rent on time and this outfit gives off the opposite impression. Then again, that works when you consider how much was going right for Peter at the time, living in Avengers Tower and working for one of the richest, smartest and most successful men on the planet.

When I showed this to Tim, he remarked, “I actually respond very positively to it, but I would have it be for someone else.” And he’s absolutely right. This doesn’t work for Peter, but it is a great outfit. It says agility, it says spider, it says tech. And that’s why it worked for the new Scarlet Spider character(s) that appeared in the pages of Avengers Initiative.

MILES MORALES

 

In 2000, Marvel started telling stories that took place in a parallel universe where superheroes were just starting to really appear and where many characters had revised origins/natures. This continuity was referred to under the label Ultimate Marvel. Rather than being bitten by a spider that had been accidentally irradiated, Ultimate Peter Parker was bitten by a spider that had been deliberately chemically engineered by Norman Osborn AKA the Green Goblin. He wound up becoming a superhero for similar reasons to the mainstream Marvel Spider-Man. And his costume was the same red and blue classic threads, minus the web-netting.

After over a decade of stories (although less than two years passed for the character himself), Peter’s career came to an end. Since then, a new Spider-Man has appeared in the Ultimate Marvel Universe. Mile Morales got similar powers to Peter and wound up being inspired by the hero to use his own powers for good.

Miles has an interesting look. In a way, it’s a reverse of the original black and red look. The web pattern and mask remind you this is supposed to be Spider-Man, but he’s not “Peter Parker Lite.” Similar to Ben Reilly, he has a biker style to his gloves, with colored fingers. But here it works better to my eyes, since the rest of the costume is so minimalist.

The mostly black costume also seems a clever indicator to Miles having a stealthy power Peter never did, the ability to become invisible. He can also temporarily paralyze folks with a “venom touch,” which is like the Vulcan neck pinch but even more formidable!

 

And you know what? That wraps it up for us, people. I know, I know. You’re wondering where the entry is on Spider-Man 2099 or Spider-Man Unlimited or the Spider-Man of the future we saw in Amazing Spider-Man #500. Perhaps you’re curious why no mention of Spider-Man’s transformations into Captain Universe or Spider-Hulk. Well, people, our wall-crawling web-slinger is a guy worthy of multiple columns! Rest assured, Spider-Man’s future incarnations and a few others will be discussed in the next column!

I hope you enjoyed this. Feel free to send any questions or topic suggestions to my e-mail or my Twitter: @SizzlerKistler. Until next time, this is Alan Kistler, Agent of S.T.Y.L.E., signing off.

[Alan Sizzler Kistler is the author of the Unofficial Spider-Man Trivia Challenge and the Unofficial Batman Trivia Challenge, available at book stores such as Barnes & Noble and at Amazon. He has been recognized as a comic book historian by news media outlets and publishers. He believes Isaac Asimov should be required reading. His Twitter handle is: @SizzlerKistler]

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