Think of Spider-Man, right now. Imagine him, as vividly as you can. It’s easy, right? He’s iconic. Everyone knows what he looks like. But here’s the interesting thing about that blue and red image in your head right now: It’s probably wrong. It’s probably a generic, portmanteau version, made up of elements of a whole bunch of different Spider-Mans.
Because there have been a great many Spider-Mans. Make no mistake about that. From the hero’s original (debated) inception point, to the darker, more detailed days of the ‘90s, to Venom, to baggy TV versions, to the Raimi movies, right through to now, Spider-Man’s costume has changed a lot. Always revolving - however loosely - around the familiar iconography you currently see in your mind’s eye, the Spider suit has regardless careened in wildly different directions over the years, to fit the demands of each era, aesthetically, tonally, and sometimes grotesquely commercially. From knobbly, rubberised awkwardness to rad, ‘90s awfulness, here’s the rundown of every important look in Spider-Man’s history, starting right at his (contested) beginnings…
Editor's Note: This feature was originally written before the released of Spider-Man: Homecoming.
1962 - The original costume
Spider-Man’s first costume was designed by genius Marvel artist Steve Ditko. It’s arguably his most iconic creation, with only Doctor Strange to rival it. However, the actual origin of Spider-Man’s look has been contested, the icon apparently having several spider-fathers.
Stan Lee claims partial credit, bringing in the legendary Jack Kirby to create Spider-Man’s first ever five pages. However, Lee discarded Kirby’s design as “too heroic,” and asked Ditko to rework what they had.
According to Ditko, Kirby’s version was closer to Captain America’s costume than Spider-Man’s final look (Kirby’s version even included a hip holster for a ‘web gun’ which, you know, sounds pretty hilarious…) and is basically unrecognisable next to his design.
But that didn’t stop Kirby’s estate from filing a lawsuit in 2009 to claim rights to Spidey (alongside Captain America, The Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, and the original X-Men), saying Kirby was ‘key in the character's early development.’ The lawsuit was settled in 2014, and Stan Lee openly credits Steve Ditko as being the true creator of Spider-Man’s look.
“Spider-Man has one of those costumes that always seems to revert back to a version of the original design, much like Superman's suit. So while it's been remixed by plenty of artists (for instance, with the Venom suit or the Iron Spider), the original is iconic enough that Marvel returns to it time and time again. Spider-Man's full face mask, spiderweb motif and bug-eye goggles stand out from the crowd,” superhero costume expert Gavia Baker-Whitelaw, who runs the Hello, Tailor blog tells me.
The original design delivers the red, black and blue base-colours (with the blue far darker here than in subsequent takes, as it had to be mixed with black ink thanks to archaic printing equipment). It’s also decorated with a web pattern, demonstrating Ditko’s dedication to his craft (it would have been easier for the artist to leave this detail out, a detail which makes it a much more complex costume to draw). It has the full mask - complete with teardrop-shaped eyes - as well as a detail that would be fairly swiftly phased out, underarm webbing…
1966 - The classic design
I’m not sure what sort of deodorant you’d need to keep your underarm webbing fresh, but I imagine it’s probably too expensive for someone on a student budget. Thankfully, that detail was discarded by the next significant artist to work on Spider-Man, John Romita Sr.
Romita Sr was behind some of the most memorable Spider-Man plots, including the iconic Death of Gwen Stacy and Spider-Man No More storylines. But, unbelievably, he wasn’t initially confident in his abilities on the book. “The only reason I did Spider-Man was because Stan asked me and I felt that I should help out, like a good soldier. I never really felt comfortable on Spider-Man for years. I had felt at home immediately on Daredevil. On Spider-Man I felt obliged to ghost Ditko because - this may sound naive, but I was convinced, in my own mind, that he was going to come back in two or three issues… The only reason it wasn’t better was that I couldn’t ape him any better,” Romita Sr says.