I’ve had to clean out my office recently, and in doing so I’ve unearthed a small treasure trove of interesting items that have been buried for several years. So with the holidays before us, I expect that I’ll be posting a bunch of stuff before through the end of the year. Consider it a bonus for having made it through 2020 largely in one piece. Anyway, one of the most classic and well-remembered stories in Marvel history is “The Kid Who Collects Spider-Man” by Roger Stern and Ron Frenz. (Not “The Kid Who Collected…”, as it’s often mistakenly referred to.) It was released in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #248 during Assistant Editor’s month, but it wasn’t a silly piece at all–it was heartfelt and sincere.
Like most everything in this run (and most everything in this era of comics) “the Kid Who Collects…” was produced using the Marvel method of plot-pencils-script. A lot of people have a flawed vision as to how this worked in practice. Some don’t understand it at all, whereas others assume that this means that the artist was doing absolutely all of the plotting. The reality is that in some cases, it largely did, but the further into the 1970s and beyond you got, the more thorough and complete a plot for a given story was generated by the writer/plotter. The artist still had the leeway to pace things out visually however they thought best, giving them much greater control over the final story than when working from a full script. But it wasn’t absolute control. Here by way of example is the original two-page plot for “the Kid Who Collects Spider-Man”.
As you can see, while it’s a far cry from a full script, the plot for this story includes tons of specifics. It’s interesting that Stern addresses the plot to John Romita Jr, then the main artist on AMAZING SPIDER-MAN. For whatever reason (most likely because he had to begin work on UNCANNY X-MEN early in order to fill in on a late oversized issue that Paul Smith couldn’t complete) this back-up tale was given to Ron Frenz to illustrate. So the pencil annotations on this plot breaking the plot down into individual pages would have been done by Ron as he started to work out how to tell this story visually.
I also happen to have copies of all of the pencils to “The Kid Who Collects Spider-Man” , so let’s see what Frenz did with it, and in particular what he contributed before the story was inked by Terry Austin. These days, we couldn’t get away with showing a Star Wars poster on the bedroom wall in this manner.
Ron was a hugely adaptable artist, and one who has always been forthright about the influences he felt from the formative geniuses of the Marvel era. Consequently, on this first outing as a Spider-Man artist, he very definitively channels the spirit of Steve Ditko’s interpretation of the character. Roger Stern had restored Spidey’s armpit-webbing some issues earlier, but here Frenz gives the wall-crawler the slimmer physique of the Ditko days.
Frenz also wasn’t above swiping on occasion, and at least two of the Spider-Man figures on this page are straight-up lifts from Ditko issues of the series. There’d be a lot more in the course of this story.
But even with those swipes, Frenz puts his own stamp on everything. He needs to fill in the gaps of moments that he’s not inspired to pull directly from Ditko (like the first panel on this page) and he needs to do so in a similar enough style that the appropriation won’t stand out in an ugly way on the final pages. Swiping gets a bit of a raw deal reputation these days, but many artists did it back in the day–it was simply another way of getting the work done in time and making it look good. There wasn’t any shame in it (unless an artist was relentless in their swiping–then all bets were off.)
For those who aren’t familiar with the shorthand of artists, those X’s on the Peter Parker figures in the last three panels here are indications from Frenz to Austin that the penciler intends for these areas to be filled in solid black. The point here being that Spider-Man is telling the kid, Tim, details about how he got his powers without revealing his true identity to him–yet.
When we speak of storytelling in comics in terms of the artist, what we’re referring to is the ability for an artist to communicate the specifics of the story completely through the visuals, so that the words aren’t even necessary. Many misuse the term, turning it into a general plaudit that can be ascribed to any artist. But this is what it’s about. As you can see here, Frenz’s storytelling is quite good. Even without the plot or any of the final copy, you can follow what is going on pretty easily.
Some more Ditko swipes here, in those last two panels. Panel 5 in particular is unmistakable.
Frenz seems to be having a bit of a time getting Peter Parker consistent at this point. His interpretation vacillates back and forth between the Ditko and Romita interpretations a bit, and as such seems to change from panel to panel. But as he did more Spidey work, the more comfortable he became, and eventually he found “his” Peter Parker.
And here, with another Ditko swipe in Panel 2, the story closes out with that sucker punch ending. It still works, even without copy 9though the copy would add texture and nuance to everything, in particular the conversation between Spidey and Tim. it would also ramp up the unstated question as to why Spidey was revealing all of this to him in an understated fashion, so as not to telegraph the ending.