Just like my list of Batman artists, we're dealing with an extremely popular and iconic character who has been around for a pretty long time (although not as long as the Caped Crusader) and has been drawn by a multitude of talented artists.
This list was actually a little easier for me to do. I'm not sure if it's because Spidey has perhaps evolved slightly less visually or not. Whatever the case, I don't feel the need to make honourable mentions as I did last time around. At least not to devote too much space to them anyway. We'll see how it goes.
5. Stefano Caselli
I promise you I didn't make this pick simply because I felt obligated to include a more current artist (he's had pencilling duties on Amazing Spider-Man since 2011 and has also drawn him in various cameos in a few recent Avengers titles). Caselli gets the nod because I believe he's the first artist in some time to come along and really bring a fresh style to Spidey's look that I also find appealing. While I'm satisfied with the look a guy like Bryan Hitch or Stuart Immonen gives the character, it's just not different enough to really stand out.
I feel like Caselli's take pays a bit more attention to real anatomy and how it affects the costume and gives us a somewhat more realistic-looking hero but without losing any of the dynamic boldness that makes him so visually appealing. That can't be any easy thing to do (it certainly wasn't easy for me express in one sentence). He's also on occasion drawn the costume with smaller eyes than I'd normally accept and yet, he makes it work. As usual, I'm kind of at a loss to explain just how this effect is accomplished. All I know is that Caselli's Spider-Man is always pleasing and exciting to look at and even presents our hero as a bit more vulnerable than we're used to seeing him.
4. Gil Kane
But I'm gonna have to go with Gil Kane, Romita's own Spider-Man successor. Because to me, it just seems like Kane, having done a lot of work for DC in the sixties (he took over Amazing in 1971, I think), really brought a style that wasn't present in any Marvel book at the time. He also seemed to be the first artist to fully understand Spidey's capability for movement and how to represent that on the page. Now it's possible this is at least in part due to writer Gerry Conway's scripts, but I guess I'll never know. What's important was that after stellar work by both Ditko and Romita in defining the character's look, Kane really drew him to a fuller potential. He no longer looked stiff or awkward when he was swinging on a web line or hanging from a ceiling.
Again, we're dealing in personal opinion here so I can't just state that Ditko and Romita's Spider-Man DID look awkward in some movements or poses, but at least to me, that was the case. But Kane was the first artist to maybe really understand the character from a visual standpoint and how he should move.
3. John Romita Jr.
So now I have to somehow make the argument that the son's contribution to Spidey's visual legacy is more significant than the father's. Or, I guess I could just sidestep that by once again mentioning this list is primarily based on my own tastes. I think I'll go with that option.
Romita actually first drew Spider-Man in the early eighties, not at all that long after his dad. And while his work there was good, it really doesn't factor into my decision to include him on this list. Because at that point I don't believe he'd really found himself as an artist; he was still developing. I think it was in his work on Daredevil in the late eighties going into the nineties that he came into his own. If I were to compile a list of best Daredevil artists, he certainly would have a place there.
While I think his real strength was drawing street-level heroes like Daredevil set in urban landscapes, Romita proved to be one of Marvel's most versatile artists and he drew a ton of different characters in a ton of different titles throughout the nineties. He was their Mr. Reliable for sure. Whether you needed someone to draw Thor, Cable, even Hulk, he could pull it off. But it was his return to the character who had helped define his father's career where I believe he's done his very best work (although the Daredevil stuff is close).
In 1996 he began penciling Peter Parker: Spider-Man. It was a period of turmoil for the character; the infamous Clone Saga, which had begun two years prior, was STILL going on. So Romita found himself drawing Ben Reilly as Spider-Man for awhile, (as well as as the Scarlet Spider before that) with a new costume designed by Dan Jurgens, who was doing the art and writing for the brand new Sensational Spider-Man featuring Reilly. For the then very important limited series, Spider-Man: The Lost Years, it was considered significant that he was the one doing the art. If people were going to accept this whole "new Spider-Man" thing (something Marvel eventually realized they wouldn't, and took steps to correct), then having a great artist like Romita was key.
We've talked a lot without getting into Romita's own drawing style and what he brought to the character. Well, on his initial work back in the eighties, I don't think there was really anything that distinct about it. His Spider-Man looked very much like an homage to the Spider-Man of artists like his father and Kane. But in the late eighties, Spidey would undergo a rather dynamic visual change that we'll get into in detail as we climb to the top of this list, and it would be impossible to believe that this did not influence his later work to at least some degree.
What I can tell you is that Romita Jr. might be the artist who has so far found the most iconic look for Spider-Man. When I was discussing Batman, in the entry on Neal Adams I mentioned that it looked almost as if he had discovered and given us Batman's true form, that is, his most authentic visual archetype. I feel that it's a similar case with Romita's Spidey - everything just looks right, somehow. So if that's the case, how is he not the number one entry on this list? Well, I guess I'd have to say that perhaps if there is a flaw to his Spider-Man, it's that it's just a little too...safe. Given Spider-Man's unique look and potential for unique movement, Romita's Spidey does not take quite full advantage of the visual possibilities.
2. Mark Bagley
In 1983, by the age of twenty-seven, the ultra-talented Bagley was working for Lockheed Martin in Georgia, and had mostly given up on his dream to be a comic book artist, having so far failed to break into the industry. But fate found a way. In true Marvel fashion, a Marvel Try-Out Book was created. It was a deconstructed comic book that aspiring artists could complete then turn in. The artist with the best entry would be given a Marvel assignment and a shot to stick with the company. Bagley beat out thousands of other submissions to win the contest.
He got to draw some of the lower profile assignments, including trading cards and backup stories for the rest of the decade. In 1990 he transitioned to full-time artist, drawing the first twenty-five issues of the brand new title New Warriors. During some of the editorial shuffling at Marvel, New Warriors editor Danny Fingeroth became responsible for the Spider-Man books. He placed his faith in Bagley's ability and made him artist for the flagship: Amazing Spider-Man. His faith was well-placed: Bagley would go on to become perhaps the most iconic and definitive Spider-Man artist of the nineties.
In 2000, with the launching of the new Ultimate Marvel line, Bagley was this time the obvious choice to be the artist for that line's own flagship title, Ultimate Spider-Man. He and writer Brian Bendis would break the record for longest run by the same creative team on a title, previously held by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, established on their run on Fantastic Four back in the early sixties. Bagley did the art without interruption for the first 111 issues.
Bagley's Spidey screams dynamic. Perhaps more than any other artist's depiction, the sense of fluid movement is beautifully conveyed. Perhaps not since Ditko himself had anyone drawn Spider-Man as quite so wirey. He was still a muscular figure but clearly a lot leaner than most Marvel heroes. In Ultimate this was even more apparent since Spider-Man is fifteen years old and maybe three inches or so shorter than his adult 616 counterpart. And those large, exaggerated eyes on the costume he includes are just essential to me.
For quite some time I strongly considered giving Bagley the top spot on this list. He brings everything that Romita Jr. brings but perhaps with a slightly better grasp of Spidey's anatomy and style of movement. And when I say slightly, I mean very slightly. But I can't help but think that Bagley's Spider-Man wouldn't have been quite everything it was without the previous contributions of a certain artist, who resides at the top of this list.
1. Todd McFarlane
When you see McFarlane's name, it conjures up a lot. Few people in the comic book industry have been as successful as he's been and that's due to a lot of factors. He's proven himself to be very shrewd in matters of business and smart about applying his skills to different mediums. Perhaps he's best known for his involvement in the founding of Image Comics or perhaps his extremely popular toy lines. But what I'll always consider his greatest contribution to comics to be is his work on Spider-Man, specifically, the way he drew the character.
In my top three of McFarlane, Bagley and Romita Jr., I feel that their respective styles overlap and intermingle. I'm not sure exactly where it begins. But I am certain that when McFarlane started drawing Amazing Spider-Man in 1988, he redefined how the character should look.
Firstly, like Bagley after him, McFarlane gave us a Spider-Man that was muscular but still lean and wirey. This was emphasized by his understanding of Spidey's movements. His panels featured our hero bending and contorting his body in odd, almost inhuman fashion. This stands to reason since Spider-Man possess a level of flexibility and agility that goes far beyond the capability of ordinary humans. McFarlane took full advantage of that and the results were awesome. As far as the costume went, it seemed to fit better than ever. And then of course there were the eyes - no one before McFarlane had ever drawn Spidey with such large eyes. It's become so imitated that it's almost unthinkable for any artists since to not follow suit in that department. It's something I always have to include in my own visual idea of Spider-Man.
But McFarlane also innovated another aspect of Spider-Man that had remained virtually unchanged since his first appearance: his webbing. Gone were the thin, dark, almost black strands that used to emit from Spidey's wrists - McFarlane replaced them with much thicker stuff of a lighter colour. It was ropey and chaotic-looking. Now it really resembled real webs adjusted to human size.
Clearly I'm not the only person to think McFarlane's Spider-Man was awesome. His work on Amazing catapulted him into comic book superstardom and his talent soon was high in demand. He was given his own new Spider-Man (simply Spider-Man) title to write himself as well as draw. While not a particularly compelling series beyond its art, it sold like mad.
The rest is history and really has no place in this list. His initial departure from Marvel was of course far from friendly and he subsequently became so successful with Image, McFarlane Entertainment and other creative and business ventures that he's never really had cause to go back. Outside a single Spider-Man holiday special released in 2004, he hasn't drawn the character in any official capacity since 1991.
But his contribution to the character from a visual standpoint really can't be overstated. And while I know there are plenty of people who claim he was highly overrated as a Marvel and Spider-Man artist, I just can't agree. I've had quite a few years to think about how I feel about his Spider-Man and a plethora of artists to compare him to. And as much as I love Bagley's depiction of the character, I'm pretty sure it wouldn't be quite what it is without McFarlane's influence.