Alex Grand and Jim Thompson interview comic artist, Ron Frenz in the second of a 3 parter discussing his run on Spider-Man with Roger Stern and Tom DeFalco, working under editor Danny Fingeroth and then Jim Owsley, co-creating characters like Black Fox and Puma, the circumstances of leaving Spidey, and ending up with The Mighty Thor for 5 years co-creating a pantheon of characters and places. Edited & Produced by Alex Grand. Images used in artwork ©Their Respective Copyright holders, CBH Podcast ©Comic Book Historians. Thumbnail Artwork ©Comic Book Historians.Support the show (https://www.patreon.com/comicbookhistorians)
Alex: Welcome back to the Comic Book Historians Podcast, for Part 2 of the Ron Frenz Career Retrospective Interview. Let’s continue.
Frenz: It wasn’t until we were a few issues in on Spider-Man, and we knew that it was going to be a regular gig that Danny had me doing full pencils. But Rubinstein was more comfortable working on layouts. Initially, Danny, God love him, said, “No. I hired Ron to do full pencils. He’s going to do full pencils.”
But my attitude was, if Joe would rather do breakdowns, then I’ll do the breakdowns. Because if he’s seeing this differently than me, he’s feeling limited by my full pencils and he’s not completely using my full pencils, so we’re talking about wasted effort. “Dan”, I said, “I’m more than happy… I’ll go do breakdowns. He’ll be happier. We’ll all be happier with the finished product.” And that’s what we ended up doing for the lion’s share of the run, was I went to breakdowns.
Jim: But when you did, The Kid Who Collects Spider-Man, let’s talk about that for a few minutes because people must still ask you about that story, right?
Frenz: Oh, yeah. Yeah. It’s wonderful that it’s remembered the way it is. Yeah.
Jim: Did you get a script from Roger Stern, or how did you first get that?
Frenz: There was a plot.
Jim: And what did you think when you read it?
Frenz: It was a traditional Marvel plot that I think, the sections written by the reporter were scripted. I think he had those, and he told you where they were going to fall in the storytelling and everything. I thought it was fantastic. I mean, I choked up when I read it. I read the plot the same way when people choke up when they read the story. And I was incredibly intimidated.
I had already done some Ditko on Spider-Man on the What If, I had done. Because what I’ve tried to do on the What If, which is, it comes through to a certain degree but I’m not sure that the inker, Sam de la Rosa, I’m not sure he had the time to worry about what I was trying to do in the pencils with that job. Because those What If jobs were larger than normal.
But on that Spider-Man What If, it transitioned between the Ditko and the Romita eras. So, I tried to reflect that in the pencils. And again, I’m not sure Mr. de la Rosa had time to worry about that as he was inking it. I don’t know what his deadline was like. But I don’t know if it comes through the book as much but there’s a transition where I went from trying to draw more of a Ditko Peter Parker to drawing more of a Romita Parker, and blah blah blah.
Frenz: While I was doing that book, I became very enamored of what Ditko had done on Spider-Man. And the thing that was a challenge I felt for The Kid Who Collects Spider-Man is that Spider-Man doesn’t actually do much in it. He stands around and he talks to Tim, and there are some flashback shots of him moving ‘spiderily’ and stuff, but for the most part, he’s in this room talking to this kid. And I’m going, “How do you make him in that room, talking to the kid?” You could do him hanging from the ceiling or something but that didn’t seem as warm as having the kid on his lap and everything.”
And what I came upon is, if you did Ditko, he’s Spiderman even if he’s just standing there. The way Ditko would just have him cock his hip and stand there, that’s Spider-Man. So, that’s why I really wanted to go full Ditko. Now, I’m hearing Robert Downey Jr go, “You never go full Ditko.”
Alex: That’s funny.
Frenz: I tried doing full Ditko, and what really worked on that issue, that story, is Terry Austin’s work.
Jim: Yeah, I was going to ask you that. Did you talk to him after you did the pencils?
Frenz: No. I don’t think I’ve ever had a conversation with Terry, to tell you the truth. But he nailed, he really helped reinforce the Ditko feel to that thing. I think that’s one of the things that really…
Jim: Wow, that’s interesting. You didn’t give him a note… You didn’t say, “I’m really going…” Well it’s obvious you were going for Ditko.
Frenz: No… Yeah, it was pretty obvious in the pencils what I was going for, and he’s a very perceptive man so… But he didn’t change the webbing, he didn’t fix anything… “Fix anything”. And he embraced that. And his own line, he always had that almost like a wedge point line with the brush that was very similar to a lot of what Ditko would do with the way he would outline the figures and stuff. It just ended up working. To this day, that’s though, if Marvel would ever approach me or if anybody would approach me about what I would want… Nobody’s ever going to do a Ron Frenz Visionaries, but if they did…
Alex: That would be nice.
Frenz: If they did, I would still want that in there. Because it’s still something I’m very, very proud of.
Alex: Now, you’re about to start like the regular run on Spider-Man.
Alex: Did you get a call from Tom DeFalco saying, “Hey, here’s what I got in mind for what we got ahead of us.” Tell us about how you guys kind of linked up.
Alex: Because I think you’ve mentioned that… You’ve described him as the other half of your brain before.
Frenz: Oh, creatively, very much so. Yeah. I had met Tom, before we ever to worked together. I met him at a convention here in Pittsburgh. He and Jackson Guice, when he was just Butch Guice back then. He was working on Micronauts. The three of us went out to dinner, and just had a wonderful time, talking and laughing about comics. And what we love and what we didn’t love.
He was still doing a kind of a Mike Golden riff on Micronauts, that he, obviously started to move away from. I was kidding him about the replacement of Mike Golden on Micronauts, and he was kidding me about being the third Buscema brother. The least famous… Harpo Buscema, that kind of thing.
We were going back and forth, joking with each other on that. And Defalco, he and I… I remember, having conversations with him where we talked about what our favorite Hulk personality was, and how we felt about the Marvel style of bombast and the ‘huhah’ action, as Tom calls it. And we were just very on-page for that kind of stuff, so when he called me to hire me on Team-Up, we had a bunch of conversations.
One of the conversations we had early on is, he said, “I’m going to be a pain in the ass.” And I said, “How do you mean?”, and he said, “Well, I’m going to let you know what I think about what you’re doing and I’m going to make pointers.” I said, “Tom, that’s fine. As much as I love working for Louise, and you’ll never hear me say a bad word about Louise Jones. She’s just incredible as an editor and as a person. I didn’t get a lot of that feedback, unless I specifically asked for it.”
I kind of felt a little bit thrown in to the deep end, because if Marvel hired you at that point in the ‘80s, it’s because they thought you could do the work. [chuckle] And they needed you to do the work, and they needed you to meet your deadline. So, they just kind of pushed you into the pool, and you swam, or sank on your own.
So, I was very open to whatever feedback Tom wanted to give me. Incredibly open to that. What was funny about that is, like I said, a lot of that stuff was during the transition between he and Danny Fingeroth. And that the first Team-Up story I did, I did it for Tom. It was the Wonder Man story by David Michelinie, and I had done it for Tom as inventory. It was sitting in a drawer, but it didn’t see print until after Danny was the editor.
And Danny was our editor on the Spider-Man book, and at one point, he called me, because he wanted a couple of sequences redrawn, from the Wonder Man story. That he felt some of the storytelling could be a little clearer and all this kind of stuff. One of the sequences that he wanted redrawn was one of those multiple image sequences of Spider-Man jumping around the room. There was like this danger room sequence in this issue where Spider-Man had to dodge all these different things that were there to test his armor.
Frenz: Tom wanted to do it as a single shot, with multiple images of Spider-Man jumping around, and that’s the way I did it. Tom approved it, and it was sitting in the drawer. Danny wanted all that redrawn. So, when Tom was talking about what a hard-ass he was and everything… I said, “Hey, hard-ass, I just had to redraw pages from a job that you accepted.” He goes, “What job?” I told him and he went, “Son of a bitch. Really?”
So, Danny was a bigger pain in my ass than Tom ever was.
But yeah, Danny was a very hands-on editor. Danny worried about every comma, and every period. To his credit, he was incredibly engaged editor.
Alex: Oh, cool.
Frenz: There were times, it was early on in the Spider-Man run, Danny was going on vacation. This was before everybody had cellphones. He was stopping at like every pay phone on the way to his vacation to call me about… “I just wanted to clarify… Do you understand what I’m saying on this note here?” I go, “Danny, I got it.” You know, that kind of thing. There was one time, we were on a conference call, there was DeFalco, myself and Danny, and Tom and I finally had to gang up on him and just say, “Danny, it works. It’s okay.”
I mean, he would ask for panels to be redrawn, and then he’d have somebody in the office do a correction on the redrawn panel. I mean it was like… The guy was amazing… You got to give him his due.
Alex: Yeah. Yeah, highly detailed.
Frenz: Yeah. If you’re going to pay an editor to do the job, you don’t want somebody that’s just the traffic manager. You want somebody that’s engaged, that he’s really paying attention.
Alex: Interesting. Yeah…
Frenz: As big a pain in the ass as he can be, that’s what you want an editor to do.
Alex: Right. Right. There’s that interesting mix of crafting it till it’s finally done. And is there some neurosis, or anxiety there, or not? But the final product is good, so there it is.
Frenz: Well that’s ultimately… And even in that one conversation, Tom and I were more concerned about, “Can we just move on to the next problem? It works… Let settle for, it works, right now. Okay?” It might not be perfect; we’ll worry about perfect next issue. It works. Let’s move on.”
Alex: It’s interesting, so this is kind of the beginning of you, essentially, putting the star character in new costumes, like the black costume in issue #252. You also did the Eric Masterson-Thor costume, and then even the blue Superman. So, what did you think of the black suit, when you first saw it? And also, was there a discussion in the beginning that it was going to be an alien later?
Frenz: I don’t… I mean, DeFalco came up with the fact that it was an alien, so I don’t necessarily remember him bouncing that off of me, because that was stuff that we were dealing with pretty quickly, in the books.
When I first saw the black costume, I thought it was a bad guy. They sent me a plot, and some Mike Zeck drawings of the costume, and I thought it was a new villain because I hadn’t read the plot yet. And I said, “Well, this new villain looks kind of cool.” And they said, “That’s not a new villain. That’s Spider-Man’s new suit.”
And I went, “Son of a bitch…”
Alex: [chuckle] Right when you got the book. Yeah.
Frenz: “25 years I’ve waited to draw Spider-Man, and when I get here, he’s not Spider-Man anymore” … I mean, like to design. I thought it was fine. The two issues that Leonardi did I think really helped me get a handle on it.
Alex: I mean, it’s easier to draw too, right? Because it’s solid black.
Frenz: You would think that… You would think that, but if you look at how many people draw those damn legs wrong, to this day… It depends, on whether or not you’re paying attention.
Alex: Yeah… That’s right.
Frenz: Because everybody draws the fucking legs wrong. Pardon my French… Because people always said that, “Well at least you don’t have to draw the webbing.” And more people draw the webbing right than draw that damn spider right, I’ll tell you that.
Alex: Yeah. Sometimes it looks like a lobster or something like that.
Alex: That’s true.
Frenz: Yeah, and especially… And that was one of the things that Leonardi brought to it because originally, it only had like one break in the legs. It came up, and then down, and it had just the one break. And it kind of fanned out from the top of the body. What Leonardi brought to it, that really, I think works, it makes it look more organic, it makes it look more like a spider, is that second break in the legs. But that’s where everybody has trouble. It’s where that break is…
Alex: Well, that’s funny.
Frenz: How it sits on the chest, and how it goes around his rib cage. I mean, some people just draw it like it’s a frigging lightning bolt going around his rib cage or something. And it’s not supposed to be.
Alex: In these issues, this is where you and DeFalco… You co-created like so many characters together, but in this run, a couple of characters come to mind, Puma, who you guys introduced in #256. You co-created Silver Sable in #265. Were you guys like having phone calls on how these characters would get visually fleshed out? How was that?
Frenz: Well, the phone calls we were having, because that was one of the questions a few minutes ago… Tom made it clear, for whatever the duration of our stint was, that he wanted to create new characters and not use the classics. And I said, “Okay.” And then he bought the infamous Animal Cards from late night television. And from the late-night Animal Cards came Black Fox, Silver Sable, Puma… I think that’s it. I think those are the main ones. So, Black Fox showed up in our… First, we did #251 and #252, we did off a plot by Roger Stern. And then he did #253 and #254 with Rick Leonardi, and then we started with #255. So, yeah.
Where in the run we found out that JR wasn’t coming back, I could not tell you. All I can tell you is that Danny told me that JR came into the office and was looking through the pages, and Danny liked what Tom and I were doing, so we were at least a few issues in. And that Danny said, “So, when are you coming? You still coming back, right? Because if you’re coming back, we’re going to stick by the deal.”
And then JR said, “You seem to be really happy with what they’re doing.” He goes, “Yeah, I’m very happy with what they’re doing. That’s not the point… If you’re still coming back, we’re going to stick by the deal.” And JR said, “Just give it to them. I’ve got my hands full with the X-Men. I’m fine.” And Danny called, and said we’re in, and we’re just going to keep doing what we’re doing.
Now, where in the run that happened, I don’t know. But I know that it happened, and the first time I met JR in person, I thanked him for my run on Spider-Man. Because he easily could…
Alex: Let’s say, like for example the look of Puma, how much detail were you getting from Tom on the actual appearance and how much of that was your interpretation, and then adding your own stuff into it? Like was it pretty much 50/50?
Frenz: Well, Puma wasn’t 50/50. Because Tom had a very set idea on what he wanted for Puma. I actually did a Facebook post on this at one point, showed some of the early designs. My first design for Puma was very much a person with long straight black hair like an American Indian with a helmet, bare-chested. And all this stuff with the helmet that looked like a puma, that kind of thing. And Tom said, “No, no, I really do want to go more ‘wear puma’ or whatever you want to call it.
Alex: Yeah. Yeah. I see.
Frenz: And he says, “I want him to change.” So, I did a couple of designs, some where he was too cat-like, Tom said, “Can we find somewhere between this and this.” And I said, “Okay. I know where you’re going. Okay.”
And I came up with the original outfit. I called in a friend of mine, Rich Yanizeski., who really helps me out anytime I need to design any new characters. He came up with some nice Indian-looking artifacts, and stuff for the costume that I thought worked really well. And we did the initial costume, I didn’t do a color sketch. Because I hadn’t created a lot of characters up to that point.
These days I create, when I’m designing a character, now I almost always do it in full color. There are some exceptions but for the most part… On Blue Baron, I’ve done color sketches for almost all the characters. Some of the more minor characters, I haven’t and Glenn Whitmore does the coloring himself. But for the most part, if it’s the main character, I’ll do the design in color.
But back then, I wasn’t doing that, and the colors that they came up with worked fine, but what I wasn’t happy with the initial costume was that there were some kind of confusion as to what was his own fur, and what was part of the costume. I wanted it to be much clearer as to what was it supposed to be like. The stuff at his shoulders was supposed to be part of his costume, and I would’ve colored that red. And not close to the orange of his own fur. You know, that kind of thing. So, that’s why when he appeared, I simplified the costume so that anything you were seeing was pretty obviously his fur. That kind of thing. And I did do a color sketch for that one. [chuckle]
But yeah, so Tom had a very set idea on what he had… The costume, he left that to me. But the design of the actual character was very much Tom.
Silver Sable, he kind of left up to me. I think it was his idea to have her be petite, though. One of the things that kind of got lost in that game of telephone was that she was only supposed to be like 5’1” or 5’2” or something. At the time, I was actually living with and engaged to a young woman who was five foot even. So, I was actually drawing her like she was five foot even. Because I loved the idea of her ordering around these big mercenary guys, who were all like six foot, you know, that kind of thing. Because even Spider-Man’s supposed to be like 5’10”.
So, I drew her short, but when she went off on her own, and got her own series and stuff, that’s one of the things that kind of gets lost in the translation sometimes. And she was supposed to look very much like Marilyn Monroe.
Alex: That was basically in the bible of the character. Okay.
Frenz: Yeah… Well, no. No, that was me. [chuckle]
Alex: Oh, that was you. There you go.
Frenz: Tom’s bible covered all the stuff, like what country she was from, and that she’s a Wild Pack, and the uncle that she had early on, and all those characters. He left the actual look… The only thing that was changed from the original look was, since we had Black Cat at the time, and she was a regular in the strip, I actually… My original drawings of Silver Sable had platinum blond hair. I was still using a little bit of yellow in her hair to make it look like platinum blond hair because Black Cat had white hair with light blue on it.
Because it makes sense, somebody named Silver Sable would have silver hair. But I didn’t think of that… I didn’t think that was really good idea with Black Cat. I was overridden by editorial. They said, “No. That’s ridiculous. Her name’s Silver Sable, she’s got silver hair.” I went, “Okay. So, there you go.
Alex: That makes sense.
Frenz: So, who’s left? Black Fox.
Alex: Black Fox, yeah.
Frenz: He was the older guy. He was supposed to be reaching retirement, so I gave him the white mustache. In his first appearance, he pretty much just wore a black bodysuit. When he appeared later, I added some, like a backpack for him to carry his booty and things like that. But for the most part, he was just wearing a black bodysuit. He wasn’t much of a challenge. I like drawing the character though. I thought he had a very expressive face.
Alex: So, Shooter had that incentive program, so you received a piece of those character appearances… Were there new characters agreement? Was there a form for that?
Alex: Tell me how that work?
Frenz: Oh, they were all over you to fill out the paperwork, anytime you created a new character.
Alex: Uh, okay.
Frenz: And since DeFalco was in the office, he did his share to make sure that I always filled out the New Character Agreement.
Alex: Oh, that’s awesome.
Jim: When DeFalco said, “We’re going to do new characters.” Was that entirely a creative decision or was it also, “Hey, we’re going to create characters and we actually have some piece of.”
Frenz: My guess would be, it was mostly a creative decision, because he had just gone through Roger, doing Hobgoblin, to kind of resuscitate the Green Goblin concept. I’m going to go ahead and give him the credit because he’s more than earned it. That it wasn’t about making himself any richer, it was about, he always likes to move forward. He’d always rather do new ideas rather than recycle old ideas. You look at his Fantastic Four run, whether you love it or hate it, it wasn’t traditional Fantastic Four story.
Jim: No, it was not.
Frenz: There you go. See. So, I think that was… Creatively, he tends to just be a person that would rather create than recycle. When we would do later projects, like when we did the Spider-Man ’96 Annual, he went, “Okay, Ron, what character would you like to do that you never got to do?” And I said, “Kraven.” And he said, “Okay, we’ll do Kraven.” And then he came up with the fantastic story, flash back story, because what we had talked about wanting to do, was the actual moment that George Stacey realized Peter Parker was Spider-Man.
Alex: Oh, yeah, that’s really cool.
Frenz: And it worked out, for it to be right there in that period of time, where Kraven was working for Green Goblin and all that kind of stuff. It worked out great. I got to do Kraven. When we did the two-issue Webspinners story that wrapped up that series, he says, “Is there a villain that you’d like to do that we never got to do?” And I got to do Doc Ock. Plus, I also got to do a whole bunch of other… We did the Sinister Syndicate again, so I got to do those guys again.
Alex: The Sinister Six?
Frenz: The Sinister Syndicate.
Alex: Oh, Syndicate. Okay.
Frenz: Yeah. And the only reason that the Rhino was redesigned at all under my watch was because Jim Owsley insisted on it. He wanted the Rhino to become more like a Transformer, so maybe he was picturing something more like what was in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, I don’t know. But I was desperately trying to keep it organic, and the only thing I can think of that wasn’t already part of the Rhino was, if you see a real rhino, there’s these plates under the skin that look a little more obvious from different angles. And I said, “Well, let’s just add those and put some studs on him and shit. Maybe that will be enough.”
And it was. [chuckle] I just kind of went, “Hallelujah.” Because I really didn’t want to do him mechanical, that kind of thing.
Alex: And with DeFalco, you guys were pretty much working, Marvel style, right? With this?
Frenz: Always. Yeah.
Alex: Always, with DeFalco. Now, in Spider-Man…
Frenz: We would have hours-long conversations where we would talk about Pete, and make sure we roll on the same page with who Peter Parker was. And talk about his relationships with all of his supporting cast, and we would talk about his relationships with his villains. We talk about how he feels about what he does… You know, his relationship with Aunt May, and all these kinds of stuff. We’d just have these long conversations about that kind of stuff. And in the course of that, plots would suggest themselves…
Alex: Oh, cool.
Frenz: Tom’s terrific at writing, in my opinion, is terrific at writing gangster stuff. Street level, mafioso type, manipulation and stuff, so he and Rick Leonardi had created the Rose, who was kind of like middle management, and all that kind of stuff. I just loved watching his brain work, when it came to that kind of stuff.
Alex: Yeah, I like that character too.
Jim: He’s the one that got Frank Miller really moving in that direction with Daredevil, wasn’t he?
Frenz: I have heard those stories from the horse’s mouth. Yes. That he handed him some old crime paperbacks and everything, and was really kind of the one that planted that seed in Frank Miller. Yeah.
Alex: So, now, that one Spider-Man, Annual #18 in 1984, you did a story with Stan Lee, right?
Frenz: Yeah, that was Stan’s scripting, yes.
Alex: Did he do that one, Marvel style? Or did he send you a script or… How did that work out?
Frenz: Well, DeFalco plotted it. So, for me, it was just like working off a regular DeFalco plot.
Alex: I see. And then Stan scripted it after?
Frenz: We actually discussed this on Facebook. I’m not sure we knew… At the time I was penciling it, I’m not even sure we knew Stan was scripting it.
Alex: I got you.
Frenz: I don’t remember being scared shitless, that I was penciling for Stan…
Alex: Right. Right. After the fact…
Frenz: I do remember that Danny got a very nice letter from Stan, that mentioned me, and Danny sent me a copy of it. [chuckle]
Alex: Oh, that’s nice.
Frenz: Yeah, that Stan mentioned me, that he enjoyed working with my stuff, and thought that I… That my storytelling was solid, and all that kind of jazz, yeah.
Alex: That one issue, the Spidey versus Firelord, and Spidey just loses his temper and bashes Firelord’s face in, and like wince, that had some nice visceral emotion in that. How did it feel, putting that story together?
Frenz: I loved it. I mean, Tom very obviously, wanted to do something along the lines of what Roger and JR had done with Juggernaut. And he wanted to put Spider-Man up against somebody out of his weight class. Obviously, out of his weight class. And I thought it worked great. It’s one of my favorite sequences because in the course of the story, at the end of part one, it tells you everything you need to know about who Peter Parker is.
Because at one point, he’s going, “You know what? He’s looking for Spider-Man. He’s not looking for me. All I got to do is change to Peter Parker, and disappear into the crowd.” But then, as he’s changing, his wallet falls open into a shot of him and Uncle Ben, and Aunt May. And he’s goes, “What am I doing? If I disappear, he could go nuts and he could hurt innocent people. This is my problem. I can’t walk away from this.” So, he re-masks up, and says, “I’m going to give him the fight of his life. I’m going to do what I can and give him the fight of his life.” And that’s what he did.
What’s funny to me now, in retrospect is, because I belong to a bunch of different Facebook page groups and stuff. You get notified when your name comes up, so I’ll go check some of these conversations, and this always comes up. Those two issues always come up, as like, either the best Spider-Man story ever, because I just cheered for Spider-Man and thought it was wonderful. Or yeah, but it was BS because there’s no way Spider-Man could beat Firelord. Not only does he beat him, he just beats him by punching him out.
Frenz: And it’s like, “No, he doesn’t. Read the story.” A gas station blows up, takes out a city block and blows up right under Firelord. A building falls on top of him, dynamites fall on top of him. Spider-Man is throwing everything he can at this guy. So, it’s not just… I would even argue that he doesn’t just get mad and jump at Firelord, he’s just desperate. He’s at that point, it’s all or nothing. I got to leave it all on the mat, and he just goes crazy on him.
But even that was on top of everything else that happened to Firelord that day. And ultimately, if you read the follow up, in Avengers, he’s out for all of 10 minutes. [chuckle]… You know what I mean? It’s not like Spider-Man beat him up. You know, that kind of thing.
Alex: Right… You also did some X-Factor covers during this time.
Alex: How’d that come about, exactly?
Frenz: That’s a very good question. I don’t know what the reasoning would have been… Who was the editor on it? Was Louise the editor on that?… Because at that point, I was actually… I didn’t find it this out until later, but my covers were actually going over pretty well in the office. I was told, way after the fact. I was told that they would get together with the… Mark Gruenwald would have these meetings with the associate editors, and the assistant editors, and they would discuss different aspects of editing. And they would put all the covers for the month, up on the wall. They would say… They would pick the best of the month, and all that stuff. And my stuff was doing well in that kind of a process.
I think that’s why, when I was on Thor, I know Ralph Macchio really liked my covers on Thor, so he… His other two books were Captain America and Fantastic Four, and he said, “How would you like to do my covers on those two”
Alex: Louise was the writer, actually, and then Bob Harris was the editor, that’s probably…
Frenz: It’s Bob Harris. Okay.
Frenz: It may have just come about from that because I also did their corner box shots and stuff so… I don’t really know why, because I’ve never really done much X work, so I don’t remember any specifics about it. But yeah, I enjoyed doing those covers for the brief time I was doing.
Alex: Because you were doing the Spider-Man, and then obviously, the Thor guys. So, it’s interesting that you’re actually knocking out some X-Factor covers. But I guess, I think maybe the office was thinking, this guy draws such good and genuine Marvel style that they’re just really trying to make those covers pop, right?
Frenz: Probably as much as anything. And I tended to suggest. They didn’t always use it, but I tended to suggest cover copy and things like that. Ralph Macchio let me do all my own cover copy on Thor. I mean, he would occasionally edit it, of course. But… And Captain America, and even the Fantastic Four covers.
He liked the fact that I was… Because at the time, DeFalco’s belief was, and he was editor in chief during some of that period. I don’t know what Shooter’s idea about it was specifically, but Tom DeFalco’s idea was, if there was any cover copy at all, that was a good thing because if you had to stop even for a second, to read the cover copy, that was a couple of seconds more that you were spending looking at that cover. And that that increased the possibility that you would buy that comic.
Jim: Ron, before we move on from Spider-Man, I wanted to ask you about some of the inkers you worked with. One of the first ones was Klaus Janson, your thoughts about him?
Frenz: I just thought I was blessed. [chuckle] Because everybody already knew the kind of work that he did and how good he was. And how he would suggest coloring, if he didn’t color it himself. I think Christie colored some of that. Christie Scheele colored those issues.
I just felt like I was… The deeper I got into the Marvel stuff, once I was on Star Wars with Tom Palmer, I felt like I was a Marvel guy. Once I had done the Fantastic Four What If, inked by Joe Sinnott, I felt like I was a Marvel guy. The more I got paired with inkers whose work I knew, who were ‘name guys’, I felt like you automatically feel more protected. You feel like the work is going to look its best, when it’s going to fix the things you did wrong, and it’s going to make you look even more like you knew what you were doing. That kind of thing.
Jim: You’ve had an amazing stable of inkers at this point. Because after Janson…
Frenz: Oh, yeah. And most of them are finishers.
Jim: Oh, yeah. Beside Rubinstein, and we’ll get to that in a minute, but Brett Breeding did a fair number of your pencils on Spider-Man too. What about him?
Frenz: I love Brett’s stuff. I always have. I remember being in art school and seeing his work over Bob Hall on the West Coast Avengers miniseries. I know when I found out that Brett was going to ink #252, that’s what got the rise out of most of my comic book nerd friends. It was, “Wow, you’re working with Brett Breeding!” He hates to hear that story. He doesn’t believe it but it’s true.
Jim: Bob McLeod did some on your stuff.
Frenz: Yeah. Bob tends to, being a penciller himself, he tends to rework some of the pencil stuff and everything. But you can’t argue with the finished product. The finished product always looks fantastic.
Jim: Bob Layton?
Frenz: Well, I really only worked with Bob on some of the Jameson wedding annual. So, half of that was inked by Butch Guice, and half of it was inked by Bob. I don’t remember having any problem with the Bob stuff…
Jim: But it [inaudible] that’s a penciller too.
Frenz: Yeah, I don’t remember him over changing anything. I might even be torn on… It’s been a while since I looked at the job, I might not even be able to tell who did what. I probably could, because Butch’s stuff had a bit of a thinner line, and was a little looser. But yeah, again, like I said, I got in to this business, knowing that it was highly collaborative, you are going to be at the tender mercies of the finisher.
Jim: Did you have any inkers where you thought was doing a disservice to your work?
Frenz: Probably, along the way. The only one that leaps to mind, and it’s only… Let me say that this is only because it was my first job. But the gentleman that inked my very first Ka-Zar. There were shots that I didn’t think he serviced very well. There were face expressions that I don’t think he serviced very well.
Alex: Oh, okay.
Frenz: And those were… And you’re looking at that from an angle of like, “This isn’t just like my next comic, or whatever.” It was my very, very first. It’s my second, actually, so I found myself a bit crestfallen. [chuckle]… Looking at it. Certainly, looking at it and going, “Well, I’m never going to get hired again.” would have been over stating it but…
And again, it was only because it was so early in my career. But I mean, yeah, there have been ink jobs, over… What have I been in this business? 30 some years. There have definitely been ink jobs I’ve liked more than others, and there are some that I would have preferred somebody else had gotten them, or something. But you don’t have that call. You take the good with the bad. My good has been incredibly good. So, for me to piss and moan about the some of the not so good would be ridiculous, would be insincere.
Jim: So, is Rubinstein one of your all-time favorites?
Frenz: I would work with Joe, anytime. Yeah. He does bring a lot of his own style to it.
So, I will say this, I prefer working with Joe if I’m not doing full pencils. Because, again, the job will always look professional… I mean, it’s like with Tom Palmer on Star Wars. I was only doing breakdowns. But my version of what Luke Skywalker looked like, and what Lando Calrissian looked like, and Tom already had, in his head, he already had a template for who Luke and Lando were. Okay? They didn’t always lined-up with what I was trying to do. But he was the final look of the book, that was his job. My job was to tell the story in pictures. His job was to finish it. And so, you get used to it. I mean, you say, “Okay, that’s his job, so I need to shut up and let him do his job.”
When I’m working with Joe Rubinstein, it could be really similar. Because he brings so much of his own technique and style to everything, from musculature to facial structure, to all this kind of stuff. That I am happier working with Joe when I’m just doing breakdowns because, then I don’t feel like we’re clashing. I feel like we’re blending.
Jim: That’s interesting.
Frenz: If I’m doing less, and I’m letting him do it, then I have no reason to feel like I’m being overruled or anything. Do you understand what I mean?
Jim: Oh, yeah. We interviewed him and he was drawing while we were interviewing. He never stopped; I don’t think.
Frenz: From what I understand, he draws constantly. He’s an incredible illustrator. His portrait work is incredible. The guy is amazing. I mean his talent is so far beyond just what he does on a comic page, that is very impressive to me. He’s Joe Rubinstein. [chuckle]
Jim: Well, that’s great.
Frenz: We’ve had some wonderful conversations. When we were working together on Spider-Man, we had some wonderful late-night conversations and stuff. And again, I worked with him on Superman. And I was only doing breakdowns on Superman so that worked great. I thought he was doing some terrific stuff, and he saved my ass on that stuff. And I’ve worked with him a few times since on different projects.
Jim: One other question on inking and then I’ll move on. When you do your full pencils, who would be your favorite, ideal inker to do it? Once you’ve done your full pencils.
Frenz: If you’re talking… I mean, because Brett Breeding is going to be my answer in almost every case. Because Brett and I, we’re close enough friends that Brett doesn’t have a problem if I have some input on what he’s doing, I hope not anyway. [chuckle] But I love what Brett does over my work.
If you’re talking about the person that I can full pencil a page, hand it off, and know I’m going to get back exactly what I just full penciled, that would be Mr. Sal Buscema.
Jim: Oh, that’s great.
Frenz: Because Sal and I are very much hand in glove. I learned most of what I know about Marvel illustration from looking at Sal’s work.
Alex: That’s awesome.
Frenz: He really just… He understands my short hand like nobody else. He just gets it. We’re speaking the same visual language, in a way that I don’t think he ever laid a line down where he might not done it himself. You know what I mean? So, we just understand each other.
There have been times… At one point, I was looking at reference when we were on Spider-Girl together, I was looking at reference of ballet dancers and gymnasts, and the way they point their toes. I was trying to include that in to some of my Spider-Girl positioning. And on some of the angles, when she’s coming at you, doing things like that, they just kind of look like little wedges coming at you. Sal said, “What’s this thing that you’re doing with the feet now?
And I explained it to him, what I was doing. And he went, “Don’t do that.”
I went, “Okay.” If Sal Buscema tells you to stop, you should probably stop.
Jim: That’s great… So, when did Jim Owsley become editor over the Spider-Man titles?
Frenz: The transition was around the time of the Firelord two-parter. Danny edited the Firelord two-parter, but as soon as Owsley came on board, my Xeroxes of my pencils of the Firelord two-parter are numbered differently than the issues it ran in because, my understanding was that Owsley pulled it out of the regular rotation because he was… There was talk about it either making it a graphic novel, or a special one-shot, or some craziness. I don’t know what it was.
Frenz: But in the meantime, he ran fill-ins. The next issue would come out and it would be a fill-in, and I would call DeFalco and go, “What’s going on?” And he said, “Last I heard, that blah, blah, blah. He’s walking around with his thing under his arm.” Figuratively, or literally, I don’t know. But it didn’t run when it was supposed to run and it made it look like Tom and I couldn’t meet a deadline or something.
Alex: Oh, I see.
Jim: That’s interesting. Because didn’t he complain at some point that you guys missed deadlines?
Frenz: A lot of what he said, in defense of firing us, was unfortunately disputed by other sources.
Alex: I see. Yeah.
Frenz: The only two things I’ll say about that whole controversy is that Tom DeFalco never missed a deadline in his life. And that Spider-Man was my dream gig, there was no way I was giving it up without a fight. Whenever he would give us a new deadline, I would meet it. What was going on in the office at that time, what his personal frustrations might have been, and what he was trying to attempt, I don’t know. I can’t really speak directly to that.
I know that he liked the other Spider-Man books, at the time, better than ours. I was at a Spider-Man Summit where he referred… He referred to Tom and my work on Amazing as the bland corporate Spider-Man.
Jim: That’s crazy.
Frenz: Well, he loved what Peter David, and Rich Buckler, and Brett Breeding were doing on The Death of Jean DeWolff. He loved that. He loved the Web of Spider-Man stuff Michelinie and, I think it was Silvestri and Kyle Baker or something. He loved Beachum. He loved when Beachum did Spider-Man. He thought that was the greatest thing in the world because he was giving Mark Beachum a lot of work.
He had a very set idea, what he thought Spider-Man should be. As editor, that’s his prerogative. It’s his prerogative to make that so, and even his version is… That he kind of came up with reasons that don’t necessarily hold water, as to why Tom couldn’t make a monthly book, because that’s just not so. But he even tries to say that he wanted to start like a quarterly book that would just be Tom and Ron doing their bland corporate Spider-Man to their heart’s content. You know, that kind of thing… Which, of course, never happened.
Frenz: It was just a very confusing bizarre time. I mean, like I said, if you put a whole bunch of people in a room… which Glenn Greenberg did an article for Back Issue! Magazine, about the Hobgoblin mess-up, and all that kind of stuff, and what went on. And Jim Owsley’s version of events are unique and onto themself. [chuckle] Nobody else’s version lines up with Jim’s version. That’s the one thing I’ll say.
Jim: I had read, where he described you as being fanatical about Spider-Man. Did he ever tell you that?
Frenz: Yeah… No, he did say in his essay. Because I read some of the stuff on his website, that he did say that he worried that I was going to commit suicide when he fired me. Which was never a concern. But when…
On the comment area… When he wrote that thing on his blog, the comments were, “Well, if Ron Frenz is that crazy, he should go ahead and kill himself.” Like very supportive stuff from the fans.
Alex: I hate that… Yeah.
Frenz: Wonderfully supportive stuff from the fans. If indeed he was concerned about that, thank you. But it was never going to be that.
Alex: Right. That was never the concern, yeah.
Frenz: No. I never considered jumping out the window. And I’ve only heard this second hand, this could have been Tom just being supportive. But I will say that in the phone conversation, somehow, Jim turned it around to the point where he actually said the words, “I don’t expect anybody to feel sorry for me.” And my brain was… I was reeling at the moment. But I said, “Feel sorry for you?” [chuckle]… Because he had to make the tough call. That kind of thing.
In the course of firing me from my dream job, he did manage to kind of make it about himself. Tom DeFalco, I think, half-jokingly says that when Owsley told Tom that he was fired that he said, “Is there anything I can do?” And Tom said, “You could jump out that window right now.”
And then Owsley said, “Well, so that’s the way it’s going to be?” And then Tom said, “Well, you could wait until Ron Frenz has time to fly here from Pittsburgh so we could both piss on your corpse.”
Frenz: Now, that’s completely uncalled for. I do not… That’s completely uncalled for, and never should have been said.
Alex: That’s hilarious.
Frenz: And quite frankly, let me fast forward a couple of years ahead. When Jim Owsley came back to Marvel, and started writing Conan, under Tom DeFalco who is editor-in-chief…
Jim & Alex: Yeah.
Frenz: Tom was helping him co-plot those things. Tom was the guy who re-hired Jim Owsley.
Jim: Wow. I didn’t know that.
Frenz: Because he heard he was driving bus and all that stuff… And the guy is a hell of a writer. I mean, the stuff he did on Black Panther, nobody’s going to argue with that stuff. The guy knows his stuff.
Jim: Change the characters. Great.
Frenz: Yeah, he knows his shit. I mean he’s a solid writer. So, Tom could recognize that. Tom wasn’t… It’s not about grudge. Like I said, I don’t know what was motivating Jim Owsley, because he’s not even Jim Owsley anymore.
I can’t speak to what was going on with Jim Owsley. In his blog, he talks about all the pressures he was under. I think he was under a lot of pressure.
I don’t think he should have been hired. I mean, Jim Shooter broke his cardinal rule hiring an editor, when he hired Jim Owsley. Because his cardinal rule of hiring an editor was you hire an editor who knows what they’re doing, and you stand back and you let them do it.
But when he hired Jim Owsley, because he was very impressed with him as a writer. When he hired Jim Owsley as editor, if anybody said to him, “Mr. Shooter, what are you doing? He doesn’t have that enough experience.” Jim Shooter’s answer, and I heard him say this first hand was, “I’m not worried about it, because all the writers on this Spider-Man titles are editors themselves. Louise is an editor; she was writing Web. Al Milgrom was doing Peter Parker; he is also a writer/editor. And Tom DeFalco was writing Amazing; he was an editor and a writer.”
He said, “He’s surrounded by some of the most solid editors in the business, so the kid can’t fail.”
Frenz: Of course, the first thing the kid did was fire Louise and Al, and then ultimately fire DeFalco… Now, you can argue about, he fired Al but he hired Peter David. He gave Peter David his first chance at writing, so who’s going to hate him for that, right? You know what I mean?
Frenz: They did amazing stuff together. So, there’s all this back and forth, and back and forth, and I’ve always refused to just see things in black and white. It just doesn’t work for me that way, and again, I do think that he was under a hell lot of pressure. He was younger than I was at the time, and he was given the Spider-Man titles to edit? I think the poor guy was in over his head.
I think he was feeling pressure from all kinds of different directions. And I do think that he was seeing things creatively differently, than what we were doing. I don’t think he might necessarily was agreeing with what we were doing creatively. He thought Spider-Man could be better, and he made the call. I mean, that’s the thing.
The irony of the situation, for me, was that Tom DeFalco told me at one point, Jim Shooter came in and said, “What’s going on, on the Spider-Man books? What’s this I hear about you being fired?” And Tom went, “You’re asking me? You hired the guy. Go talk to your editor!” [chuckle]… So, there’s that.
I also… Virginia Romita came in to Tom’s office and said, “I just heard you just got fired off the Spider-Man books because you can’t hit a deadline.” And Tom went, “That’s what he said.” She said, “Tom, you guys are the most ahead in the house. I use you guys as the stick that I hit everybody else with.”
Jim: That’s amazing.
Frenz: Because before he fired us, at one point, using company money… At one point, Jim Owsley got clearance to come in to Pittsburgh, fly in to Pittsburgh, fly he and Tom DeFalco to Pittsburgh… We went to the one of the more expensive restaurants in the city to have this big editorial meeting.
I’m like, “Oh boy, what’s going on here?” And basically, he handed us a new schedule that he wanted us to meet. And we met it. And then he handed us another schedule to meet. And we met that one. And then he fired us. Like I said, there was a lot of stuff going on behind the scenes, I’m sure.
Alex: How did you get then moved to the Thor title in 1987? Tell us about that transition.
Frenz: Well, that transition was like a year or more of… The only other work I had when I was fired off of Spider-Man, because I had quit Kickers after three issues because it just wasn’t the book we wanted to do. And we were banging heads with editorial and everything, so I got off of that. Then we were fired off of Spider-Man… The only work I had from Marvel at the time was a graphic novel that I was supposed to do with Jo Duffy, a Punisher graphic novel, and frankly, it was this incredible… She ended up doing it with Jorge Zaffino, I forget what the title of it was. But it was an amazing story, it involved the Yakuza and all this kind of stuff. It was incredible.
Frenz: But I just felt I couldn’t do it justice. I just couldn’t. So, after doing some thumbnails on it and trying to do some layout work on it, and doing some little design work on it, I ended up giving it back to the editor. He was not happy. I think it was Larry Hama. It was either Larry Hama or Carl Potts. But whoever it was, was very disappointed in me, and I think I really hurt my rep with that person.
But I gave that back, so I didn’t have anything going on. Around that time, Mike Carlin called and I did that Superman Annual, with John Byrne, with Titano. And around that time, I got the call from Ralph Macchio to do some Thor fill-ins. We did the Secret Wars fill-ins. We did the Dargo Ktor fill-ins.
Alex: I love those two comics so much. That was when I was starting to like pick up comics out of newsstands. I love that stuff with a passion.
Frenz: Thank you. Thank you… Now. Brett and I worked together on that first Superman Annual, and we worked together on those two pieces. And at that point, Walt Simonson was moving off of Thor. A lot of people seem to forget, for the last few years, he had been writing it, and Sal had been drawing.
Alex: Yeah. Sal Buscema was drawing at the end of it.
Frenz: Right… And Tom was being hired as the new writer with Sal. And that was the way it was going to be. Apparently, Jim Shooter really liked what we did on the Secret Wars Thor fill-in because… And again, this has nothing to do with comparing artists, because Mike Zeck had a whole different plate-full of things he had to accomplish in any given issue of Secret Wars. Okay? I wouldn’t have taken that job on a bet. [chuckles] I mean, he had so much he was trying to do in that book.
But apparently, because we had done that Secret Wars fight sequence that was re-creating some stuff from that issue of Secret Wars, Shooter noticed it and really liked it. And he said, “Well why don’t we just put Frenz on Thor with Tom.” And he goes, “That’s fine, except [chuckle] Thor already has an artist, Jim.” And he goes, “Well, we’ll just tell Sal that you’re bringing your own artist along.” And he goes, “Except that’s not true… Come on. Ron and I are not joined at the hip. No, we’re not going to do that.”
And Tom told me that there was some talk like that. I said, “Tom, I’m sorry. If you think I’m going to stand here, and watch Sal get removed from a title for me, that’s not happening. No. No way.” But then, what he said is, when they’re having one of these meetings, Jim Salicrup, God love him, walked in and said, “Does anybody have a problem if I hire Sal Buscema to do Peter Parker again? Because I want to get these books all up and running solid. And it would be great if Sal could come back on Spectacular.” And everybody looked at each other and went, “Hallelujah.”
Sal was thrilled to go back on Spider-Man, and I went on Thor with DeFalco, and everybody lived happily ever after.
Alex: Well, this is awesome. Ron Frenz, thanks so much for this riveting and in-depth interview, here at the Comic Book Historians Podcast with Alex Grand and Jim Thompson. Join us next time for Part 3 of the Ron Frenz Career Retrospective Interview. Cheers.
© 2020 Comic Book Historians