Thursday, December 16, 2010

Silver Age Snootchie Bootchies

I've had a thought, and I don't know if it's nothing or if it's something. It's probably nothing, or at most, a very small something.

In the DC Universe of the 90s, Wally West was the Flash, Kyle Rayner became Green Lantern, Connor Hawke took over as Green Arrow, Aquaman got the metal harness-thing and harpoon-hand...and so on, yeah? The landscape looked very different. And now in 2010, most of the Silver Agers are pretty much back in the saddle, back to their Silver Age status quo. For better or for worse, for better or for worse!

Now, this usually gets traced to Geoff Johns and Green Lantern: Rebirth, and he's done an awful lot of Rebirthing, true enough. But I was thinking about it...

...does it really start with Kevin Smith on Green Arrow in 2000? Was Oliver Queen the first Silver Ager to reclaim the role from his Modern Age successor? Did that kick down the door for Hal Jordan and Barry Allen to come back? Did Smith start this thing? There's even a bit in there with Ollie telling Aquaman that he should go back to the orange shirt, and Black Manta's back in his classic gear.

Considering that Smith's Daredevil launched Marvel Knights, which got Joe Quesada the Editor-in-Chief job at Marvel that he still holds...wouldn't it be damned weird if he was, somewhere up the chain, a huge influence the other company as well?

Are superhero comics the way they are in 2010 all because of Kevin Smith?

...

It's probably nothing...

Earp-cerpt

Chuggin' along...

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A Web of Romantic Entanglements

Did I forget any?


It's kind of weird, right? When everybody gets together, it's either really awkward or really comfortable.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Earped

While Justin was living large in Miami hanging out with Dexter (thankfully sans Rita) I was slaving away drawing Wyatt Earp pages and digging my car out from under all the snow.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Man of Kleenex

Oh hai.

Last week I was on a trip to Miami for a work-related thing. It was an interesting time. I ate at Joe's Stone Crab, saw a bunch of local landmarks you'd recognize if you've ever watched Dexter (which I have not), and watched locals bundle up for 65-degree-Fahrenheit weather, knowing that when I returned to Wisconsin I would have to dig my car out of some snow.

I also got to fly on a plane, which is still an enormous treat for me. (Less exciting: Eat Pray Love as the in-flight movie.) Which brings me to my little anecdote for today.

Somebody asked me on the trip what it's like to have a baby. And my standard answer is that I don't have anything interesting to tell them, because it is just like what everybody else says it is like. You know? "Um...I don't know, man, it's like...it's the greatest thing, although all of a sudden you're more okay with the idea of handling somebody else's poop and it takes you about fifteen extra minutes anytime you need to leave the house." Really, just listen to any stand-up comedian with a baby, and whatever he says probably goes for me as well. I don't usually have much to add.

But I had five hours of plane ride back home on Saturday, and so I decided to watch some Dini/Timm Superman and Batman episodes on my iPod. One of them was the Superman pilot, "The Last Son of Krypton, Part I," which, as you may or may not remember, is all the Krypton part of the Superman origin. And I've seen this episode before. And I've read or seen countless "Jor-El and Lara put baby Kal-El in the rocket and send him to Earth before Krypton explodes" scenes.

But this time I had to turn it off, because I'm sitting on a plane and I feel tears welling up, and I don't want somebody to think I'm crying at Eat Pray Love.

Like, he has to put his baby on that rocket, man. He has to send him away and he'll never know what will become of his son. And that baby...! Kal-El has no clue. He's sleeping when he's put in the rocket; he falls asleep in his parents' arms, he wakes up someplace else and they're gone. Bruce Wayne remembers his parents and that's the whole point, but (barring some sort of super-infant-memory, which I'm sure was probably featured in at least one story over the years, right?) Superman has no memory of anything that happened there.

*hnkkk*

Man, I did not sign up to choked up about Krypton, you guys.

continuing the Earp-cerpts


bit of a spoiler

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Monday, November 22, 2010

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Earp scraps


Always working away on earp. Building the stockpile of pages. Pencils and ink details.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Great Marvel Comics of the Late 1990s (Yes, They Do Exist): Conclusion and Honorable Mentions

I’m fairly pleased with how I summarized the late 90s for Marvel in the comments of the last post: after shortsighted decisions in the early 90s bent its superhero stable out of shape, Marvel spent the latter part of the decade trying to repair the damage and make their characters recognizable again to their core audience. With the exception of a few new concepts, like Deadpool and the Thunderbolts (and even those weren’t totally new, strictly speaking), Marvel’s main focus was on trying to get back in touch with the ol' Marvel magic. If the Bill Jemas/Joe Quesada era was Reconstruction, might we distinguish the Bob Harras era by calling it Restoration? Or am I confusing the issue by throwing around not-very-well-thought-out academic classifications like this?

Would it be easier to tell you what it all meant to me?

Much of the discourse in the superhero comics blogosphere the last few years has been on “darkness,” about the loss of “fun” in our funnybooks. Which I’ve always felt was a little misdirected. I mean, I like superhero comics that are dark, I like superhero comics that aren’t necessarily all playful and wacky. But what I can’t abide is when a superhero comic is a complete and utter drag.

And that’s what the worst offenders of the last couple years have been. But I don’t quite feel that kind of crushing betrayal you read on a lot of blogs because I’ve been through it before, in the mid-90s. I went through my “Alas, what happened to the comics of my youth?” phase when I was 10 years old.

I mean, really, if you think those days were disheartening for longtime fans, imagine what they were like for someone in elementary school, finding himself reading a comic where Peter Parker has a psychological breakdown, wraps himself in a web cocoon, and refers to himself as “the Spider.” Like I said, “dark” is fine -- I had some X-Men Classic issues reprinting the first Morlock two-parter by Chris Claremont and Paul Smith, and they were dark and moody and mysterious and seemed very sophisticated and “adult” to me as a kid. But these Spider-Man comics were, again, a drag; that really is the best word for them, if you know what I mean. Thoroughly unpleasant books -- what would a kid see in them, anyway?

But the years passed, and then the late-90s period came. The murky browns and greens and dark purples gave way to a brighter (computer-separated) palette, and the characters were all pretty much as I recognized them from the cheap little Marvel Super Heroes Guide Book I’d gotten from my school’s book fair that had taught me who all these guys were in the first place. They weren’t always the most adventurous comics, the most daring comics, the most innovative comics. But they were generally solid and they seemed entertaining, and as a 12-to-15-year-old, that was really all I wanted at the time. And I was fortunate, when I did start wanting more, that Jemas and Quesada came along to feed my teenage brain with Marvel Boy and New X-Men and X-Force.

When all is said and done, I think the comics I’ve talked about these last two months belong in company with the best stuff Marvel’s ever put out, and I do want people to know that the decade in which I spent my formative years did produce some legitimately good stuff. But as for the rest of it…you don’t have to like it, and I'm not going to try to convince you. You can tell me the post-Clone Saga, pre-Byrne reboot Spider-Man books were mediocre stuff, and I'll tell you you're probably right. It’s not particularly distinguished stuff, I know that. The Harras approach to Marvel worked to hook this particular nostalgic-before-his-time early teenager, but it certainly wasn't an approach that was gonna revitalize the superhero comic for the 21st century. But, you know, those comics were mine, man, I was there. When I’ve got a really bad cold I’ll pull ‘em out and read them in bed, I don’t care.

Anyway. Was that sappy? You can tell me if it was. I hate to romanticize nostalgia too much, but I'm also suspicious of bloggers who dismiss it completely. Before I go, though, I’ll just list very briefly a couple more comics from the era that might not be great, might even be severely flawed, but are still easy-to-overlook bright spots of the age in their own way.

Joe Madureira issues of Uncanny X-Men: It’s hard to remember now, but Joe Mad’s infusion of manga/anime style into mainstream superhero art was a breath of fresh air when he first appeared. While a lot of artists in the wake of the Image founders copied and watered down their heavily rendered and crosshatched style, Madureira made stylization cool again. So these comics get an honorable mention purely for the art; Scott Lobdell’s scripting was, just as it was in the beginning of the decade, quite insular and inscrutable…

Fantastic Four (vol. 3) #1-4: …and yet. Lobdell’s “create a mystery that’ll hook readers and worry about figuring it out later” approach that became so exhausting on X-Men seemed like a breath of fresh air for the FF. By the late 90s, the Marvel Universe didn’t seem to have enough undiscovered country left for these explorers to explore, but Lobdell’s four-issue run seemed to at least promise new ideas ahead; we’ll just never know if he could’ve followed through, because they swapped Lobdell for Chris Claremont, and his run, suffice to say, is not on this list.

Heroes Reborn Fantastic Four: The other “Heroes Reborn” books seemed to be proto-Ultimate takes on the characters, but on FF, Jim Lee (with scripting by Brandon Choi) gave us a retelling of highlights from Lee-Kirby FF. In the first six issues, the FF get their powers, fight the Mole Man, fight Sub-Mariner, meet the Avengers, meet the Black Panther, and get wrapped up in a battle between Doctor Doom and the Skrulls for control of the Power Cosmic that Doom is siphoning off the Silver Surfer. That is some condensed storytelling, man. These comics don’t offer much of anything new, and they certainly don’t improve on Lee and Kirby, but I like to think of those six issues as a really cool adaptation of a Fantastic Four movie you could never afford to film.

Sensational Spider-Man: This isn’t the post-Clone Saga/pre-Byrne reboot Spider-Man book I was reading the most at the time, but looking back, I’d say it was probably the best. Nothing groundbreaking, but just some really nicely done work can be satisfying in and of itself. Mike Wieringo’s work is great; why did we all wait until he was gone to notice? Writer Todd Dezago, meanwhile, offered old-school Marvel larks but gets hamstrung by inter-title crossovers and continuity, and for what it’s worth, he developed a way to modernize (well, for the 90s, anyway) the Stan Lee winking-but-still-sincere "voice" that most comics writers even today haven’t figured out how to do successfully.

Spider-Girl: I read maybe one or two issues of this, but never totally got into it. Still, I’m compelled to mention it because it had everything going against it in terms of what's traditionally successful in superhero comics -- female lead, set outside of regular continuity, debuted in friggin’ What If?, I mean really -- but found a hardcore devoted fanbase and managed to keep going (in one form or another) until just very recently. That’s got to count for something, right?

Cable: Man, I never read this either, but I always mean to track Joe Casey’s run down in dollar bins if I can. He works with artist Ladronn, who at the time was doing a style very openly aping Kirby. We associate Cable so strongly with the Image aesthetic, but Ladronn’s art forces you to rethink the character through a Kirby lens. Soldier from the world that’s coming, gimmicky glowing eye, part-man-part-machine…hey, let’s not dismiss this guy for being a Liefeld creation, you could almost make this thing work from a certain angle, couldn’t you? It suggests, to me at least, something relatively unique in comics at the time: instead of a modernization, a...past-ification? The late 90s' response to the early 90s. I don’t know, maybe it was rad.

That Punisher miniseries where he’s, like, an undead angel hunting demons and stuff: All right, just joking with that one.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Great Marvel Comics of the Late 1990s (Yes, They Do Exist): Black Panther

Christopher Priest’s big idea on this series was to take the fact that the Black Panther was a head of state and run with it, blending superheroics and politics.

Well, here is a book that was ahead of its time!

Has this book been an influence on today’s comics or just a coincidence? Because in reading his Black Panther, you see Priest ground the superhero action we all know and love with the political thriller genre in very much the same way as some of Marvel’s comics have for the past few years (the “Dark Reign” storyline, for example), or the way Brian Michael Bendis and Ed Brubaker and others like them sometimes write superheroes as though it’s crime fiction in tights.

Indeed, sitting down and rereading Black Panther recently, I was struck by how much it resembles a recent-model Marvel, right down to the snarky banter about how goofy superhero costumes are; swap the guest appearance by Busiek’s Avengers for Bendis’ team, change the year on the indicia from 1997 to 2007, tear out the Sarah Michelle Gellar “Got Milk?” ads, and you might not even notice.

But should it be a surprise? Black Panther launched under Joe Quesada’s (and Jimmy Palmiotti’s) "Marvel Knights" banner, and the success of these books is what led to him getting the Editor in Chief job (replacing Bob Harras, who oversaw most of the books I’ve been talking about in this series…and who was recently named EiC of DC Comics. Hey, I’m relevant!). Clearly Quesada knew what sort of thing he’d like to see in his Marvel comics even then. If this book is not a direct influence, then it at least comes from the same place as today’s Marvels.

Then why do I like this so much more than the stuff that drives me crazy today? (Don’t say nostalgia, don’t say nostalgia!) Well, we could say that Priest got there first (although he didn’t, of course). We could say his dialogue is funnier. We could say that his political intrigue plots about rogue intelligence agents, political coups, and international economics at least sound more sophisticated than “What if the Green Goblin was in charge of national security?” We could simply say Priest’s writing is better, according to criteria X Y and Z. I could even put it down to that great comics boogeyman of the last decade, decompressed storytelling, but even if I believe that to some extent, how tiring would it be to write, and how much more tiring would it be to read?

We could argue one, some, or all of these things, but a lot of it comes down to taste. Black Panther was a really well-done book. But what I will say is that Christopher Priest approached the material in a different way than those who have followed him, because he played that series Stan Lee-style so he could be knowing and ironic about superheroes while also using them in a very straightforward, sincere way.

That’s one of the things Lee was best at, and part of the reason his books still resonate with today’s considerably more jaded audiences. Stan figured out that you could point out and wink at genre conventions and clichés so that the non-kid audience is in on the joke…but in doing so, it allowed him to use those conventions and clichés just as much and as shamelessly as he pleased all the same. Take the Black Panther’s first appearance in Lee and Kirby's Fantastic Four, where T’Challa reveals the story of his father the chieftain, murdered at the hands of a white outsider, after which the son swears revenge. Lee has the Thing point out -- a couple of times, actually -- that this narrative is cribbed from almost every contemporary movie or book on this subject you can find…but pointing it out deflates any unwarranted, undeserved pretensions and allows Lee the freedom to integrate these tropes into his story, where cliché fuses with traditional superhero narrative and becomes something new.

Priest does this constantly in his Black Panther run, largely through narrator, reader-identification figure, and “useless white boy” Everett K. Ross. Every time there’s a twist in the political intrigue, Ross is there to point out how it’s like something out of a spy thriller to prevent us from pointing out the comparison first. Conspiracies are compared to Oliver Stone’s JFK (actually, the 90s movies references are maybe the only thing dating this comic) regularly. The nonchronological narrative structure is unabashedly pulled from Pulp Fiction, and the characters comment on it all the time just so you know Priest knows. Of course, you could very easily overdo this deflation and nothing would mean anything; everything would just be one more in-joke and hedged bet, but Priest is smart enough -- tactful enough like ol’ Stan was in his day -- to know when to pull back.

Because the criticism isn’t coming from the Black Panther himself. When the Avengers guest-star, they’re not self-deprecating or ironic or anything like that at all. Here’s the difference between Priest’s poking fun at the superhero genre and some of his successors: in Black Panther, there’s nothing funny about superheroes themselves -- it’s Ross’ observations that make them funny.

Remove Ross and the whole thing is played fairly straight, and I think that’s important. Superhero comics for a modern adult audience are a curious animal and a precarious tightrope act. Your average adult readers aren’t going to just take this stuff at face value the way they could as kids -- even the attempt to do so requires some sort of adult-level interaction with text that’s just not present in the way an eight-year-old kid picks up a comic and goes, “Venom? Awesome!”

So how the hell do you write children’s stories for adults? We don’t believe in superheroes, but we still want to believe in superheroes. A tall order! You play it too seriously, and it becomes heavy-handed and overwrought. You can cut it with irony, but it’s easy to go too far and everything becomes a joke, and nothing means anything anymore. If the Avengers aren’t going to take themselves seriously, why should I?

But Priest’s Avengers do take themselves seriously. Issue #8 has the Avengers intervening in a New York City riot, and all the while, Ross’ narration is calling them “Gaudily dressed borderline fascists,” “The Village People with repulsor rays,” “the expression of some chronic self-delusion” and perhaps the ultimate insult, quotation marks around the “super” in “super-hero.” But all the while, the Avengers themselves are played just as they are in their own comic. The Avengers’ "integrity" remains intact, but we also get critique. That critique would ring false coming from the Avengers, because in the world of comics we so desperately want to believe in, there’s nothing funny and there’s nothing shady about the Avengers at all. But Ross isn’t an Avenger and he isn’t a superhero. He’s an outsider*. Ross can make fun of the Panther’s kitty-cat ears all he wants, and we’ll forgive him, because we’re Ross.

So Priest can supply that ironic distance from the Avengers, but he can also have the Avengers doing their Avenger-y stuff. You read Black Panther and you get both at the same time, the same as you do reading Lee/Kirby FF.

That’s classic Marvel Comics in any decade.

(* - Ah, but what about the Thing, you might well arsk? He is a superhero after all and thus not an outsider, so who is he to be poking holes in the Black Panther’s backstory? But I’d argue the Thing, the original “unglamorous” superhero, functions in Lee/Kirby FF is as an outsider as well, albeit one who’s more integrated with the main action. The Human Torch is closer in age to the comic’s original intended readership, but it’s Ben Grimm -- the comedian, the freak -- who’s meant to be the reader-identification figure. Although he’s a plainspoken, unpretentious individual, he’s wise to the tropes of superhero comics so that the rest of the Fantastic Four can afford not to be.)

Monday, November 1, 2010

Great Marvel Comics of the Late 1990s (Yes, They Do Exist): Deadpool

Today Deadpool has…four ongoing series, is that right? I don’t really understand why the market will bear this at the moment, but it seems incredible to me now that in the late 90s, there was only one Deadpool comic, and it was often teetering on the edge of cancellation. But believe me when I tell you, this is one of the best Marvel Comics of the decade, and at the time, no comic being produced meant more to me than Deadpool.

I’ve been trying to make a case in this series about the Marvel mindset circa 1996-1999 or so – after the near collapse of the industry as a result of the excesses of the early-to-mid 90s, editorial spent a few years re-evaluating their primary superhero properties and trying to get them back to “the good ol’ days” while remaining modern. It's back to bright colors and clean lines, but those colors (and letters) are done on a computer, and those clean lines are in service of that new "manga" fad we'd been hearing about that everyone was so sure would fizzle out in a couple years. So in light of that, Deadpool scoring his own comic in 1997 was a bit odd because he’s a symbol of that early-90s excess.

You could look all this stuff up on Wikipedia, but I need it here for context: Deadpool started out as an X-Force villain “created” by Rob Liefeld (co-creator Fabian Nicieza has apparently admitted that he was basically just a lift of DC villain Deathstroke, which is why he named him “Wade Wilson”: as an in-joke and as a pre-emptive strike against cries of “ripoff!”). A bloodthirsty, wisecracking killer-for-hire, Deadpool proved popular enough to eventually be spun off into his own mini-series. (If you were a mysterious supporting X-Men character in the 90s, it was pretty easy to get yourself spun off into your own miniseries.)

This sort of thing happened all the time in the early 90s – the fan-favorite villains got their own books, but for propriety/morality’s sake, they reformed or, more often, became antiheroes. Here’s how you do it: You give your villain a slight noble streak - he won’t hurt innocent people. You pit that character against worse villains than himself, so that he comparatively is the “gooder” guy. That way the character doesn’t lose the violent, gritty edge that made him so popular in the first place, but now you’re allowed to root for him. So the formula’s easy, but it’s hard to pull it off without being totally cheap. You get unconvincing reversals (Venom, who’s murdered prison guards on multiple occasions and isn’t above threatening Aunt May to get at Peter Parker, rather abruptly decides to dedicate his life to protecting “innocents”) or a lot of stock brooding about the long road to redemption.

Deadpool’s second limited series was written by the last guy you’d expect: our old pal Mark Waid! And the standard seeds of redemption are planted there – there’s a notion that Deadpool’s a bad dude, but when it really counts, he’ll make a heroic choice, etc. etc. Not his best work, and I recall Waid saying in an interview if he’d known what a scumbag Deadpool was before accepting the job, he’d’ve turned it down.

So for whatever reason, Marvel decides to give ‘Pool his own series in ’97, and the job of writing it goes to Joe Kelly, then a newcomer. (The original artist was a young Ed McGuinness, who’d go on to dazzle us with three incredible JLA Classified issues with Grant Morrison but was still very much learning his craft at this time.) Kelly turns out to be a really good match for Deadpool. Partially it’s because Kelly can channel an appropriately twisted sense of humor for the character. It’s easy enough to write pop-culture references and jokes about how much this guy digs maiming and explosions to get across how cuh-razy and deeeee-mented your antihero protagonist is (although it’s not so easy to keep it from being irritating as hell; it's down to taste, ultimately, but I think Kelly pulls it off). Deadpool’s words, however, always seem to adhere to some sort of central character logic. Not just a bunch of random, funny lines Kelly thought up on the bus, Deadpool “sounds” like the same guy from joke to joke, and he’s distinct from all the other smartasses who populate this book. The dialogue is in no way realistic, but it is consistent, so it at least creates the illusion of a “real” person, however fantastic he may be.

But more importantly, Kelly and Deadpool were a perfect match because Kelly was a new, relatively unknown writer, and Deadpool was a low-profile book crammed in its own corner of the Marvel publishing schedule. Working in the Marvel Universe is a lot of laboring in the shadows of giants. You’re trying to write Fantastic Four that lives up to Lee/Kirby, Spider-Man that lives up to Lee/Ditko, Daredevil that lives up to Miller, X-Men that lives up to Claremont/Byrne, and so on. Before Kelly got ahold of Deadpool, however, the character had never had that “definitive” run. Rob Liefeld, for all of his faults, was one of the last Marvel creators to pump new characters with staying power into the Marvel Universe, uninspired though they might be in conception. A writer can look at this assignment in dismay – “What am I supposed to do with a character like Deadpool? Where do I start? There’s never been anything particularly interesting about him!” – or you can look at the character as a blank slate.

And it’s quite obvious from reading the book how passionate Joe Kelly was about his blank slate. There is a hell of a lot of creating going on; Kelly basically a milieu and supporting characters for Deadpool from the ground up, but it feels like something that's been in place for years. He dips into Marvel lore but never depends on it – I keep harping on it for a reason, the best of these late-90s Marvel writers had discipline. He never treats Deadpool as an audition for a better gig; he poured everything he had in it as though convinced he’d never get to write another book for Marvel ever again.

And that was a very real possibility at the time! These were the days of Busiek/Perez Avengers and Waid/Garney Captain America…in 1998, who the hell was Joe Kelly, and who the hell cared about Deadpool? Chris Claremont likes to tell the tale of how he and Dave Cockrum, and later John Byrne, were pretty much just left alone in those early years of the new X-Men because then it was who the hell cares about the X-Men? Like Claremont & Co., Kelly seemed to be able to do pretty much anything he wanted to do on a midlist book (at least until cancellation rumors started circling around #25, a dance of “Yep, you’re getting cancelled, so you better wrap up all your storylines in the next few issues…no, wait, numbers are okay, you’d better come up with some new material…wait, no, actually…” that eventually drove Kelly off the book). And so, like many of the best creators do when left alone, their superhero books become bizarre, idiosyncratic, personal. Remember, I liked this “re-examination” phase Marvel was going through, but it was exciting to see a book that didn’t have to grapple with What Had Come Before, because What Had Come Before had been kind of crummy. Kelly and Deadpool were free to do their own thing.

And so what Kelly wanted to do was to turn that “long road to redemption” thing we’d seen a million times into something unusual. His innovation was to subvert this clichéd character arc by not making redemption a straight line. It’s “realistic,” in its way – if you’d spent the last however-many years as a paid assassin after escaping from a Canadian supersoldier program that had performed gruesome experiments on you to turn you into the perfect killing machine, you’d probably have a hard time making the transition too. He’ll look like he’s making progress for a couple issues – he spares the life of the Weapon X scientist who’s largely responsible for Deadpool’s condition – and then he’ll have a bad day and say “Screw it, this is too hard,” and go back to the dark side.

There may be some commentary on the quickie villain-turned-hero phenomenon in that Deadpool is trying to become a hero for all the wrong reasons. It’s a mixture of low-self esteem and trying to score with Siryn from X-Force, who thinks Deadpool might not be such a bad guy after all and harbors some sort of nebulous “feelings” for him for reasons largely unexplained. He falls in love with the idea of being a hero, mostly. You get the sense that he would be much happier if he could just give up trying altogether, but he can never quite let it go.

If he tries, he’s spurred to continue by Zoe Culloden of Landau, Luckman, & Lake, who believes that Deadpool is somehow destined to lead humankind into a new age of peace and prosperity. It smells a little like the standard “You have a mysteeeerious desssssstiny!” crap that got flung around a lot of comics of the day, but it’s undercut by the humorously corporate atmosphere of LL&L (Zoe is an “expediter,” and the firm offers Deadpool a 401k upon joining up) and, of course, by Deadpool himself. This promise of a cosmic destiny gives him a temporary ego boost…until he discovers his actual role in ushering in the new golden age is to kill a Predator-looking dude before he can kill an alien messiah headed to Earth. Even when promised a heroic destiny, Deadpool’s still little more than a glorified hitman.

But the upside to this almost-unending cycle of getting knocked down is that when Deadpool does manage to do the right thing (for varying degrees of “right”), it’s a true victory. Captain America can do a hundred noble things before Sunday brunch (and we love him for it, don’t get me wrong), but because Deadpool is wired for self-interest and violence, his little pockets of altruism mean more.

A similar thing could be said about the book’s tone. Deadpool is a character built for humor, a voice to poke fun at these comics we take so seriously. But Deadpool, for all its jokes and its typically late-90s bright color palette, could get quite serious and quite dark when it wanted to, and the contrast made it all the more powerful. We’re told Blind Al is Deadpool’s “prisoner,” but she seems, at first, more like a sassy sitcom mother figure. They trade insults and eat breakfast together and play wacky pranks on each other, and the whole thing seems pretty low-stakes. But then an issue like #14 comes along, where you find out about The Box, a torture chamber where Deadpool sticks Blind Al when she’s “bad,” and about the one time she escaped and went to hide out with an old flame…only to find Deadpool got there first and fed him, quite literally, to the dogs. Kelly’s quite comfortable using an assassin for comedy, but he never lets you get too comfortable about it. Blind Al stops talking to Deadpool and you're angry about it - "Just be friends like you used to!" But they can't, and you start to realize they never really were. Never forget that this is a dude who’s killed people for money. This isn’t just Spider-Man With A Gun.

So the question Kelly ultimately poses is whether or not Deadpool is a "good guy." And saying “Yes he is, because he tries to be better than what he is” isn’t really the final answer Kelly was going for, I don’t think, and my support for that is the “Dead Reckoning” storyline (#23-25) that wraps up the whole first two years of the series. The alien messiah I mentioned earlier is headed for Earth, and it leaves peace and bliss wherever it goes, but it also eliminates free will – it's basically a benevolent version of the Anti-Life Equation. So when Deadpool finds out, he makes a snap decision, and kills the “space baby” instead of saving it. And it makes sense because ultimately, Kelly’s Deadpool is a messed-up guy at the mercy of fate. He’s bad because he was created that way by Liefeld, because he got dealt a rough hand in life, and he’s good because people tell him to be, whether it’s Siryn or Zoe or Marvel editorial not wanting a psychotic killer to be the lead in a series. So it makes sense that he’d defend free will the one time in his miserable life he gets to assert his own.

As the fanbase gets older, and the comics themselves become increasingly self-aware, it’s hard for superhero comics to transcend themselves anymore. It’s hard now, and it was hard back in the 90s. But Deadpool the character and Deadpool the book were just scrappy enough to have something to transcend, and Kelly pulled it off like nobody else working at the time could have.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Wyatt Earp: a work in progress.. I promise.


Hey Justin, and others. After your inspiring post I decided to share some of the in progress AWE2999 stuff. So you can see it is in fact having some forward momentum. As Justin mentioned it won't be called AWE2999 this time around. Instead it will be WWWH. Currently I've got four stories drawn and waiting for color. One or two more scripts to draw and Justin and I are both sitting on a mountain of ideas. I don't think we'll be publishing them anytime soon. We really want to build up a bulk before we present them to the world. That way you don't have that 6 month delay between pages. Have fun if you go to BTF tonight. I hear good things.

-josh

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Sorry, No 90s for You Today

I started writing about Joe Kelly's Deadpool, and then it turned out I have an awful lot to say about Joe Kelly's Deadpool. This is a comic that was really important to me at the time, real defining stuff, and so I didn't want to rush it. So next week, get ready for a hell of a lot of words about pre-four-books-a-month Deadpool.

In the meantime, have you been checking out Josh's sketchblog? In keeping with the 90s theme of my recent posts, his blog is like a box of chocolates, in that it is heart shaped, has a lot of little paper wrappers around everything, and contains a good deal of nougat. No, wait, actually, it's that you never quite know what you're going to get, from a particularly menacing drawing of Galactus, domestic interludes of a humorous nature, a Breaking Bad-inspired redesign of Mister Sinister, and often pictures of dogs of various sorts.

There are also bits of art from the comic we do together that gives this blog its name (although the name of the comic, at least, is changing). This is quite a technological terror he's constructed, and I find a real elegance in this simple conversational panel. We may have more stuff to pass along as well. (Josh, you still have the keys to this blog, right? You should crosspost the Earp/TWWWH stuff on here, it's only right. Also, I need to call and/or e-mail you soon, but Monday there's a movie theatre here playing some sort of digitally remastered Back to the Future on the big screen, so my brother and I will obviously be unavoidably detained that evening.)

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Great Marvel Comics of the Late 1990s (Yes, They Do Exist): Thunderbolts

The disinformation campaign surrounding the book’s launch is legendary. After the “Onslaught” crossover, the Fantastic Four and the Avengers were presumed dead (actually taking part in “Heroes Reborn” in a pocket universe), which, you can imagine, leaves a pretty big superhero void in the mainstream Marvel Universe. So it’s announced Kurt Busiek and Mark Bagley are going to introduce an all-new superteam called the Thunderbolts. These mysterious new superheroes get an intro in an issue of Incredible Hulk to lead you into buying the regular series, where the first issue is played totally straight, right down to the enthusiastic “Justice … like lightning!” catchphrase on the cover. They have a solid first-issue adventure, crafted by Busiek and Bagley to look like everything else Marvel was publishing at the time…until the last page when the Thunderbolts are revealed to be Baron Zemo’s Masters of Evil in disguise, merely posing as superheroes to con the authorities to give them access to the Avengers and SHIELD files.

And you had no clue until you read that page. Marvel couldn’t have kept the secret today with the internet the way it is, of course, and even in 1997 it was a feat. That makes me a little sad, but I’m part of the problem, of course; I don’t buy very many new superhero comics these days, but I “follow” them, as you might follow a baseball team you don’t get to see play very often, by reading the internet. Even if I were buying more, I’d likely steer of the big line-wide tentpole events…and yet the junk is in my system, so I’ll read news and reviews about them because I want to know what happened. It takes almost no effort to find spoilers, so I’m always quite surprised how reliant these tentpole events are on rearranging status quo. That’s why Thunderbolts looks even stranger thirteen years down the line. Now you’d have to hype up that concept ahead of time, or else who’s gonna buy it? I almost think you’d know something was up with this book from the start if they launched it today – “All new characters, not tying into anything, no high concept…there’s no way they think this is gonna sell; what’s the twist?” Conditions were just right in 1997, though. The issue sold out, reprinted and sold out again. Stealth high-concept smash hit.

The problem is, where do you go from there? The trick about high-concept superhero books is that they’re hard to build a long-running series out of because high concepts have a way of boxing superheroes in. You can do a million issues of the Avengers (so long as you can think of new scenarios) because their only real mission is to stop threats and preserve the status quo. These Thunderbolts, though, have a clear endpoint in mind, so either they accomplish their goals and the series ends, or you keep putting it off and the audience gets bored waiting for them to hurry up already and do something.

Busiek, however, doesn’t need me to point this out, because he already has the solution. So, through the first twelve issues, most of the team decides they like being superheroes and want to reform. Well, that’s a start, but by 1997, “villains reform and become heroes” has worn thin (in the early-to-mid 90s, of course, it was all too common for popular villains to get their own book and reform just enough so you could root for them a phenomenon we’ll get into more about next week with Deadpool), so Busiek has Zemo (who has no intention of reforming) see where this is headed and outs the whole group so that they’ll have to be loyal to him or be fugitives.

Busiek has done something very clever here, in using a high concept to bait an audience and then getting them hooked on the characters and situations so that they’ll stay even after you’ve removed the high concept. After issue #12, the Thunderbolts aren’t driven by their high-concept mission; they hang together because it’s them against the rest of the world.

Curiously, I'd like to make a case that Thunderbolts is Chris Claremont’s X-Men in reverse!

The whole mutants-as-persecuted-minority is a high concept, and you can use it to sell movies and power some storylines, but it's hard to really sustain it because again, either mutants and humans finally live together in peace and the story ends, or you get what has happened to the franchise, and get locked into a holding pattern where nothing is ever accomplished and no progress is made, and that’s a pretty terrible lesson to teach kids about overcoming adversity, isn’t it?

Claremont’s the one who really pushed the high concept as he stayed on the book for years and years, but if you look at the first chunk of his run, the stuff with Dave Cockrum (the first time) and John Byrne, it does nothing to drive the main plots of the book (with the exception of the Sentinels, kind of, and "Days of Future Past"). What does Arcade’s Murderworld have to do with these themes? What does Black Tom Cassidy? The Shi'ar? You could rework Proteus to be a non-mutant and the story would play out much the same. The Dark Phoenix Saga is generally considered the peak of the X-Men franchise, and yet you will find nothing at all about persecuted mutants outside of a few comments after the attack on the Hellfire Club.

Being mutants doesn’t drive the story, being mutants is simply what brings the characters together, because the Claremont/Cockrum/Byrne stuff is really all about how people you’re sort of thrown together with become friends, and how friends become family. Nightcrawler finds people who don’t fear his appearance, Banshee finds love with Moira MacTaggart, Colossus finds a larger world than life on the farm. They all find friendship, and the Dark Phoenix Saga is really about how far you’d be willing to go for somebody you love.

Once you have a solid core of characters like that, you can do soap opera and supervillains for years. And that’s what Busiek hit upon doing Thunderbolts – being an ex-supervillain, just like being a mutant, is the reason these people with very different personalities don’t just go their separate ways.

And then you can throw curveballs. Busiek has Hawkeye join the team and offer to become the T-Bolts’ new leader to help them get a pardon, but he also demands MACH-1, the former Beetle, serve a prison sentence for an old murder charge. Instant conflict. “Who does this guy think he is?” “He’s trying to help us!” I’d never seen much personality in Hawkeye, but under Busiek he’s good-hearted but always a little self-righteous, always assuming that he knows exactly what you’re going through even when he probably doesn't, always looking for a chance to prove that he’s not just The Dude With The Arrows even if it involves big risks.

High concepts are great at grabbing attention and they help you sell the movie rights, but you also have to actually make things happen that are interesting or all you have is a pitch. Thunderbolts did both.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Great Marvel Comics of the Late 1990s (Yes, They Do Exist): Captain America (vol. 3)

In the mid-90s, Mark Waid and Ron Garney did something like ten issues of Cap before handing the book over to Rob Liefeld and Jeph Loeb for “Heroes Reborn.” According to Waid, the deal was in place before Waid and Garney came on, only nobody told them. Marvel was then left with some egg on its face, because the Waid/Garney “fill-in” combo turned out to be a critical sensation that got the book more attention than it had in years, only to be cleared away for the critical failure that followed. And so when the “Heroes Reborn” storyline/experiment ended, the choice for the “new” creative team was obvious. Waid and Garney are back, and it’ll be like they never left!

But it couldn’t be just like that, and there’s two reasons why. The first is the more obvious – because the original run had the mystique of being a good run cut down before its time, Waid and Garney would not only be in competition with themselves, but with that hype. But just as importantly, I’d argue, the climate in the comics world had changed. Waid/Garney v.1 wasn’t a success because it was a brightly colored retro superhero book at the tail end of the dark ages. No, the book itself and its milieu were just as dark as anything on the shelves at the time, very much not what’s come to be known (sometimes dimissively but often reductively) as “fun” comics; it was Captain America himself who was brightly colored and retro in the middle of some dark comics, and that was the magic formula – once a man out of time, Captain America was now a man out of zeitgeist. By the time Waid and Garney were back, however, Marvel was in full retro mode, and so that approach wouldn’t mean the same things anymore.

I can’t speak to whether it was intentional or not (and I don’t really care; authorial intention be damned, discovering and developing your own meanings and interpretations is one of the great pleasures of the arts, and don’t let anybody take it away from you), but the storyline in the first seven issues of the relaunched Captain America (Garney left after #5 to do an ill-fated Hulk relaunch with John Byrne) seems to converse with these problems.

Presumed dead at the end of the “Onslaught” crossover, Captain America’s return becomes something very much like the Second Coming in the eyes of the American people, and Cap’s off-put by his new status as icon. Of course, “hero is uncomfortable with being the subject of hero worship” isn’t anything new in superhero comics (it’s a story told so often with Superman these days – Waid’s favorite superhero, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence – that you can be forgiven a groan when you see it polished off again), and hasn’t Cap been declared dead and returned so many times you’d think the public would be used to it by now? But I can’t help reading Cap’s hesitation as Waid’s, blown up to appropriately superheroic proportions (again, even if the thought never crossed Waid’s mind). “I’m not a messiah, I’m just a soldier/comic book writer!”

But see, it’s more complex than you might think, because Cap’s humility is not self-delusional. He knows he’s not really “just another guy”; he knows he’s exceptional, and he does want Captain America to mean something. And Waid, I’m sure, wouldn’t have taken that initial Captain America gig if he’d known it was just to fill a publication gap until someone else could take the job away; he knows he wrote a good Captain America, and he wanted to write the best damn Captain America comic he possibly could. Cap and Waid both believe in themselves, both strive for excellence; the concern is that everybody else’s perceptions and expectations might be inflated.

So what makes this aspect of the storyline so compelling is that it isn’t a matter of “all hero worship is inherently bad,” because Cap wants to be a good example for His Fellow Americans, and Waid wants you to think he wrote some good comics. My favorite issue of this run is #4, where Captain America and Hawkeye go out on the town and hash it out. Hawkeye isn’t troubled at all by “Capmania,” and really he’s not the sort of guy who’d shy away from attention, but it’s his contention that Cap really does deserve it. And that in itself is touching – the guy with the arrows who was always after Cap’s job as leader in those early Avengers issues has matured and thinks better of ol’ “Methuselah”. He still serves to antagonize Cap (it's a hoot for him rubbing the crappy merchandizing in Cap's face, he buys an oversized Captain America helmet, and tells a news crew about a bunch of absurd Chuck Norris-like reasons why Cap is so great, including that he gave Galactus a wedgie and used to tour with Fleetwood Mac). But that antagonism is constructive rather than destructive – Hawkeye makes jokes to get his friend to lighten up. And Cap really does need a friend like Hawkeye. At the height of his brooding, Cap laments that because of his newfound superstardom, he can’t even leave Avengers Mansion...at which point the more grounded Hawkeye comes up with the solution Cap is too inward-focused to have thought of: he tells Steve to take off the costume and just walk around like a dude.

It becomes a little unsatisfactory toward the end – Captain America claims that even he was “seduced” by Capmania, and yet the only moment where I can see him doing anything but chafing at the attention is a tiny smile that escapes his lips when a crowd is chanting his name. I understand that it makes for a more satisfying character arc to give into the hype and then see the error of your ways, but frankly if that is the only thing he did, I am going to say you should not have to beat yourself up over this, Steve! If I had a giant statue of me in Japan and action figures and a movie and people screaming my name, I might smirk just a little bit too!

So. Then we get to the second problem facing Waid and Garney at the dawn of their second run, the problem of how to be relevant in the face of changing times. And, obligingly for my pseudo-thesis, Waid makes it explicit in an interior monologue in #4:

“Now more than ever, people are looking to me for answers I’m not sure I have. I talk a lot about the American dream, the American way…but talking’s easy. In fact, after the Onslaught fight, I was gone for a while…and my absence didn’t exactly cripple the nation. […] If Captain America’s going to matter in the new millennium, he’s going to have to start being proactive…not reactive. But what do I do to make a difference in this complicated world nowadays?”
I am tempted again to read a little Cap-as-Waid here. Indeed Waid was gone from the title awhile after the Onslaught fight! That’s taking it a bit too far, I’m sure, but Waid does seem to be grappling with the question of relevance, the same as Cap. At first thought, however, you might not understand why. After all, Waid’s won, hasn’t he? One of comicdom’s greatest modern Silver Age boosters writing Captain America again in the middle of a full-on retro craze. Mission accomplished, eh?

But despite the fact that Mark Waid can name every single member ever to serve in the Legion of Super-Heroes or that he purportedly memorized Clark Kent’s Social Security number, he is a disciplined writer, and like a discplined writer, he is quite never satisfied in what he’s done. Much like what I’ve said about Kurt Busiek, he’s not out simply to scratch a nostalgia itch (even though he could've gotten away with it). At this late-90s Marvel, where everything old is new again, you could simply do a modern take on a Captain America vs. Batroc the Leaper battle and call it a day.

And in that much-loved issue #4, Cap does fight Batroc. But, and here’s the thing, he does it grudgingly. This Captain America searching for relevance doesn’t really want to get sucked into “Cap vs. Batroc, Round 27.” He’s forced to, because this is superhero comics, after all, but after he’s done, he describes the fight (and, quite cheekily of Mr. Waid, the entire superhero thrust of the issue) as “a completely pointless way to spend and afternoon.”

“I wasn’t defending my country. I waasn’t fighting to protect the innocent. I was brawling because some idiot came gunning for me. What a pathetic waste of time. […] I fought a battle I’ve fought a dozen times before…and it did nothing to make the world a better place. This wasn’t a heroic act. It was a wrestling match…with just as little at stake.”
He walks a fine line, very nearly criticizing the reader who bought this issue because, hey, Batroc! But personally I think Waid pulls it off - do a straight-up supercharacters fight, and then deflate it with commentary. Yep, that's the ol' Marvel style, all right.

Ooh, running long. I really really liked the first storyline in this series, you guys. I’d like to say a bit about the conclusion to that arc, because I think it’s one of the best uses of an established Marvel Universe concept we’ve seen in the modern era. But I also don’t wish to spoil a genuine surprise on the off chance I could convince any of you to go track down these issues. Perhaps we might take it to the comments, but perhaps not.

So I’ll close by talking about Ron Garney, because this series is a true collaboration between writer and artist (Waid once remarked, too humbly, I’m sure, that it was Garney who made the first run a success, and that he was merely along for the ride). Garney’s art on the first run made a splash, and yeah, it was nice, and Captain America himself hadn’t looked so good in years. But by the time "Heroes Return" rolled around, Garney made the leap from really quite good to phenomenal.

Man, his storytelling chops on these issues. His layout and compositions are breathtaking. Issue #4 begins with one of the best splash panels I have ever seen. Oh, look, I can actually show you this one, thanks to Waid himself posting it: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_xAeJG-YrjJQ/SbdoObMktPI/AAAAAAAAABo/Na-nuVvTrT8/s1600-h/Cap+04.jpg. Credit must go to Waid for figuring out how to pack a whole lotta information into one single image like that, but it wouldn’t work without Garney’s sheer talent behind it. This page doesn’t read as anything like a single frame of a movie (what a waste that would be of a great concept). No, there’s time in this panel, there’s movement. I don’t feel like I’m looking at this panel, I am watching it.

Garney does it even better in the intro sequence to issue #2 and man oh man do I wish I had a scanner (again) to show you this. Track it down, you won’t be sorry, but there’s a shot of a Hydra agent kicking down the door, and I would swear to you that the image is moving on the page. Garney really is a master of timing and pacing, which we don’t see enough of in modern comics art. He can slow time down with some long shots and small panels, and then instantly crank up the speed with a big action-packed panel. So often we see splash pages in the middle of the story that don’t really add anything (this isn’t a knock on current artists; this has always been the case); it comes off like the artist got bored and wanted to draw a flashy pin-up for his portfolio. Not so with Garney. He uses half- and full-page splashes fairly liberally, actually, but they always hit at exactly the right moments. You will forgive the expression, but…these are money shots.

It’s sad to see Garney go in this series. Doug Braithwaite pencils #6 and the first half of #7, and he does a fine job. After that, Andy Kubert takes over the art chores, and things certainly get more stylish; I shan’t say a word against him. Their first real storyline together gets Cap out of his comfort zone and dealing with Doctor Strange’s enemy Nightmare, and it’s pretty good. After #13 (a really nice single issue, it must be said) my interest in the series declines a little bit. There’s a Red-Skull-gets-the-Cosmic-Cube-again storyline that segues into a return-of-Korvac time-travel story, and then back to the Red Skull storyline. The Korvac storyline is good in places (he keeps rebooting time every time Captain America forms a resistance to his rule in the future, but no matter what he tries, Captain America is always there, in spirit if not always in flesh), but the Red Skull storyline never really hooked me. Then there’s some tying up of loose ends involving Cap’s missing shield that are okay superhero comics as well.

I do wonder what they would have been like with Garney still on board, though.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Another 90s-Marvel Schedule Change

There'll still be a new post Monday, but it'll be on Mark Waid and Ron Garney's second run of Captain America (vol. 3, which once upon a time used to mean something indeed) rather than Christopher Priest's Black Panther, because right now it looks like BP'll be a good way to end this whole show.

Should you decide to come back here for the Cap write-up, I'd bring, like, some coffee or a change of socks or something, because this is shaping up to be long.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Great Marvel Comics of the Late 1990s (Yes, They Do Exist): Avengers Forever

Kurt Busiek and George Perez’s regular Avengers series from the same time was pretty good, too, don’t get me wrong, but I’ve always thought this 12-issue miniseries Busiek wrote (with an assist from Roger Stern) was even better, or at least, more interesting. And interesting comics are what I am interested in.

I want to mention artist Carlos Pacheco’s work right off the bat so I don’t tack it on as an afterthought at the end, because it’s so vital to the project. I feel like this story, so rooted in Avengers comics past, would’ve been a little too on-the-nose with Perez’s art – I mean, he drew some of the stories this book name-checks; he was there! While I don’t want to minimize Stern’s contribution (although I’m not sure what it was, precisely…plotting assist?), this series is really about Busiek and Pacheco, two guys who’d read those stories when they first came out, now revisiting and re-exploring them from their late-90s perspective. You can tell Pacheco loves those old comics, but his style is fresh and new. I’ve always thought of Pacheco as the ultimate artist of the 90s (which I mean as a sincere compliment, not ironically or sarcastically) – you see in his artwork the clean lines of the Silver Age, the handsome figure work of the Bronze Age, the energy and flair of the Image guys, the stylization of his contemporaries, all combined in an artistic goulash that just screams THIS IS WHAT SUPERHEROES SHOULD LOOK LIKE. Also: guy draws some really dramatic hands, I don’t know how he does it. Just look at them.

Of course, the first thing everybody mentions about this series is the continuity surgery, and Pillock and I had some rollicking back-and-forth about retcons and what-have-you last week. It may surprise you, but I don’t even think the continuity stuff is the most interesting part about this series, but you can’t really not write about it.

On the one hand, where Busiek doesn’t want to step on anybody’s toes in Untold Tales of Spider-Man (it’s about adding history, not retconning it; tidying up a few loose ends but not really making any radical changes), Avengers Forever does have some big, fat, “Everything you know is wrong!” changes that overturn some comics you may have read. Busiek reveals the master manipulator Immortus as being behind a whole mess of important events in Avengers history, from Avengers #2 to “The Crossing.” Along the way, we find out the Vision really was built out of the Human Torch (although the Torch exists as a separate being as well through some time-travel tinkering – Busiek wanted everybody to be happy, here), Kang’s claim that he was behind Hank Pym’s mental breakdowns was a lie (turns out that wasn’t even Kang!), and an old Thor story happened in a totally different way than originally portrayed. So this story does some undemocratic, totally authoritative retcons that don’t play nice, that insist that you take them as canon from now on and retroactively.

Why, then, does it not bristle the way many similar massive retcons do?

Well, to be upfront with you, part of the reason for me is that I’ve never actually been a hardcore Avengers fan (although I know you’ll call me out on the concept of “not a hardcore fan,” Pillock!). I’ve read enough Avengers comics over the years, but I’m not emotionally invested in them the way I am with, say, Fantastic Four or the Flash. So, y’know, you tell me some of the characters in some comics I’ve never read from the 70s and the 90s were Space Phantoms, it’s really no skin off my nose. It was just fun for me to get a quick summary of the 35-year metaplot of the Avengers to that point, additions or no.

But leaving that aside, many fans believe the “Everything you know is wrong!” type retcon to be a show of arrogance. I feel that’s severely overstating things in most cases, but there is an element to it that when you decide to contradict an established storyline, it’s implied that you’re doing so because you know better or you have a better idea.

Yet, I don’t read a drop of vanity in Avengers Forever (well, it’s maybe a little harsh on “The Crossing,” but who wasn’t, in those days?). To read it as hubris, as Busiek imposing his will on over three decades of Avengers history, would be a mistake. I mean, read the thing. This was a labor of love, but it was most certainly a labor! This was something Busiek knocked his brains out over, trying to reconcile nearly every loose end and continuity error (and the whole thing hangs together about as well as it possibly could), and he didn’t do it to write his own name into the Avengers legacy, or even for a No-Prize. He did it for us, we readers of Marvel Comics in the late 90s. The early 90s (even the late 80s, in places) had been pretty unkind to the Avengers, and so Busiek went about fixing holes – “Avengers continuity’s fine, I got it to make sense, I balanced the checkbook and took out the garbage. Let’s carry on, shall we?”

And that carrying on is important, because like I said, I don’t have a deep personal attachment to the Avengers, and so a big continuity patch manual alone isn’t gonna do it for me. Fortunately, Busiek’s got that discipline that I mentioned in talking about Untold Tales, enough discipline not to let it take over the narrative; it’s toward the end as sort of a reward for anyone who’s stuck it out and is interested, but what’s really driving this series is a story.

And what is that story? It’s long and complex and twisty and would take a whole blog post in itself to summarize, so I’ll just cut it down and say: Kang vs. Immortus, for all the marbles. Of course, Kang is Immortus - Kang was a time-travelling warlord, and Immortus was a mysterious, time-travelling manipulator, and eventually it was decided that both of these old Avengers villains were the same guy at different stages of their lives (Immortus is Kang’s future self), working at cross purposes.

What’s so interesting is the animosity between Kang and Immortus. Kang is obsessed with war and conquest, and considers Immortus a feeble academic who’s turned his back on the glory of it all. Immortus, meanwhile, seems embarrassed of Kang the way we might be about our teenage selves. And there’s something to that; although Kang describes himself wearily as “so old…”, there is something childish about Kang and the way he loves war for war’s sake, the way kids just love to play without an agenda. I mean, here’s a guy who likes to conquer galactic empires, but hates running them – he’s the kid who likes getting presents on Christmas morning but never cares enough to play with them!

And yet, there is something almost heroic about Kang here. Partly because Immortus is working an agenda for some higher-ups that involves destroying entire timelines, and so working with Kang is the lesser of two evils for the Avengers. But beyond that, what I find so compelling is that even though Kang knows he must become Immortus (having met him through time travel and all), he fights his destiny. He’s not fighting his future self alone, but inevitability itself. When he crushes the body-swapping device he’s used in past Avengers stories to cheat, the message is clear: "Hope I die before I get old"! Kang is every elementary school kid who doesn’t want to go to middle school, every high schooler who’s afraid of going to college, every twentysomething in love with the privileges of adulthood who doesn’t want to face the responsibilities, and every grown man or woman dreading the day they become a senior citizen. Kang is Peter Pan, and it works – the timestream is his Never-Never Land! He’s fighting adulthood, but not in the form of Captain Hook, because an adult with a hookhand and a pirate ship is still kind of cool. He’s fighting the Robin Williams adult Peter Pan from Hook; it’s bad enough getting old, but do you have to be so boring?

And the most striking thing about it is that Kang wins! The story doesn’t force him to accept his lot in life and mature (which is the knee-jerk way you'd end such a story); he gets separated from Immortus (sort of; if you’ve read it you know it’s trickier than that) and becomes master of his destiny once again. Free to be that child forever! Would it be playing “postmodern games” to read Kang’s refusal to quit as a metaphor for the Avengers franchise itself in this series? Kang doesn't have to get old and boring, and neither do the Avengers; it's telling that Immortus too gets a new lease on life. A new course is charted into the future for the "new" Captain Marvel, and heck, even Libra’s revealed to be still knocking around. I meant it when I said "everybody wins" - I read this series as Busiek and Pacheco saying, “Well, the Avengers had a patchy couple of years there – and if you want to be totally honest, the franchise has always had some inconsistencies, its good times and bad – but we survived. Nothing is broken, because the Avengers still work!”

Avengers forever.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Great Marvel Comics of the Late 1990s (Yes, They Do Exist): Untold Tales of Spider-Man

So if you buy me saying that the “retro” movement in mid-to-late-90s Marvel was a reaction to the excesses of the early 90s – the idea that we have gotten away from what made these comics great, and we should try to get back to that place – then Untold Tales of Spider-Man is a pretty clear place to start. The thing about the Clone Saga is the whole storyline was multiple Peter Parkers basically taking a couple years off just to get their shit together; all that stuff we associate with Spider-Man’s popularity – colorful superhero action grounded with relatable situations – went missing for a long time…“Sorry, Vulture, I’d like to fight you, but I’m just super busy with my own stuff, here.” The core 90s audience was digging the twists and turns (let’s not forget, the reason they dragged that storyline out so long is because it sold very very well), but two groups of readers were being alienated: longtime fans who missed all the elements that made them love Spidey comics in the first place, and new readers who knew Spider-Man from cartoons and couldn’t find anything recognizable in the books as they were.

But, since both those groups wanted the same thing – fighting Electro in between bouts of girl trouble and money trouble, that sort of business – you just put out one book that caters to both of them, problem solved, bets hedged. A series set during Spider-Man’s early years would be recognizable to both groups (you get your teenage Peter Parker, but you also get the continuity-minded fans on board because it supposedly “counts”), and it sounds like a simple enough thing to pull off, until you really think about it. You try to balance appealing to old and new fans, but the new fans have a significant handicap – namely, that it’s the old fans writing the things, so who are they gonna look out for first?

Nostalgia and retro are infuriating in the wrong hands, because they're not demanding of a writer or artist – you just mix a bunch of elements that you loved as a kid together, recapture that warm fuzzy feeling, and call it a day. Now, Kurt Busiek clearly is a guy who loves old superhero comics, and he has a reputation as a total continuity freak, but if you actually sit down and read his stuff, you’ll find a superhero writer with some discipline. Busiek could just write a bunch of self-indulgent nostalgia-pandering and be done before lunch, but he doesn’t. Untold Tales is, make no mistake, crammed to the gills with in-jokes and callbacks for the thoroughly initiated (when you find out the Spacemen got their powers from gasses that were trapped inside a meteor, it’s a cookie and a pat on the head if you link it to the Looter’s origin, but it’s such a quick, understated aside that Busiek isn’t punishing you for not having memorized your Lee and Ditko).

But his love for the originals isn’t just surface, it isn’t just Silver Age for Silver Age’s sake; Busiek has very clearly studied not just what happens in the original tales, but how the stories are told. He’s interested in the mechanics of the thing in a way that a lot of writers aren't; he doesn’t just want to record in Abbey Road, he wants to figure out what made those Beatles songs work, anyhow.

Many of Lee and Ditko’s early Spider-Man issues follow a definite formula: Spider-Man meets villain, villain either defeats Spider-Man or manages to get away, Spider-Man learns his lesson, Spider-Man defeats villain. The first Vulture story, the first Doc Ock story, the first Electro story…they all do it! It’s quite brilliant, actually – what better way to demonstrate how Spider-Man doesn’t quite have the superhero thing down by having him need two tries to succeed? What makes Spidey a good superhero isn’t that he can beat a bad guy the first time he meets him, it’s that Spidey knows that you can learn from failure. Busiek’s Spider-Man can’t beat the Scorcher or the Sandman the first time around, either, but he taps into the endearingness of failure, which was always the hot air that keeps Spidey’s balloon afloat.

Perhaps even more interesting: Lee and Ditko’s Peter Parker initially wears a costume not to be a superhero, but to find applications for his unexpected powers. In Amazing Fantasy #15 he tries to become a TV star; in Amazing Spider-Man #1 he tries to join the Fantastic Four because he figures there's a salary in it; Amazing Spider-Man #2 has Peter figure out how to make money off Spider-Man by selling photos, and later issues even had him try to license his image and sell his web fluid to make some cash. Busiek, similarly, portrays a Spidey just trying to scrape by, who’s not yet necessarily a “career superhero”. He tries to become a police officer in issue #1; a politician hires him as a bodyguard in #2; another issue has him try to get hired by the military to protect the shipment of a device the Vulture’s after; another issue has NASA considering making him an astronaut. Untold Tales really splashes around in that whole seeming gray area of the early Spider-Man stories. What kind of “responsible” superhero charges for his services? The kind who keeps putting on that Spider-Man costume because Aunt May needs money for her meds. If not for her, that whole "Well, hell, I'll just take photos of myself if someone's gonna pay for 'em" gets a little ethically iffy when you take Aunt May out of the picture, doesn't it? Really, the whole reason he doesn’t throw away that Spider-Man costume at the start of Amazing Spider-Man #1 is for her, it’s always all been for her; pity she can never know because the shock would kill her (we’re always told) but hey, that’s Stan Lee for you.

Another thing Busiek’s learned well from the masters is how to use continuity as a tool, as another way of generating stories. Busiek truly was the King of Kontinuity in the 90s – anybody can memorize a bunch of Silver Age stories and reference them; Busiek looks at old stories as springboards.

Here’s what continuity is for! To be exploited! Not to drag your narrative down with chains and responsibilities, but to inspire! See, for me, the coolest thing about Doctor Doom in early Fantastic Four comics was that each story had him appear to buy it, only to reappear in a subsequent issue not only alive and well, but with a new scheme derived from that last appearance. Doom gets hurled into deep space, only to be found by aliens who teach him a mind-swap trick he pulls on Reed Richards. Caught in his own shrink ray, Doom appears to fade to nothingness, but subsequently finds a subatomic kingdom from which to strike at the FF.

And so, Busiek goes through Silver Age Marvels with his continuity comb, looks at what happened in the space between stories, and thinks, “Where could I go from here?” The Big Man comes out of nowhere in the original issues but is portrayed as an established threat; Busiek sees an opportunity. Remember how Spider-Man sorta flirts with the Invisible Girl in that one throwaway backup story (Amazing #8)? Busiek sure does, and if there’s mileage to be gotten out of playing it out to its (il)logical conclusion (and there is – plus Mike Allred art!), then he’s gonna get it.

“Untold Tales of Spider-Man” – what a chore that book could’ve been if it’d been predicated on continuity-as-obligation. But for Busiek, it’s continuity-as-opportunity, and he makes it look so easy! That’s why this book is on the list. A story set during a classic run that doesn’t set itself up as competition. The series is set chronologically in between issues of the original Stan Lee and Steve Ditko Spider-Man tales, and yet the stories are told according to modern conventions. Straight pastiche would be grating at best, condescending at worst, but these comics play by modern rules and aren’t trying to pass themselves off as Silver Age originals; not even the least-informed comics reader could mistake Busiek and Pat Olliffe’s work for Lee and Ditko’s (Olliffe’s style recalls Ditko’s general sweaty weirdness, particularly in the faces, but takes its storytelling and panel layout cues from then-contemporary comics).

It's a book very much trying to have its cake and eat it too, looking backwards while also venturing into some new places. You might consider Busiek taking apart his Lee-Ditko pocketwatch to see how it works merely a formal exercise, and maybe you're not wrong. But Busiek was given this little corner laboratory in 1995 to see if he could build “comics the way they used to be” and make ‘em work; fifteen years later and a lot of writers still haven’t got that one figured out.

Untold Tales of Spider-Man is a cleverer book than it gets credit for, and I think that’s part of the reason I like it so much. Busiek and Olliffe invested a lot of thought and work into what they were doing, and it would be a lot more apparent if they weren’t so damned elegant about their precarious balancing act.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Great Marvel Comics of the Late 1990s: Schedule Change

So the introduction had dates and topics, remember? I hadn't really given much thought to the order the posts would go in; I thought they were modular, but now I've decided to kick off the series with Untold Tales of Spider-Man. It seems like a pretty useful (and pretty obvious, in retrospect) starting point for talking about the fusion of retro and modern present in most of the comics I'm going to highlight, and it's probably the best introduction to Kurt Busiek (who writes two other books on this list) and how exactly his superhero writing works.

So...theoretically, there's nothing stopping the rest of the posts from going in the original order, but I don't want to commit and then have to write another post like this in two weeks if it comes up, so let's just say

a.) there will be a new entry every Monday through November 8th, and
b.) it will be about one of the books on the original list.

See you Monday for our trip baaaaaack to the niiiiiineties! Queue up your Fiona Apple CDs and set your VCR for Must See TV. I am, no joke, wearing a flannel shirt over a T-shirt today.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Great Marvel Comics of the Late 1990s (Yes, They Do Exist): Introduction

The 1990s are often looked at as a bad time in terms of quality for comic books in general, but especially for Marvel Comics.

“Extreme” heroes with chains and spikes and claws and guns (Wolverine and the Punisher, these are your children!) ruled the day, operating under the assumption that they were more “realistic” and “mature” than their predecessors. Villains who became popular enough to get their own series were redeemed very slightly and superficially so that you could root for them when they killed a bunch of dudes and made jokes about it.

The X-Men became increasingly inscrutable and insular. Chris Claremont had stopped writing the books in 1991, but because his style was widely credited with turning a second-tier, bimonthly book with a cult following into the industry leader, his successors continued writing in his general style but cranked up the intensity and turned down any measure of restraint. People get on Claremont’s case for self-indulgence and excess, but after he left, the unresolved plotlines, mysterious new characters with mysterious pasts, and dystopian alternate futures started piling up like never before. Every character seemed to have some secret connection to the past of every other character, so that while the number of mutants skyrocketed, their world became so much smaller.

But the X-Men kept selling, and so gradually that style of plotting spread to the other books. The infamous Clone Saga of the Spider-Man books was originally planned as a single sales-spiking storyline, but Marvel’s marketing department got a hold of it and demanded it be stretched to the breaking point, no matter how many times the creative team tried to just end the damn thing. All told, the storyline went on for about four years, turned at one point into an attempt at a back-to-basics reboot – establish the clone as the real Spider-Man, and give the “unrelatable” married Yuppie a happy ending with a new baby – and ended almost exactly where it started, except Norman Osborn came back out of the blue as a Lex Luthor-style master manipulator because they needed some sort of payoff for the readers who'd stuck with it.

The Avengers got the worst of it, because nobody seemed to care about the Avengers at all in the early 90s, so they just threw everything they could think of into the books and hoped something would work. They got trenchcoats and muted color palettes; Iron Man was manipulated into becoming a villain, died, and was replaced by a teenaged Tony Stark doppelganger from a parallel reality; the Wasp metamorphosed into a hybrid wasp creature; and Giant-Man…uh…Giant-Man got a costume covered in pouches.

So why would Marvel do all these goofy-ass, shortsighted things to their characters? Well, I think part of it is they got left behind by DC in the late 80s. They didn’t have a Watchmen, they didn’t have a Dark Knight Returns, they didn’t have an Alan Moore Swamp Thing or a Neil Gaiman Sandman. They didn’t even have a Crisis on Infinite Earths, man! So I suspect they were looking for a way to reinvent themselves, and when the guys who’d go on to start Image Comics came along, Marvel saw its opportunity.

It starts with artists like Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee, and Rob Liefeld, but I don’t think the problem was ultimately with the future Image dudes themselves. By the late 80s when they burst onto the scene, superhero art had become perhaps a bit staid, bit too comfortable with itself – and I say this as someone with a genuine love for the art from that time, my own childhood golden age! – so it’s no surprise their energetic, enthusiastic approach sold. Some of my first Spider-Man comics were McFarlane Amazings, and I can’t rip Liefeld’s ridiculously proportioned heroes apart without noting that Jack Kirby was hardly consulting anatomy textbooks himself when drawing books like OMAC.

The point is, I can’t fault these guys for trying something new and exciting in superhero comics, even if it wasn’t always to my taste. The real problem, as it usually is in superhero comics, was with the guys who didn’t have any of their own ideas, so they cashed in current trends, following instead of leading. By the time the Image founders had studios of “clones” able to imitate Lee or Liefeld’s style so they didn’t have to draw their own stuff, we’re getting pretty far away from the haven for comics creators the Image rhetoric initially promised, but it’s even more unseemly for Marvel to do the same, to try to fight Image on Image’s terms with cheap knockoffs and lose.

In the wake of the Image revolution you had the great speculator craze – variant holographic foil covers polybagged with trading cards you were never even supposed to open – that was ultimately unsustainable and imploded by mid-decade. But just as unsustainable was the Image-model superhero, he of the gunspikechainbloodclaws. What ultimately distinguishes Kirby from some of the Image guys is that he was interested in creating concepts; at their worst, the new guys seemed interested in little more than names and costumes, all surface. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Spawn was the best selling Image book, because McFarlane actually took the time to develop a concept and an ongoing narrative and ideas (even if I never was into the book, personally) and stuck with it; Savage Dragon survives today because Erik Larsen was invested in the little corner he’d happily carved out for himself in comicland, not in hot-selling #1s.

So by about 1995 or 96 or so, Marvel didn’t have to worry about Image quite so much anymore, but when the smoke cleared they found they were in financial hot water (for reasons I’m not 100% on, but it’s not important to our discussion here), and all of their characters had somehow come to be in mangled states beyond recognition. Something had to be done. What would you do, True Believer?

What Marvel banked on, under Editor in Chief Bob Harras, was “retro.” A sort of “neo-Silver Age” movement was being spearheaded by Grant Morrison, Mark Waid, Tom Peyer, and others at DC Comics, and Marvel was trying its hand at something similar. After the “Dark Ages” of the early 90s, here was a promise of comics “the way they used to be.” “Onslaught” / “Heroes Reborn” / “Heroes Return” provided enough of a break in the narrative that they could sneak in a semi-reboot on the Avengers and Fantastic Four properties, and suddenly everyone’s back to their classic costumes and characterizations. Goodbye Teen Tony and Wasp-Creature! At the same time, it wasn’t just a matter pretending the Bronze Age never ended. These were comics that turned a loving but critical eye to Marvel’s history; reconstructing superheroes, going through the code line by line and keeping the legacy stuff that still works, trying to update what can be salvaged, and dumping the rest.

Ultimately, though, trying to incorporate all the excesses and ridiculousness of the early-to-mid 90s with the rest of Marvel’s 30-40 year “tapestry” proved unworkable and unprofitable (particularly with the Spider-Man line), and this led to Bill Jemas and Joe Quesada having a go at it that proved a bit more successful.

But back to the late 90s. These years get painted with the same brush as the early 90s comics, and I don't really think they deserve to be dismissed like that. I’ll admit, I was in late middle school/early high school then, so these are the comics of my own youth. There’s some rose colored glass there, some nostalgia. And yet, even looking back on it ten-plus years later, trying to strip away all the sentimentality as best I can, I can’t condemn these years and wouldn’t want to. I honestly don’t think they’re terrible comics. Of course, there was some terrible stuff to be found, as there is in any decade, but I think if you sat down with a stack of late-90s comics stripped of all your preconceived notions, you’d see a lot of comics that were okay. Spider-Man comics were okay. There was a Quicksilver series and a Heroes for Hire team book concept that was okay. There was even an X-Men book or two that was okay. Though I was reading a bunch of these books at the time, I’ll admit that some of them don’t hold up and wouldn’t have a lot of re-read value for someone without the emotional connection to them that I have.

And yet…there were some Marvel Comics of the late 90s that were good. Some weren’t just good, some were actually pretty good, really. Maybe even great.

So I thought if nobody else was going to stick up for these books, I might give it a go. I’m going to focus on six in particular; I’m not saying these are the only good comics Marvel put out in the late 90s, or even that they were my favorites at the time. But they’re six that I think represent well the peculiar time they were produced in. There was no going back to the way things were completely; post-Watchmen, both the audience and the creators were too self-aware, almost painfully so, about superheroes and what they meant for that. So it comes down to a balancing act: how do you do something that feels like it belongs to that Marvel tapestry we all remember fondly while adding something new? How do you keep from being crushed under expectation? Can “retro” be fresh? What should a Marvel Comic look like in the last years of the 20th century? If you look at it this way, even some of the failures are interesting.

Let’s have a chat about all these things for the next couple Mondays, what do you say? Spread the word, invite a friend. I hope to find something interesting in these books nobody wants to talk about anymore.

Sept. 27: Avengers Forever
Oct. 4: Black Panther
Oct. 11: Untold Tales of Spider-Man
Oct. 18: Captain America (vol. 3)
Oct. 25: Thunderbolts
Nov. 1: Deadpool
Nov. 8: Honorable mentions and maybe a little something to tie it all together

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Pardon Our Dust...

What are you doing in this ghost town, stranger?

You might remember (oh, but probably not) that last year around this time I took a break from my already-erratic-and-infrequent blogging schedule because of a work-related move.

This has happened again.

Two moves one year apart! Certainly not an enviable state of affairs (once upon a time, I seem to recall, I owned things that did not reside exclusively in cardboard boxes), but this last move I hope (and, actually, I believe) was the right one. I'm typing at you from my new living room in the great city of Madison, Wisconsin (official motto: "Five dollars for a cup, bro"), and it feels strange indeed to no longer tick the "media/journalism" box when filling out surveys asking for my occupational field, instead finding my pen (or mouse pointer) come to rest unexpectedly in the "healthcare" box.

But what does this mean for you, the most discerning reader of all?

It means I am back and I am writing, and if you can still be bothered to type in my blog URL (or however you find yourself here), come back Sunday for the kickoff of a new series of regular posts: "Great Marvel Comics of the Late 1990s (Yes, They Do Exist)".

Tell your mama; tell your pa. Gonna send your preconceived notions about '90s superhero comics back to Arkansas.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Bronze Age Spider-Man, and Peter Parker As "Aspirational" Identification Figure

Okay, answer me this question: Is Peter Parker, the Amazing Spider-Man, a fully realized character?

I mean, he’s got character traits, certainly. Loves science, strong sense of responsibility, protective of his aunt, young(ish), prone to self-pity and paranoia, an outsider, an underdog, ability to banter with super-villains, etc. etc.

But is there much in the way of depth? Does he have those idiosyncrasies that make us who we are? Does Peter feel like a really real person, the kind you’d meet walking down the street or share a cubicle with?

I would argue, in most cases, no. (Although if anyone disagrees, I bid you, let us have a stirring conversation about it in the comments.)

Most A-list superheroes are not, partially by virtue of being the subjects of ongoing narratives by different writers and artists spanning decades, owned by media conglomerates, having to straddle the line between art and commerce, taking licensing into accommodation, and so on. But perhaps more importantly, I’d liken them to what I described in the Friends post as “aspirational figures” – you find a superhero you can kind of relate to, and you can aspire to being as super as them. Science enthusiasts have Reed Richards and a bunch of others, engineers (and I am thinking of one in particular, Daine!) have Tony Stark, guys who spend their lives training their bodies have Batman. Marvel’s unglamorous misfits of the Silver Age are just as aspirational because they’re heroes despite their problems: if you’ve got anger management issues, Bruce Banner is someone who understands you, and the Thing is every guy who got dealt a bad hand, who was ever written off for seeming low-class or not having a pretty face.

They’re relatively vague because they are meant to be, because you have to identify with them. It’s been said (maybe it was Scott McCloud – I’ve never sat down and read Understanding Comics from cover to cover, I’ve just gone through sections of it here and there over the years, so I'm a bit patchy on it) that in cartooning, the more stylized a face is, the more identifiable it becomes. You could say that Bruce Timm’s Bruce Wayne reminds you of any number of big beefy dark-haired white guys, but Bryan Hitch’s Nick Fury is quite obviously (and in this case quite intentionally) one guy. The characters on Friends are cartoony for a similar effect – with more subtle, fully realized characters, you couldn’t quite as easily (imagine yourself/aspire to be) Chandler or Rachel or whoever. And so it is with the A-list superheroes.

Spider-Man’s got it harder, though, because he’s got to be an aspirational figure for everybody. He can’t even be a character type like Tony Stark or the Human Torch because Peter Parker has to be all things to all comics fans. He’s the part in all of us that screws up, feels alienated, feels alone and always on the outside of things. He represents youth, and if we're not still as young as he's supposed to be, we can at least remember when we were. Because he’s so universal, he’s got to be extremely broad, and indeed, as is often pointed out, because of the full face mask you can very easily imagine your own face under there.

But Spider-Man’s greatest asset as a character is also therefore his greatest liability. He can’t progress or become an individual if he has to be relatable to everybody, but once you outgrow the aspirational aspect of Spider-Man, there’s not a lot to the character you can hang on to. Much of the audience reading the “in-continuity” “616” version of the character’s passed Peter Parker up in age, and now it’s gotta be him aspiring to be us at this point, right? “Why doesn’t he grow up already, get a steady job? He’s been at this superhero thing as long as anybody now, shouldn’t he have gotten good at this at some point?” I’ve offered a solution before, but it’s a somewhat cynical one, and not satisfying for everyone.

Quite frankly, I think the reason why Spider-Man is considered to have been in a creative malaise for over 20 years now isn’t because he was married or too old or anything like that – it’s that the fanbase is increasingly invested in the writing of superhero comics over the art, and from a writing standpoint, Peter Parker can be a pretty thankless character.

But in the Bronze Age of Comics, it wasn’t always quite so.

Stan Lee was 49 (if I have done the math right) when he stepped away from writing Amazing Spider-Man in 1972, but his successors were much younger (most notably, 19-year-old Gerry Conway). Lee was a guy aiming for authenticity as best he could in depicting teenage life, and pulled off a slick soap opera approach pretty well, but these new guys had recently been or were actually still livin’ la vida Parker.

So for whatever reason, whether that these comics were being produced by people the same age as the character, or that the writers and artists were young and brash and ambitious and serious…for whatever reason, Peter Parker occasionally got a few moments of real humanity in the Bronze Age. Where he’s more than just the aspirational everyman, “the super-hero who could be…YOU!”, but something approaching an individual person. Not all the time, because he for the most part remained that carefully maintained combination of heroic and neurotic that is the formula for Spider-Man we all love so dearly. But he got a couple. And I would like to share three here with you.

Now, I really wish I had panel scans so I don’t have to describe these, but if anything it emphasizes what I’m talking about. I do not have any of the issues I’m going to talk about, but I have read them, each only maybe once or twice, but they stayed with me. They’re fairly small moments, of varying weights and importances, but they stick in my head because they hint at a depth you rarely see in Peter Parker as a character. Perhaps it makes him slightly less relatable to a mass audience, and yet…I feel as if I know him better, I feel as if those moments are able to surprise me. And that’s something you don’t get all that often.

1.) SPIDER-MAN SINGS ELVIS COSTELLO (Marvel Team-Up Annual #4, 1981, written by Frank Miller)

Okay, so if I remember how this goes, Spider-Man interferes in some scheme of the Purple Man’s, so Purple Man uses his mind control powers to get Spidey out of his hair. He tells Spidey to hang on a lamppost and recite some Shakespeare. Spider-Man says he doesn’t know any (ah, you see? Less relatable to me, in theory!). Purple Man asks him what he does know, and as a result, you get Spider-Man singing the lyrics to “Oliver’s Army” for a couple panels (I forget why, but he never does make it to the unprintable lyric on-panel).

This is not the only occasion that Bronze Age Peter Parker has been shown to dig Elvis Costello (you have to scroll down to "Spiderman" on the link). And it’s a risky thing, in its way, to pin down. Defining a fictional character’s musical tastes always threatens to alienate readers, as much or possibly even more so than politics or religion. The line in High Fidelity is that it’s what you like, not what you are like (granted, John Cusack’s character is not meant to be a great judge of interpersonal relationships, but still). If I tell you a character (or a real live human being) is into U2, or into Ben Folds, or Phish or Lady Gaga, it probably suggests something to you. Such is the power of pop music that if you tell me you like XTC, you can show up at my house uninvited, eat all my chips, drink all my booze, crash on my couch and then make a mess in the bathroom in the morning; but tell me you think the Stones are better than the Beatles, and we have to fight bareknuckled in a back alley in the pouring rain.

Maybe I’m biased because I really like Elvis Costello, but what I take away from this is a different sort of Peter Parker than we saw before or since. In the early Silver Age, Peter Parker was a nerd and a social outcast; today Peter is cast more as a geek and lovable loser – both pretty broad characterizations. But in the Bronze Age, I feel like Peter’s deal was a little more nuanced. Parker’s kind of a hip guy who remains straight laced. He’s tuned into pop culture but doesn’t get wrapped up in it; notably, it doesn’t define his life in the way that geeky things rule your thoughts and mine. He’s uncomfortable at a disco, but not a total square either. He can get a first date but has trouble getting a second.

He’s a guy who’s got a Trust poster on his wall but who doesn’t talk your ear off about how great it is every time you see him.

2.) PETER TRIES TO BRUSH OFF MARY JANE (Amazing Spider-Man #122, 1973, written by Gerry Conway)

The last one was a lightweight scene, and this one’s about as heavy as Spider-Man gets. This is the issue after the Green Goblin kills Gwen Stacy, and then in this issue gets impaled on his own glider in a fight with Spider-Man. You know.

After the battle, Peter wanders back to his apartment and finds Mary Jane there. At this time she’s still played at best as a carefree party girl, at worst as superficial, capricious, self-absorbed. She tries to comfort him, but Peter, all torn up with grief and rage and a million other things, isn’t having any of it. Here’s what he says (secondhand, courtesy of a Google search, so I can’t vouch for it being 100% accurate):

“Don’t make me laugh, Mary Jane – you wouldn’t be sorry if your own mother died. What do you care about straights like me and Gwen? Go on…get out of here! I know how you hate sick beds, and believe me, I wouldn’t want to spoil your fun.”
This sticks with me because it’s such an ugly moment – lashing out at someone trying to reach out to you. It’s somewhat understandable, given the state of mind he’s in, but there’s no denying it’s really ugly. And that’s what I love about this moment.

See, Peter is usually portrayed as being in the right all the time because he’s both aspirational and a reader identification figure, and most of us don’t often think of ourselves as being wrong, nor do we wish to be. He can make mistakes, misjudge things, but it’s a rare occasion when you could actually call him out for a lapse in morals or, in this case, just being a colossal ass. You’re not supposed to think the character you’re supposed to relate to is being a jerk, so most of the time Peter isn’t one. It’s why people got bent out of shape about him making a deal with Mephisto (well, rightly I might say) and, previously, joining up with the pro-registration movement in Civil War.

But one of the drawbacks to a character who is always right and always good is that they’re flat. So this nasty little scene at least supplies slightly more depth than we’re accustomed to from Peter Parker. He’s not May Parker’s perfect nephew on these pages, but a guy who is just not in the mood for you right now. On the surface it’s alienating – “I would never say what Peter just said!” But how do you know? Your girlfriend just gets murdered by someone trying to get to you – maybe you’d say exactly what Peter said. Maybe you’d say worse. Or maybe you wouldn’t. In any event, here is a rare occasion where you can judge Peter Parker, where he’s not above reproach, where he’s not trying to be liked by you.

3.) PETER’S LAST WISHES (Amazing Spider-Man #151, December 1975, written by Len Wein)

Not as heavy as the aftermath of Gwen’s death but not as frivolous as singing “Oliver’s Army,” this moment is one that I find the most poignant, and it’s also one of the more obscure.

So this is the wrapup of the “original Clone Saga,” where Spider-Man fights his own clone (the one that would go on to become Ben Reilly), who supposedly dies. Peter takes the “body” to a factory smoke stack and says wistfully to his clone something to the effect of, “Well, since it’s my wish to be cremated, this is probably what you would’ve wanted too.”

I’ll repeat that: Peter Parker knows what he wants done with his remains when he dies, and it’s cremation. Unusual for a superhero! Whenever you see a superhero funeral – whether a “real” one, or a symbolic one that just happens on the cover for effect – it’s a casket burial with a big ol’ tombstone. Makes sense, I suppose; you’ve got the ceremony, the pallbearers, the lowering of the casket – it’s visual, it’s a spectacle, which makes for good comics iconography.

But that is perhaps exactly why Peter Parker isn’t planning on having a casket burial. It’s a little detail, fairly insignificant, never really brought up again so far as I know, and to be honest, the whole thing is probably motivated by the plot – Peter has to get rid of the clone body somehow. But still, you hear “it’s my wish to be cremated,” and you start of thinking of the young man who’s made that decision, and he’s made it as a man, and not as a superhero. Spider-Man won’t have a big stone monument with an eagle perched heroically on his arm to mark his grave; Peter Parker will just get himself taken care of in a low-key manner…don’t want to bother anybody, don’t want to make a fuss, it’s only me for heaven’s sake...! What’s to be done with the ashes? At this point in his life, he’s probably thinking scatter them off the Brooklyn Bridge, hm? Aw.

It’s one line, and yet I feel it suggests so much about Peter Parker that we never even knew.

(I know, all that build up for the Bronze Age Spider-Man post for that? Still, this was important to me for whatever reason.)