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.