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.

21 comments:

Justin said...

Oh hey, by the way, if I could convince anyone to buy just ONE issue of Untold Tales...it'd have to be the UNTOLD TALES OF SPIDER-MAN '96 annual.

It's the one I mentioned that picks up on Spider-Man flirting with the Invisible Girl. This issue has it that he's only doing this as part of the ongoing antagonism between Spidey and the Human Torch (essentially, "I'm TOTALLY gonna hit on your sister, bro"), only in the story Sue ACCEPTS because Reed is in full ignore-her-because-his-experiment-is-at-a-critical-stage mode. It's a great story that really taps into the "Hey, these guys are all a little wacko" Looney Tunes aspect of early Marvel that not a lot of people run with anymore. It's really funny (I love how put out Spidey is that all Sue wants to talk about on their "date" is Reed and Namor) but has a couple brief flashes of real emotion and danger that make a greater impact for being surrounded in a light action-comedy romp. There's even a throwaway reference that's secretly a HUGE DEAL if you know your Lee-Kirby FFs, and it makes me want to go "Ooooh!" like the studio audience for Friends when Chandler and Monica got together.

But what really makes this a book to GO OUT AND FIND RIGHT NOW is the art. It's a common complaint that comics bloggers focus on the writing instead of the art, and I'm certainly guilty of this myself, but NOBODY could ignore this comic. Mike Allred inked by Joe Sinnott! Has this ever happened before or since? Because it's absolutely AWESOME. Allred's snappy pop-art throwback style paired with Sinnott's "Hey, I was ACTUALLY THERE in the 60s" linework combines in a bizarre way. It looks like an old romance comic, only everybody's sweaty and walking around with a funky slouch. The Allred/Sinnott Peter Parker is totally unique, with these weird, long horn-like locks of hair, and this almost creepy dreamy look in his eyes; I have to say it's the REALEST-looking Peter Parker I've ever seen.

I wish I still had a scanner, but then I'd have to upload every page. Buy it yourself! It's worth the buck or whatever you'll pay for it just for the little web bow tie Spider-Man wears on his date that dissolves into a gooey mess halfway through dinner.

plok said...

Allred/Sinnott?

WHAT?!?

SOLD!

I have surprisingly little to say about this since I've always trusted Busiek's tragic Steve Englehart fixation as well as I trust my own Steve Englehart Fixation...finding the dropped stitch and spinning up something respectful and non-problem-making-for-others from it, without the thing just being unnecessary. However I shy (shied) away from these efforts, and still do even when it's Colleen Coover (!) because that's how nasty a taste Byrne's version of this same thing left in my mouth. Remarkable, actually, how poorly Byrne understands Spider-Man...though he's written one or two good Spidey stories (uh, and plotted a couple in the Claremont MTU, I guess), MAN but that guy does not get it. Classic example of the toy-breaking Byrne, the kid you don't want your kid playing with because he's too rough.

Okay, I can't argue with this particular "Good Marvel Nineties" account, damn you.

Justin said...

I'm trying to stay positive in celebrating this time period and don't want to get too hung up on the negatives, but...I'd like to hear more about your assertion that Byrne is a toy-breaker. Because I've always thought of Byrne not as someone who plays rough, but rather that he's sort of bossy about what we're all playing (although this may be colored by his public/internet persona): "This is the way it should be, and any deviation is WRONG. This is not open to discussion!"

Untold Tales, to me, seems to be about exploring possibilities (which, since they happen in between issues, you are free to ignore!), while Chapter One was about limiting them: "Here is the official way these stories happened from now on, CASE CLOSED."

Justin said...

And by the way, I just checked my blog stats, so, Kurt Busiek, if you're still here or come back at some point, thanks for the Twitter link!

plok said...

Definitely I think Byrne's as you describe: BOSSY! But the toy-breaking thing, that was somewhat in evidence too...and maybe at a certain point it and the bossiness are the same thing? I mean I can't really complain if he broke Alpha Flight (although he did!) because they were his creations, but one of the things I cheered Busiek's Avengers Forever for was the way it undid a lot of Byrne's own "authoritative" undoings of a couple decades' worth of other peoples' stories. That being said, I may've been a bit too slapdash in my previous condemnation...Byrne has absolutely written great stories, done great work with characters, and I've been known to like his Spidey a lot...he's been very innovative, too, for such a well-known "back-to-basics" guy, and what I think I've said elsewhere still holds: I don't think he's a superhero traditionalist at all, and I think that's his strength. he finds new angles.

However he does love a retcon, doesn't he? And he seems to have a certain inclination to nail doors shut behind him when he leaves, either that or take them completely off their hinges. I'm a Byrne fan, but it's a miracle anyone could find a way to use the Vision or the Scarlet Witch at all, after he got through with them. Maybe I'm just oversensitive to that because of my Tragic Englehart Fixation, but man. Then you see Chapter One and you wonder why he hates you.

If Kurt Busiek's still around, he's going to cluck his tongue at me for sure -- since he pretty much demonstrated that nothing Byrne did was anything like "broken". And to be fair, Byrne always maintained he hadn't done a darn thing that couldn't be fixed back up by a later writer, he'd done nothing that closed every loophole. This is true: I spotted the Vision loophole right off the bat, and P.T. Horton showing up alive when he shouldn't've been alive could have been played out in about fifty different ways...and I'd be lying if I didn't say Byrne's applecart-upsetting didn't give me any fuel for my own internal fan-fic-based retconnery. So, yeah: by all means let's avoid the negativism!

But I still think it's fair that Byrne plays fairly roughly with the contents of the toybox; and the "I didn't do anything that couldn't be fixed" thing, well it's also true you can fix a G.I. Joe that's had his arm ripped off.

Sorry, like I said: left a bad taste in my mouth! ENTITLED FAN OVER HERE, I guess, sigh...

plok said...

"Fair to say", obviously. Gahr.

plok said...

Still amazed no one picked up on the "easy out" for the Vision...

Justin said...

I think I read about that Vision fix. Wasn't it that at some point his brainwaves or something had been loaded up into ISAAC on Titan? So a "backup" of his personality exists, and theoretically all you'd have to do is, I don't know, plug him in and reload it?

plok said...

That's it exactly! Amazingly, to my knowledge no one's ever used it.

Justin said...

Looks like by my blog stats that things are back to normal 'round here. Which means TIME FOR NEGATIVITY!

Actually, no, I did intend to limit the hate when I came up with this series idea (though I kinda had to talk about the general badness of the early 90s in order to discuss the response of the late 90s; hard to get around). And to that end of looking at the good, that Vision fix is NOT TOO SHABBY; you could've actually gotten a story springboard out if it somewhere (still could, I suppose; isn't the Vision dead again?) as long as you don't make the Avengers look like chumps for not having thought of it years ago.

But the Vision/Human Torch retcon is a whole other matter, I feel. That really IS Byrne being a bit bossy and making it hard to snap that GI Joe's arm back in the socket. Sure, in-universe, there's a bunch of ways to get out of that one (and of course in superhero comics, you don't even NEED to have someone leave you a loophole when there's gods and aliens and devils and time-travellers who can lend you a hand), but in the real world, maybe the next writer ALSO thinks the Vision shouldn't be a remodeled Torch and RE-retcons it, and then we're just playing "Is not! Is too!" for the rest of the publication history of the Avengers.

I think Byrne very intentionally salted the earth with that one, and I'm not sure what needed fixing so bad, other than Byrne looking at the situation and going, "Hm...nahhh. TWO DIFFERENT DUDES."

(Continuity doctoring will, of course, be discussed on Monday with Avengers Forever, although I actually think that's not even the most interesting part of the series.)

I agree with you about Byrne not being a staunch traditionalist, at least not back when he was a younger man (he seems to have become a bit moreso since the late 90s, although a lot of that I take to be his very OWN reaction to the early 90s - Busiek & Co. wanted to salvage what had been wrecked, whiel Byrne seems to want to do a System Restore and get us back to the good ol' days).

But it was HIS idea to have Phoenix wipe out that planet, after all!

plok said...

You read back through old Byrne interviews and it's sometimes hard not to get the impression that he thought the Vision and Scarlet Witch pairing was immoral...somewhat in the fashion of Millar and Bendis thinking that the Hulk kills people. "She married a toaster!" represents a certain sort of interest in "realism", maybe? Or maybe Byrne was just always rather crotchety. In the end, Busiek did have to create an unusually explicit continuity fix, in the form of a magic crystal whose main attribute was the power to fix continuity problem...and really, whatever made Byrne think the resurrection of the Original Human Torch was anything like a useful idea? It's hard not to think it was all just because he didn't like the Vision: Wonder Man rejects the idea of bringing Vizh "back to life" basically on the grounds of his own moral right not to be copied, and his inner conflict there is "am I doing this because it's right, or just because I'm in love with the android's wife?" Wow, unless you're actually thinking something like "well, he's just a fucking toaster after all" that's Wonder Man behaving in a distinctly unheroic fashion by even allowing himself to tolerate the question. "Am I really not resurrecting my old teammate just because I'd like to be with his wife, or is it just because I'm being kind of selfish about this very abstract point of principle that I'm letting him stay dead?" That phrasing just won't work, obviously, so no matter what happens in the thought-balloons or even in people not liking Wonder Man or yelling at Wonder Man...the writer himself is pretty clearly saying "no, this is fair, because the Vision's just a toaster...so the worst you can accuse Wonder Man of is being a jerk." It never really becomes a situation where the idea that the Vision is a person is successfully upheld by anyone. Old Horton comes along specifically to redraw the line, by claiming the Human Torch was an artificial human with no moving (mechanical) parts...hanging a lampshade both on Roy Thomas' old bit about how a "synthezoid" is an artificial human, and the fact that human beings do have moving parts that are mechanical! Just not metallic. Of course Roy also filled the Vision's body with lots of stuff that just has no analogue whatever in a human body...but then again: it's comics, not actual science.

plok said...

Blogger doesn't like the size of these comments, but it seems to be publishing them anyway...good news...

Byrne is a real funny one, although of course the 90s are not just about Byrne...I mean, I was absolutely astonished to find out that he hated doing Alpha Flight, and that's why he messed up all the characters! Some very serious earth-salting going on there, twists and turns that basically leave the door open to a happy ending, then bring on the happy ending but then reveal it as a lie, thus effectively slamming the door...and so much of that earth-salting can almost be said to verge toward the paranoid, eh? You can practically hear the sweaty guy from Total Recall, "first you'll be the hero, then the villain...you'll find out everything you knew was a lie, and then you'll find out that was a lie..." Of course Byrne looks like a piker in that, these days: Millar and Bendis have got him quite thoroughly beat in the "arbitrary reversal" department. But, man, what do you say about a guy who gets rid of the tiny wings on the Sub-Mariner's feet? I think you must call him cranky...so Namor's bipolar too, is he? Well, okay...that's not terrible...although you know, there's nothing wrong with Namor just having a bit of a temper, and perhaps even being a bit of a...yeah, a crank, ha-HA! But of course Byrne doesn't think of himself as a crank, he just thinks everybody else is totally wrong about everything...that's not being a crank, if they are wrong...so why would he let Namor just be a crank, then? No, he's got to fix Namor, instead...

plok said...

You ever read "Danger Unlimited" and "Torch Of Liberty"? Byrne abandons them after a while, but while they last they're absolutely terrific "no no no you're all wrong about everything" stories -- not just terrific examples of that tendency, but also quite dandy supercomics. Still, how he ever got the nerve just to plain infringe the hell out of the FF and Captain America...I mean, it's just weird. He even said something like: "well, I noticed no one was putting out Fantastic Four comics anymore, so I figured I might as well put one out"...I mean wow. And yet I still wouldn't automatically assume those books ended because of a cease-and-desist letter, just because by that time Byrne was practically famous for losing interest and moving on...

Hey, if I could figure out how to make a living from that, I'd do it too! Leonardo himself barely finished a painting, after all...

Justin said...

Oh...oh man...that Namor retcon, I...I didn't want to...you HAD to go there, didn't you?

The Vision dismantling I never cared for (kind of liked the ghostly white look, though). What's worse than Wonder Man refusing to help is that everyone else lets him get AWAY with it; I mean, you'd want that situation to result in the end of Wonder Man's career with the Avengers - "Get your stuff out of the compound, turn in your ID card, if we did 'dishonorable discharges,' then that's what this'd be." But didn't the Wasp even kinda concede Wonder Man had a point? STONE COLD.

THERE'S your real case for Byrne not being a superhero traditionalist! Because pretty much any other superhero writer in the whole world will play along with "even an android can cry!" So it's actually pretty daring, when you think about it, to refuse to accept that notion, even though it is the ENTIRE POINT of the character.

But the Namor thing...that is...okay, I want to steer clear of the Negative Zone here, but that is just INEXCUSABLE. The only reason we all care about Namor is because of that impetuous, rebellious energy Bill Everett brewed into him in 1939 (and Stan and Jack regulated slightly), so to insist that all along this is basically just a dude off his meds...?! I will say no more.

But it does mark a difference between the kinds of retcons Byrne's contemporaries were slinging about vs. Busiek's contemporaries. Before everything crashed in the mid-90s, Marvel was largely built on such authoritative decisions, whereas the guys who picked up the pieces tried to reassemble everything in a more democratic way. And, as you note, we're back to brassy, in-your-face retcons. Bucky Barnes never died and Cerebro's been sentient all these years and Professor X knew and didn't care! I will say, though...there is SOMETHING to be admired in the boldness of that, is there not? Even if it DOES angry up the blood from time to time, and even if I don't like it. If you're ALWAYS just trying to make everybody happy then you start cranking out safe, conservative comics, don't get me wrong!

Justin said...

Oh, and I've never read those Dark Horse books, but I've heard about them, and honestly, I think he got away with it because Marvel just plain didn't care about the Fantastic Four or Captain America at that time. "Let Byrne have 'em, we've got bigger X-Fish to fry!"

Alan Moore's Supreme, too. "He wants to do rainbow kryptonite and super-ape and super-dog stories? Hell, he's welcome to them!" What a difference ten to fifteen years'll make, though.

RAB said...

Can I just say, everything I would have wanted to say here is already being said and I didn't want to interfere, but I will darn well join in when you get to Avengers Forever because I have read and read and read the hell out of that thing.

Also, this has persuaded me to seek out some Untold Tales at the next opportunity.

plok said...

I mean, Allred/Sinnott, RAB!

And hold on, maybe this isn't the place (I know it isn't!) but let's just link to Tucker and David's look at the McGregor Black Panther...because I wanna give some kudos...and kudos are due...

But.

Yeah, NAMOR. Byrne, that's over the line. That's not being a "New Traditionalist", that's being a, Justin you'll excuse me for saying this one time I hope, PRICK to rewrite BILL EVERETT I mean for God's sake...!

John Byrne's a dick. Can I say that here?

John Byrne's a dick.

Justin said...

I've never read "Panther's Rage," but that blog series has me really really keen to, so mission accomplished, I suppose.

RAB: The great thing about these late-90s Marvel gems is that since they remain pretty low-profile in 2010, you can find 'em in 50-cent bins. I got a huge stack of Christopher Priest Black Panthers a couple years ago for a few bucks. I'm sure Untold Tales is no exception.

Anonymous said...

I will also recomend Danger Unlimited, if you're on the fence about it. In the foreword, he admits to that snarky remark about the FF, but he says that he didn't abandon the book, it had extremely low sales, so he gave it a mercy kill, so to speak.

And it's weird that you guys have spent so much time talking about WCA, as i just read Byrne's run on that book maybe 2 weeks ago.

Justin said...

Thing about that WCA run is I don't like the changes/retcons that Byrne imposed on the Vision, but some of the stories themselves I still enjoy. Same with his Superman - I dislike almost all the changes Man of Steel made (and even dislike his Superman AS A CHARACTER from time to time), and yet they're undeniably compelling and enjoyable superhero comics.

Anonymous said...

The only one from that run i really liked with no reservations at all was the one with the virus that is guiding the humans to try to become Mutants. The rest, i had issues with.

And i haven't gotten very far on his Superman run.