Monday, July 31, 2017

Black Cat: Well-Developed Female Characters

Black Cat, female comics characters, and character development.

I’ve seen it noted elsewhere that Marv Wolfman overwhelmingly chose non-physically super-powered antagonists for the wall crawler in his year and a half run on The Amazing Spider-Man. it’s true: they use gadgets, conventional weapons, and disguises, but a Wolfman foe- unless, of course, he’s a Man-Wolf!- is a non-super powered foe. (He does bring in a formidable even-match criminal Human Fly who adds to the drama nicely during the twenty-four hours spent shackled to a bomb with Jonah, and there’s a Starlin- drawn bout with Electro I believe was intended for Marvel Team-Up.)
He created one, too. In genuine Wolfman fashion, her apparent gimmick’s later revealed to be a gadget-type set-up, but if Luck be a Lady, the Black Cat’s bad news all around for Spider-Man!

Say what you will about Madame Web, but I recognize how cool it was for Spider-Man to gain a character who’s enigmatic, non-physically powered, elderly, physically invalid, and female- many identifying categories for which there was no one of the like in his world. How not to overuse her as lazy plot device was another problem, but good try! She’s the next original female character after recent team-ups with Dazzler.

Along with recruiting Moonstone from Stern’s Hulk run, we’ve gotten Belladonna, too, over in Peter Parker, and Denny brings back the Man-Killer when Spidey teams up with the Savage She-Hulk in Marvel Team-Up #107. But the costumed lady craze that featured in efforts to find something new to do with a Spider-Man Marvel felt uncomfortable fundamentally changing all goes back to the one original new enemy co-created with Marv Wolfman.
First of all, a black cat makes an awesome female character totem. Spidey’s rogues were classically animal totems, too, so good place to start. Black Cats are traditionally familiars to witches, and historically, witches were more often than not misunderstood women who moved along their own paths, if not dis-empowered by those who wished to outright take their property, backed only by the ‘witch’ accusation. You might say, this is a black cat who steals property back! (There’s surely room for great Scarlet Witch/ Black Cat team-ups, especially with the ‘hex’ factor.) The creatures are often feared, even injured, by superstitious, vicious ignorance. A misunderstood representative of oppressed, nature-based female power? Yeah!

Amazing Spider-Man #194 came to me as part of a drawing kit, using a plastic mirror to copy. It’s sort of a terrible way to learn drawing but a kid can at least learn layouts. So, the spooky Black Cat’s hurtling towards Spidey on the cover- a nice one-as she will in the middle of her prison break-out of her dad at the end. (This is two prison break stories I’m writing of, back to back?) She looks really, really nice under Pollard’s pencils inside; this is the first time a super-villainess had ever flustered Spider-Man, and just as he’s abandoned the idea of a relationship with Betty Brant, too! The Romance element wasn’t prominent in the kid-friendly Wein run, but Wolfman puts a lot of time into Spidey’s love life. He begins with the natural next-step approach, the big threshold with MJ that Pete won’t be carrying her across. His proposal’s in the first Wolfman story arc, Amazing #’s 182 & 183.
One door shuts, and when Pete’s opens at the apartment, there’s first love Betty Brant-Leeds, desperate for a shoulder to cry on after leaving Ned in France. The “married woman” marks an adult complication: they try rushing from “old friends” to something more. Byrne’s guest stint in #189 is scripted to be quite a bit more yet-that’s in keeping with the more adult approach Byrne seemed to prefer. But someone, not for Pete, but for Spider-Man? That’s another new twist! The fact that her infatuation’s connected to the man in the mask and his mysteries, and not Pete this time, is certainly not lost on Bill Mantlo, as we’ll see in the 80s when she joins the Spectacular Spider-Man cast for a couple of years. Their interplay from the start marks a first fight like no other. It might be a tad sexist, the “butt in” joke, but Cat gets the better of Spider-Man through use of her ‘bad luck’ set-ups and charm.

I have a little trouble buying her ‘bad luck’ power as a series of complicated set-ups on the scene to make her appear as though it’s a real power. At least she’s a woman with her own motives and inspirations; from the start, her plan to break her cat burglar father out of jail gives her a more sympathetic motivation than usual for the villain of the piece. It’s human, relatable- much better motives than the majority of villains. She enjoys being bad; it appeals to her outlaw sensibilities. She’s manipulating Spider-Man, but she seems to have a genuine attraction to his body, his quirky modus operandi, probably even his longtime rebel status. And hey, Black Cat could muse, he just might be a crook after all, like her? Spider-Man actually falls more on the stickler-side-of-the-law than I think is usual. He goes out of his way to stop her, but it turns out Felicia Hardy-the Cat- wants only to bring her father home to die in peace, as parole has been denied him. Her introduction’s very effective, because she comes along rather fully-formed in tune with who she will be. Her apparently deadly fall is played straight in #195, adding to the haunted feel of #196. I think she was too big a hit for the Cat not to come back, and a year later, that’s just what she does!
This character’s interesting for tying together, in three appearances, three different long-time writers of Amazing. The second one, Iron Man scribe David Michelinie, is just pinch-hitting in 205, but he’ll be back one day for one of the title’s longest stretches.
Good start, bringing back a promising character. But where he takes her demonstrates an object lesson about not writing one into a corner, and we’ll also get into how Roger Stern, that third long-term scribe, rehabilitates her without ignoring the mis-step, and why that matters.
The hand-off begins with the return of The Black Cat in Amazing #204, where she’s purloining artistic treasures. In an year where fill-ins are used to tie up previous threads all-too-often (a practice deserving of its own post), Michelinie decides Felicia leads Spider-Man back to a lair where she’s got a massive photo-decorated shrine dedicated to her infatuation with him! (Spidey, not David M-heh, heh!) She confesses to the thefts of amorous-themed objects d’arte; it was her way, she tearfully explains, of dealing with unrequited love for him.
This plays into the idea of her continuing as a villain, but a sympathetic one. However, it accomplishes that, and her already-established attraction, at her expense. A motivation like that- a limitation like that-writes Felicia into a predictable corner, story-wise, but it undercuts her calculated cunning, demeans her in relation to Spider-Man, and I don’t think it’s been warranted. Seen as a motivation for male or female, it creates a fragile, pitiful persona, but for Hardy, it’s an unnecessary weakening of an incredibly rare, independent female character. Spidey’s only female foe is psychotically hung-up on him and out-of-touch with reality? No.

At Marvel, we’ve had a revival of feminist power, but it’s kind of undermined by circumstances like: Ms. Marvel has a split personality, and when she gets that resolved, she also starts a relationship with her therapist. Spider-Woman’s got a strange pheromone power complicating her interactions with men (attracted) and women (repulsed) that is hard to keep straight, not to mention she behaves like she’s new to the human race, trying to dig out from the psychological manipulations of HYDRA, who made her believe she’d been an evolved spider. A tough fellow-espionage agent-turned-heroine, the Black Widow, has gone from being saddled with a mournful “black widow’s curse” for no logical sense to feeling diminished as the partner of Daredevil, displaying insecurities I’m not sure suit the psychological profile of someone who’s done what she has. Her best recent storyline in 1979 had her flee into a vulnerable schoolteacher persona, one of her covers. See a pattern of women characters doubting their minds, here? To a pathological, clinical point? (We haven’t even hit where they’re going with Dark Phoenix, yet- and that’s from Chris Claremont, a rather good writer of women characters, including taking over Ms. Marvel, Storm, Rogue, Kitty, Maddy Pryor...dang, there we go with Crazy Lady tropes again!) Seen in that light, a nervous breakdown for the most distinct new female villain at Marvel clutters and cliches her story.

Writer three, Roger Stern, gets it right.
“As I later revealed in Amazing Spider-Man #226, the Black Cat had realized that Spider-Man was about to capture her, so she let him think that the pictures she had used to study his moves was a "shrine" to him. Spelling out how Felicia had faked her illness -- in order to plan her next moves and her eventual escape -- was my way of showing just how clever she really was.”

Read more:

Stern’s about to go on to a reputation for strong female characters, who are not written as tough guys-but-with-boobs. She’s more in line with David Kraft’s She-Hulk, who defies her psychological dilemma to become fiercely independent, humorous, even free to pick the romantic path of her own choosing without being weak and wishy-washy. She’s also not strictly a crime fighter, cutting out her own unique path of choices. That’s where similarities appear: the Black Cat’s not committed to moral strictures, but the thrill of adventuress life. Particularly if this can make her friends with Spider-Man, she can play with the idea of, as #227 is titled, “Goin' Straight!“
She’s reunited with Stern on Amazing, too: we check in on her recovery, see her stubborn attempts to shake the bedside blues, see Captain DeWolff again, and in #246, uncover her daydreams about life with Spider. This hilarious issue ends her chapter on a somber note that’s simultaneously very funny: aboard a motor boat, debonairly-behaved Spider-Man unmasks to reveal he’s...golden age-era Cary Grant! It’s a poignant way to underscore the idea she’s in love with the idea of him, and the thrill of adventure- without mere maudlin speculation. It’s a skillful unveiling of a problem we’ll discuss in a further article near the end of our Roger Stern/ John Romita, Jr. series.
As for the Cat, her cosplayers alone suggest she’s still wildly popular- someone women enjoy emulating and symbolizing on a level matching the fervor of Marvel’s stable of male heroes. She became an avatar of a coming day, a generation later, when women make up a large portion of the writers and artists, as well as the fans and heroes themselves. She’s appeared in every further cartoon incarnation of Spider-Man’s adventures, and maybe once they’re past Avengers: Infinity Wars, she’ll finally hit the screen after the now-vital Captain (Ms.) Marvel- maybe once we get She-Hulk and other fantastic femmes. She’s been given many a fitting end..”But The Cat Came Back...”!

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Should Spider-Man be an Avenger? Depends...

Pt. 2 The Discussion (with Two-Time Emmy Winning Video Editor, Joseph Braband)

Back in the seventies and the eighties, I was a huge Avengers fan. I also liked Spider-Man, but to a lesser (but still significant) degree. The thing that I loved about the classic Spider-Man/Avengers dynamic was always the "will he" or "won't he" tease of becoming an Avenger over decades. As much as I may have wanted him to be included in the pre-Disassembled/Bendis era, I always felt that it was simply never meant to be, but it was an entertaining topic for fanboys such as myself to debate endlessly.

For the record, I never really wanted Spider-Man to be a member, but instead of basing my wants on personal preferences, I had my reasons based on the character itself. Whereas the Avengers mostly interacted with huge threats from New York to alien galaxies, Peter Parker was "your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man". He dealt with the "smaller, but very significant" threats so groups like the Fantastic Four, the X-Men and the Avengers could concentrate on larger issues. In the graphic novel "Attack of the Living Monolith", Spider-Man underscored this by expressing his preference to letting the Avengers take on the Living Monolith while dealing with the L.M.'s goons who were menacing NYC. Perfect take on the character.

Spider-Man shared a unique niche with the Thing as the superhero who teamed up with everyone in the Marvel Universe. Between his own main titles, guest-starring in other titles and sharing the spotlight in Marvel Team-Up (great comic), it would be hard to point to a hero who hasn't had a chance encounter with Spider-Man in some title. Simply said, Spidey's inclusion as an Avenger was, in my opinion, unnecessary because he was everywhere. Spider-Man had to juggle his Peter Parker persona and his superhero identity. He struggled to keep his identity a secret. The attempt at realism was a core appeal of the character, spawning innumerable iconic storylines and kept him fresh and relatable to the reader.
The writers back then were keenly aware of this appeal and wisely maintained that status quo for decades, even as they changed the cast of people surrounding Peter Parker over and over again to keep the ongoing drama interesting. This "every-man" aspect of the superhero experience was never a main focus of the Avengers title(s) and membership would (and did) change everything for Peter Parker/Spider-Man so much that he had to make a bargain with Mephisto to retcon the ill-conceived idea.

Then there is the matter of approach to super-heroing. The Avengers would passively sit back and wait for threats to rear their ugly heads and then fly off in a quinjet to deal with it, Spider-Man actively patrolled locally for danger (or simply stumbled upon it) - two very different approaches - one passive and the other active. Of course, it is something conveniently ignored, but I could imagine that it would be a source of frustration for someone so used to actively looking for a way to make himself useful to the world around him.

Then there was the continuity issues... back when Marvel (and apparently its readers) actually cared about such things. Moving on... Unfortunately, the inevitable happened under Bendis - Spider-Man became a member of the Avengers with a cast of characters that were blatantly designed to sell books (*cough cough* Wolverine *cough*). Continuity and logic took a back seat to keeping Marvel afloat after some disastrous years of poor decision-making by the company. I gave it a shot with an open mind, but I did not really dig what Bendis did with the Avengers or the new changes brought about by Spider-Man's decision to join the Avengers.

I have recently found my way back to semi-regular reading and Spider-Man is still a member of an Avengers team. The dynamic has changed significantly in my absence and, unfortunately, I still am unconvinced that he is a good fit despite his unwavering popularity. As an old-fogey, I just think Marvel has forgotten what makes the character unique and awesome. Just an opinion - Joe B
I was waiting to work out my opinion during a conversation via podcast, but since it’s been a busy time, let me reflect upon my friend Emmy Award-winning video editor Joseph Braband’s commentary included below.

With his permission, Author Matt Sunrich added:

I have enjoyed Spidey's team-ups with the Avengers (Avengers #s 236-237 in particular) over the years, but I agree that he should not join the team. I think something would be lost if he did. He is a loner character, which is a poignant reflection of Parker's life before he was bitten by the radioactive spider. He isn't averse to working with others, but as an only child (and an orphan) he is most comfortable operating on his own. He has only had two motivations for joining a team in the past: money and acceptance. It is, of course, primarily JJJ's fault that he is frequently mistrusted by the public, whereas many other heroes are lauded. He knows that he is helping people and hates being viewed as a criminal.

(Look for Matt's Red Sonja book, which does for the She-Devil With A Sword what I'm doing with the Bronze Age of Marvel...and more!)"

My opinion? The movies are rare enough to make a Spider-Man Avengers appearance pretty cool. I am stoked he’s going to the stars in Infinity Wars! His appearance in Captain America: Civil War totally worked for me, too. He’s one of the ultimate team-up characters. I love how his friendly neighborhood perspective plays alongside the heavy-hitters.

But to get that friendly neighborhood point of view, he has to deal with down-to-earth problems like his secret I.D., supporting cast-related issues of friendships (and occasionally enemies), juggling his school life or job. You lose all that when he’s wrapped up in being a more typical superhero alongside the Avengers each month. He’s like any other guy with no secret identity. It’s a way you can go, to be different, but classic Spider-Man worked really well with the problems arising from him essentially being on his own. I like his occasional allies, but if he ran with all his Spider-counterparts often, it’d be too crowded to be fun! My friend makes the point that Spider-Man teamed up already to such a degree of exposure as to remove a need to make him a permanent team member. If you’re putting out monthly Spider-Man adventures, I’d rather he didn’t appear in two monthly books and two mini-series AND run with a team.
What Joe had to say about their different approaches, active versus passive, could be dealt with- there have been active teams like Force Works, but wow does that ever come across differently than Spider-Man on patrol! It’s because of the nature of wrong-doing a team faces versus Spider-Man taking out a robber, a mugger, etc. Granted, there’s not nearly the street crime epidemic in New York City as in the infamous 1970s, though there’s still organized crime-to which you can also attach colorful criminals. But when you get down to the issue of Bendis scripting every Avenger with the same comedic voice- plotting aside, if the lines alone wouldn’t clue you in as to whom is speaking of them, If Wolverine sounds like Spider-Man sounds like Luke Cage sounds like Spider-Woman...hoo boy. Where Bendis didn’t do this, great. Where he did, ugh.

How it affects the plot, though: I think Spider-Man’s residence among the Avengers came about in to set off a different set of stories than what went before. Commercial considerations of putting out monthly comics for five decades force these sorts of things to happen. I took a nice healthy break from keeping up every month for a long time and developed other interests. For me then, I didn’t personally need anymore Spider-Man comics to live; I’d always have my love for the character and times I read him alone and with my best friends. Practical needs naturally force interpretations not as liked by someone which are someone else’s favorites. Comics Spider-Man doesn’t need to be a full-time Avenger. At one point, he’d have been a great Justice Leaguer! J.M. DeMatteis himself agreed with me in our interview. Spidey, Beetle and Booster...madcap!

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Amazing Spider-Man, Len Wein: Thickening the plot (ASM #156, 179)

Thickening the Plot: Amazing Spider-Man with Len Wein (ASM #156, ASM #179)

Writers need somewhere to stow away ideas, and if they wish to develop them, they have to let the artist depict them. Once they’re on display, development’s in play. Whether we’re talking Len Wein or X-writer successor, Chris Claremont, in the last half of his run on Uncanny X-Men, writers attempt to make space for interesting ideas. An idea on display too soon might seem half-baked; a plot opened too soon might languish in the background without space for development. Writers have to work between the poles of inspiration and creative spontaneity, and seeing concepts through that have begun dramatic play. The more space you make to keep up with ongoing subplots, the more elements you must balance while not losing the individual issue’s dramatic concision: is it a coherent episode on its own? Does the pace of the single episode suffer while moving a main storyline forward? How far apart can these circumstances hope to develop without entwining in plots that resolve or develop more than one thread?

On the blog The Essential Exploits of Spider-Man, the writer makes a point about the agonizing distance between introducing plots from Len’s first issue all the way to his last. Just as he spun off an idea from his own predecessor, in Gerry Conway’s clone saga, Wein would introduce a mystery man in #170 trying to claim the old Parker residence for a purpose left unspoken until the end of the run of the next Spider-writer, Marv Wolfman! Fortunately for his “mystery photos” plotline, while it takes a year and a half between Spider-Man’s disposal of his clone and JJJ’s confrontation with Peter over the photos (which depict him murdered!), when Len reveals who took them, he’s tying up a compact multi-part story many consider his best on Amazing Spider-Man.

I intend to talk about, basically, two issues that embody my point about continuity and plot formation, around the first two Wein issues of Spider-Man I ever read. The fact that I found them as individual stories underscores two points. An issue should stand as an episode on its own: this was especially vital during the spottier distribution of comics in the 1970s, but if a trade collection’s not a foregone conclusion, it’s still the best policy to please the person willing to try a single issue. In the Marvel tradition, you want to establish: this is a piece of a larger tapestry, of characters sharing a universe across multiple titles, and this is a series building upon, and towards, other interesting events.

Peter’s first girlfriend Betty Brant eventually drifted into a relationship with reporter Ned Leeds; their engagement marked a phase of Parker’s life from which he’s moved on. There’s not much drama on hand by the time they finally marry a hundred issues later, but Wein at least acknowledges, since Conway brought Leeds back to help Peter resolve the Gwen Stacy clone mystery, Ned and Betty still had a date to set! So here, Len’s plotting a new story using an existing, never-used set-up. All this, and we get a new villain, Mirage, in Amazing Spider-Man #156- which I found reprinted as one of the last, Marvel Tales #133, before the title reboots reprinting Amazing from its beginning. The supporting cast is the true focus here, the villain, incidental: we follow the thoughts of Daily Bugle mainstays Joe Robertson and J. Jonah Jameson leaving for the ceremony, a hard luck comedy bit where landlady Mamie Muggins swats Spider-Man atop his apartment building, and MJ attending the wedding as Pete’s date.

Mirage and his gang, crashing the chapel’s entire roster of simultaneous weddings, feel like a gimmicky DC robbery crew; in fact, he’s sort of Mirror Master, the Flash rogue. It’s a fun encounter, great for the constantly-rotating audience of kids. But the randomness of his altercation doesn’t set up any compelling return. He could’ve served as any crimefighter’s foil, but after years of disuse, he’s simply another patron of the Bar With No Name when Scourge massacres nineteen villains in Captain America #319. We’re still early in Wein’s run; in preserving Spidey’s status quo, he instead opts for short story approaches, such as “Whodunnit!” in #155 and “The Longest Hundred Yards” in #153. We do start out having fun with Pete’s friends at a JJJ-hosted party, the first re-appearance of newly-released Harry Osborn, and Spidey rogues The Shocker and The Sandman.

“On A Clear Day, You Can See The Mirage!” does end by paying off a sub-plot. Len’s built suspense now to reveal a recurrent spying street person is actually Doctor Octopus, apparent return from the grave! He knows bringing back a classic arch-nemesis and fan favorite requires both build-up and space, in his first multiple issue clash reviving the “ghost” of Hammerhead, too, built on Conway’s own simmering sub-plot about the Canadian nuclear facility blown sky-high in Amazing #131. He even reunites Ock with Aunt May on the last page; his one-time bride in#131 is the first person to whom he reveals he’s alive!

But my actual first exposure to Wein plopped me into the penultimate chapter of the story that not only pays off the mystery photographer behind the scenes in Wein’s debut-that person’s the prime suspect to be the returned Green Goblin!
There’s something for the long-time fan or back issue collector: Harry Osborn’s already skulked around, discovering the secret of his father Norman and posing as a second Green Goblin. That’s all from his predecessor Gerry Conway’s issues; in fact, that’s from a long-running Conway plotline Gerry carefully built for over a year! If you’re going to build on someone’s work, found yours on the best possible. And of course, give it a surprise twist!
You even get a call-back to the original Goblin’s motivation, to use his abilities and arsenal to gain power over the criminal underworld. There’s a reasonable amount of mystery: is this somehow the return of the original Norman Osborn Goblin? (Nah, that doesn’t really seem possible.) Has Harry’s therapy failed? Spider-Man’s a title that always depended as much if not even moreso than usual on a reader’s identification with the titular character’s perspective. It’s not that the author’s dishonest with us: it’s Spider-Man’s reasonable assumption he’s dealing with a relapsed Harry Osborn (that could probably happen, right?).

Aunt May’s had a heart attack during a Grey Panther demonstration, which is to say, she’s gotten into political activism and found it a strain. So her health’s in jeopardy, while Peter’s in the dark, busy with the returned Green Goblin. Mary Jane, however, is there, beside the woman who is her aunt’s best friend and the original match-maker between herself and Pete. This familial level of involvement demonstrates how integral MJ is, how much she’s virtually part of the close Parker unit. That in itself will springboard an upcoming plot that starts the run of Amazing’s next writer, Marv Wolfman, who has old-fashioned Peter Parker realize how much this green-eyed, red-haired bon vivant’s come to mean to his life. May’s ongoing fragile health will also set up the climax that ends Wolfman’s run. For now, once again the responsibility of two lives has put Parker/ Spider-Man in tension.

So, Amazing Spider-Man #179 has a struggling, hooded hostage secreted in one of those delightfully infamous Goblin hideouts, as Spidey tries to free himself from Green Goblin, who’s captured him on the way to the hospital for his aunt! The second half of the story involves the Goblin’s attempt to assassinate returned crimelord Silvermane, who’s been revived over in Daredevil as a Hydra associate after his own apparent tragic demise in Amazing Spider-Man #75. I certainly knew none of that: it’s the first issue of Amazing Spider-Man I ever held, a swap meet acquisition bought for my kid sister (while I was bought a Marvel Tales presenting Stan Lee’s last issue of Amazing). No question, though: I found it enthralling! The battle over Radio City Music Hall centered three ways on the Goblin’s glider makes a very cool climax, rendered fairly well by Ross Andru and Mike Esposito.

Maybe I didn’t know about Wein’s efforts to update Harry and his ongoing mental health recovery, which makes the stakes all the more restless. But after the Goblin’s taunts about therapy sessions, monthly readers could draw a logical conclusion: if the hostage who unmasks on the last page is Harry Osborn, then the Goblin must be his doctor, psychiatrist Bart Hamilton! Then a really cool-sounding idea comes into play: Harry risks his sanity and his life, taking on the Goblin guise once more, but this time to bring the Hamilton impostor to heel. Who lives? Who dies? What will this decision do to Harry’s mind? There’s stakes for a supporting character now, with great personal value to Peter. If there’s one thing Goblin sagas have taught us, it’s that danger could well spell doom for supporting Spider-Man characters.

So here, you have the best of all possible worlds for an issue of this era’s Spider-Man: seeds sewn for the return of the Green Goblin, the mystery of his identity, there’s stakes to ongoing characters, there’s action all the way! Wein closes his run, resolving the first mystery he surreptitiously set up, perhaps retroactively. He builds his conflict on the years-long trials of Harry Osborn, which didn’t need space every single month. At the same time, each installment of the five part series run climax not only brings back not one, but TWO incarnations of a classic Spider-Man villain, but works episodically with a pace each its own as well.
When you put together how many elements culminate in the cliffhanger of “How Green Was My Goblin,” you can appreciate what’s good in Len Wein’s writing. His dialogue’s competent; here, his plotting’s creative and well-designed, paced very professionally by Andru. The finishing touch is that element for which no outgoing writer can plan control: without dangling plots, Wein’s story serves as a the foundation for future adventures. Wein likes criminal psychiatrists- see Doctor Faustus- but he’ll finish off #180 in a way that won’t leave that possibility in the cards. All the way to the present day in 2017, however, Goblin incarnations will return...ever green.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

1st Marvel : Iron Man- Spider-Man & Luke McDonnell, the guy to call when it's down and dirty

First, Happy Birthday, Luke McDonnell! Every since I discovered recently he was born July 19th I knew how to break apart the O’Neil run- largely defined by Denny’s work with newbie John Romita, Jr.-and which day to post. It fit neatly with an Alan Kupperberg tribute remembering him on the anniversary of his death, July 17th. It’s interesting to me, anyway, that McDonnell starts superheroes on Spider-Man and goes on to a long Iron Man run, while Romita essential is vice versa.
I note this type casting of sorts where, when you need to put characters through a rough time- when you want to tantalize or depict their downfall or hard times-Mr. McDonnell looks like the go-to guy! If you start from putting clean-cut square nebbish Peter Parker in jail, you then get Tony Stark penniless on the streets, the premier DC Comics team Justice League of America in crisis free fall, and end up with an even bigger set of doomed rejects in The Suicide Squad!
For my theory about McDonnell’s grimier comics work, he’s nonetheless from the start done a lot of work that ties into film. For one, his Marvel debut adapted the venerable, seminal science fiction television classic, Star Trek. He draws Star Trek #12, 14, 16 (1981) Mar ‘81 May ‘81 July ‘81 Those three issues overlap with Luke’s debut in mainstream superhero comics, which we briefly covered in “Peter Parker finds a voice in Roger Stern”:
Spec Spider-man #55 June 1981 Here, the former Champions lawyer overrides Nitro’s worried daughter to essentially get him legally freed to wreck havoc.
So when we’re talking first Marvels, bear with me as I pick one beloved in my childhood, printed later in spring of ‘81. It teases a shocking, out-of-character development, complete with a seething, tormented Frank Miller cover (and you know what a business Frank went on to, drawing noir-ish tales of seedy disarray).
Amazing Spider-man #219 has a terrific, unique plot. It’s the best O’Neil-penned issue I’ve read, bar none (except Peter, who’s barred effectively). Expectations for Denny must’ve been sky-high, after he Marvelized Superman and took Batman back to his night creature roots with Neal Adams- his collaborator on an innovative, youthful approach to social realism shaping his team-up of the previously far-out Green Lantern and the counter cultural, hot-tempered bleeding heart take on new partner Green Arrow. In the Kupperberg essay I mentioned the episodic nature of O’Neil’s Spider-Man, and this, again, is a stand-alone story. There’s a whiff of that realism hinted in the prison breaks and life in jail. If Peter had spent more time on the inside, we might’ve gotten some of Denny’s strengths writing people from recognizable walks of life. And it might’ve been cringe-worthy. Playing safe with a character who’s about to be in two new cartoon series by fall, and keeping action compact, Denny plays up a misunderstanding: Spider-Man breaks IN to Ryker’s Island Prison, so as Peter Parker, he can investigate the “revolving door” of known criminals shedding their incarcerations. Camera at hand, Peter catches a glimpse of a jail break, but gets caught trespassing!

I love McDonnell’s Spider-Man, inked by Jim Mooney: he looks classic, he moves with way-cool agility. His Peter Parker’s nicely on-model with the recent Romita take; Matt Murdock and Aunt May look just right. McDonnell perfectly paces a story I found just slightly confusing as a little boy, a suspenseful build-up unraveling the mystery of just what Parker witnessed and what’s really happening at Ryker’s. He has a lot of story to squeeze into twenty-two pages, but he does his best to draw Grey Gargoyle with impact and some smooth movies, while his skulking Jonas Harrow’s just fine as the crackpot mad scientist who’s been plaguing Spidey with super-criminals he’s enhanced since the Kangaroo in #126.

We actually saw the Wizard broken out of Ryker’s going into the Frightful Four story months ago, so this is one of Dennis’ ongoing ideas across his tenure.

Ryker’s provides a desolate, formidable setting, so the opening pictures are very atmospheric, different than our usual Manhattan skylines, warehouses & apartments. Luke’s splash makes you want this comic! Pete dispenses with his costume, so he’s in civvies when he runs across a trio breaking out. He takes a photo before he knows who they are, but he’s detained immediately as a trespasser. Soon we’ll see Armand DuBroth, a trustee with blackmail over the warden, testify in court that Parker’s the real break-out ring leader! Peter Parker in prison is an idea that could’ve taken up more space for sure- but maybe it would’ve been too different for The Amazing Spider-Man as a title. It’s certainly in line with Denny’s work later on The Question: dignity of prisoners, jail yard politics, personal stories. He took this on without any idea from Jonah, who refuses to make bail. Pete gets free counsel provided by Matt Murdock, whose senses can pick out the power of Spider-Man, costume or no, but bail’s provided by Aunt May. I really like this: she and her retirement home friends believe in Pete’s innocence and take a big chance for him. Spider-Man- and Peter- has played her hero many times, so it’s nice to be reminded, should he be helpless, May Parker has always and will always be there for him!

That’s what sets up the issue’s stakes: Peter still needs evidence of the crime he witnessed, and with his skill at skeevy characters, McDonnell’s shown us the alcoholic janitor make off with Pete’s very nice camera, to pawn. Suspense builds, but we get a Parker Luck detour where Peter utilizes his original Spider-Man costume, recently ruined by a detergent he’s concocted to wash out the brine from his encounter offshore in #213 with Prince Namor.
With May’s friends’ bail at risk, Spider-Man breaks into Ryker’s a second time, presented by Don Warfield as a pale-colored ghost. I had a washed-out Spidey Underoos t-shirt myself; maybe that’s part of why this scene connected with me. He finds the replacement Spider-suit he abandoned on Ryker’s Island, changes, then webs up the ruined original one with some reflective thoughts about disposing this part of his history “like sinking a part of myself.”
This nostalgic attachment for a long-time memento of his years-long career fascinated, moved me. After years of presentations of his differently-aged incarnations, I’d realize he’d have filled out a bit since he was fifteen and replaced his costume long since, but I found Spider-Man’s attachment to his old disguise, the secret personal decisions and dangers it represented, relatable. As a child, I was already gaining a sense of life passing along through eras. I wondered at the meaning of “sinking a part of myself.” This was also the first comic book I was conscious I’d lost, and so, appropriately, I’d one day hunt down and replace it- a lost piece of my own past. I imagine that’s an appeal of this book to many of you, too.

Spider-Man hunts down the pawned camera by tracking the Grey Gargoyle and Dr. Harrow, who want it destroyed, and Parker, framed. Personal stakes hinge now on a single, fragile camera, and the battle’s on. Gargoyle demonstrates his deadly power to turn things to stone and use superhuman strength to grind them to powder. As Thor and Iron Man discovered early on, it’s hard to fight someone you can’t let touch you. (Spidey had found out about that stone touch while teamed up with Cap against G.G. and A.I.M. in Marvel Team-Up #13) Harrow’s always played behind the scenes, as he has no powers and uses no special weapons, but while Spidey ducks a deadly stone basketball, clunks Gargoyle with a television set, and after Spider-Man’s webbed Grey Gargoyle to the ground, Harrow gets his hand on the camera and smashes it into the wall-obliterates it, really. Now that might’ve ruined the film, but it’s safe now for the pawn shop owner to come forward with the roll- which he’d taken out so he could use the camera- as we saw-to take pictures of his grandson. Spider-Man: “Mister, you just saved a man’s freedom...and for that, he is eternally grateful.”

DeFalco kept putting together teams that gave us Spidey on-time and in-character every month, tapping a trio of sub artists (and on writing chores for the creepily-covered ASM #220, the suitably Michael Fleischer-style “A Coffin For Spider-Man!”) while Romita plays catch-up here and on Invincible Iron Man. Now, just as Romita’s about to leave Iron Man...

Iron Man #151 : McDonnell fills in after the very cool anniversary issue battle with Dr. Doom that hurtles he and Iron Man back in time- with another buggy hero as the guest headliner. Luke’s solo Ant Man tale’s based at Stark Enterprise nonetheless, complete with a run- amok computer security system and the signature humor defining the Scott Lang version of the hero, from these Iron Man guest stints to his eventual star movie turn. Luke’s next shot also comes with a guest star, the rising-popular Moon Knight- and then, away Luke and Denny go on a near-unbroken run of almost three years. The set-up for Tony Stark’s problems with raider Obadiah Stane marks the new era (Iron Man) 161, 163–187, 189–195 (1981–1985). By #167, the bottle’s back in a splash page sort of way.
Luke’s art suits my point about giving McDonnell the call when you’re ready for a gritty take. Throughout the run, even after James Rhodes takes over soon, Iron Man himself is less shiny and sleek overall than under Layton’s inks. Steve Mitchell brings in more shadows and silhouettes; their artwork’s characterized by Benday dots and color holds. The shading joins the figure drawing to produce an effect that to me is a callback to the Gene Colan days. Their less-glamorous faces convey more world-weariness; aside from femme fatale Indries Moomji, there’s an aching realism, less models and, sometimes, madness, drunkenness, and lived-in, rumpled supporting characters. The settings, especially around Tony as his fortunes fold, go from the Playboy Club to the Bowery itself. We go from Beth McCabe to addicted expectant mother Gretchen. James Rhodes drops into see kin in South Philly.

Is it just me, or does this art team put Iron Man in the air more than ever? Early Iron Man soon could fly, but the interlocking demands on his power supply- the finite, self-created superman-fit with the overall Marvel motif of not introducing many conventionally-flying superheroes. (Torch and Namor, of course, are the two holdover creations from the original World War II-era Marvel.) Rhodey’s a pilot; once he gets used to the mighty strength and susses out the armory with Morley Erwin, the original “guy in the chair,” I daresay what he still loves most about being Invincible Iron Man is one of his very best qualifications. It certainly seems Luke McD enjoys the flight scenes like his hero does!

One more thing about the look of the strip under McDonnell/ Mitchell.
Outside of the initial Chessmen motif, and a clash with the intellectual Wrecking Crew member Thunderball, we get quirkier villains, and several new ones, too: no more repeat bouts with the Titanium Man. Perhaps the most classic foe of Iron Man’s run, however, does return, this time with a cowed Radioactive Man as his henchman, before the newest-look Mandarin steps from the shadows to get the jump on Iron Man.
We get a cool run-in with S.H.I.E.L.D. in the rookie turn of Rhodes rounding up Stark’s unfinished business, like sinking a fleet of Iron Man armors that becomes international salvage pirated by Atlantean warlord Krang. Rhodes also has an Achilles heel built-in that surfaces just in time to save his hypnotized life from “Mandy”: his mysterious headaches that take another year to clarify. Room to make radical changes, more adult, realistic and serious problems, and as the trifecta, layers of unfolding, ongoing subplots: this was everything Denny didn’t have in Amazing Spider-Man that made his Iron Man turn with Luke and Steve so memorable.

Luke then joins DC, a company going through an editorially-driven change towards mature content perfect for McDonnell, including an increasingly-grim Justice League run and, grittiest yet, his dominant presence on John Ostrander’s maturely-themed government villains, the Dirty Dozen-like Suicide Squad. So not only did Luke work on stories that influenced the successful Iron Man franchise, but he also illustrated most of the first four years of the series inspiring “the other guys’” hit movie starring Margot Robbie and Jared Leto!
Suicide Squad #1–24, 35, 38–39, 44, 46, 49–51 (1987–1991) Drew debut of Oracle in #23 (1987-1991)
Justice League of America #245–261 (1985–1987) Outlaws #1–8 (1991–1992) The Phantom #1–13 (1989–1990)
As per Wiki, McDonnell mainly works as a toy designer and illustrator at Craig Yoe's Yoe! Studio. We at Integr8d Fix wish Luke Many Happy Trips More ‘round The Sun!

Monday, July 17, 2017

Spider-Man and the Avengers

From the start, The Avengers, the Marvel Comic, was created to bring together as many of the company’s big solo stars as possible. His appearance in Captain America: Civil War marked the untangling of difficulties with rights-holder Sony, to allow a Spider-Man to come flipping onto that Berlin battlefield and snatch the shield of no less than Cap himself! A complicated circumstance under which to join any form of Avengers, but a logical one: Stark took a chance on the mystery teen and masterminded his recruitment. His non-adventures afterwards are the set-up to Spider-Man: Homecoming. I love the personally-filmed documentary of Pete’s Berlin mission and even the selfies going into that fight- what better way to reflect how star-struck and still immature Parker still was? With daily texts back to liason Happy Hogan, Pete yearns to break the bonds of his successful but comparatively uneventful scholastic life at Midtown High school. His tendency towards barging in without consultation iterates multiple times. It’s forced by his side-lining by Tony Stark, but it’s also very true to the character. I won’t spoil the ending, but Pete’s future as an Avenger falls right into his own hands. Prematurely?
I’ll let you- and Parker- decide.
For some reason, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee decided to keep developing their new teen character Spider-Man separately. He debuted just after most who joined the Avengers; the first issue of Amazing Spider-Man coincides with the premiere of Iron Man that month in Tales of Suspense (cover date, March 1963). There’s probably a cartoon version of him with them; he’s an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. in one Ultimate Spider-Man-style cartoon, along with Nova, Power Man and Iron Fist and the female White Tiger.

Maybe your friendly neighborhood wall-crawler, drawn lithely by co-creator Steve Ditko, had many reasons he wasn’t initially included in the group of Iron Man, Ant Man, the Wasp and Mighty Thor that first hunted down the Loki-controlled Incredible Hulk. David Anthony Kraft, a huge Avengers fan from their first years, said Spider-Man, the talkative wisecracker New Yorker, “seemed almost like a second stringer” compared to those heavy hitters. The team evolved soon to mix in more lower-powered characters to be sure, like the revived Captain America in issue #4, but even Ant-Man became a Giant Man by Avengers #2. (The Wasp, powered-up in her Tales to Astonish episodes some time after her own debut as Hank Pym’s size-changing partner, would finally receive her due as team leader as penned by Roger Stern, as you can read in “She’s the Boss.”) Amid many opinions, pro and contra, Stan finally gave Spidey a shot at teaming-up and possibly joining them in Amazing Spider-Man Annual #3. He brawls with them in hot-headed fashion, but a misunderstanding about his assignment to essentially capture and bring back The Hulk results in his compassionate side letting Banner go. I really didn’t like 1) how the Avengers had time to stand around Avengers Mansion but not to provide back-up in that dangerous mission and 2) the absurd rush contrived to keep Spider-Man from asking if they had a kinder agenda than to simply imprison or destroy their old teammate, Hulk! The Wasp’s “natural antipathy,” Thor’s memorable invitation, and Hawkeye’s boosterism- which doesn’t preclude offering to be the first to spar with him!- are nice characterization touches, as is the Banner identity discovery.
"I Want to Be an Avenger!"
With that hindsight, Roger Stern and Al Milgrom, inked by Joe Rosen, got a chance to reset the reasoning for that status quo, in Avengers #’s 236, 237. Like his movie counterpart, he’s eager to join, though not so starstruck. Echoing his attempt to join the Fantastic Four in Amazing #1, Peter brashly breaks into Avengers Mansion. His aggressive show of his abilities then takes a cooler approach this time- after all, he’s matured a few years. One motivation remains similar to that FF guest shot: he could really use the dough!

Although he’s been to Project: Pegasus before- in recent issues of Marvel Team-Up, as I recall-Spider-Man’s not cleared to pass security and join the Avengers when the Lava Men boil up there to wreak havoc. In true webbed buttinsky fashion, he stows away aboard a Quinjet and sways Captain America and the team to see his usefulness. His lack of teamwork training works against him with the Lava Men invasion-oops! The goddess-like appearance of the latest Captain Marvel saves the Avengers’ hash. (In fact, Monica Rambeau premiered as the Captain Marvel like no other in the previous Amazing Spider-Man Annual, #16!) It’s made apparent the surface world’s inadvertently the true invaders, via innocent energy research drilling.

Ah, but the escaped Blackout frees partner Moonstone, who chooses to break out old Spider-foes Electro and the Rhino. Project Pegasus ends up in a new peril poised to blow them all sky-high! Spidey’s science know-how saves the day. What a great turn-around, from bungler to science hero, all in true Spider-Man style, right alongside the Avengers themselves. But this time, it’s the Avengers expressing reservations: he rejects their offer to join the training program. Same goal accomplished, with my previous caveats addressed artfully.
Speaking of reserve, in Avengers #329, the wall-crawler does indeed become an Avenger-with official I.D. complete with communications properties- on stand-by status. His old enemy the Sandman-you know how fond he is of reforming, but I mean he went straight back then-joins under reservist status as well!

New Avengers #1. Finally, the deal’s done: it’s another breakout, instigated by Electro, at The Raft, a Ryker’s Island super villain prison installation. It’s a grueling arm-breaker of a battle- a deluxe version of the original Avengers impromptu gathering. At this point, the Avengers are officially disbanded, but writer Brian Michael Bendis reforges what he took apart, with 70’s refugees Spider-Woman, Luke Cage and super-popular Marvel heroes Wolverine and Spider-Man now working with Iron Man and Cap. Even Aunt May eventually moves into Avengers Tower- the location we see vacated on a Moving Day overseen by Happy Hogan in Spider-Man: Homecoming!

Speaking of moving out, Integr8d Fix is about done here for now. So, that’s rookie Spider-Man, eager to fit in with the Avengers; more experienced Spider-Man, invited; and veteran Spidey applying, participating, and eventually helping found, essentially, a new Avengers. When things go cosmic in Avengers: Infinity Gauntlet, get ready for the wallcrawler to end up pretty far out of his neighborhood. If my I.D. card’s still working, we’ll talk to DAK about what he thinks makes a good Avenger and why Spidey didn’t and does fit.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Remembering Alan Kupperberg, and the Denny O’Neil Amazing Spider-Man days

Remembering Alan Kupperberg, and the Denny O’Neil Amazing Spider-Man days

As I was vividly recalling each page of one of my childhood possessions, Amazing Spider-Man #221, I realized Denny’s run, save for the Deb Whitman subplot, seems very episodic, like television at the time. This simplicity might be one reason his ASM’s not as widely critically regarded, yet I recall his work distinctly. He’s very obsessed with time- the costume change and the trip back for the antidote come to mind-in a way that helps set the drama in detail. He’s blessed with longtime Spider-Man inker Jim Mooney, who keeps things consistent despite numerous fill-ins over an already-promising John Romita, Jr. I think the last time a cover declared the blurb “Crisis On Campus!”- back in ASM #68, was it?-Jim was often inking John Romita, Sr. or Don Heck.From Alan's Custom Comics work

One of those fill-ins featured Alan Kupperberg, whose work I want to remember today to mark his passing from this world on July 17th, 2015. I remember his name and work on Amazing Spider-Man #221 very clearly. Always a handy utility artist, Alan caught the agility of the wall-crawler, hand springing and kicking his opponent Ramrod, staying a step ahead of the very punk-rock-looking bruiser. I remember his sweaty Dr. Kissick and his sinister Ramrod along with his great Spider-Man figure work. The issue was briefly the only comic book I owned, surviving the ravages of my childhood ownership, so from the day Mom let me get it at North Broad Produce Market, I read it dozens of times. It became one of six comics from 1981 I got in real time. I rarely got to visit that Market, but I loved its citrus smells and would later see Iron Man #169’s dramatic tease about the new Iron Man- but we’ll get to Luke McDonnell July 19th, since that’s his birthday!
I committed every creator’s name to memory back then, as each issue that I gratefully took home was, to me, a star turn. After I became Facebook friends with Alan, I asked him about his turn on Incredible Hulk #300, which I finally got decades after its dramatic appearance in 1984. Alan got to draw most of the New York City-based Marvel superheroes in that issue, which sent the Hulk off to the Crossroads and his savage otherwordly final arc under Bill Mantlo. My attention to his credit, he said, brought quite a blast from the past. It was nice to get new fan mail, he said, from such a long-forgotten job. But Alan’s not forgotten. OH, yeah, sometimes confused with his Doom Patrol revivalist writer brother Paul, sure! But, from his first Marvel work on Crazy, the Magazine That Dares To Be Dumb, in 1976 onward, Alan had a journeyman career, from Captain America #240 throughout the 80s and 90s. He broke in, in 1974, at Marvel, working with Neal Adams’ Continuity Associates.
He had a good Black Cat you can find in issues of Peter Parker, and kind of excelled in the kind of parodies and cartoon humor with which his professional career began. Just look for Spider-Ham back-ups in Marvel Tales! He also took over the Howard the Duck newspaper strip after Gene Colan. In 1987, he drew the Peter Parker Honeymoon annual and the infamous ASM #289, where Ned Leeds is finally killed as the apparent Hobgoblin in flashback. Blue Devil, Firestorm, JLA, Warlord- his list afterwards at DC is a busy one!

What we’ll do here, though, is spend a few minutes over that one of many art jobs Alan probably spent a couple of weeks knocking out, ever reliably. Spider-Man was still in the long-standing pattern, only briefly messed with by Marv Wolfman when he finally decided Peter ought to at least graduate college, where the company really didn’t want to change his status quo and had a reasonably successful formula to keep pumping out adventures of their busiest trademark. Character studies and short story ingenuity become the episodic recourse. One can only take their best shot at saying something meaningful, like the colorfully-titled “Blues For Lonesome Pinky!”

I remember many times trying to ape Alan’s able splash page, where Spidey soars over Empire State University campus. His ESU phase as a Master’s student in physics and teaching assistant is usually handled over in Peter Parker, referenced in our Roger Stern Spectacular Spider-Man overview. His relationship with Debra Whitman, a secretary at the college, and rivalry with Biff Rifkin over her is, like his Daily Bugle dealings, usually Amazing’s province, under Denny. We’re swept into Dean Sloane’s office for a quick rundown on his status as T.A. and student. But a big creep’s leaning on a Doctor Kissick, nearby, blackmailing the professor for a poison.
The shiny-skulled baddie, as referenced by editor Tom DeFalco, is Ramrod, a Steve Gerber-Bob Brown “’Frisco” era creation who fought Spider-Man during his guest appearance in Daredevil #103. He sets off the ol’ Spider-Sense, and – I think it’s a ten second costume change later- the wall crawler’s taunting the heavy on the University Commons. Alan gives us a round one resembling what you might call The Rhino Strategy, until Ramrod wises up to the way out: heave a massive statue at the clustered students, then beat feet!

Peter consents to a bluegrass bar visit at the behest of his neighbor, the Kinky Friedman-styled country warbler Lonesome Pinkus, who’s become a fixture in recent issues, his goofy lyrics resounding off-key throughout Parker’s apartment building.
Here, the arm of coincidence stretches, with Debbie showing up on a date with her returned ex-husband Biff, and Peter settling on a glass of milk before a wretched Lonesome Pinky performance ends with erratic behavior worthy of a punk rock riot. Why? The beer’s poisoned...and Spider-Man clashes with the spiked patrons. But now, we get O’Neil’s human interest touch: Pinkus tries singing, desperately laying down some blues. This somehow quiets the bar, so as I recall, Spider-Man swings back to ESU campus to consult Dr. Kissick.

His grilling leads to a dose of antidote set aside to complete Ramrod’s ransom scheme. Spider-Man’s moving fast, again gracefully rendered, clock ticking. The pulse-pounding race, however, comes across a hurdle I’ll bet doesn’t surprise you much: Ramrod’s posed masterfully outside, to check out his crime scene. Would you believe he picked this bar because they told him he couldn’t sing and would give him a gig? A guy with an endo-skeleton like his would be a natural for heavy metal. Insults. Hopping. Wall-crushing. But a few mighty thumps from Spidey just aren’t slowing him down, and time’s running out for the bar patrons. Meanwhile, Lonesome Pinkus delivers the performance of his life, eschewing the corny country and western act for some apparently improvised painfully-real blues. I think it makes a subtle cultural comment on country’s new-found pop turn of the times compared to less-put-on, more sincere songwriting of the kind that made Greenwich Village famous, as quintessential 60s kid O’Neil would doubtless know. Lonesome’s expressions by Alan Kupperberg stay with me as much as Spider-Man’s kicks and bounces; facial expressions are his strength.

The junkyard finale actually takes a humorous turn. Ever the wise ass, Spider-Man makes good use of puns and used tires to set Ramrod up for a coup de grace. What do you do with a man with a metallic skeleton and skull who just won’t stop being antisocial? You stick him to a crane-mounted salvage magnet! O’Neil’s been good at finding non-Rogue’s Gallery types Spidey can’t just punch out; he even smushed together his new Hydro Man with the similar classic Sandman to make a mud creature you don’t want to muck with, in ASM #218. I loved Spidey’s immobilization of his bullying metal-enhanced foe.

But where the team goes for the extra-special touch is the depiction of Pinkus grasping his throat. He’s been begged to stay in the Spidey-turned spotlight and keep the crowd in check, because if they rampage elsewhere they may never be cured in time. His harsh rasp gives out just as the wall-crawler arrives in the nick of time to play bartender, a role we’ve never seen anywhere else. Debbie, Biff, everyone’s saved by the elixir-enhanced beer, but unnoticed, unheralded in a way we usually associate with Spider-Man himself, Lonesome Pinkus wanders off after the show of a his crazed audience will find impossible to remember.

And so memorably did Dennis and Alan and company tell this over-looked tale, I can tell you, all these years later. It’s the unsung heroes, like Mr. Pinkus, that keep the grind of recurrent trials going, pouring maybe a little special something of themselves into these crevices between the concrete of earth-shaking canon events. It’s the dreamer who comes for that forgotten turn in the spotlight that keeps the club there through good months and bad. Sometimes, they leave a little flower of beauty, struggling to survive in its natural way of finding life, noticed by the humble random passerby.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

1st Marvels: Iron Man & Spider-Man's John Romita Jr. Invincible Iron Man #115 From Mantlo to Michelinie/Layton

1st Marvels: John Romita, Jr. INVINCIBLE IRON MAN #115

Mantlo’s run becomes history, and Layton/ Michelinie/ Romita makes history

Paired with the inker who would notably join him on Uncanny X-Men- Marvel’s best direct market seller- the son of Silver Age Spider-Man artist John Romita followed his namesake over a decade after that future Art Director came to Marvel. I virtually forgot John Romita, Jr. got his first assignment drawing a back-up for Amazing Spider-Man Annual #11 in 1977. His full-book premiere comes in Invincible Iron Man #115, a 1978 issue which, with a few fill-ins, marks his regular tenure there.
When new writer and new inker David Michelinie and Bob Layton begin directing Iron Man, next issue, a definitive Bronze Age team comes together, making a modern look and feel for the mechanized marvel that influenced Jon Favreau and his own team on the box-office smash Iron Man movies.

But everyone’s got to start somewhere, and it so happens JR, Jr., as he’s often nicknamed, got the Iron Man assignment as Bill Mantlo departed the strip. Nowadays, a one-hundred-twenty-degree heat pounds a location like modern Mosul, where remainders of American armaments fell into the hands of ideological extremists who brutalized their Iraqi neighbors they could not recruit. No reasonable, woke person could blindly romanticize the power of advanced field weapons, which are only as good as the soldiers wielding them. By 1978, the attitudes shaped by Vietnam and Americans touched personally by foreign policies had led to a more counter-culturally-shaped, energy-research-oriented Tony Stark. Mantlo revived many old favorites such as the old Mandarin-gets-switcheroo-Iron Man, Ultimo stomping towards the capitol where Stark’s again been subpoenaed, Spymaster, Madame Masque and Jasper Sitwell. Outside Midas and his recruits there was nothing really new going on.

If you were new to Invincible Iron Man, Mantlo and Tuska delivered a reasonable superhero take with remixed classic touches- even a new Guardsman, complete with O’Brien brother inside. If you liked those things, you now had the latest version. As a young collector, I was attracted to the look of the Guardian armor and the back issue price was right, so these were my first versions of these characters, and #100 came with a Starlin cover, too. Mantlo gave us a the only appearance of the initially-successful Frankenstein Monster in a few years, and for many more, along with Dreadknight, a new villainous successor to Black Knight. Outside the Soviet Super Soldiers and brand-new Jack Of Hearts, we were back to the 1960’s story ingredients without the virulent anti-Communism. This would fit well with the general Jim Shooter approach coming in the 1980s; this was, in fact, the year Shooter was assigned Editor-in-Chief.

Romita’s debut continues those revisited elements. In fact, the hardest part of this storytelling- and granted, there are fans of this handbook-like approach-is how #115 takes the “revisit” element to such an extreme, there’s literally almost no new story whatsoever! When we reach the end of “Betrayal!” Stark’s ambushed by more characters from the past: the Ani-Men, recruited as muscle, apparently quite quickly, by Whitney Frost (Madame Masque), turned, as it were, on a dime by the return of Count Nefaria, an old-time Avengers foe. This is the sequel to his appearance in Avengers, a title being written at this point by a combination of Shooter, Micheleinie, Steven Grant and Mark Gruenwald, drawn in alternating arcs by John Byrne and George Perez.

There’s a rich reliance on existing Marvel continuity, but it overwhelms the utterly decompressed plot. Funny thing is, continuity between issues is about to fly out the window when the next team debuts, but then a new set of long-term threads begin weaving a modernized classic overshadowed at the time only by the revolutions in Uncanny X-Men and Daredevil.
Romita doesn’t take a strong presence in plotting this early in his career; the writer and inker will become the prime story drivers and give him lots of great stuff to draw.
JR will get to co-create Jim Rhodes, Justin Hammer- famously picked up and re-defined by the movies, Rhodey going on to become an Iron Man in his own right.
He gets the unflappable Mrs. Arbogast, reliable plant security chief Vic Martenelli, French business woman Yvette Arvil, bodyguard/ private investigators Bethany Cabe and Ling McPherson, who represent a Charlie’s Angels-flavored new breed of female support characters. Beth especially has more depth than the average love-interest, doubling as an action hero and confidante, not to mention an initial rival for the job of Tony Stark’s bodyguard! Suddenly, a character doesn’t have to be an Avenger to be recognizable. Everything gets specific!

It’s hard not to look ahead to this much-regarded three year run, because JR’s debut relies entirely on looking backwards. There’s a few proportion problems and the inking leaves the new penciler seeming a bit old-fashioned, appropriate for the Mantlo-era tone which often sported Jack Kirby covers, too. The bigger challenge yet, however: illustrating several pages of handbook review of the past of the fallen Unicorn, capped on front by a wrap-up of the departing Avengers, filled in with more morose Stark distance and the cliché “there goes a guy without a care in the world” from a guard, and a Tony Stark fist fight with Bird Man, Frog Man, Ape Man and Cat Man that ends with yet another betrayal from the recently-disguised Whitney/ Masque. Stark doesn’t get a particularly clever showing, just a scenario meant to invoke armor-less peril of the title character and a reasonably-quick-to-comprehend motivation for Masque’s betrayal. His shadowed intention was to make the dying Unicorn a pawn to the silhouetted “Other”- hard to miss the general shape of the Titanium Man, who re-outfits Unicorn with a new power beam and points him destructively in Iron Man’s direction. This all comes out when Stark utilizes a device to read Unicorn’s discordant memories, which nonetheless play out as an orderly recap of his previous three appearances and an unrevealed scene behind his present attack. There’s little discernible personality- he’d make a complex Saturday morning cartoon villain, but his character hook’s unchanged. Worse, this is all unveiled at this juncture without any development for another year, so it’s really just Bill leaving us a planned thread and cashing another quick check for hitting deadline. Romita’s relieved of pacing actual scenes, in favor of a pastiche flashback. This might’ve made the drawings themselves a simpler task for the beginner, who, with little plot and an information dump, has plenty of space, indeed, has to stretch some to get his seventeen pages.

We do revisit “he’s alone in his shell,” emphasized once again amidst the Avengers. He’s bossy jerk to the Beast. This is underscored by his later lonesome thought that he’s always surrounded by obedient machines. His concern over standing up Whitney is meant to establish he has a heart beyond his now-never-depicted lady’s man playboy life. Bill’s giving us characterization- but little interaction.

What we come to associate with John Romita Jr. suggests he’s better suited for what’s ahead. Prefiguring Magnum P.I., we’ll get a James Bond spin on Tony, complete with wry flirtation and glamorous women. Romita loves the cosmopolitan. If his Iron Man moves far away from the socially-conscious style, his superheroics embrace the coming decade’s love of computers and futuristic sheen. If his work’s subsumed beneath a very stylistically-heavy Bob Layton on inks, the armor itself becomes sleek, characters, realistic and demonstrative, and settings, referential. Suddenly we have a Stark who might take time to hit Studio 54, gambling in a tux in Atlantic City, disguising as a phone company worker on Long Island. The battle to remain free of munitions making embroils Stark Industries with S.H.I.E.L.D. itself! Stark has turmoil, but also friends, and reflects new ideas.

In 1980, JR Jr. begins Amazing Spider-Man in #208. Leaning on character drawing and a love for New York City itself, he catches on by #223-the end of O’Neil’s run-as the regular artist for another amazing team-up under Tom DeFalco with former Spectacular Spider-Man writer Roger Stern.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Spider-Man's French Connection- The Conspiracy Delusion!- and Gerry Conway's run on Amazing

“The Delusion Conspiracy!” is a funny title for a story I remembered because President Trump’s going to France- like Spider-Man, Robbie Robertson, and J. Jonah Jameson do in The Amazing Spider-Man #144. Rich guy leaves America to go to France in the middle of, in hopes to deflect from, speculation of his collusion with a known menace: that’s the premise. Writer Gerry Conway’s about to dangle this entire distraction before the reader’s eyes before lowering the boom with the bizarre sequel to his most famous story.
“Delusion” also appeared in Marvel Tales #121, printed the summer of 1980. On this very rare occasion, my Mom relented and purchased my sister and I both comic books from Rudy’s, the country town grocery store in the neighborhood where we’d one day attend Model Elementary, in the same building where she and her sister attended high school. Though the storytelling’s recognizably from an earlier time period, you also get a five-page back-up which introduced me to the 1950s version of The Original Human Torch and his partner, Toro. I deduced back then, as a reader of every single fraction of an inch of print in my rare ownership of each single comic book, the stories were reprinted from 1975 and 1954, so it’s also a window into the rich publication history of Marvel Comics. I liked the wild, Burgos-inspired uses of Torch’s powers, like flame doubles. Even a imbroglio with common crooks done in five pages could be ignited by child’s play imagination and one’s introduction, also, to the Statue of Liberty!

It’s a second part of two, so we begin with J. Jonah Jameson, esteemed Daily Bugle publisher (an original purveyor of truly ‘fake news’), boss to city editor Robbie and freelance photographer Peter Parker, held for ransom by a French terrorist supervillain. Buying comics in those days was always a gamble on a single piece of a larger tapestry, which bothered me not at all. This was the comic that introduced me to the sights of Paris, France, illustrated in both parts by Ross Andru and his longtime inking partner, Mike Esposito. On the subject of monumental action scenes, the Eiffel Tower seemed a more cliché choice, but it could’ve been a setting to rival Spider-Man: Homecoming’s Washington Monument rescue. Conway and Andru instead chose a solution based on a hardware store and some Parker science know-how to defeat Cyclone in a very, shall we say, comic book use of that science.

The cover, however, points to the truly suspenseful part: the ending. Maybe rejected NATO contractor Cyclone draws a “huh?” from your recognition- I’m sure he was disposed of by Scourge in that famous C-list villain Bar With No Name doom portrayed in Captain America #319. But that fashionable boot on the cover, paired with Spider-Man’s crouched, pointing figure exclaiming “but you’re dead!”, might be a stunning giveaway if you’re a reader of 1975...especially one who’s waited to see if Gwen Stacy, Peter’s tragically murdered girlfriend, could defy the grave one day.

Any book focused on the Bronze Age of Marvel- even with the allowance that many of its most written-about highlights are reserved for Integr8d Fix, volume two-would be remiss to ignore Gerry Conway’s run on Amazing Spider-Man, but especially, to omit the Death of Gwen Stacy. As I’m looking for a way into less-discussed but memorably-rendered storylines, the President’s summer Paris visit became the perfect reminder of Conway’s kick-off to his final story arc. Gerry shook up Spider-Man’s world and attempted to find something fresh in tone and subject, as only the second continuing writer of The Amazing Spider-Man, after co-creator Stan Lee (Roy Thomas, yes, did fill-in on ASM #101-104, memorably introducing Morbius, the Living Vampire). Whether you credit John Romita most for pointing out the possibility, laugh about Stan Lee’s nervous plausible deniability, or praise or damn Conway to the heavens, at the time, when supporting characters simply did not also become superheroes themselves (and that’s a subject of personal inspiration, as you’ll see when I finish Chrysalis of the Butterfly for next year), and Peter Parker was practically obliged by corporate trademark logic to remain unmarried, there was just nowhere else they could think to take Gwen Stacy. In fact, while a later generation would embrace strong female characters in storylines with roles more challenging to (or becoming!) their titular stars, Gwen had become bogged down by the limits and necessities of remaining Peter’s girlfriend but eternally not clued in on his secret identity. Her death instilled a sense of danger and consequence to the comic book world, growing up its stories in a way that might better match its now-older audience cohort.

I thought Robbie and Peter made a pretty interesting pairing in resolving Jameson’s dilemma, though we’re again in territory where the astute newspaperman could ascertain Parker’s dual identity, if he had not back in the days when he’d meet Captain George Stacy for those lunches that unnerved Peter so. I always liked how Robbie could be an integral character for his own sake, functioning in the story mostly as a voice of reason and a mature professional reporter, without ham-handed attempts to highlight his blackness. I also thought, including occasions his ethnicity did shade his perspective, Joe Robertson was written with knowledge of the world and certainty of his self.
Tough-minded, good-hearted, intelligent and wry, Robertson’s always been one of the most consistently-written, strong supporting characters in all of comics. The opposite of his publisher counterpart, Joe played things close to the vest where Jonah went off the deep end in speculation.

Jameson’s collusion with Mysterio (the second one, Danny Berkhart, if you’re keeping track) left him open to a blackmail attempt that maybe didn’t catch enough story traction: this was the set-up to his flight to Paris “in the night” as it were. I took a lot of things on face value as a very young fan, but I’ve come to agree with those that don’t think JJJ works as well when he crosses over into actual criminal territory, as with his Spider-Slayer gambits with Spencer Smythe. He and Robbie both end up hostages at Notre Dame Cathedral, where Peter plays Cyclone’s men until he can draw out Cyclone himself. Cyclone uses a belt-mounted gizmo he says he created as a NATO weapon to generate vorticity, perturbing the air in a given area into a destructive defensive and offensive force. Let’s just say Peter’s a big fan of ingenuity, shall we?

When Parker left LaGuardia Airport in part one, he shared a first whopping kiss with Mary Jane Watson, who had been his friend in all the fraught months following Gwen Stacy’s demise. I feel like, you may think of Conway’s villains as hit and miss, or even all the original ones are “hot air,” but the young writer, already the author of a few science fiction novels when he’s tapped by Lee to succeed him, excelled in making Peter and his cast interesting. You might find Parker being so morose, off-putting and unfair; he’s certainly written with some first hand experience in neurosis and manic depression. But Pete’s romantic life seems to have naturally evolved to a point where it could come back to life. Unfortunately, so then does Ms. Stacy!

May Parker collapses at the sight of the as-yet-unrvealed Ms. Stacy earlier in the story; I found it gripping stuff. When Peter comes home and rushes to the top of the stairs to confront the impossibility that’s been turning crazily in his mind, you’re left with a stunning cliffhanger! Gwen sightings have been hinted in earlier issues- in fact, coinciding at least once with the sorts of tricks Mysterio II uses to attempt to unnerve Spider-Man with his “back from the grave!” shtick. That sets up a very nice feint: after all, does Mysterio’s supposed ghost now know Peter’s secret? And so, little me learns of the legendary Death of Gwen Stacy in a completely backwards fashion. If it’s one of your first Spider-Man stories, you have no real idea why everyone’s so upset, but if certainly feels spooky! The returned Gwen Stacy, be she ghost, impostor, vampire, delusion- it’s completely open to speculation and in no way telegraphed she’s a clone, which was a relatively new science fiction idea I don’t think’s ever been depicted at this point.

Regardless of how you come to feel about the Clone Conspiracy, revisited just this summer, how its almost unending 90s derivatives may color your perspective, the moment, in its time, is breath-taking. It’s all together possible that it’s become as consequential to Spider-Man’s story world as the Stacy death-fall, which makes this pivot that much more remarkable, like lightning striking twice in Conway’s run. Best of all, for more Spidey fans than not, it’s the takeoff point of a wild story arc, a culmination of all Conway’s accomplished on the strip (including the introduction of The Punisher in #129, along with the villain behind this scenario, too, incidentally, the kinda-OK Jackal). The original return of Gwen Stacy arc singularly rivals the fevered writing behind the deaths of Gwen and the Green Goblin/Norman Osborn- and it’s never more baffling, controversial, dismaying, shocking, than on the final page of “The Delusion Conspiracy.”