Sunday, November 25, 2007

SM:FBFW ASM 73-77, MSH 14

Spider-Man: For Better or For Worse?

This Week's Reading List: Amazing Spider-Man 73-77, Marvel Super Heroes 14.

We've got three basic storylines here this week: The finale of the ancient tablet, the return of the Lizard, and a one-off from Marvel Super Heroes. I'm sorry to say that the quality of the stories goes steadily down as we work our way through the list, but it does start pretty high.

First and foremost, the tablet storyline. This is, as mentioned last week, an absolute classic run of page-turning excitement. While Man-Mountain Marko might not be the classic villain that Stan's hype wants him to be, he serves well enough for these stories. He reminds me of Johnny Cash, but surlier. In any case, what's really happening here is that happy convergence of storylines that happens every so often in good serial storytelling. A couple of different plots are brought together, the stakes are raised, the clock is ticking, and readers are treated to awesomeness--especially those readers who've been with the book for a few months at least and are interested to see what's up with the tablet.

Ultimately, the secret is revealed, and the guilty are punished through no help of Spider-Man's. It is interesting to see just how powerless he really is to stop anything here. Even though Silvermane doesn't “win” in the end, Spider-Man fails to regain the tablet, to save Doc Connors, to stop Silvermane before he can use the tablet, and to rescue Martha and Billy. I mean, he does eventually break down their door, but not until all the gangsters run in fear of what's happened to Silvermane. This, I think, illustrates an important point in several different types of Spider-Man stories that really makes him relatable as an “everyman” character: things happen in his book that are bigger than him. Not just a little bit bigger, not “bigger” in the philosophical sense. We're talking bigger in every sense.

A few years ago, Paul Dini and Alex Ross did their whole set of big DC Universe stories, and the first one was about Superman trying to end world hunger. In the story, IIRC, Superman's efforts are essentially foiled by human greed. When he delivers grain shipments, the dictators of certain unnamed countries poison the shipments to maintain control over their people. The message, as I recall it, is that not even Superman can conquer the human heart--we have to do that ourselves. It's a good story. It's an interesting take on the questions that inevitably come up when considering someone of Superman's power, questions that find an alternate answer in Alan Moore's Miracleman. However, it's ultimately a hollow answer, because Superman allows the problem to be bigger than him. He takes the high ground of “I can't rule the world, I can't be a dictator.” Several stories show the downside of this in alternate universes. Even the Miracleman world, a utopia with super powers for everybody, has its negative sides (namely, that no one who lives in such a world is really human anymore). However, the key here is that Superman allows the problem to be bigger than him. If Superman ever decided to rule the world, he could. There'd be logistical problems, sure, but he could.

Spider-Man can't. Spider-Man cannot make himself bigger than these problems. Bendis drives this home often in Ultimate Spider-Man, where Spider-Man is clearly a sixteen-year-old kid fighting the very adult problems of organized crime. I don't always like the way Bendis handles it, but there is a strong sense in that book that Spidey is in over his head, and it makes him relatable. Sure, he's super-strong and can stick to walls, but in a world of Hulks and Captain Americas, he's just one more guy doing the best he can, and sometimes his best just isn't enough. That is so big for the character, and it separates Spider-Man from many, many other super heroes. Sure, Superman, Batman, Thor, they might come up against a problem that they allow to be bigger than them, but it's always for a special issue: the Christmas issue, or the standalone by some big-name. With Spider-Man, it happens all the time, and there's no real moral to it other than, “You're not big enough to fix things by yourself.”

Anyway, then comes the two-part Lizard story that's pretty much non-stop action. For me, at my age (32), this is boring. Sure, it's another good example of how to take a villain like the Lizard, who could be taken down by the FF or the Avengers at any time and is dangerous enough that, in the “real” world, he would be, and make the story into a compelling Spidey story. Spidey can't fight at full power because he promised he wouldn't hurt Dr. Connors. However, the lack of soap opera, the weak art by John Buscema (who would become a much stronger and more dynamic artist in later years, so don't hate-mail me about my dig at JB), and the one-note story all drag this down. Oh, yeah. If the Lizard gets really thirsty and dehydrated, he turns back into Curt Connors. If the plot calls for it.

The one-shot from Marvel Super Heroes is actually set around ASM 50, judging by the hair styles, and my God, I wish it had stayed there. Spider-Man is controlled by the super-voodoo of the Sorcerer, who makes him fight a big rubber robot. Then the Sorcerer's doorbell rings, and he's defeated. I kid you not. Poor Ross Andru art, pathetic story... no thanks.

Anyway, let's check my Spidey-Standards against this week's reading list:

1) Spider-Man stories were better then than they are now. The tablet story is better, the Lizard story is an average comic for the time, and the Sorcerer story wouldn't have made the cut for Tangled Web, if that tells you anything.

2) Spider-Man's supporting cast is essential to good Spidey stories. Well, except for the corny dialog (again) and Peter being more that ga-ga over Gwen (“She must have taken a double dose of pretty pills this morning!”), yeah, the soap opera helps the tablet story. It especially helps if we count Martha and Billy for the sake of argument. However, the other three issues lack it enough that it might as well not be there.

3) Peter Parker is not just a secret identity. Meh. He pretty much is in these issues, but the stories paid their Peter dues last week, so we'll take it for the climax of the tablet tale.

All right, that's it for this week. Up next week will be Amazing Spider-Man 78-83! Until Bendis wastes yet another Ultimate version of a character as he did with Ultimate Silvermane (and Ultimate George Stacy, and Ultimate Jean DeWolff, and...), Make Mine Marvel!

Eric

Sunday, November 18, 2007

SM:FBFW - The Rant

Spider-Man: For Better or For Worse?

This Week's Reading List: None.

First things first: This is a rant. This was originally the scorekeeping post, but it really wasn't about scorekeeping. The problem is, I'd read it and re-read it, and it still said what I think. I couldn't just delete it. So I moved it to this post. Sorry if you're getting tired of just reading my thoughts as opposed to Spidey happenings. In any case, this is a rant, you're welcome to disagree, and I'd be happy to discuss any of this with anybody who posts. Just don't spit in my eye over this, as it is, after all, my blog, and I'm not interested in fighting. Discussing, yes, arguing, possibly, but fighting? Insulting? No thanks. That's what Newsarama is for.

Look, here's the deal. I am not really enjoying the current crop of Spider-Man comics. JMS just... doesn't get the character. Not all of his stories have been bad, but he doesn't. Quesada doesn't get the character. Paul Jenkins started strong, I thought, and then it devolved into a sticky-sweet nostalgia trip that was boring. Peter David, one of my two favorite authors of all time (tied with Stephen King), did a run on FNSM that seemed to me bound and determined to push fans away in droves--I enjoyed it, but it's hard for me to imagine the casual reader picking up a book about the time-traveling Spider-Man 2211 and thinking, “Hey, all right! NOT the guy I wanted to buy!”. Mark Millar should never be allowed near Spider-Man again. Sacasa... I just never, ever cared about his stuff one way or the other. Kaare Andrews and Reign... Look, Dark Knight was cool for Batman, but Batman isn't Spider-Man. There have been mini-series, and some of them were maybe good, but I got burned too bad buying all the Spider-crap in the 90's. If I'm buying a mini at this point, I'll buy it in trade or digest, and I probably won't care.

That's my gut-reaction to the 616 stuff over the last four years or so, plain-and-simple. No, I haven't gone back and reread much of it. No, I didn't read it all that carefully the first time, most of it. You know what? That's a sign, Marvel. That's a big, freakin' sign that something is wrong with your comics. I have been a Spidey-fan since before I could read. Spider-Man got me in to comics (a Marvel Tales reprint of ASM 19 and Amazing Spider-Man 247 were the first comics that went into my collection). I haven't missed an issue of Amazing since 251. I went to all the movies on opening night. I used to look forward to visiting my cousin in Ohio because they got the 60's cartoon there and I could watch it. I have VHS copies of all the Nicholas Hammond episodes. (No, you can't have any, so don't ask.) I am the biggest Spider-Man fan I know (personally) and I don't care about your Spider-Man comics anymore, Marvel. Buy a clue!

“Back In Black” was a joke. “One More Day” is even worse. Why are they doing this to us? Seriously! Why? Maybe--maybe--”Brand New Day” will solve the problems, but if they do something cheesy with the marriage, I'm going to be mad. Mad enough to stop buying the books? I don't think so. I know I should vote with my wallet, with my dollars, but when you haven't missed an issue in twenty-four years, it's hard to stop, you know? That doesn't matter. The basic facts are there: The books just aren't good. Reading over these old books has convinced me more than ever that the current crop sucks and should simply be plowed under. Why do I believe this? For a couple of reasons:

1) I can enjoy the old stuff and still see its limitations. Ditko's art is in a class by itself, literally. I like it, I've grown up with it, I think it's cool, but it's certainly not modern in style. Still, I enjoy the stories. Don Heck's Spidey work is, in my opinion, sloppy, but Romita's stuff has power, and Mooney's stuff is more than tolerable. No, I'm not sure it'd pass muster today in terms of style, but in terms of energy, composition, storytelling? Hell yeah.

2) I want to like the new stuff. Every single frakkin' time Marvel does another damned reboot/revamp/relaunch thing with Spider-Man, I really do read it with an open mind. Not a tabula rasa mind, you understand, but an open one. I want to enjoy Spider-Man. I try to enjoy Spider-Man. The material fails me.

3) Ultimate Spider-Man. I think Bendis has lost it on his Marvel stuff these days, to be honest, but when this book came out in 2000, I was absolutely floored. I originally bought it for the sake of completeness: “Oh, well, I'll buy this for the ten issues it lasts.” I loved it. So did everyone else. It was a perfect mix of classic and modern... for a while. Then Bendis did the Ultimate version of Monkey Sex on it. (For info on “Monkey Sex” in this context, read THIS, among other things. I don't entirely disagree with this then-current review). The problem is, one does NOT do “Monkey Sex”--a complete and utter change in direction and tone for a series--with a book like Spider-Man. No, no, no. What was a great mix of classic and modern suddenly became the crazy effing kaleidescope of Brian Michael Bendis' acid trip vomit. Carnage, Bendis? Friggin' CARNAGE? CLONES? Where's the damned supporting cast? Why the hell did you kill Gwen? What the hell is happening in this book now? Can anyone tell me? Is there a secret identity to keep anymore? GAAAAAAHHHHHH!**

See? That's my point. I. LOVED. Ultimate Spider-Man. Loved it. And then, because he can, because no one at Marvel has any kind of a vision of what a monthly comic should be month-in, month-out, Bendis started tripping out and it started to suck. And it has continued to suck.

Why? Because absolutely no one who has managed Spider-Man for the last ten years has understood the concept of the story engine. (Please note I said “managed” and not “written.” Peter David understands the story engine. He's just not editing Spider-Man books.) Oh, they might get it intellectually, but none of them understand that what we readers want it a reliable story engine every single month. Spider-Man is a brand name. Spider-Man is a thing in and of itself. There are things that Spider-Man is, there are things that Spider-Man is not, and no one at Marvel who controls the work done on Spider-Man understands the difference anymore. (Tom DeFalco understands, but as much as I love his current work on Amazing Spider-Girl, his last Spidey run also did not work any more than anyone else's.)

I remember reading an interview with or essay by Frank Miller--whose current work I also cannot stand, BTW (I tell you simply in the interest of full disclosure)--a while back where he talks about working on Daredevil. And he talks about what Daredevil stories are, and what they aren't, and how his editor shut him down more than once because the story he gave her was “a Batman story” and not a Daredevil story. That confused me at the time, but I think I get it more, now. See, the Daredevil story engine is not the same as the Batman story engine. When people buy Batman they want a Batman story, and when they buy Daredevil they want a Daredevil story. The Batman engine is more popular than the DD one, but that doesn't make one better than the other, and there are DD fans who don't like Batman and vice versa. Different strokes for different folks, you know?

The first... thirty issues or so of Ultimate Spider-Man were “Spider-Man” again. The story engine had been tweaked for Y2K, but what was old was new again, and it was working, working, working. It was working in a way that NO Spider-Man ongoing had worked in many years, even then. And then Bendis started throwing away the series' potential just as the 616 writers had, but worse. He offed Captain Stacy with no development. Jean DeWolff. Gwen Stacy (minimal development for a maximum-importance character). The whole damned supporting cast. SHIELD showed up constantly. In Spider-Man. Once again, that “Spider-Man” feel that so many of us had been missing--that the whole industry had been missing, judging from the sales--had disappeared.

By the by, “Monkey Sex” is okay for Powers. It really is. Powers is Bendis' baby (with Oeming, of course). He can do whatever the hell he pleases with it. If Bendis wants to turn Powers from a super-film-noir into 2001 and Greek mythology, that's is just peachy-keen with me. I know that he's writing for himself and that I'm along for the ride. I totally dig that, no complaints.

“Monkey Sex” is not okay for Spider-Man. “Sins Past” is NOT okay for Spider-Man. Constant SHIELD appearances. Living in Avengers Mansion. Killing every supporting character in sight. “Back In Black.” “One More Day.” “The Clone Saga.” “The Gathering of Five.” All of it. NOT OKAY. It's just not.

Many of you reading this (all five of you, for all I know) may disagree with me. I'm ranting, I know, and I reserve the right to clarify anything in this post. I also fully admit that I may not cite my sources particularly well here. You know what? I don't have to. This is one fan's gut reaction to what he sees as the long-term degradation of one of his favorite storytelling institutions. I'd call it unreasonable, but the old books and the good new ones (the first 30 issues of USM, as I said) can get me stoked again just like I was ten and dying to bike to the comics store. Marvel has lost it, Spider-Man has lost it, and I'm not sure if it's ever coming back.

The scoresheet from last week shows that Spidey comics weren't always good. It shows that they were often mediocre. Of course they are. Of course they were. They're serial storytelling, and sometimes a writer or an artist just needs to get the issue done whether it's good or not. (Not Bryan Hitch, but most others.) That's okay. The storytelling engine that we all knew and loved fed something inside us, and we took the blah meals with the great meals, and we had very few stinkers.

We had many more good meals than bad back then, and that's just not the case anymore. I suspect that the coming weeks, especially after Gwen's death, will fill me with blah stories or stinker stories. I don't have a great deal of optimism over the seventies' material. That's okay. If it's bad, it's bad. I don't think it'll be that much worse than today.

All right, that's it for this week. Up next week will be Amazing Spider-Man 73-77 and Marvel Super Heroes 14! Despite my usual sarcasm about the state of the current books (sarcasm which, according to the score this time, is generally justified), Make Mine (old-school) Marvel!

Eric

**("Brendis" typo fixed!)

Sunday, November 11, 2007

SM:FBFW Scorekeeping 1

Spider-Man: For Better or For Worse?

This Week's Reading List: None.

First things first: I'm going to try to put a bit of a scoreboard up in this post. If anyone has trouble reading anything, please post a comment to let me know ASAP. I'm no web-guru and I don't know how much I can get away with.

Okey-dokey, here we go, folks. A scorekeeping week. This week we're taking a look back at the past twenty Spider-Man: For Better or For Worse posts, both at the actual Marvel Spidey-content and at the blog itself. It's a little hard for me to believe that it's been twenty “official” posts since I started this little experiment, and it's gratifying that people are reading and commenting. Thanks to everyone for your time and interest. That's right, all five of you.

Here's a clip from the spreadsheet I use to track my personal ratings data from each week. I rate each post Better, Same, or Worse than current Spidey comics, with “current” being a flexible term that sometimes means the last few months, the last few years, 616, Ultimate, whatever. Anyway...

I think the results speak for themselves. Despite the differences in writing and art styles, time periods, creative teams, storytelling trends, etc., Spider-Man stories from the sixties were just plain better. (The Busiek stories from the nineties, unsurprisingly, were also better than the stuff we've got today, but they were awesome in so many ways that have already been explained in these columns...)

Let's look back at the introduction to this blog and see what statements might prove relevant to this week of reflection.

Spider-Man comics are not as good as they used to be. Nope, they aren't. Look at the scores above. In the 60's, at least, they were weirder, but they were also more fun, more engaging, and more accessible to the new reader.

What is wrong with comics, and Spider-Man comics in particular, that so many long time fans have dropped it? Why are more fans not joining the hobby? I'll gripe about this next week.

For many people, the comics that are “the best” are the comics they grew up with, and once they grew up, the comics weren't as good. I haven't gotten to the 80's yet, but I still tend to agree with this idea.

I also wanted to keep myself from “glossing over” periods in Spider-Man history that were worse than the modern day, because part of my motivation was exploring that concept, that “Spider-Man books are not as good as they used to be.” I'd be thrilled to be proven wrong, and I wouldn't be surprised to hear my opinions change as I go through this little diary/blog/podcast experiment. You know, I thought my opinions might change, and they have. I actually believe that Spider-Man comics suck MORE now than I did when I started this. Stan's Spidey stuff, whether grittier with Ditko or more action-packed with Romita, are just plain fun. Yes, there are dry periods, but this old stuff, where I know who dies and who doesn't, where I know much of the basic story already, keeps me turning the pages and moving on to the next issue. Today's stuff... not so much.

Is it possible that fans like me pretty much just remember the good stuff or the great stuff and forget all of the idiocy in between? Yes, it is. However, the gaps between good stretches of story were smaller then than they are now.

Spider-Man is not about guilt, he is about responsibility. Peter Parker is allowed to be happy (sometimes), and he is allowed to try to have a life. Jeez, is this true. Stan's Peter is a player extraordinaire! Every girl wants him. You know what? It's awesome. Sure, he has problems, and they help keep his stories interesting, but the comics used to be fun, too. They used to be about escapism and thrill-seeking. How many Spider-Man stories in the last ten years would you classify as “thrilling”?

My major complaint about Spider-Man through the 90's and the 2000's is the complete lack of a sense of hope. Another major complaint I've developed is best explained by John Seavey, who runs a blog about various story-engines: The Spider-Man story-engine is gone. I liked that story-engine. I liked the product it produced. If Marvel would stick with it, they'd have more consistent stories. (Not necessarily better, but certainly more consistent, and, to my mind, more marketable stories.)

BTW, the Hobgoblin is the best Spidey villain since Norman Osborn, and his stories were better written. Sorry, Stan, but Roger Stern did you one better with the Hobgoblin issues. And to all of you fans who disagree with me, tough. I still like the Hobgoblin.

All right, that's it for this week. Up next week will be... an angry rant about current Spidey comics! Until we get the movie's emo-Peter in the comics, Make Mine Marvel!

Eric


Sunday, November 4, 2007

SM:FBFW ASM 68-72

Spider-Man: For Better or For Worse?

This Week's Reading List: Amazing Spider-Man 68-72.

Okey-dokey, here we go, folks. All the Lee/Romita/Mooney team can offer us this week is... an action-packed page-turning* saga of crime, greed, and desperation! Holy cow, did they knock it out of the park this week as the Kingpin searches for a mysterious tablet. Lots of done-in-one A-plots with compelling, to-be-continued B-plots means quick reading and gratitude that I didn't have to wait 30 days for the next installment each time as I do here! Let's get it going!

*Thanks to Stu The Disgruntled Geek over at the ever-popular Spider-Man Message Board for applying this particular phrase to this particular era of Spider-greatness.

All right, first we have the famous “Crisis on Campus” issue. The story here is very smart, mixing social commentary with soap opera with super-hero/crime stuff. This, like “Escape: Impossible!” is a fantastic Spidey story that can be read by itself but also does a great job of advancing several storylines. What's really interesting to me, though, are the racial issues in the, er, issue. Several times, Peter or some other caucasian is called “Whitey”, while Joe Robertson is called an “Uncle Tom” because he works for J. Jonah Jameson. Meanwhile, Robertson, Parker, and Gwen all have moments to shine where they all basically declare that the only thing that really matters is the choices a person makes, what he does with his life. I have to agree, and I've always really liked reading Stan's “racism” issues/scenes because that's my take on it, as well. Certainly Randy Robertson's “soul-brother” friend Josh takes the attitude of “they're white so they're wrong”, and that kind of prejudice (on any side) is just worthless--and dangerous. I seem to remember another scene at some point where someone says something to Jameson about keeping “one of them” (Robbie) on staff, and Jameson basically rips into the guy for being such a pathetic racist. None of this is to say that Marvel doesn't have its own problems with race, but the basic idea being advanced in this issue is one that I can really get behind.

After that, the issues all blend together in my mind because I read them all in one sitting last night. I thought to myself, “Well, I'll just read two!” Then I'd get to the end of one and want to read the next. This happens to me a lot with modern comics, but I tend to believe it's because the stories are so damned decompressed (and yes, I'm looking at YOU, Bendis!) and they just don't read well on an issue-by-issue basis. I've actually stopped buying the single issues of all the Ultimate books and moved on to the trades, simply because I couldn't ever remember, month-to-month, what was happening in any of them. It wasn't so bad when Ultimate Spider-Man was coming out bi-weekly almost, but then that book just got a bit old and boring. (And they killed Gwen Stacy. Again. And I was honestly too mad to keep paying the same kind of attention.)

That said, the fact that these issues all blend together in my mind doesn't mean they weren't good. On the contrary, I kept reading. I felt that wonderful compulsion to keep reading that one only gets when the story reaches a certain critical mass. Certain things stand out to me: Spidey losing it with Jameson and threatening him in our first big “Spidey goes too far!” storyline. Of course, this one made sense all the way around, and it serves as yet another reminder that Peter is nineteen at best and he's not really ready for the burden of being a public figure (as Spider-Man). I don't generally like those stories, but they're generally gimmicks. It's not here, so I'll go with it.

The Kingpin is awesome, as always. The Quicksilver fight falls into much the same category as the Medusa issue, but it's not as lame, and it's one of those not-too-often seen power mix-ups (basically Spidey fighting the Flash) that would have been really cool when one was ten. The Shocker issue is an okay use of a second-stringer, but not on the level of “Escape: Impossible” or the recent Mysterio two-parter.

Through all of this weaves the Peter/Gwen get-together/break-up cycle, which honestly doesn't bother me the way that it seems to bother other reviewers. I remember being nineteen and being in a serious relationship (with my future wife, I might add). We fought over petty crap and I was really scared of commitment, so we had a ton of little tiffs and “breaks” and ultimatum-filled arguments for a good two years before we got married and did many of the same things behind closed doors. Add in the burden of one of you being Spider-Man, with all the problems and lies that go along with that, and it's a wonder the two of them didn't just break up. That Peter and Gwen obviously have fallen hard for each other at this point is indisputable, but the pressures on their relationship would make anyone crazy. Keep it comin', Stan.

Let me just add that Captain Stacy is kind of a jerk. When Gwen complains to him that Peter is being called a coward, he asks something to the effect of, “Are you afraid they might be... right?” He doesn't bother to defend his potential son-in-law whom he must know is Spider-Man at this point, and he doesn't comfort his only child. Instead, he just sits back, smokes his pipeweed, and thinks “I know something you don't know...!” He should hang out with Silver Age Superman for a while. (See superdickery.com if you don't get the reference.)

Anyway, let's check my Spidey-Standards against this week's reading list:

1) Spider-Man stories were better then than they are now. I actually wanted to read the next issue, so yes.

2) Spider-Man's supporting cast is essential to good Spidey stories. Once again, the things that makes one want to read the next issue are the ongoing storylines--that's all supporting cast, people.

3) Peter Parker is not just a secret identity. Well... this week he kind of is. I'm not sure that Spider-Man has much to do for which the Peter Parker side of his skill sets (science, personal relationships, etc.) are really necessary.

All right, that's it for this week. Next week will be a scorekeeping week, which means we'll actually review the last twenty posts worth of stuff and look at the tally for whether Spider-Man books of the past used to be Better, the same, or Worse! Until the Kingpin is assassinated Caesar-style (but not really--psyche!), Make Mine Marvel!

Eric