Saturday, December 29, 2007

Well, they did it. (OMD Spoilers)

The marriage is officially kaput. For now. Probably the most disappointing thing about all of this is how bad the writing has been. JMS has said (I believe so, anyway) that he didn't like the idea behind "One More Day" and from the way he wrote it, I believe him. I've also never bought into the idea that Peter and MJ are somehow "fated" to be together, so Mephisto talking about their love being "holy" and all that crap just falls flat.

That said... Anyone who believes that the marriage is dead is kidding themselves. The end of OMD sets things up perfectly to make sure that MJ and Peter not only get back together, but that they need to get back together. Harry's alive (and divorced from Liz, apparently). That in and of itself should prove that this story is not going to last. Harry Osborn did nothing but screw up his life every chance he got. If he's really been alive all this time, it means that he's just had more time to screw up his life. He's going to end of in a situation where he's "better off dead," if you know what I mean.

Add to that the fact that things between BND Peter and MJ are "frosty" and it's very, very clear that their relationship is far from done. It is my firm belief that BND is designed more to reinforce the marriage and its need to move forward (as in children) than it is to "end" the marriage. The one thing that will last from all of this is that Peter's identity will be secret again, and that's fine with me. Talk about a genie that needed a bottle... there it is.

I may be right, I may be wrong, but as bad of a story as "One More Day" was, it seems clear to me that its purpose is NOT to serve as a cop out. If it is just a cop out, just a crappy way to rid themselves of the marriage, then I'll be more than disappointed--I'll be surprised.

One more note, specifically to Marvel: If people buy more Spidey books starting with "Brand New Day", it's not because of the marriage being gone--it's because with good writing, the Spidey books might actually be readable again.

Eric

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Happy Holidays, etc.!

BTW, I hope everyone out there has a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, et cetera. I'm spending the holidays with relatives, and I hope that all of you guys are also lucky enough to spend this time with loved ones. I further hope that you'll be receving plenty of Spidey comics for Christmas. (My daughter and I splurged on the final fifty issues of Spider-Girl, so we'll have fun reading that over the next few weeks.)

In any case, thanks for reading. Be safe, and I'll see you next Sunday.

Eric

SM:FBFW ASM 96-98

Spider-Man: For Better or For Worse?

This Week's Reading List: Amazing Spider-Man 96-98

Ah, the famous pill-popping drug saga to which the Comics Code of the time would not give its seal of approval. Good times, good times. For the next sixty issues or so of ASM, btw, I'm going to be moving in and out of my trusty volumes of Essential Spider-Man. They're handy in terms of packing in a lot of material, but it's pretty sad to try to read these stories without color. This week, for example, I pulled out my old copy of Marvel Tales 191, which reprints ASM 96-98 in glorious full-color so that I could get the full effect of this story.

These issues are yet another set that have some real personal connections for me, and I feel that it's only fair to reveal those before I go on. I've had several good friends and relatives pretty much destroy their lives through drug and alcohol abuse. It scared me very badly when I was younger--it scared me enough that I've never actually tried an illegal drug and I'm more than a little shrill in my objection to them. Even when I first read this story back in 1986, I knew that Harry was getting into the same kinds of things that people I cared about had already used to screw up their lives. Yeah, the heroin-thing from Green Arrow is probably a more accurate depiction of abuse and withdrawl, and the “pills” thing in ASM is kind of pathetically vague, but there's a power to this story nonetheless. Ultimately, what I'm saying here is that I'm a sucker for this story, so if this review isn't entirely objective... deal with it.

Okay, so here's the plot: Mary Jane treats Harry like crap and comes on to Peter. Peter's hung up over Gwen, who's in London. Harry gets jealous of Peter and starts taking drugs. Meanwhile, Norman Osborn becomes the Green Goblin again. Instead of fighting the Goblin and just beating him down, Peter gets the Goblin to look at Harry's predicament (he's almost comatose because of an overdose of “drugs.”). The Goblin personality retreats, leaving only Norman Osborn. The end.

(Quick question: Does anyone know what exactly Harry was taking? The Harry Osborn Wikipedia entry has it listed as a “cocaine overdose”, but I don't remember anything about this particular drug being cocaine. Any info would be very welcome!)

So let's get the bad stuff out of the way right away, shall we? This story hits you over the head with it's anti-drug message. These three issues are pretty much a PSA that you get to pay for. Stan doesn't bother with subtlety here, but you know what? Given that this was pretty much the first instance of drug abuse being shown in a comic, I don't blame Stan for being very explicit about what was “good” and what was “bad” about these situations. Parents would have had a field day with this comic had it been the least bit vague or ambiguous.

The drugs themselves are almost comically vague by today's standards. We don't know what kind of high Harry's getting--it's just a bottle of pills. The drug dealer is pathetically unthreatening, because the only person he ever threatens is Peter who, of course, is in no danger whatsoever. However, the dealer is shown to be an opportunistic guy with no morals who's in it for the money. Again, the kids reading this comic back in the day needed clarity and simplicity for this issue, and they got it.

As far as the story itself goes, this three-parter is pretty good. Sure, it has all the amnesia cliches you can think of, but that's an unfortunate necessity to having the father of the main character's best friend be the arch-foe and still maintaining the concept of secret identities. Still, the Goblin is presented as a credible threat who is still harder to defeat because Peter doesn't want to hurt him (that old chestnut is getting a bit old in the Spider-Man series, as well, but that's an issue for another day).

The drug part of the story is, I think, well constructed considering the time and the novelty of the idea. Harry's insecurities appear suddenly and with surprising force, but they don't seem wildly inconsistent with the character. The serious consequences of drug abuse, the pervasiveness of the problem, and a brief run-down of the stereotypical beliefs of many people in regards to the issue are all handled in a way that a younger reader can understand. When I read it, I hear the same commitment to fairness that I often hear in Stan's social commentary. This is definitely workable.

It's the soap-opera that's interesting to me as I read it now. For the first time, I'm reading this story in context, and it makes it especially entertaining. Mary Jane comes of as a bit of a bitch, in my opinion. The way she dumps Harry and hangs on Peter goes beyond my idea of “party-girl” good taste. I'm honestly surprised that Peter will even consent to talk to her after this. (Think about it: his best-friend's girlfriend puts the moves on him in front of the friend? And he himself is vulnerable over the apparent demise of an important relationship? Who does this red-headed hussy think she is?) Of course, after the crap-fest to which we are about to be treated in the next four issues, everyone probably gets amnesia and forgets what a ho MJ is.

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

1) Spider-Man stories were better then than they are now. Written for the time? Yep. Still readable and interesting today? Yep.

2) Spider-Man's supporting cast is essential to good Spidey stories. Without Harry as the victim of drug abuse here, the whole storyline would lose power. MJ provides adequate impetus for Harry to start drugs, and Gwen provides the happy ending. Yep, pretty essential.

3) Peter Parker is not just a secret identity. I'm not sure there are any Peter-exclusive skills that Spidey really needs in these issues. However, the whole secret identity tension thing goes up a notch when Norman's involved, you know?

All right, that's it for this week. Up next week will be Amazing Spider-Man 99-102! Until Harry Osborn is a better character in the movies than in the comics, Make Mine Marvel!

Eric

Monday, December 17, 2007

SM:FBFW ASM 90-95

Spider-Man: For Better or For Worse?

This Week's Reading List: Amazing Spider-Man 90-95

We wrap up the current Doc Ock storyline this week before moving on to a two-parter featuring Sam Bullit, evil DA candidate. Three one-offs follow in which Spidey faces the Prowler, the Beetle, and more terrorists in Britain all while he searches for Gwen, who moves there after the death of her father. Oh, yeah. George Stacy dies right at the beginning this week. Let's check it out.

First, Peter uses his knowledge of chemistry to whip up a special chemical that jams the brain impulses that control Doc Ock's arms. Hooray for chemistry! Peter actually uses his brain for once. I have to say that there is less science in these old Spidey comics than one might hope. Anyway, these mess up Doc Ock's arms... and then the old Parker luck comes in. Ock's flailing arms crush a chimney, which in turn threatens to crush a little boy. George Stacy saves him, but is crushed himself. Dying, he reveals that he knows Spidey's true ID and he asks Peter to take care of Gwen. Sob.

I must say that I thought I would be more touched by Stacy's death than I actually was. I always liked the idea of the George Stacy character. I imagine that he would have made an excellent surrogate father for Peter. Unfortunately, George Stacy was not developed as he might have been. Even for the standards of the time, he was an inconsistent character who sometimes seemed to know Peter was Spider-Man, and sometimes didn't. I'm not entirely sure what purpose his death served other than someone saying, “Hey, let's kill George Stacy. He hasn't done anything useful for a while, and it'll provide friction between Peter and Gwen so we don't have to marry them yet. After all, we can't kill her...”

Then comes another anti-bigotry story where Spidey faces off against Sam Bullit, evil DA candidate. Taken for what it's worth, this isn't a bad two-parter. Sure, the message is pasted very clearly in every panel, and Gwen very conveniently (and inexplicably) trusts this guy who was disliked by her father, whom she is mourning. However, there's good street-level Spidey action + a fight with Iceman in ASM 92. More importantly, the Bullit character is actually taken down by JJJ and Robbie, who don't take kindly to his rough treatment of Peter Parker. This is another nice touch, where a political candidate is taken down by political means. It makes JJJ and Robbie useful characters beyond banter, and it keeps every issue being about Spider-Man punching a problem until it goes away.

Then... The Prowler thinks Spidey killed George Stacy and they fight until they don't. The Beetle kidnaps Aunt May. Terrorists kidnap an American in London. And the whole time, Gwen is very sad over her father while Peter can't comfort her truthfully because she blames Spider-Man and swears she hates him. The ten-year-old in me was screaming at the page the entire time, “Just tell her you're frakkin' Spider-Man, idiot! Explain what really happened! God, soap operas would make so much more sense if people just told the truth every once in a while!” But, of course, Peter says nothing, so Gwen goes to London. Peter follows, but he can't show his face because Spider-Man already showed his. Mask, not face. You get what I mean.

(BTW, I consider that little tidbit about the secret ID [Peter can't be seen in London 'cause Spidey's there] to stretch even my generous suspension of disbelief over secret ID's. Peter Parker can't visit Gwen because Spider-Man is in London? And Peter's the ONLY New Yorker currently in London? If Peter were remotely serious about Gwen, wouldn't he have considered that she'd have to find out about his double identity if they got married? Ugh. I have to say that DC handled this much, much better with the Clark-Lois marriage.)

So, basically, Gwen cries for five issues. Gwen cries at the funeral, she cries in her apartment, she cries in her car, she cries in London... And half the time, she's crying because Peter isn't treating her the way he should. This girl has lost whatever spirit Ditko might have once infused in her. I have to admit it. I think that many of us who love Gwen (and I'm one of them) love her in large part because she was such a cypher that we could project all our pre-adolescent fantasies on to her and they stuck. She never contradicted them. And ultimately, that's not what makes a good character.

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

1) Spider-Man stories were better then than they are now. No, not really. In fact, I think they're worse this week. The Doc Ock ending is cool, but the Bullit story is just too shallow and obvious. Bullit is a cartoon, Gwen acts more than illogically, and while the JJJ take-down is awesome, that doesn't save the whole story. In fact, this whole week is just filled with cliches. That's the real problem here.

2) Spider-Man's supporting cast is essential to good Spidey stories. George Stacy, JJJ, and Robbie keep this category from falling into the dregs with Gwen. Still, it's a wash this week.

3) Peter Parker is not just a secret identity. A great deal of what Spider-Man does this week is because of things he knows or is as Peter Parker. So Peter is once again a key element in the stories, but I'm coming to see that the scientist part of Peter still went woefully underused even in Stan's day.

All right, that's it for this week. Up next week will be Amazing Spider-Man 96-98! Until the cool term “spider-tracer” is changed to something bland like “micro-dot”, Make Mine Marvel!

Eric

Sunday, December 9, 2007

SM:FBFW ASM 84-89

Spider-Man: For Better or For Worse?

This Week's Reading List: Amazing Spider-Man 84-89

The Schemer, the Kingpin, the Black Widow, the Flu, Doctor Octopus. Not a bad line-up for a run of Spidey-issues. There's something old, something new, etc. Again, these comics are not the absolute best Spidey comics ever created, but it's clear that the quality of a so-called “average” Spidey story used to be much higher than it is today.

We find Spidey hanging upside-down in the snow, reading about the Schemer. No wonder Spidey gets the flu as often as he does--spandex and freezing temperatures don't mix, boy. Anyway, it's hard for me to take this story seriously for a couple of reasons. First, the Schemer has clearly seen too many James Bond films. The car, the weird get-up... Second, I know who the Schemer is and how the character is abused in the future. Plus, the idea of him dressing up in old-people stage make-up just makes him... kinky, and not in a fun way.

However, that doesn't change the fact that these are action-packed stories with lots of twists and turns in the plot. I'm not sure that the revelation of the Schemer's true identity would have been particularly interesting to anyone back then, as Richard Fisk was only introduced at the beginning of this arc. If they'd mentioned him in the last Kingpin arc and had just now paid it off, it might have been a little better... (Add to that the fact that Richard looks all of 12, and it's like finding out that the mastermind behind the latest episode of The Brady Bunch is... DUM DUM DUM... Cousin Oliver!)

Then comes a rather forgettable issue featuring the Black Widow slinking into her sexy new 70's get-up. She really isn't “a female copy of” Spider-Man in the vast majority of ways, but this story wants us to think she is. Anyway, to even the odds a little, Stan gives Spidey the flu. Anyway, the most interesting parts of this issue are (surprise!) the soap opera, as Peter's exploits as Spidey are really starting to cramp his lifestyle. The kooky thing is, it's pretty believable. The lack of a steady cast to whom he must constantly lie (and the inconsistent treatment of Peter's various jobs) in recent years has largely removed this issue from the books. (And don't start in on the unmasking, as you know that's going away after Christmas.) Still, Peter would be lying to everyone he knows all the time, and he'd seem like a real jerk. Can you blame his friends for thinking he's flaky?

By the start of ASM 87, the flu has Peter knocked on his ass and pretty much delirious. As he told himself in a dream back in ASM 11, viruses are about the only thing his Spider-powers can't handle. He should listen to himself. Anyway, there's no villain this issue--just the flu. It mind-controls him into revealing his identity to his closest friends. Luckily, they remember that Peter tried this schtick back in ASM 11 (through a story Harry heard), so they maintain their aura of gullibility +12. Hobie Brown is brought in as an NPC to help ensure that the damage done by the flu (who was possibly working with Mister Measles) is undone. Gwen is concerned; her father smokes his pipe and acts both sage and high at the same time. Same as it ever was. These two issues together are the weakest of the bunch this week, but they still keep the story moving forward.

And then... Doctor Octopus. Moreso than any “classic” Spidey-villain (and by “classic” here I'm talking what might have been considered classic as of ASM 88--a villain from the first thirty issues or so, maybe), Doc Ock is Stan's go-to guy. “Hey, Jazzy Johnny,” Stan might have said, “we lack powerful punch and pizazz in our soon-to-be subsequent Spidey story! Let's get Doc Ock in there for no reason other than he's cool!” I mean, where's the Sandman? The Scorpion? The Looter? Okay, I'm stretching. The truth is, Stan used the classic villains often enough, but except for the Goblin, Doc Ock tops them all, and he does here, as well.

The Chinese and terror angles on the first Doc Ock story are strange to read, given today's political situation. What really turns me on with these stories--WAIT! There! Did you see it? I never say “turns me on” in that context. Stan's Sixties Slang has infected me! AAAAGH!

Seriously, Gil Kane is one of my top three Spidey pencillers of all time, if he's not my #1. He has absolutely dynamic layouts, smooth storytelling, and his Spider-Man...! His Spidey is muscular but lean, and he does something with Spidey's face and eyes that, while I can't describe it, is very, very clearly the “Gil Kane” Spider-Man, and it's probably my favorite version. Seriously. Look at the number of times his characters break the frames of the panels, the perspectives he uses without going overboard into Kirby territory... Sigh. Gil Kane Spidey. It's like Heaven, only drawn better.

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 Ock issues are above-average, the two stand-alones are below-average, and the Schemer is average for the time. Compared to today's Spider-Man stuff, this is definitely better.

2) Spider-Man's supporting cast is essential to good Spidey stories. Yes, they are, but I'm starting to see why they felt like they needed to kill Gwen. I still think she could have run back to London instead of getting chucked off a bridge, but hey...

3) Peter Parker is not just a secret identity. He has nothing to do with anything in the Doctor Octopus issues, the flu in the middle two, and nothing to do with the Kingpin, either. Don't worry, though. Peter's science know-how will come into play big time next week.

All right, that's it for this week. Up next week will be Amazing Spider-Man 90-95! Until Marvel constantly makes changes to Spidey and reverses them when the wind shifts, Make Mine Marvel!

Eric

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Star Trek TNG: Before Dishonor [SPOILERS]

BTW, I have to add that I almost forgot to post this week's SM:FBFW because I spent my Sunday evening reading Before Dishonor, the new Star Trek TNG book by Peter David. I mention this because it appears that they're actually doing things--story things, character development things--with the Star Trek novels now. I knew that Riker had moved on to the Titan, but I wasn't aware that they'd be allowed to do things like SPOILER KILL KATHRYN JANEWAY. /SPOILER

That alone was worth the price of admission. Not my favorite PAD book or TNG book by any stretch, but it was serviceable enough. If you're a PAD fan, a Spock fan, a Voyager fan, or a TNG fan, you should check out this novel.

SM:FBFW ASM 78-83

Spider-Man: For Better or For Worse?

This Week's Reading List: Amazing Spider-Man 78-83

Okay, the hits just keep happenin' this week, cats! We start out with the conflicted two-part origin of the Prowler, then we move on to a string of villains of the month including the Chameleon, the Kangaroo, Electro, and the Schemer. I have to say right up front that these next couple of weeks may make for short blog entries, Spider-philes, because Stan gets in a bit of a rut through the eighties and nineties. Not a horrible, “Oh, God, why am I reading this?” rut, but just a “okay, ready for the next issue, now!” rut.

To start off this week, though, we have the two-part introduction of the Prowler, a.k.a. Hobie Brown, who is one of the many African-American superheroes who was created to be a second-stringer, and the story makes it really hard to decide what was going through Stan's head. On one hand, there is a really strong anti-racism theme that runs through Amazing Spider-Man. Hobie Brown's boss, Mr. Clark, complains to Hobie that he's “had it with [Hobie's] type” (ASM 78; 14, 8), which, by itself, might mean a lot of things. Jameson's reaction, however, is to threaten that Clark had better “shut [his] big yap” or JJJ will “do it for [him]!” (ASM 78; 14, 8). Given that Jameson is shown repeatedly to be powerfully and consciously anti-bigotry, the only conclusion to draw here is that “[Hobie's] type” is African-American. I take the time to describe the scene for those who aren't actually reading along with the blog (most of you, I'd assume) and to demonstrate how oblique many of the references to race are in this book. They're there, sure, but they can be a little roundabout in getting mentioned.

On the other hand, there's the set-up of Hobie Brown as a second-rate Peter Parker. He's young, inventive, and tired of being pushed around. All of that would be great, except that it's yet another example of a black character who is designed as a lesser copy of a white character. The whole time I was reading this, I couldn't decide if I should take it as, “Well, certainly there are many young minority men in Hobie's position, where they have more potential than society recognizes, and some of them might certainly turn to costumed crime if such a thing were 'the thing to do' (as it is in Marvel Manhattan)” or if I should be reading this thinking, “Oh, so a black Peter Parker would have just turned to crime and needed a white hero to explain to him that it's a mistake.”

Let me say this before we go any further: I am not an expert on race relations. I'm really NOT interested in hosting a discussion of the treatment of African-Americans in Marvel comics on my blog. If anyone posts anything about it, I'm going to ask that we move the discussion to the ever-excellent Spider-Man Message Board so that Erik! and Comp can moderate the thread. So, to summarize: I'm just throwing out my questions about the race issue here. I don't want to moderate a discussion of it. If someone wants to have that discussion, I'm happy to head over to the SMB as a participant. Fair enough?

Other than the whole race thing, this is a middling two-parter. Several issues about the Prowler have always stuck in my craw. First, he designs much of his stuff to duplicate Spider-Man's powers. That's fine. But he's in no way a match for Spider-Man. Not even a little bit. Spidey should never, ever, ever have trouble with the Prowler. We're talking an untrained inventor who climbs walls using claws. Any Hand ninja is ten times the fighter Hobie is, and Spidey fights them by the dozen. Second, the “cliffhanger” of Peter in JJJ's office not knowing what to do isn't half as interesting as the following splash page of Peter falling out the window of JJJ's office. They should have ended the previous issue with that happening and Peter thinking, “And without my web-shooters, I have no way to save myself!” or something similar. Finally, I am a little tired of the on-again, off-again Peter-Gwen thing. In these issues, Peter has seen her talking with Flash Thompson, who's back for a bit, and he naturally assumes that she's two-timing him, so he acts like a jerk to her. Of course, we know she's talking to Flash because she's concerned about Peter, and Flash has known him for years. Ugh. Spare me.

Then comes another “flashback” issue for me. ASM 80, featuring the Chameleon, was reprinted many years ago in the Children's Press kid's book Spider-Man: The Secret Story of Marvel's World-Famous Wall-Crawler by Roger Stern. My library had this book, and I checked it out often. It was a good little summary of Spidey's then-current powers and history. I always wondered why they chose this particular story. The Chameleon is a boring villain, and this is a completely run-of-the-mill impostor story. At the same time, it's not a bad story, and it is done-in-one. Buscema's art has vastly improved over his earliest Spidey outing, and the ending, where the Chameleon chooses to be Peter Parker and that gets him caught, is moderately interesting. I did like reading this story in context, finally. The sub-plots made more sense to me in 2007 than they did back in 1983. (It should go without saying on this blog that the overall story still does make sense, and that is key to comics being accessible to new readers.)

After that... the Kangaroo. He lived with them (kangaroos) in Austrailia long enough to know how to jump like them and box like them, so now he's a super-villain. I kid you not. Yech. The only interesting thing about this story is that when Peter leaves a web-dummy upstairs in Aunt May's house, she actually discovers it, freaks out, and faints. Heh. I just wish she would have died at this point, since we're still dealing with Aunt May, the stupidest old biddy in the world!

The Electro story that follows is average in every way. Remember this. It's not a great story, it's only a serviceable one. And yet, because Stan has the story-engine in place, because we're given a little soap-opera, a little plot, angst, decent art, and a lot of action, the story comes through. These are the stories that Marvel has lost. These are the stories that keep readers going for that one- or two-month stretch where the writers are uninspired. These are also the stories that make others seem really cool but still connected. Give us more of these, Marvel, instead of some of the dreck you foist on us, and you'll have more consistent sales.

Lastly this week, we have the Schemer. He isn't that interesting of a villain, but he gets tied into Kingpin story very early on, and that makes the stakes high enough for me to care. Gwen is put in danger, Peter saves her, he's misunderstood... Again, this is entertaining enough that I went right ahead and read the next issue because I wanted to know what would happen... but it's still just a good Spidey issue. Better than the Electro one, but this is clearly a build-up story, not a climax. You know what? I'd take more of these if Marvel were actually capable of producing good Spidey stories month-in and month-out. Oh, well. We'll see what Brand New Day has in store for us here in the not-too-distant future.

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

1) Spider-Man stories were better then than they are now. This week's books were completely average Spidey-stories for the time, but they made me want to read the next issue. Even the Kangaroo made me look forward to the following issue because I have faith in Stan that the next issue will be better.

2) Spider-Man's supporting cast is essential to good Spidey stories. The soap-opera sustains us even when the plot does not. So says Eric.

3) Peter Parker is not just a secret identity. Nope. Spidey is definitely Peter Parker, even in these average issues. Many of Spidey's decisions and tensions come directly from Peter's life. They are not separate (nor should they be).

All right, that's it for this week. Up next week will be Amazing Spider-Man 84-89! Until a stupid clone of Thor (created by Reed Richards and Tony Stark, no less) kills off Black Goliath for no good reason, Make Mine Marvel!

Eric