Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Garfield Minus Garfield

I won't lie: I've hated Garfield for the better part of twenty years, now. I remember that I thought he was funny and hip in like 5th grade... and then I started to realize that the strip just isn't funny. It's not funny, that is... until you remove the title character from his own strip. From the site:
Who would have guessed that when you remove Garfield from the Garfield comic strips, the result is an even better comic about schizophrenia, bipolor disorder, and the empty desperation of modern life? Friends, meet Jon Arbuckle. Let’s laugh and learn with him on a journey deep into the tortured mind of an isolated young everyman as he fights a losing battle against lonliness and methamphetamine addiction in a quiet American suburb.
Go to Garfield Minus Garfield RIGHT NOW. It's awesome.

Eric

Monday, February 25, 2008

SM:FBFW ASM 123-127

Spider-Man: For Better or For Worse?

This Week's Reading List: Amazing Spider-Man 123-127

Aaaand... We're back! Thanks for bearing with me for the last few weeks. I didn't realize that I had quite so much to deal with on the whole Gwen/storytelling responsibility issue. Anyway, we're back to straightforward Spidey goodness this week, although it's interesting to note that this will be our last consecutive week of “All-Amazing, All the Time” for... maybe ever, I guess. Marvel Team-Up is now in the mix, and Peter Parker isn't going to be far behind. Before you know it, we'll be to the marriage and... Aw, why bother with the cheap shots? This week we've got Luke Cage, the Man-Wolf, the Kangaroo, Jonas Harrow, and the Vulture, so let's get moving.

What strikes me as I'm typing this (it's a few days after reading these) is how forgettable they are. I mean, the Man-Wolf story sticks out in my mind because I remember this was turned into a Power! Records Book-and-Record back in the day and it always freaked me out. But does that make it a good story? Omar Karindu would no doubt point out the significance of a sci-fi werewolf opening up the horror genre again (as Morbius had done months before), and he would be absolutely right to do so. But again, does that make it a good story?

(Let me interject here and say that it sounds to me like I'm somehow ripping on Omar, and nothing could be further from the truth, so let my words not be taken that way, okay? Okay.)

What's really going on in these issues are two things: first, Spidey admonishing the readers to move past Gwen (even though he's technically admonishing himself), and second, the creative team struggling to make sense of some of the 60's villains, just as they do today. Let's look at both of these.

“I can't let myself dwell on what's been... or what might have been. I've got to look ahead--try to pull myself together” (ASM 123; page 13, panel 7). All of the issues I read this week have lines like this from Peter or others in stories that take place mere days after his almost-fiancee's death. WTF? Again, I ask: WTF? At what point does someone who's just lost a loved one need to move past it barely a week later? Mary Jane's really pushing for this, Flash is bugging Peter about Harry... Where is the sympathy? At no point do we actually get to see ANYONE sitting down with Peter (including him with himself) and just taking time to accept Gwen's death and come to terms with it. It's not a process that takes a week, and it's certainly not something to yell at someone about, as Mary Jane does in 125, complaining that “Everytime I see you--you're bummed out!

As far as I can tell (and this is just my opinion from reading the story), the real reason for this is because the creative team wasn't sure how to handle the situation themselves. They're supposed to be putting out an action-adventure book, and they've got a main character who, by all rights, should be going through the stages of grief. His friends should be supporting him. Harry, who is secretly turning himself into the next Green Goblin, should be the exception, of course, but everyone's telling Pete to pull out of it, and they're being jerks about it. Conway is really dropping the ball here. If there's actual reasons for people to act this way, he should provide them (or at least hint at them). Instead, the death/grief issue is being made into something so actively unpleasant that, once a few real-world months have gone by and the readers have worked through their own feelings, Conway can just drop it. I realize that the Gwen clone is coming, but once ASM 150 comes and goes, the grief-over-Gwen issue will become the old chestnut of “A while back, my girlfriend was killed, and I really loved her. Man, I feel so bad about that. Oh, well. Time to find the Hobgoblin...” In other words, string it along until you can drop it, and that's what's going to happen with this potential character development. Blech!

In addition to this, the Vulture is somehow becoming more... Vulture-y. He now chews and claws through Spidey's webbing. Maybe this will tie in to the Jonas Harrow subplot they started with the Kangaroo, but to me it smacks of desperation on Conway's part. Too often writers seem to feel that a villain needs to be “deadlier” than ever before, more “extreme” or whatever. It's totally unnecessary. Look, Spider-writers: The Vulture is an old guy in a green suit who steals things. He's a career criminal. Spidey has beaten him in the past, but it's been a near thing. If you decide to use the Vulture for a monthly villain, realize that he's not going to be as all-around-deadly as Doc Ock, and just use that in the story, okay? You don't need to make him into a creature, you don't need to put him in a tux(!). Just... a flying criminal. Okay?

Well, with that said, I'm pretty much out of stuff for this week. More 70's “goodness” to follow next week, as we start with Marvel Team-Up: The Fragmented Collection!

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

1) Spider-Man stories were better then than they are now. Sigh. That sad thing? BND is way better than this tripe.

2) Spider-Man's supporting cast is essential to good Spidey stories. “Who've we got for Spidey to fight?” “Oh, Blaxsploitation-Guy, the Kangaroo, a sci-fi werewolf, and the 'new and improved' Vulture!” “Crap. I know! Let's have Spidey's friends be ass-hats for the next few months!” Sigh.

3) Peter Parker is not just a secret identity. I don't even know what he is this week. Not a remotely realistic portrayal of humanity, that's for sure.

All right, that's it for this week. Up next week will be Amazing Spider-Man 128 and Marvel Team-Up 9, 11, 13, and 17! Until Marvel puts suckers on Doc Ock's mechanical tentacles to make him more “octopussy”, Make Mine Marvel!

Eric

Thursday, February 21, 2008

JACKPOT's True Identity SPOILED Through ANAGRAMS!

Prepare yourself for the greatest revelations since people found out that "Go hang a salami" could be spelled backwards to reveal that "I'm a lasagna hog."

Okay, I don't want to give everything away, but here are some definite clues to Jackpot's 100% true, unquestionable identity. Consider that her supposed "secret ID" name, Sara Ehret, can be turned into:
  • Errata She - Jackpot must be the leftover bits of continuity from Mephisto's wrangling, much like the being that contained all the mutant powers. "She" has been "Errata"-ed into existence.
  • Arras Thee - Jackpot is you, hiding behind a curtain. Didn't see that one coming, did you? (Of course not--you're behind the tapestry! Watch out for Danish princes!)
  • Hearer Sat - Mary Jane listened to Peter at the end of ASM 122 while he sat. Need I say more?
  • Rehear Sat - And he said it again.
  • Eraser Hat - And... POOF! The marriage is gone from continuity. Where did Mephisto get the power to do such a thing? Prepare yourself for an artifact that makes the Wand of Watoomb seem like a child's crayon, except... erasable!
  • Hare Tears - "OMD/BND: Continuity bad enough to make bunnies cry."
  • Hearts Are - ...just playthings for the devil.
  • Hater Sera - This is demi-French for "The time of the hater will be." As it is now.
  • Heart Ares - And isn't MJ declaring war on Peter's heart?
  • Haste Rear - CENSORED. But true and insightful, nonetheless.
  • A Rarest He - Peter's love for MJ was incredibly rare. And pure. But he doesn't remember it now. (BUT he's the ONLY person--one could say "a rarest he"--who remembers his own true identity!)
  • Era Shat Re - Indeed. Argue with that!
I hope that knowing this information hasn't spoiled the many surprises that the Spider-Team still has in store for you.

Eric

Monday, February 18, 2008

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles

While I finish reading my "required" Spidey for the week, you should definitely consider spending some time with Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. While the show stumbled for a few episodes after the very fun (and very derivative) pilot, it is quickly turning around to become this fan's dream Terminator series. A couple of points that are really drawing me to it:

SPOILER ALERT

  • Summer Glau. Seriously, how can one go wrong looking at her? Plus, she does a passable cyborg, so...
  • Unreliable programming. Nothing has interested me in the show quite like tonight's flash(forward/back) to the Resistance's time-travel camp, where one of the "good" Terminator's counter-programming fails and he just starts killing everyone around. All of a sudden, Cameron (Summer Glau) is looking MUCH creepier.
  • Kyle Reese's Brother, Derek. Here's another story element that is really drawing me into the series: Kyle Reese's slightly more paranoid brother, Derek, played by Brian Austin Green, of all people. He lends just the right TV-spinoff-tie-in air to the show, as I have a soft spot for dead characters' replacements. (Yes, I was a Jill Stacy fan.)
  • Everyone's LYING to EVERYONE Else. This show threatened to be a simplistic Fugitive/Hulk/Werewolf rip-off, and suddenly we've got a Terminator lying to the Connors, the Connors lying to a Reese, and a Reese who's lying back at them.
  • The "Lieutenant Gerard" character isn't actually a complete idiot. He seems to be fast on the trail of "Oh, they really ARE from the future," saving us a silly, three-year-long recurring plot.

Anyway, it's far from a perfect show, but this John Connor is more bearable than Eddie Furlong and the show is actually showing some of the details of the future while still being smart and paranoid. Check this one out if you haven't already.

Back ASAP with post-Gwen's Death Spidey reviews.

Eric

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

SM:FBFW ASM 121-122, Part Four

Spider-Man: For Better or For Worse?

This Week's Reading List: Amazing Spider-Man 121-122 (For the last time, I promise!)

Part One: Eric and Gwen: A Love Story
Part Two: The Necessity of Death (and Life) in Fiction
Part Three: Growing Up: Continuity and Consequences
Part Four: Playing Nice, Playing Smart

In Part One, I tried to establish the mind-set with which I first encountered the fact of Gwen's death and my own prejudices regarding it. In Part Two, I established my basic criteria for judging character death in fiction: The quality of the death story (and its consequences) has to outweigh the quality of the potential future stories featuring the character in question. In Part Three, I discussed the inevitable relationship between continuity, consequence, and responsibility.

So now, then, we come to a point where judgment must be rendered on the Gwen's death issue, both in concept and in execution, and it can't be a snap judgment. As a child, my personal prejudices led me to a powerful “They shouldn't have killed Gwen!” opinion that stuck with me for a long time. But I'm not a child anymore, and that opinion bears revisiting. However, a judgment on Gwen's death sets a precedent for judging many other consequences in comicdom, and that's where this particular post is going to lead. There's a few questions that need answering:

1) Should they have killed Gwen?
Answer: Yes, they had to.
The Spider-writers had to kill somebody. It could have been Aunt May or it could be Gwen, but not for the reasons they cite. The reasons they cite for killing Gwen were (and are) pathetic ones that stem from creative cowardice and ossification.

“We had to kill Gwen because they couldn't break-up.” Bullshit. Not only could they have, but they probably should have. All it would really have taken, even by 1973 standards (which were lower, and that's okay--it was the state of the business), was for Gwen to find out the secret ID, freak out, and bolt. “You lied to me, Peter! You lied to my father! I never want to see you again!” There you go. That story would have totally worked.

“We had to kill Gwen because they couldn't get married.” Okay, I'll grant the last part, but not the first part. If Marvel is unwilling to move the Spidey story-engine into the “married super-hero” phase, especially in 1973, when their core audience was the 8-14 group, I'll go with it. That doesn't mean she had to die.

The real reason they had to kill Gwen was about consequences and responsibility. Comics had been teasing the “If the villains knew who I really was, they'd attack my loved ones” argument for decades. You tease long enough, you'd better deliver. BOOM. They did. Right there is the shift from the Silver to the Bronze Age. People argue different points, but especially in the context of Spider-Man, there it is. The line.

2) Why, then, did Eric argue that “Gwen shouldn't be dead”?
Answer: Because I was eight, and I haven't really had to look that idea full in the face until this.

George Lucas (I think it was Lucas) told an interesting anecdote about The Empire Strikes Back one time that explains this. He said that they found that kids who'd just seen Empire fell into two basic camps: Those who thought Vader was lying, and those who thought he wasn't. One of the key dividers between those groups was age: little kids couldn't believe it, older kids could. Once kids grew up a little bit, they could handle the idea of the good guy having a bad father.

There's a part of me that always wants the good guy to win, to make the right choice. It's the same part of me that still insists he believes so that Tinkerbell will live. That's the part that, no matter what, wants Gwen to live. It's a good part of me, a part I don't want to lose, but it's not a part that should rule.

3) What should they have done differently?
Answer: Ah, that's the $64,000 question. In short: let the characters grow, even if the status quo goes through a situational reset.

Let the characters grow: Either break-up Gwen and Peter or have them get engaged. Either one would have been fine. Give it... six months to a year of stories (in 1973 time, 12-36 issues of stories in current “decompressed” time). I'd have her discover the secret ID, but that's me. Ultimately, deliver on some of the potential of the relationship one way or another. A break-up makes the inevitable death easier on the reader, engagement makes it harder.

Reset the status quo: If they decide that a single Spidey is the way to go (I don't entirely disagree), then keep him single. Have the break-up/engagement change things up for a while, focus on the two of them, and then kill Gwen. Peter falls back on his support systems: school and the Bugle. This puts him in familiar situations but gives them something new to deal with for another six months to a year of stories.

4) What's wrong with the current books, then? They aren't afraid of the big changes!
Answer: No, but they are still afraid of consequences, and that needs fixin'.

Current books have, in many ways, gone the opposite direction of the Gwen Stacy death: They'll kill anyone at anytime to get a shock, but then never deal with it. They'll screw up any character (Iron Man, anyone?), have anyone act out of character, and then claim that it's “development” or “progression.” One MAJOR event follows another: “Disassembled” to “House of M” to “Civil War” to “World War Hulk” to “Secret Invasion.” All in... what. Five years? All the mutants disappear, Iron Man takes over the world, Cap is assassinated, Hulk declares war on the Earth, and the Skrulls have been invading since 1967?

All of these are big shockers, and they're full of widescreen, big-plot moments. But where's the character? Is Reed Richards the same in Civil War as he is in, say, Amazing Spider-Man or Fantastic Four? (Considering that his reasoning for supporting Registration in ASM is completely different from his reasoning in FF, I'd say no, but...) If something major happens in of the storylines, are the repercussions of that event explored in subsequent issues? Are they allowed to have real consequences? I would argue “no.” There may be immediate consequences, but these kinds of rapid-fire events DO eventually “fatigue” the readers, who ultimately care more about character than they do about plot.

5) Isn't this article called “Play Nice, Play Smart”?
Answer: Yes. Yes it is.

Not breaking the shared toys is “playing nice.” There are more Steve Rogers stories to tell. There are more Tony Stark stories to tell. (Indeed, the Tony Stark I grew up with hasn't been seen in YEARS.) There were good Gwen stories to tell. Until an established character is truly played out, it is generally unwise to kill them off or ruin them. There are always exceptions, of course, but the cavalier attitude of both Marvel and DC towards their supporting characters has been nothing short of appalling the last few years. Characters are resources, not used-up lightbulbs.

Planning for future stories as one makes the current ones is “playing smart.” I'm not just talking about creative summits to “coordinate” the chaos of a new crossover. Make sure future character development has more than a tangental relationship to past character development. Look for sources of conflict within current supporting casts and villains before creating a new one. This isn't about stifling creativity--it's about playing the old toys to their potential before casting them aside for new ones.

Playing nice and playing smart means writing responsibly. These characters, these universes, are built on continuity, and bad choices on the part of the writer destroy continuity, which destroys the universes and the characters.

In the end, if you have continuity, accept that there will be consequences. Since there will be consequences, choose wisely and then take responsibility.

Well, I hope that made an ounce of sense. We'll be back to our regularly scheduled format with the next entry.

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

1) Spider-Man stories were better then than they are now. Could it have been better? Yes. Could it have been better in two issues? No.

2) Spider-Man's supporting cast is essential to good Spidey stories. How can I even comment here?

3) Peter Parker is not just a secret identity. Seriously, doesn't this go without saying?

All right, that's it for this week. Up next week will be Amazing Spider-Man 123-127! Until Marvel brings Norman back from the dead to “fix” a crappy story, Make Mine Marvel!

Eric

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

SM:FBFW ASM 121-122, Part Three

Spider-Man: For Better or For Worse?

This Week's Reading List: Amazing Spider-Man 121-122

Part One: Eric and Gwen: A Love Story
Part Two: The Necessity of Death (and Life) in Fiction
Part Three: Growing Up: Continuity and Consequences

In Part One, I tried to establish the mind-set with which I first encountered the fact of Gwen's death and my own prejudices regarding it. In Part Two, I established my basic criteria for judging character death in fiction: The quality of the death story (and its consequences) has to outweigh the quality of the potential future stories featuring the character in question. Now, in this post, it's time to talk about something that is really the proverbial elephant in the room for mainstream comics these days: continuity, consequence, and responsibility.

So, first, there was continuity. It's probably the single defining element of the Silver Age, if you think about it. Instead of cool powers or imaginative plots being the focus of comics writing, suddenly characters and their lives and soap operas became the focus. Sure, there were cool powers, and sure, there were imaginative plots, but very few things that came out of the Silver Age comics were particularly novel. Galactus, the being who would eat the world? The Skrulls, the shape-shifting alien conquerors? The Hulk, an atomic-age Jekyll-and-Hyde? The Inhumans, a hidden society of super-beings? Seriously. These are ideas that had gotten plenty of play in literature, sci-fi lit, or even the movies for some time before Stan and Jack got to them.

Instead, the model character, the banner character for the Silver Age was Spider-Man, and soap opera is essential to Spider-Man, as I think this series of articles has proven time and again. Soap opera can only work when continuity is introduced. The Golden Age didn't really have continuity in a meaningful sense, but with Spider-Man (and Marvel as a whole, of course), the concept of continuity became a commonplace thing in comics.

And what good is continuity without consequences? Here's where the shift from the Silver Age to the Bronze Age really takes place, and the Death of Gwen Stacy storyline is the fulfillment of the need for consequences. Consider one of the conventions of superhero comics: the secret identity. The in-story reason for the secret ID is simple: the villains are so dastardly, and the hero so unbeatable, that it just stands to reason that if the villains really want to hurt the hero, they will strike at his family and loved ones. Well, it follows from this that if a villain were to ever discover a hero's identity, that villain would then kind of have to attack the loved ones. After all, that's what we keep saying is going to happen, right?

In the Golden Age, before continuity, such threats were effectively hypothetical in nature. Superman can't get a stamp with his picture on it because he might get postmarked in Kalamazoo, MI, have the “oo” over his eyes, and have someone recognize him as Clark Kent because if a villain... etc. Or the dreaded event might happen, but then the story is really about how the hero will reclaim his secret. (Robot duplicate? Stand-in superhero buddy? Time-travel? Memory manipulation?) By the end of the issue, however, the threat is gone forever, the cosmic-reset button is pushed.

In the Silver Age, though, continuity leads to the threat losing its power over time. After all, Norman Osborn knew Peter's secret for eighty issues before he attacked. Oh, sure, he had amnesia, but the amnesia never held, and the secret identity threat would be trotted out, shown off, and put back in the bottle... But if you're going to threaten, and threaten, and threaten with no pay-off, why threaten in the first place? Story-wise, it was put-up or shut-up time for the House of Ideas, and in more ways than one. After all, continuity also meant that Peter couldn't really have a perpetual girlfriend. In the Golden Age, Lois Lane could chase after Superman for decades punctuated only by the occasional masturbatory imaginary stories of marriage, and everything was fine. In the Silver Age, Peter had grown. No longer a high school student, he'd been in college for several years. Characters around him had gotten married, gone off to war, changed “irrevocably.” He couldn't just date Gwen for all that time... and continue to date her for another six, seven, ten years.

Continuity, which had given Marvel their power, now also demonstrated its burden: the need for consequence. Again, how many times could Peter and Gwen break up? If the Golden Age had stories with virtually no continuity, then the Silver Age had continuity with virtually no consequence. And, meta-textually, that had to change. If you look at interviews with Conway, Romita, etc., they all talk about how they “had” to kill Gwen because they couldn't marry Peter off, and they couldn't break the two of them up convincingly. In other words, they'd created a “perfect” relationship that could only be destroyed from without, never from within, and it was messing with the consequence model for the Marvel Universe to that point.

What was the consequence model? Up until 1973, it was the classic “illusion of change” idea. Inconsequential things could change, but big things could not. However, no storyline was permitted or explored that would require long term change. Sure, Reed and Sue got married, but let's be honest--they were already pretty much married at the beginning of the series. All marriage would provide was a baby. Tony Stark was still stuck in the armor, Cap was still a man out of time, Bruce Banner was still the Hulk. These were, in many ways, classic Golden Age style story engines that provided new stories on a regular basis. Had Peter and Gwen never gotten serious, Spidey's girl-troubles might well have provided a similar constant story engine.

Instead, they got serious, and the seeds of the Bronze Age were sown. The “illusion of change” was no longer an illusion. Something had changed... and the creators weren't ready to handle it. And in there lies the real problem: responsibility on the part of the creators.

In short, I'd argue that responsibility means that if you choose something, you own that choice and its consequences. Creators are responsible for their characters and situations. Creators are the ones making the choices, after all. Part of choosing the situations is creating the rules of the situations. Once those rules are established, they have to be followed. When creators don't follow their own rules (or the rules of their shared universe), bad things happen. These bad things range from poorly written stories to retcons.

If Spider-Man epitomizes the success of Marvel's continuity-driven concept, he also epitomizes its failures, especially now. With continuity comes lingering choices, with choice comes consequence, and with consequences come... more consequences. With all of this comes reader expectation, which firms up into rules, and those rules have to be obeyed. As JMS himself points out when discussing Quesada's eventual OMD decisions about how the Mephisto deal would work: “It made no sense to me. Still doesn't. It's sloppy. It violates every rule of writing fiction of the fantastic that I and every other SF/Fantasy writer knows you can't violate. It's fantasy 101.”

In other words: Once you set up a certain set of rules and expectations, you live by them and you die by them. Creators have a responsibility to play by the rules. Readers have a legitimate expectation to read stories created according to those rules.

I'd add to that the idea that the creators have a responsibility to create the best stories that they can given the resources that they have, and that the “Death of Gwen Stacy” storyline is not the best they could have done. Can I prove this? No. What makes me believe it? The interviews with the creators that I have read where they essentially say, “We didn't know what else to do, so we killed her.”

What needed to happen at this point in Spider-Man's life as a comic-book character is this: A decision had to be made about what the best direction was for him. Conway and Romita made that decision, and to their credit, they made it stick. At least they understood that Spider-Man had to deal with real consequences. For 1973, I think we can argue convincingly that this was “enough.” (I'm going to argue against that later, but I can see the argument and accept it just to move along.) No major comic book character had ever been killed as Gwen would be killed. Spider-Man, the reasonably happy-go-lucky superhero (who lived with angst but joked about it), would have the love of his life brutally ripped away from him. He would truly be affected by it, would be driven to the edge by it. He would be reminded of it repeatedly over the coming years, both by Conway and by others. This shift from simple continuity to real consequence is the line that ultimately separates the Silver Age from the Bronze Age.

And if the story was only two issues long? If Spider-Man were only really driven to the edge for the functional equivalent of ten hours before reasserting his basic heroism? Look, it was 1973, after all, and that's the way these things went. They were two good issues. Two classic issues. Excellent art. Dark overtones. Real emotion. If you've been slogging through this rambling looking for my opinion on Amazing Spider-Man 122, there it is. The issue is a success for its time, and if it doesn't know how to handle its own ramifications and consequences? If it doesn't know what it has done to comics as a whole? Well, that's the subject for next time.

(By the way, totally unrelated to most of this--I own a battered original printing of Amazing Spider-Man 122, and I compared it to my much cleaner reprint in Marvel Tales 192. The coloring has been completely redone. The color of the Goblin's skin, the color of the sky, of everyone's clothes... completely different. It's really pretty interesting, but I'm not enough of a color expert to be able to explain what exactly changes in terms of feel or mood. However, if you have a chance to compare two different printings of this, I'd really encourage you to do so. Crazy.)

To Be Concluded

Eric

Excerpt taken from:

Brady, Matt. “ONE MORE (MORE) DAY? JMS EXPLAINS HIS ENDING.” Newsarama.com. Accessed February 6, 2008. http://forum.newsarama.com/showthread.php?t=141756

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

SM:FBFW ASM 121-122, Part Two

Spider-Man: For Better or For Worse?

This Week's Reading List: Amazing Spider-Man 121-122

Part One: Eric and Gwen: A Love Story

Part Two: The Necessity of Death (and Life) in Fiction

In Part One, I tried to establish the mind-set with which I first encountered the fact of Gwen's death and my own prejudices regarding it. It apparently caused some people some confusion when, at the end, I said “Gwen should not be dead.” I did not mean this as “Marvel should reverse the decision,” nor did I really mean “They should never have killed her.” The basic meaning of that sentence is that there is a part of me that still feels the tragedy of Gwen's death and still wants it to be untrue. I feel that more strongly at some times than others, but my goal with the last part was to simply explain that I don't approach this story or subject objectively, and I don't pretend to.

When one stops to consider Amazing Spider-Man 121 itself, one finds a well-written, well-drawn comic, especially for the time. Gil Kane is back on pencils, but John Romita and Tony Mortellaro's inking serve his pencils far better than Frank Giacoia's did, especially in Giacoia's later work. These issues have Kane's dramatic layouts and facial expressions combined with Romita's clean lines. Conway handles each character's thoughts, feelings, dialogue, and interactions with delicacy and skill. Everything in the issue leads up to the dramatic shock ending, and it doesn't seem out-of-character at all when Spider-Man promises to murder the Green Goblin slowly, pledging that the Goblin will beg for mercy by the end. I don't have anything negative to say about the issue in that context.

I do have serious questions and reservations, however, about the decision to kill Gwen. In fact, I have serious questions and reservations about the death of any character in a shared universe. Again, I think I have to reveal some prejudices and such before I go on. I'm an author, myself. I've written three novels. The first two are, I think, virtually unpublishable. They were helpful exercises in diligence, patience, and storytelling, but they're relatively run-of-the-mill werewolf stories that I think would have trouble getting noticed in the current sea of horror fiction. The third might just be publishable, but it desperately needs a rewrite. In fact, I should probably be working on the rewrite now, instead of devoting pages and pages to two issues of Amazing Spider-Man.

Here's what I learned about characters and death in my writing: Sometimes, characters have to die. The end. Seriously, I know as well as anyone that people die in the real world, and they don't always die for good reasons. I think that fiction, however, should provide a little more meaning to lives than the real world often does. For example, at any moment, you're at X percent risk of death from any number of things. The need for realism in fiction does not extend so far as to require an author to have a D20 next to his desk. “Roll a death save of 2 every five pages.” No thanks.

Many fictional deaths are planned. Many are necessary, and for various and sundry reasons. Murder mysteries, for example, wouldn't work very well without death. If you're writing a war story, people should probably die. There's meaning and verisimilitude to that in the context of the story, obviously. In my first two novels, I was writing about monsters that basically want to eat people every chance they get. If the monsters never killed anyone, they wouldn't be very scary. At the same time, I needed my main characters to survive until the end of the novel.

Other fictional deaths are not planned, but that doesn't make them less necessary. I had a story where one character was essentially going to banish another from their society, to blackmail her in to leaving forever. My plan was for the blackmailee to take it and leave. Instead, she realizes that she has a gun, they're out in the middle of nowhere, and that she's not going down without a fight. She pulls out a gun and shoots the would-be blackmailer in the face, killing her. My jaw was on my chest as I wrote that scene, so surprising it was to me.

However, the necessity of occasional character death does not trump the more important need of a story: well-written, well-rounded characters. So, the question that needs to be asked in the end is this: Does the quality of the story of the character's death (and the quality of resulting fallout stories) outweigh the quality of the stories that could be told later with that character?

In Gwen's case, the answer is a guarded “no.” No, her death, as well-written as it was, is not as good as the stories that could have been told with her. The “no” answer given here is not an absolute, however. I think that, in the long run, to move Spider-Man's story along, maybe Gwen would have to die. However, Amazing Spider-Man 121 was not the time because neither the authors nor the story were ready for the responsibility of her death. This needs serious consideration... next time.

To Be Continued

Eric

Sins Past, The "Missing" Three Months, and More...

So I'm in the middle of writing the next installment of the 121-122 review, and it occurs to me that I've been reading the whole series of events during which, according to JMS, Gwen got pregnant by Norman, went to Europe to have the babies, came back, told Mary Jane, and then got killed. And at no point in the preceding twenty or thirty issues did I see a place where she might have gone through such a traumatic event.

I did a bit of Net searching, and found out that, according to this post at JMSNews, JMS considers the whole "Smasher/Disruptor" reprint of Spectacular Spider-Man Magazine 1 to be three months of time "unaccounted for." Well, as you may remember from my brief review of those three issues, I didn't think much of them, nor did I feel like rereading the whole Raleigh story in detail. It still seems to me that three months of "blank space" still didn't change the whole "Gwen was in London over twenty months ago" thing, so I wanted some more details on the reprint. Can they be ignored in favor of SSM Magazine, or not?

Well, I'll be darned if Al Sjoerdsma over at SpiderFan.org didn't do a detailed comparison of the four issues in question. Interesting reading, indeed--make sure you check out Al Sjoerdsma's Review of Raleigh/Disruptor!

In the end, I just don't see how Gwen could have done everything JMS says she did without anyone being the wiser. Really, she comes back from London after Harry's first LSD experience and doesn't appear to have been pregnant at all! She and Peter certainly get close enough that one would think some post-pregnancy effects would be noticeable. ("Gosh, Gwen... where did those stretch marks come from?" "Uh, what stretch marks? Kiss me, you fool!")

Anyway...

Eric

Monday, February 4, 2008

SM:FBFW ASM 121-122, Part One

Spider-Man: For Better or For Worse?

This Week's Reading List: Amazing Spider-Man 121-122

The end of the Silver Age. 'Nuff Said.

(This post is going to be... a little long. I'm mostly through with what we might as well call “Part One”, and I'm at six pages, which is long for a For Better or For Worse post. Clearly, I'm going to have to break this one up, and I might as well post it part-by-part. So...)

Part One: Eric and Gwen: A Love Story
Okay, there's no easy way to say this: I'm scared to write this post. I've been thinking about it for... pretty much the entire time I've been writing this series, and I've been actively thinking about it since the last post. Since I'm currently late on the post that was due February 3rd, that puts it at a little over a week. Combine that with my OMD/BND complaints, as well as my Ultimate Spider-Man complaints (both of which, I'm realizing, come out of my hatred of Gwen's death), and thinking about this post has been a little like peeling the proverbial onion and finding there's lots, lots more than one expected underneath. It's not an exaggeration to say that I'm a little afraid to unravel this whole knot and find that there's nothing at the center, since much of my love of Spider-Man seems bound up in these two issues.

Or I could be exaggerating, after all. I guess we'll see.

For any Spider-Man fan who started reading after 1971, Gwen has always been dead, and her death has long loomed over the Spider-Man mythos. It's so big that the movies had to include IT even if they didn't include HER. It's so big that Bendis had to have the scene, save Mary Jane, and then throw Gwen away for no reason at all over in Ultimate. It's the tragedy of tragedies, the fulfillment of the ever-constant premise of the secret identity: If my enemies knew who I really was, they'd threaten my loved ones. It gets even worse when you realize that the love-interest in a male-centric story is the externalized feminine half of the hero and, thus, the reader. Ultimately, Gwen Stacy's death is the fear that lurks in the hearts of all true super-hero fans, who clothe themselves in their idols' adventures and identities: If people realize how weak I am, they can hurt me anytime they want.

I don't mean to summon up the stereotypes here. I'm not interested in Comic Book Guy or fanboy-bashing. However, we have to face facts: superheroes are, at their core, adolescent male wish-fulfillment vehicles. How else to explain why superheroes have never really worked with women? Wonder Woman, when written best, is not a superhero. She's an adventurer, a myth, a role model... but put her in a situation where she's “fighting crime” and she falls apart. Most “pure” female superheroes are pale imitations of male superheroes OR they are supporting characters made from bad stereotypes.

I would be remiss in my duties here if I didn't note that Superman himself, the archetype of archetypes of superherodom, was the creation of two young Jewish men in the early twentieth century. That little story has been recounted many times in many different ways, and I am no expert on the psychology there. All I can say is this: I see virtually all “pure” superheroes, and all of the superhero conventions (secret ID, arch enemy, hideout, etc.) as male adolescent wish-fulfillment devices. They are for me, I'll tell you that much, and since this is my blog, that's what matters. If you want to argue the point, fine, but as far as I go, and as far as my opinions go, that little core (male-adolescent wish-fulfillment) is the atom, the indivisible, the unalterable. It is true for me and is the basis of my opinion.

In other words, you can argue the point outside of me, but you cannot argue that point about me, personally. (BTW, I will be getting back to Gwen's death. I promise.)

A bit about me. By all reports, I loved superheroes from the moment I saw them, much to my father's chagrin. My dad is a sportsman. He was a great tennis player, he loves to fish, loves the outdoors, etc. He wanted the same for (and from) me. He got a comic book nerd. Even as a boy, I didn't care about sports, fishing, the outdoors... I cared about guys in spandex. I watched The Incredible Hulk and The New Adventures of Wonder Woman. When I was three. In my house, the term “the Spider-Man with white webs” was a perfectly clear and understandable identification of the Nicholas Hammond show (as opposed to the 1960's cartoon, which had Spidey swinging on black webs). The earliest recording of my voice is me singing all the words to the classic Spidey theme song. (“Pider-Mah, Pider-Mah...” etc.)

On the playground, I was the superhero expert. I wanted to know things about superheroes, and I wanted other kids to play by the rules. I remember one argument, in particular, where my friend Zead wanted me to tell the future with my “spider-senses” and I tried to explain to him that the spider-sense didn't work like that. (Except when it did, when Stan was into the good stuff, if you know what I mean.)

Eventually, I found a series of books on the main Marvel heroes. The Spider-Man one was written by some no-talent hack named “Roger Stern.” (That's a joke, folks.) We found it at the library, I checked it out, and I read it from cover to cover, over and over. It was wonderful. It even had a reprinting of the very first Spider-Man story from a comic called Amazing Fantasy. It also contained this paragraph:

“But, once more, tragedy entered the life of Spider-Man. One of Spider-Man's deadliest foes was the Green Goblin. When the Goblin discovered Peter's secret, he kidnapped Gwen. Spidey battled the goblin, and eventually the web-slinger won. But Gwen, lovely Gwen, was killed.” (Stern 31)

Let's step back from Spidey for a second and talk a little more about me, because that paragraph just doesn't have the weight that it needs, not all by itself. Despite my love of comics featuring men in spandex and a tendency to memorize musical theater productions (both of which spawned the typical accusations), I have always deeply loved and admired women. I was the kid who chased the girls at recess and tried to kiss them. I never, ever, ever, thought girls were “icky” or “gross.” I got depressed at Valentine's Day at the age of five. I was in love with Daphne, but I would have settled for Jessica, Amanda, Sally, Tania, or Arthena. (The latter four there were girls at my school. Daphne only had eyes for Fred, of course.)

I had a recurring dream/fantasy where one of the bad kids at school would hold one of the aforementioned ladies hostage on the roof of our elementary school. He would eventually throw the girl off the roof... and I would catch her. She would notice me, realize that I had saved her, and fall deeply in love with me, and all would be right with the world. (Of course, I also sent a check for three dollars into a comic book ad hoping to get a “hypnotist's medallion” to use on these girls in case my classmates never snapped. I'm still waiting for the damned thing in the mail. It's guaranteed to work or my money back! Buffy Season Six was more than a little disturbing to watch.)

I'm not here claiming that I'm sane or normal, but that was the kid that I was when I first encountered that little paragraph in Stern's book. There's also a reprinting of Amazing Spider-Man 80 in there, where Peter and Gwen manage to sneak off at a party and grab some necking time... almost. So, it turned out, one of my two favorite super heroes (Batman was up at the top back then, too), who was smart (me), brown-haired (me), and who had a secret, powerful side that no one else could see (also me, I thought), had had what I'd always wanted almost as much as super powers: the love of a beautiful woman. And a bipolar, evil father figure took that away from him. (Me? Not if you had asked me then, but the concept touched me.)

Oh, wow. “Gwen should not be dead,” I thought. I remember some small part of my heart raging against that fact, against that paragraph with the belief in both fairness and fiction that only a child can muster. From that moment on, Gwen was, in my heart and mind, the only girl for Peter, and she should not have died. It was a bad move on Marvel's part, on the writers' part. Do you remember when you got to the age where you realized that movies could be bad? When you'd get to go to the theater and see a film and come away from it not completely enthralled, but saying, “Eh, it was okay, but...”? This, for me, was one of the beginnings of that revelation.

In my heart, I still believe it: Gwen should not be dead.

To Be Continued

Eric

Excerpt taken from:
Stern, Roger. Spider-Man: The Secret Story of Marvel's World-Famous Wall-Crawler. 1981. Children's Press, Chicago.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Super Bowl XLII

Believe it or not, I actually watched the Super Bowl. I'm not a huge football fan, but it was a good game and I watched it with my wife. A good time was had by all.

Unfortunately, that means no post this week. I'll have the big ASM 121-122 post for you next weekend, and there's sure to be a new SM:MIA post up when I get my next subscription issue.

Eric