Dec 30, 2012

On Amazing Spider-Man 700, Superior Spider-Man, and Being a Mark

So just after Christmas day, Amazing Spider-Man #700 came out. And for those who haven't been keeping up with the comics interwebz, the ending, which was leaked way around two weeks before its release, presumably by retailers who couldn't wait to show their readers the ending even though they technically shouldn't have (my retailer wouldn't show it to me before the 26th, and he wouldn't even look at it himself), caused a lot of uproar among hardcore fans, prompting Dan Slott to get death threats.

For those not in the know, in Amazing Spider-Man #698, it was revealed that Otto Octavius, also known as Dr. Octopus, had switched bodies with Peter Parker, Spider-Man, in a situation where they both had their own memories and each other's memories smooshed together. The issue itself was like a magic trick. You had to read it twice in order to really get it, because there was no way you were going to get it right off the bat.  It started of with a pretty generic "This is your life" version of Peter's current status quo, and then turning the tables around and showing that Otto had been in Peter's body through the whole issue.

The thing is, the moment that happened, everything fell into place. For weeks, fans had been wondering what would happen in Superior Spider-Man, the January launch replacing Amazing Spider-Man in the Marvel NOW! lineup. Marvel had made it clear that it wasn't going to be Peter Parker, that it would be someone else, and that Peter himself would be nowhere to be found. And the moment 698 happened, it was pretty obvious that that "someone else" was going to be Otto.

(In 697, also, Norman Osborn escaped the facility in which he was being kept, so I immediately thought "Ock vs. Goblin!" and I will not rest until I see that story.)

Once all the pieces were in place, there was really only one possible course of events in between 698 and Superior Spider-Man #1 (barring a scenario in which Peter got his body back, but enough of Otto's influence stayed in there to make him feel "superior"), which was to get Peter off the stage so that Otto could be free to have his spidery adventures. And that's what Slott did: Peter Parker, in Dr. Octopus' body, died, but not before he got into Otto's brain enough to influence Otto (the exact opposite of the scenario I just posted) to get Otto to rededicate his life to good and altruism, although, clearly, because he's Otto Octavius, it's not going to work. In fact, just a week before 700 came out, this happened in Daredevil:

I legitimately chuckled at this scene.

So the whole path of Superior Spider-Man seems pretty clear to me: Octavius will try to be the best Spider-Man he possibly could be; he'll fail miserably, because he's Otto Octavius and he's naturally, ahem, sinister; someone will figure out what happened, probably Carlie Cooper because Peter already told her in 700 what the deal is; and Peter will come back after a few months, probably via the out that he's "in there, somewhere," where "there" is his/Otto's brain, until such time that we can restore Otto to his body and things can get back to normal somehow. And honestly, I think it's going to be fun, and very entertaining. I just finished Slott's Arkham Asylum miniseries, and I thought that hit the right amounts of fun and disturbing, and it was economically paced.

(And also, Slott says so here: "But we all know he is that arrogant, egotistical Doctor Otto Octavius. What's going to happen now? He's going to try to be a superhero. He's going to try to take this new lease on life and use it for good. But he's Doc Ock, so of course he's going to do it through his own lens.")

That's what I thought while I was reading it. That's what I thought after reading it. That's what I think now, as I'm writing this. And the thing is, it struck me as so obvious, that it was incomprehensible to me how there could be fans thinking it was permanent, and how there could be fans who took it so seriously as to send death threats. After all, it's happened so many times before. In 1992, they killed off Superman and replaced him with four prospective candidates, with DC stating that one of them definitely was the real Superman. I didn't buy it then, either (I was 10), because I'd kind of cottoned to how superhero comics work, especially the big ones, so when Batman got his back broken a year later and replaced with Jean Paul Valley/Azrael, I knew it was only a matter of time before he came back, despite articles in Wizard that said Azrael would be Batman for a long time. Hal Jordan came back in 2005, and Bruce Wayne was shuffled off again in 2008, as was Captain America at pretty much the same time, to be replaced by Dick Grayson and Bucky Barnes. This is essentially the same story; comics have been doing this for a while, and now that I think about it, this is really nothing more of an inversion on a story that's kind of becoming a cliche (everyone remembers that year where Bruce Wayne wasn't around and Dick Grayson filled in for him, but does anyone really remember that that was the same year that Clark Kent could only be found in World of New Krypton, while you had Mon-El and a new Nightwing and Flamebird take center stage in his books?), because in this case the villain is trying to be the hero.

All in all, it's a pretty classic setup: show what's special about our hero by shuffling him off the stage for a while.

There's an inverse relation between permanence and popularity, and these characters, for all their changes, eventually return to their iconic forms. (That, and Slott basically said that this story was an Amazing Spider-Man story until the marketing guys asked them to come up with something for Marvel NOW, and he basically just told them to repackage the book because they already had a story going with what they were looking for).Peter Parker will be back as Spider-Man; the seeds are already actually planted (read 700 again; not only is there an easy out as to how he gets back --which is not to say that Slott will use that particular out-- but someone already knows and can help him get back). The only question is how long it'll take. The one time I believed someone would stay dead forever was Barry Allen, although when Hal Jordan came back, that was only a matter of time; and of course Bucky Barnes stayed on as Captain America longer because Brubaker had a longer story to tell. (For my part, I can't imagine them running with this story for more than three story arcs, which rougly translates to about eighteen issues, which, at two issues a month, is nine months long.)

And don't get me started on the solicitations. When DC and Marvel merged for a week-long event to produce the Amalgam Comics in 1996, they said the old DC and Marvel Universes were gone forever. DC promised that one of the four Supermen was the real Supermen, and there are still people today who think that DC chickened out by making the "real" Superman none of them, even when, reading Reign of the Supermen, it's pretty obvious that that was the point and the theme all along.  Azrael was never going to stick as Batman, even when DC said he would, because the whole point was to show what made Bruce Wayne essential as Batman and comment on 90s tropes while they were at it.

What's more, Slott's been on record that this story's been in the works for a long time, that it was going to be one of his plotlines for Amazing, and that the whole "ending" thing just kind of wrapped into Marvel NOW ("We already have this major upheaval happening in the book that makes it a completely different thing, and that in its own way kind of fits into the world of Marvel NOW!."), so it's not like it was a hotshot move, and at least marketing is giving this enough of a push that it's actually getting through to the non-comics audience. That said, I'm worried about marketing making it last longer than it's planned to, ala the Clone Saga. (The Clone Saga was another storyline where Peter Parker was replaced as Spider-Man. It wasn't well-received, but it started off strong, increasing sales, and just kind of petered out when, by all accounts, the marketing department stretched it out longer than it had to. I hope the same thing doesn't happen here.)

And all of this -- the lack of permanence, the coming plots -- seemed so naturally obvious to me that when I thought about the death threats and all the outrage, I really didn't get it. Had these people not been reading superhero comics for a long time? Do they not know the patterns? And if not, how could they not know the patterns? How could anyone buy the spiel that 700 was the end of Peter Parker's story? Of course it wasn't. Of course he'd be back. That's how superhero comics work. Of course 700 wasn't a good ending to the story of Peter Parker, because it was a lead-in to the next chapter. That's how it works. It doesn't end, and it all reverts to the classic setup. How could they not see this?

Isn't it obvious?

A few days ago, while at the beach, I got my answer as I received texts about the whole thing, some wondering how they could do this to Peter Parker. And while it was easy to dismiss the reactions as overreactions when it came to the naturally overreactive atmosphere of the Internet, it was not so easy doing it when it came to people I respected, people who sometimes read comics, people who love these characters, if not the material. Intelligent people, who nevertheless buy, at least for a while, the idea that Peter Parker would be gone forever.

At that point, exactly three things entered my mind:

(1) This is getting massive press. It's all over on the news, and people are expressing how much they love Spider-Man, even if they don't, you know, read Spider-Man. This might actually succeed in getting new readers.

(2) That led me to wondering whether or not the 20-page monthly issue is outdated. Most of my friends who sometimes read comics never read single issues; they read trade paperbacks. Maybe they should just scrap single issues altogether and go straight to the book market and---

(3) And I stopped right there, because that's when I realized that I am no longer a mark. A "mark" is a term used in professional wrestling to describe the target audience (the lingo has its roots in carny and vaudeville). Professional wrestling, as you know, is scripted, with the moves (ideally) not actually hurting but making it look like it hurts. To believe it hurts, to believe the wrestlers actually hate each other, is to be a mark. I stopped being a pro wrestling mark a long time ago, unable to see the events without considering the external aspects ("Is it good for business?", "Will it make them money?", "What does this mean for this wrestler?", "Will this draw an audience?") not in addition to the actual product presented, but over the actual product presented. I can still mark out (think something being presented is inexplicably awesome), but I was no longer a mark for pro wrestling.

And I realized, that day on the beach, a few days ago, that I wasn't a mark for Big Two superhero comics anymore either. I couldn't find it in me to be outraged about what "they did" to Peter Parker, my favorite character, because all I could see was how temporary it was, how it wasn't going to last, and wondering how they'd bring him back. I couldn't find it in me to even say that I was going to miss Peter Parker while he's gone, because I know he's gonna be back soon enough, and I want to see how Slott handles it -- and note how I phrase that; it's not "how it's going to go down," but "how Slott handles it." Maybe I've been reading too long. Maybe I've been running the Cube too long that I can no longer see the forest for the trees. Maybe I'm now incapable of appreciating the big characters on a surface level.

And I can't help but think, the people who are sending out death threats, the people who are outraged, the people who are going nuts about it -- I can't help but think that that's exactly what Slott wanted (fine, not the people sending out death threats). That reaction is so pure, so unimpeded. That's a reaction that's just centered on what's going on in the story, with no consideration to external factors like "What techniques did they use?", (700 was a real page-turner for me; I couldn't finish it fast enough.) or "Is this good for readership?", (Despite initial interest right now, I don't think it would matter, mostly because of format) or "How does this affect the movie?" (It doesn't.) And that was, honestly a pretty heady feeling, realizing at that moment that I'm not the target audience anymore. I'm not the mark. The target is the people who still buy into it, the people who still view Peter Parker as more than a fictional character. Not the people who buy it because they want to see what Dan Slott puts Peter through next.

I'm not there anymore. I doubt I ever really was. As Ben tells me, there's little a puppeteer can do for someone who can see the strings, and I think that's an apt analogy, because once you see the strings on a puppet show, it's difficult to un-see them. And that's kind of an eye-opener to me, and kind of encapsulates how I've felt about superhero comics from Marvel and DC for the better part of the last year. I still really enjoy the ones I buy (which are actually only two monthly titles, at this point -- Spider-Man and Daredevil), and there have been times, such as the aforementioned ASM 698, that I've been legitimately surprised.

But on the whole I find myself more and more uninterested in the rest of the enterprise. Marvel NOW came and is slaughtering the competition, and I can't bring myself to read any of it because I'm just not interested. I want things that end, things that have closure, things where I don't end up considering all the factors outside the story to judge the story, which doesn't actually make any sense, but that's just what it's come to, more and more, over the years. I'm not "outside" it anymore, though I'm not an "insider" either, so I end up unable to enjoy the product on a pure level, and just wondering how they're going to proceed with it.

And I just finished reading a novel, really excited and needing to know how it's going to turn out -- just how it's going to turn out, and nothing more -- and I'm remembering how much I enjoy just looking at the story as a story, and not as a product surrounded by many external factors. I was reading some TPBs, from the 80s to the early 2000s, and I was remembering how fun it was to read a story like that, without wondering about fan reactions, editorial shakeups, whether or not the story will be cancelled before it's even taken off.

In short, I remember what it was like to be a mark, and how fun it was.

So shit, I dunno what I'm saying, really. Maybe this is it, for me? Maybe Slott's Spider-Man is the last time I'm collecting Marvel and DC superhero comics? Maybe I'll switch to trades after this is done, so that I bypass all those external factors, so that when I finally get my hands on the story, I have little to judge it against other than the quality of the story? Maybe it's time to actively seek out stories, characters, and universes to which I can be a mark, fully and totally. Maybe I need to step away for a while from the universes that have become too familiar, give it some time to rest, and maybe I can come back to it later without involuntarily looking at the patterns, predicting where it's going to go, analyzing and overanalyzing the craft.

But that won't be for a while. Because that won't be for a while. And I still can't wait for Ock to fight Norman, and then for Peter to come back.

Because I'm still marking out for that.


As I was writing this piece, I thought about how much more excited I would be for this plotline if it were happening in Superman. They tend to do "powerless Superman" stories to emphasize that it's not the powers that make Superman special, so a brainswitch with Lex Luthor would be just taking that a step further, and be the natural evolution of this whole "Lex wants to prove he's greater than Superman" theme. It would also, based on the publicity this is getting, be the shot in the arm that I thought Superman comics has needed for a while. Then I realized that was the exact plot of Edison Rex, a new comic series from MonkeyBrain Studios. Funny how that works.

Dec 21, 2012

Merry Christmas, Comics Cubers!

This is gonna be the last Cube post of the year. We'll be back on January 7. I'll be kicking off the new year with a five-part retrospective on Alan Moore's time at Rob Liefeld's Awesome Comics, and then on January 14, we'll be back to our regular schedule. Back Issue Ben will be continuing his look at classic Iron Fist, and you can expect some articles from me about Paul Auster's City of Glass, Jack Kirby's Fourth World saga, and whatever else comes to mind. Pop Medicine will also be continuing.

In the meantime, I'd like to thank you readers for another year at the Cube, and I'd like to wish you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, and to say goodbye for 2012, let's go back 61 years to December 22, 1951. Here's Pilipino Komiks #119, drawn by the king of Pinoy komiks, Francisco Coching

Thanks to Video 48 for this awesome cover!

Happy Holidays, everyone! See you in a couple of weeks!

Dec 20, 2012

Pop Medicine: Replaying the Invisibles

Pop Medicine is a "visiting" column by Travis Hedge Coke for the Comics Cube! Click here for the archive!

In to Out With The Invisibles
Pop Medicine
Travis Hedge Coke


The Invisibles self-defines as “It's a thriller, it's a romance, it's a tragedy, it's a porno, it's neo-modernist kitchen sink science fiction that you catch, like a cold.” The Invisibles wants you to read it. And you. And you. But not you (yet). You and you. You should read The Invisibles. Or, if you have, then reread it.

The comic has a weird relationship with (potential) audience, spawning fan forums that eventually couldn’t stand to be thought of as having anything to do with Morrison or The Invisibles, generating nonfiction books of annotations, analysis, reminiscences, and also massive amounts of internet hating, a bit of a legal issue when it talked about boosting cars early on, and a white-painted button you still see occasionally worn in WeHo by kids who may as likely tell you it came from “some punk thing.”



Every so often, The Invisibles would try a different way to bring in a different audience, as if unsatisfied with the idea that everyone on the planet wasn’t enjoying this comic or at least one story in it. Almost as frequently, The Invisibles would develop a deliberate firewall to stall out readers and cast them off, such as the second storyline’s deliberate prizing of ideas, symbolism and didacticism over naturalistic conversations and subtle characterization. It really was “some punk thing” even when it was fresh and newly on the stands, all bright colors, hope and sentimentality.

And, here we are upon the date when Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles ends. It’s a big, mythic date by the time the series ends, and it’s a big mythic date today, in the really real world. So, we are faced with a question as that date comes close, as it threatens to pass, of whether the series will be worth revisiting once the big moment is gone. Every story that reaches into the near future faces this, from Terminator to Neon Genesis Evangelion.

There is a difference here. It’s an important date in the comic and it is also an important date in the real world for the same reason, a reason that no one seems to want to face head on: December 22nd, 2012 is important to those who believe it is important, and to the rest of us, because we are all aware how important it is to the right (number of) people. That’s it. The important dates in the abovementioned Terminator or Evangelion measurably change things. We have no sufficient way to measure the major future events of The Invisibles. We’re shown what the moment is like for two people, but let’s face it, those two people see shit and are, nice men who’ve shot people in the face as they both are, they’re unreliable.

So, is it going to be worth reading, even if nothing happens on Dec 22? Well, is Terminator worth it, even if the machines haven’t taken over yet? Is Split Second worth watching even if London isn’t flooded and besieged by a demonic serial killer yet?

The value of The Invisibles was never in prophecy. It was never in the future, for all the scenes taking place past its original publishing dates, or very of the past, despite jaunts back to the French Revolution, the Roaring Twenties, Nineteen Forty-Five, and the traumatic and dim Eighties.

So, it is worth reading a time capsule of a comic, then?

A time capsule is not just so you can have a nostalgia trip twenty years later, or to pretend there was a golden age and now it has passed. The perspective of a culture, a subculture, a group, a person, as self-defined, of a time and place, it’s just that: a perspective. The Invisibles is a fairly comprehensive perspective; a way to look at music, sex, government, fashion, violence, dance, superheroes, guilt, games, aging, depression, love, fads, babies, conquest, death, soft drinks, and romance.

And this capsule, The Invisibles, comes in multiple introductory flavors. There are three volumes of The Invisibles, over a series of collections (and now the massive, on sale for a huge discount most places hardcover collecting it all), and those three volumes each start with a very different taste and pace. The series ends on an issue marked #1, and it, too, is an introduction. So, if you don’t groove on the very traditionalist heroes journey that turns into didactic time travel murder mystery that starts off the first volume, jump to Bloody Hell in America, which opens volume two. Volume Two is guns, explosions, sex and oversized American Hollywood bullshit, with an underscore of sweat, tears, and debt to keep it grounded. The monsters are bigger. The explosions are massive. The guns never run out of bullets. And every line is a catchphrase. And, if you’re done with stories of posturing through guns and orgasms, there’s volume three, a twelve issue fugue bringing fun loving terrorists, occult detectives too into 70s cop shows, deeply-concerned government stooges, soldiers, and musicians together to fight, to laugh, and to carry us into a future of endless war and slavery or total party all the time now.

The Invisibles keeps trying to find a new way to get a different subsection of humanity to enjoy it. The first volume changes gears every few issues, each potentially appealing to a different audience who’ll then stick around and try the rest. The second volume goes full on populist not by being safe but by being loud and bright and pop. The third just refuses to stop, the increasing beats per minute rumble and pitch shifts that defined the turn of the century. There are stories in the comic that are straight up gothic (and class) horror, there’s love stories, some good pure action comics, sounds of science fantastica, bildungsroman on the streets. Every shift in the comic seems an attempt to bring more audience into the fold and to shed anyone who isn’t interested, or willing, to keep up.

The characters we are asked to sympathize with or align to range from British to Brazilian, young to old, varying in gender, ethnicity, social status, hobbies, style, from the current day to the past and future. They include a pissy kid from Liverpool who steals cars and kicks his history teacher in the head, an angry government agent who subscribes to safety through authority, a linguist who lies constantly, the ghost of the Marquis de Sade and his operatives, a single mother, a murdered soldier, a rap star who’s queer for death, office workers, prostitutes, wealthy socialites, scientists, shootists, corrupted spirits, and a man who might be Satan. The world, basically. In the end, we’re being given as wide a range of characters, often blatant stereotypes differentiated from their stock icons only by their subtleties and individuality, and asked to try as many of them on for size as we can bear.

The Invisibles keeps opening up to us and then closing down. It keeps showing us conflicts and confrontations, then shows that two hands clasped to arm wrestle hold air between the two palms, and the hands exchanging heat, they are putting a show on for anyone else in the room, and besides that, belong to arms that belong to bodies that belong to people who’ve had a life before that moment and will continue to have the rest of a life after. The first issue told you, in its letters page space, to buy the issue, read it, but afterwards, junk it and move on. Morrison and the many artists seem to want to bring you in, but also to drive you back out into the rest of the world, and perhaps it is best for that. Come in to go outside.

Dec 18, 2012

Comics' Biggest Boners: "Hindi Porno"

Welcome to another edition of Comics' Biggest Boners, in which we showcase some of the biggest goofs and gaffes in comics! Click here for the archive!

And now, your host, 1950s Joker!


This one isn't really a big boner so much as it, like 1950s Joker up there, just takes on a different meaning for a different audience. With 1950s Joker, it's a lingual shift across time and "boner" takes on a different meaning, and with this one, it's a shift through geography.

I have this book, The Essential Guide to World Comics, by Tim Pilcher and Brad Brooks.

Kenkoy on the same cover as Captain Marvel.
Pretty cool, pretty cool.

It's as comprehensive as a 320-page book could be about comics around the world, and they have a section on Filipino komiks. They show this cover to King Komiks #150.



On the next page, they write this caption about it.

"Despite the image and the heading 'Hindi Porn', Kingwas described on the cover by the publishers, Atlas,
as 'Wholesome Family Reading Material.'"

Apparently, Pilcher and Brooks thought the little blurb on the left was paradoxical, with the comic being advertised as wholesome and family-friendly while at the same time promising some porn, presumably of the Hindi variety. There's your problem when you use Taglish (a mixture of Tagalog and English), I guess—people just assume if most of the words are in English, then if anything else looks like it's in English, it must be English.So that's awkward, 'cause, you see, my non-Tagalog-speaking friends, "hindi" means "no" or "not." It specifically is saying that there is no pornography in the comic.

Of course, why they felt the need to specify that is a question I myself would like answered!

I just realized I wrote a whole article with the words "boners" and "porno." I wonder if this will hurt my family friendliness on Google.

Dec 17, 2012

Back Issue Ben: Iron Fist, Part 6

Back Issue Ben is a column written by Ben Smith for the Comics Cube! See his archives here.

LIKE UNTO A THING OF IRON
Part 6: Heroes for Hire

Last time, my exploration of the history of Iron Fist ended with him partnering up with Luke Cage, also known as Power Man. Power Man and Iron Fist is one of those beloved series that fans still talk about to this day, and Marvel periodically tries to resurrect it in various forms, with little success. (I’d love to see Marvel do a retro series set in the ‘70s, continuity be damned.) They were the perfect odd couple, yet you really believed that they were the best of friends. Add in plenty of supporting appearances from Misty Knight and my beloved Colleen Wing, and you have the recipe for a dynamite series.


Now, I’m not crazy enough to try and cover the entire series. Reading all those ROM comics nearly melted my brain, and I need my brain. I still use it from time to time. So what I am going to do is highlight a few key moments, and take a look at some issues I picked out that look like they might be entertaining.

Enough wasting time with my meaningless rambling, let’s get started.

Dec 14, 2012

Reclaiming History: Jack Cole's Plastic Man

Welcome to a new installment of Reclaiming History, an ongoing series where the Comics Cube! tries to balance out what the history books say and what actually happened! Click here for the archive!

Today, I talk about Jack Cole and Plastic Man!



So whenever I've written one of these Reclaiming History pieces, it's always been driven by a feeling of need. Whether it's Dave Gibbons' contribution to Watchmen or the careers of Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez and Roger Stern or the greatness that is Carl Barks, they all share one common link: they're all things that I think more people should know about.

Until recently, I never thought I'd feel the need to write this article. An article about Jack Cole, maybe, but of his most famous creation, Plastic Man? I didn't think there'd ever be a need. Plas is a true comics icon, someone who even my non-comics-reading coworkers know about. Or, at least, the ones older than me do. See, one of them recently made a crack about Plastic Man, which sent a younger coworker laughing, because she thought that the older coworker totally made that name up. Intrigued, I asked another coworker, also older than me, if she knew who Plastic Man was, and she talked a bit about how much she loved the old cartoon with Plastic Baby. The age gap between the oldest coworker and the youngest is just about 10 years. That's not a huge gap, all things considered, so it's pretty indicative of how quickly perceptions change.

Dec 11, 2012

Easter Eggs: Alan Moore in Swamp Thing

Welcome to another installment of Easter Eggs in Comics! Click here for the archive!

So, Alan Moore, known in recent years as the dude who turns down big money because he doesn't want to work with Hollywood or DC Comics, made his name in American comics on DC's Swamp Thing series, starting with its 20th issue. He stayed on that title until issue #64.



In this comic, Swamp Thing and his lover Abby are reunited after a long separation. We're also introduced to a new character named Gene LaBostrie.


Yep, that's Alan Moore!


Moore wrote "himself" into the story to say goodbye to the series. There's a sequence where LaBostrie, after turning money down for an easy enough job, looks at the growth on the swamp's banks and his shadow waves to him.


Check out those first two panels too. Moore was on his way out of DC at the time, and his stance hasn't changed since. Money isn't everything, not to him, and he still gets a kick out of turning money down. Also, his last commitment with DC was to finish up V for Vendetta, hence "the current creasing his pole into a wide and trailing 'V'."

Let the good times roll.

This can be read here:


Dec 10, 2012

Back Issue Ben: Iron Fist, Part 5

Back Issue Ben is a column written by Ben Smith for the Comics Cube! See his archives here.

LIKE UNTO A THING OF IRON
Part Five: Endings and Beginnings

I start out every one of these by saying, Iron Fist is arguably my second favorite superhero character of all time. (This is going on longer than I anticipated, so I’m running out of different ways to write that.) Why is he one of my favorites? Probably because of Claremont and Byrne, who were two of the best creators working in comics at the time, and they were making great comics starring this lovable Kung-Fu lug. Plus he has a cool costume, a cool tattoo, and he kicks people in the face. That’s better than that punk Superman.

Previously, on Back Issue Ben: Danny Rand was raised in the mystical city of K’un-Lun learning the deadly martial arts, until he rose to the exalted position of Iron Fist, by wrestling a dragon. Harold Meachum, responsible for the death of Danny’s parents, is dead. His daughter, Joy, blames Iron Fist for his death. Iron Fist continues to acclimate to modern life, and grow closer to private investigator Misty Knight. Together with his best friend, samurai Colleen Wing, they get into all kinds of wacky adventures. Recently, Iron Fist has been getting attacked by a mysterious stranger, who steals a bit of his life energy with every ambush.


Everyone on the same page? Is anyone even reading this? Bacon is great. Iron Fist is great. Go grab some bacon, and let’s read some Iron Fist. It’ll be great.

Dec 7, 2012

Reviews: Donald Duck: A Christmas for Shacktown

I was only six pages in on Donald Duck: A Christmas for Shacktown, when I found myself already chuckling in my seat.

Just like with last year's Donald Duck: Lost in the Andes and this past July's Uncle Scrooge: Only a Poor Old Man, this latest addition to The Complete Carl Barks Library from Fantagraphics is nothing less than a visual and narrative treat. Every story is delivered adeptly by a master craftsman, made even more impressive once you realize that Barks doesn't deviate at all from his basic layout, that of four-tiers per page, of two panels per tier. Sure, sometimes he'd combine two panels or change their sizes, but nothing crazy; nothing the JH Williams and Marcos Martin fans (of which I am one) would go crazy over.

(Side note: I believe keeping the tiers was a way for production to be able to cut up the strips for various formats, because sometimes the strips would be presented in a more landscape format, and for that a page that Barks did would be cut in half and presented as two different pages. Sometimes these things dictate the type of innovation you can do.)

But that only serves to highlight how good Barks was inside and in between the panels. Every story in A Christmas for Shacktown flows smoothly, panel to panel. There is immediate closure between two images, and with panel size and sometimes shape being the only tools at his disposal, it's impressive how much he knows to change in order to emphasize any given panel, any given moment. And of course, his facility with body language, gestures, and expressions were off the scale. There are artists whose work you just can't explain, and Barks is one of them. "Read this. Yes, it's got ducks in it. It's really, really good." That's the best way I can describe his craft, both as writer and artist.

In fact, if anything hurts A Christmas for Shacktown, it's the consistency of the high quality, as well as the way Fantagraphics scheduled these books to come out. They never made it a secret that they wanted to start with the best stuff instead of going chronologically, and since this is the third book, it's to be expected that there's no real way for the quality of the stories to go but down, and this is perhaps exacerbated by the fact that Barks tends to repeat themes — adventure on the high seas, dumb luck, two-faced lawyers, for example — but he does them so well that it looks like the progression of these books, while downhill, will be a slow descent.

It's going to be great.

The stories in Donald Duck: A Christmas for Shacktown first appeared in Walt Disney's Comics and Stories #135-144 and Full Color #368, 408, and 422, from December 1951 to September 1952, and are listed below.

Long Stories
  • A Christmas for Shacktown. Donald's nephews — Huey, Dewey, and Louie — pass through Shacktown, which is the impoverished side of Duckburg. Daisy Duck agrees to host a party for them, but they need 50 dollars to buy the Shacktowners a turkey and a toy train, and it's up to Donald to get 25 of those from his miserly, penny-pinching Uncle Scrooge McDuck. This is difficult enough to begin with, but it's made even harder once the floor of Scrooge's vault gives way and all his money goes down a deep pit. (In an interesting side note, Shacktown was the setting for the first comic book that the legendary underground cartoonist, Robert Crumb, ever did. Let that stick in your head for a second.)
  • The Golden Helmet. While working as a museum guard, Donald discovers an old log detailing the whereabouts of the golden helmet of Olaf the Blue, who discovered America centuries before Columbus. Unfortunately, a little-known law states that since Olaf the Blue claimed America, it means that his nearest of kin will be able to claim the entire continent once the helmet is found. This story utilizes two Barks tropes: sharky lawyers (he's even named Sharky) and adventure on the high seas!
  • The Gilded Man. Donald has taken up stamp collecting, and he's after a one-cent magenta stamp from 1856, which is worth $50,000. Unfortunately, not only does he have to compete with his cousin, Gladstone Gander, whom all luck shines upon, there's also only one such magenta stamp accounted for in the world, and it's in the forests of British Guiana. This story is probably my favorite in this collection, just because of the way it wraps up. Barks usually saves his endings for punchlines, turning things into jokes, but this one offers a bit more narrative closure.

Short Stories
  • The Big Bin on Killmotor Hill. This is the first appearance of Scrooge's money bin, and like most other stories that feature his money bin, it's about how incredibly protected it is and how the Beagle Boys, those dastardly burglars, manage to find a way to take his money anyway. If any story is hurt by Fantagraphics' not putting this series out in chronological order, it's this one — we've already seen a money bin story in Only a Poor Old Man, and that one was better. Still, this one's pretty good.
  • Gladstone's Usual Good Year. Donald is determined to beat his lucky cousin Gladstone in a raffle for Thanksgiving turkeys, no matter how many tries it takes! Of course, it's impossible to win against Gladstone, ever (one of the boys even remarks that " Cheating against Gladstone is only self-defense!"), and it's very entertaining to see how Gladstone keeps winning.
  • The Screaming Cowboy. Donald writes a song called "The Screaming Cowboy," but whenever he plays on the jukebox in an inn, an avalanche starts. The boys try to figure out what's causing them, and run into an old recluse named The Snow Hermit.
  • Statuesque Spendthrifts. The Maharaja of Howduyustan shows up in Duckburg, and Scrooge is offended by people proclaiming that the Maharaja is richer than he is. So the two of them get into an outspending contest  to see who can build the biggest statue of Cornelius Coot, the founder of Duckburg. And things get hilariously ridiculous.
  • Rocket Wing Saves the Day. The boys have a bird named Rocket Wing, who is incredibly fast but has a tendency to stop in midflight unexpectedly, thus rendering him useless in races. Donald decides to have some fun with the bird, which gets him in trouble with Daisy. It starts a string of misunderstandings. Hilarity ensues.
  • Gladstone's Terrible Secret. Donald and the boys want to figure out why Gladstone is so lucky, and they decide that he must have a lucky charm in his safe. Gladstone is desperate to make sure they don't see what's in there. What could he be hiding? This is also the first appearance of Gyro Gearloose, Duckburg's wacky inventor.
  • The Think Box Bollix. If not for "The Gilded man," this may be my favorite one, because it just shows how much fun Barks was having. Duckburg may be full of anthropomorphized animals, but it's also full of regular animals. Gyro Gearloose then invents a machine to make those regular animals intelligent, and Barks just goes wild. Donald dresses up as a wolf to frighten the boys; a now-intelligent wolf chases Donald so he can have roast duck... it's just a fun play on the whole concept of anthropomorphism, and it shows.
  • Houseboat Holiday. Donald takes the boys out on a boat for vacation, but pretty soon they're out of drinking water and gas! Everything that could go wrong, goes wrong.
  • Gemstone Hunters. Donald gets gypped into buying a piece of land because of some gemstones he finds there. But the gemstones are just regular rocks colored with dye! Donald tries to get his money back by pulling the same trick on his cousin Gladstone, but as we've covered before, you can't win against Gladstone....
  • Spending Money. Uncle Scrooge has too much money. There's no space in his offices for it anymore and no banks will take them, so the only option is to spend it! He hires Donald to spend several bags of money, and they and the boys go spend it all around the country, which of course is torture for Scrooge, for whom spending money is anathema. The punchline is really funny.


The 1-pagers. I'm not going to summarize them because, well, they're a page long, but just for the sake of cataloging them, here they are:
  • Full-Service Windows
  • Rigged-Up Roller
  • Awash in Success
  • Stable Prices
  • Armored Rescue
  • Crafty Corner
  • Treeing Off
  • Christmas Kiss
  • Projecting Desires
I've said it before and I'll say it again. With any comics from a certain age, you have to keep in mind when they were made and account for the stylistic differences of the time. But not with Barks. His stuff is as good as ever.

Highly recommended.

Dec 6, 2012

What's Next, Karen Berger?

Dear Ms. Berger,

Just a couple of days before it was announced that you will be stepping down from Vertigo in March, I was discussing with some friends the factors that went into the creation of Vertigo—the success of Alan Moore, the British Invasion, the natural evolution of a mature readers market in comics—and while it seemed that absolutely no one was on the same page about the whole issue, the one thing everyone agreed on was that you, Karen Berger, did not and do not get enough credit for the creation of Vertigo and the shepherding of a mature readers line into mainstream comics. This is, if anything, I think, a testament to your abilities as an editor and as a manager: making sure things went smoothly, drafting the right talent for the right books, and stepping back, never taking the publicity, and always putting the stories first. But it did bother me enough that I had started a Reclaiming History draft, making sure that in the near future and after a lot of research, I would write a piece to make sure that the readers I have (a paltry percentage of the comics-reading public, but still something) would know, without any doubts, how important you are to the history of comics.



And then word came out that you were stepping down, and all of a sudden the testimonials came out, on Facebook, on Twitter, on various blogs and websites, and I realized, though I may still write the piece, that no one had to reclaim history for you. People know how important you are, with Chris Roberson even pointing out that in the hierarchy of important editors, you would rank third, behind only William Gaines and Stan Lee, which, if I may understate, isn't bad company at all. In short, you're a living legend, and my generation is all proud to have grown up in the Karen Berger era, and we thank you for that.

Much has been made about what this means for DC Entertainment, and specifically what it means for Vertigo and impending projects like the new Sandman. To those of us outside, it certainly seems that Vertigo is shutting down sometime soon and that the writing is on the wall. But I'm actually more interested, Ms. Berger, in what it is you're going to do next. Where are you going to go? Are you taking any of the talent you're working with, with you, and if so, who? Will the new place, wherever it is, give you the resources and the creative control that you need?

Because—and I know I'm not alone in this—wherever you go, given anything that even resembles the right conditions (which just means that you wouldn't be stifled), you would make an impact. Whether it's at Image or Fantagraphics or Archaia (my personal preference) or, heck, even Marvel, you could take a group of talent and diversify, and push the medium, again and again. Maybe it's a book publisher that's deigning to start up their own comic book line, and with a book publisher's resources, such a line would get wider distribution. Wherever you go, no one loses in this scenario. Least of all the fans.

So please keep us updated, Ms. Berger. What are you going to do, once you leave Vertigo behind? Who are you taking with you? What projects have you got planned?

Where will Karen Berger make history next?

I can't wait to find out.

Sincerely,

Duy
The Comics Cube!

Dec 4, 2012

Comic Book Glossary: Bleed

Welcome to a new installment of Comic Book Glossary! One of the aims of the Comics Cube! has always been to help out the newer readers who may be interested in, but aren't all that knowledgeable in comics, and one thing everyone needs to know if they're interested are the terms. Click here for the index!

Today's word is "bleed," and that's a general term in the print industry. In comics, it basically means when a drawing isn't contained by panel borders and "bleeds" out to the rest of the page. A bleed has several applications. Sometimes it's just used for a splash page.





Sometimes it's used when a sequence is taking place "behind" the panels on the page.


And sometimes it's used just for one panel.


But the effect is almost always the same: it's about involving the reader. Scott McCloud states in Making Comics that bleeds can open up a scene not just because it has more space, but because since we're so conditioned to treat panels as windows, if we can't see the frames, then it means we're through the window and into the world beyond it. In a way, it's kind of like zooming in without actually having to zoom in.

It's particularly effective when used in establishing shots.


All examples for this piece are from Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns!

Dec 3, 2012

Back Issue Ben: Iron Fist, Part 4

Back Issue Ben is a column written by Ben Smith for the Comics Cube! See his archives here.

LIKE UNTO A THING OF IRON
Part 4: Bring on the Big Guns!

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, Iron Fist is arguably my second favorite superhero character of all time. My favorite character? Squirrel Girl. (Not really, but now that I think about it, she might bump ole’ yellow slippers down to #3.) Why Iron Fist? Yellow mask, blah blah, dragon tattoo, blah blah, martial arts. Look, just read the previous entries in this series, I hate writing the openings. I’m not good at it. Why do you like to make me feel inadequate!?!

Previously, on Back Issue Ben: Danny Rand was raised in the mystical city of K’un-Lun learning the martial arts, until he was picked to become the Iron Fist. Harold Meachum, responsible for the death of Danny’s parents, is dead. His daughter, Joy, blames Iron Fist for his death. Iron Fist finally rescued Colleen Wing and defeated her kidnapper Master Khan, who had been the cause of all kinds of grief for our hero. He followed that up by taking down a criminal empire of martial artists going by the name of the Golden Tigers.


There, everyone all caught up? Stupid multipart retrospectives…grumble grumble. Anyway, let’s hurry up and speed through #11, because I can’t wait to see Iron Fist versus Captain America. Let’s do this!

Nov 30, 2012

The New Teen Titans/Uncanny X-Men Connection

In 1975, Marvel Comics had a breakout hit with their revamped Uncanny X-Men, written by Chris Claremont and drawn by Dave Cockrum and, later, John Byrne. This new X-Men team featured classic X-characters like Cyclops and Jean Grey, new characters like Storm and Colossus, and a pre-existing character who had never been an X-Man in Wolverine. The series emphasized group dynamics and had a soap operatic approach, highlighting personal relationships as much as the good guys fighting the bad guys.  People ate it up.

The crown jewel of the Claremont/Byrne X-Men run was The Dark Phoenix Saga, in which longtime X-Man Jean Grey, possessed by the ever-powerful Phoenix Force, turned evil. It was a tragic story and is also touted as the tale in which Wolverine became a superstar.

The Dark Phoenix Saga ran from January to October 1980, and in November 1980, DC Comics launched The New Teen Titans. Utilizing much of the same formula — classic Titans (Robin, later Nightwing; Kid Flash, Donna Troy), new characters (Starfire, Cyborg, Raven), and a pre-existing character who had never been a member (Changeling) — Titans also emphasized character development and interpersonal relationships. That's about it in terms of similarities, but since it went head to head with the X-Men in terms of sales, it is still, to this day, mentioned in in comparison to the X-Men.



New Teen Titans was very successful. It was the comic where Dick Grayson shed his Robin identity and became Nightwing. It introduced three new characters that are still used today (Cyborg is in the Justice League). The Titans cartoon in the early part of the 21st Century was based on that very team. It had an incredibly popular crossover with the X-Men, and was scheduled for a second. And its creative team, Marv Wolfman and George Perez, was the same creative team on Crisis on Infinite Earths, DC's first big (and to this day, I'd say biggest) event.

But it didn't make the same kind of mark the X-Men did. By that, I mean that people can speak of the Claremont and Byrne's X-Men for hours on end without ever bringing up the New Teen Titans, but talking about the New Teen Titans (the comics, at least), it seems almost inevitable that the X-Men will be brought up. When people talk about the New Teen Titans, their crossover with the X-Men gets brought up much sooner than when people talk about the X-Men. I've always had a bit more affection for DC than Marvel (and even then more of an affection for the rest of Marvel than the X-Men), so I acquired in the last few years a complete collection of Wolfman and Perez's Titans, and have thought about the whys and wherefores regarding their constant comparison to the X-Men.

One possible reason for this is their choice for pre-existing character not then affiliated with the team. The X-Men used Wolverine—also known as Logan—a Len Wein creation, to great effect—he was the perfect superhero for the Dirty Harry archetype that was so popular in that era. The New Teen Titans utilized Changeling, formerly known as Beast Boy, and gave him a lot of screen time. Not only was the shapeshifting Changeling originally from the Doom Patrol, a team that's always been associated with the X-Men, but his real name was... Garfield Logan.

It's so weird. You almost wonder if that was intentional on Wolfman and Perez's part.

From The Uncanny X-Men and the New Teen Titans

I don't think it was, though I do think it's a gigantic coincidence.

Changeling, loved as he is today by creators and hardcore fans alike, never became the breakout star that Wolverine did, nor did he even come close to it, but he did get a lot of screen time, and in fact, was almost the central Titan in what's considered to be the crown jewel of that run, The Judas Contract.

The Judas Contract is the culmination of the story that kicked off in the first Titans arc. Early in the book's run, Deathstroke the Terminator, the world's premiere assassin, inherits his dead son's contract to bring the Titans to terrorist group H.I.V.E. To help him out with this contract, he enlists the help of Tara Markov, Terra, a teenage girl with the power to cause shifts in the earth.


Terra was always a villain—there was no part of her that was redeemable, and she constantly lied to the Titans. When she reveals herself as a spy (not a traitor; she'd have had to be one of them to be a traitor), she just goes out of her way to kill them. The narration makes it clear that it's that simple: she's evil and there's no redemption. The end result has Deathstroke actually looking like the bad guy with the good heart in comparison.

Deathstroke and Terra capture all the Titans except for Dick Grayson (Robin/Nightwing), who then teams up with a new character to save the rest of the team. It results in Tara's death.

When I first read this story in trade paperback form in 2004, I was actually really underwhelmed. It didn't help that the TPB started with Terra already on the team, so the big reveal that she was actually working for the Terminator wasn't there (that's just the nature of collections of 80s comics; they're meant to be read without any gaps and in serialized form), but the utter one-dimensionality of Terra just did not make for captivating writing, or at least not writing that was so captivating as what The Judas Contract's reputation made it out to be. When the Teen Titans cartoon did the same storyline, they wisely had Terra as a more empathetic character, which gave more meat and depth to the story.

After putting the book down, it didn't take all that much thought to figure out why it made such an impact. It turned over superhero conventions at the time, showing the seemingly innocent little girl as the irredeemable insane villain. "We knew that if George drew Tara as a cute little girl, everyone would assume she'd reform," says Wolfman in George Perez: Storyteller. And indeed, that's what happened.



Perez says in his Modern Masters volume:

I wanted her to be cute, but not beautiful. She looked like a young girl. I gave her a very substantial overbite, her eyes were wide, her body was slim, she wasn't particularly busty. I wanted her to look almost elfin, so that when you see her for the first time wearing full makeup and dressed in a provocative outfit where you know she's just been in bed with Deathstroke that it does jab you a bit. "Whoa, good God! This little girl is a slut!"

But that's a semiotic effect; it works because it inverts the semiotics that's carried on Terra's visual. But why did it work so well back in 1983? Well, in the aforementioned The Dark Phoenix Saga, Claremont and Byrne introduced a cute-as-a-button teenage girl named Kitty Pryde, who would later be known as Sprite and Shadowcat. She was hugely popular, and remains so to this day. Wolfman decided to capitalize on that.


In his introduction to the 2003 TPB of The Judas Contract, he says:

"Now, I love puncturing balloons, and I decided if some fans thought we were an X-Men clone, then why not play with them a bit? The X-Men had just introduced a new member to their group, a 14-year-old cute-as-a-button girl with incredible powers. I'd do the same. I'd play her as a villain, then seemingly reform and have her join the Titans. Only I'd have her constantly lie to the Titans, change her stories, do suspicious things, and, in general, make her a louse. I could do that, I knew, because comic book convention would demand that readers ignore all the evidence and assume she was a good girl. After all, the X-Men's Kitty Pryde was a heroine, so even the lying, cheating, conniving Tara Markov had to have a heart of gold, right?"

So it did make an impact out of overturning convention, but as it turns out, a convention the X-Men had perfected and were using to great effect at the time. And The Judas Contract, as stated before, introduced the new character Jericho, Deathstroke's mute son who had the power to take over other people's bodies as soon as he made eye contact. He made his costumed debut in the same page as Dick Grayson's Nightwing identity did, actually undercutting Dick's big moment. He goes on to be the one who saves the Titans and was heavily pushed.

Sorry, I love Wolfman and Perez as much as
any kid who started reading comics in the 80s,
but what ever made them think Jericho could share
the same amount of space as Nightwing?


Jericho's powers are innate. He's a mutant, and the text calls him so. When he and Nightwing go off to rescue the Titans, Dick makes the following remark:

"A mutant, eh? Well, we've got aliens, witches, shapechangers, and cyborgs.
So why not a mutant? 'Sides, I hear you guys aren't half bad."

Although there are never really more than superficial similarities between The New Teen Titans and the Uncanny X-Men, the former just doesn't seem able to shake the comparison, and it doesn't help that the X-Men's fingerprints are all over what's supposed to be the crown jewel of the Titans' golden run. So there's a What If for you guys. Would the Titans have stood the test of time better (which is not to say it doesn't stand the test of time right now; just if it would do so better) if the Judas Contract never happened? The impact was certainly there back in 1983 when the Titans and the X-Men went head to head, but would The Judas Contract be more powerful over time, the way The Dark Phoenix Saga is, than it was if it didn't play off the X-Men so much?

We'll never really know. What I do know is this: reading the entirety of Wolfman and Perez's New Teen Titans in one go, I definitely found myself enjoying it, finding things in it to both love (this has my favorite version of Dick Grayson and Donna Troy ever) and hate (for a character I love so much, I certainly want to punch Wally West in the face a disproportionate amount of times here, and Terry Long). But getting to the culmination of that run, The Judas Contract, I couldn't stop comparing it to the X-Men. Maybe it's because Wolfman and Perez always talk about Kitty Pryde when they talk about the story; maybe it's because the plays on the X-Men are so palpable. But whatever the reason, it's hard to take The Judas Contract in a vacuum—and in fact, when I did, I found it underwhelming—and I think that's a shame.

On the Titans' side though, Deathstroke would go on to be the inspiration for Deadpool, who counts as an X-character... and who ended up being one of the most popular creations from the 90s onward. Wow, even when the Titans are the ones getting ripped off, they can't seem to win!

From Superman/Batman Annual #1. Deadpool is never named,
but he's the one on the left.

Despite everything I said here, I really do recommend reading Wolfman and Perez's The New Teen Titans. It's great superhero fun, and if nothing else will introduce you to the horror that is Terry Long.

Nov 29, 2012

Pop Medicine: All the Fancy Artistic Goals

Pop Medicine is a "visiting" column by Travis Hedge Coke for the Comics Cube! Click here for the archive!

All the Fancy Artistic Goals
Pop Medicine
Travis Hedge Coke


“The real story was people who started breaking things.”

“You’ve got to be outside it, to see it for what it is.”

Just how realistic and direct is Marvels? Much is still made of Marvels as the breakthrough moment of Reconstruction, a supposed opposition to Deconstruction in comics. The moment comics gave up trying to be artsy and meta and went for genuine-ism, for naturalism. Marvels has been held up as a return to older styles of storytelling and the presentation of ethics. It has been lionized for its glorification of the superhero in their simplest and distanced presentation, as well as its consideration research and arrangement. It’s been praised for not being too meta or symbolic, but foregrounding realistic portrayals, for its direct artwork and clear, unpretentious script.

The four issue (and one zeroth issue prologue) comic by Kurt Busiek, Alex Ross, and diverse talented hands, was a watershed for painted comics, which had previously been less than commercially viable even when as awesome as the Lazarus Churchyard shorts by Warren Ellis and Disraeli. It was a watershed for wold newtoning in comics, which already had shared universes at various publishers, but tended to be haphazard and carefree about the contiguity of events and individuals as they related to chronologically simultaneous, but narratively separate stories. And, it did a lot to push to the fore the idea that Marvel’s superheroes were inherently awesome. Its place, historically, is pretty sound.

But, is it as straightforward and unpretentious, as un-artsy and hard-hittingly realistic as so many seem to believe?

D Aviva Rothschild called it out for being unrealistic in terms of dialogue (no hardcore swearing) and for scenes of characters looking up at superheroes doing amazing stuff overhead (which, I can’t rationally judge, since I still look up at clouds and airplanes and neither of those might throw a pumpkin bomb at me). She also had trouble with how many other stories and characters were referenced in passing and compares it to trying to cram the entire American Civil War into two hours of musical, when, really, if we’re going to extend the during wartime metaphor, here, this is The War At Home or Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore not Patton or the aforementioned Robert Wilson musical, The Civil War. The superheroes are background here, the events of previous comics are treated as historic incidents, not as the central plot here, which happens to be occurring simultaneous to those old comics, but with our protagonist and his family at the fore.

Marvels is not, I think, ever meant to be accepted as a true fairytale, to coin a phrase, a story which though fiction we are meant to believe happens the way it does by nature and necessity and not craft and puppeteers. Marvels is puppeted by Ross and Busiek, but also by the entire backlog of comics to which it owes its structure and earmarks. Deconstruction is, at heart, a series of techniques for identifying the elements or perspectives that are privileged, which are erased or ignored, and Marvels, at its heart, draws to light much of what is subject to erasure or privilege in the comics and eras with which it is dealing. We are meant to know it is the product of many influences, many many authors and controlled not by any inherent nature or moral framework, but by the caprice of decades of old comics by so many of those authors.

Marvels is not a history book. And, it behooves me to say that firmly, not simply because of Rothschild’s criticism but also for the many critics who praise Marvels as if it is so. If it was a history book, it’d be a terrible one, for moving events around, exaggerating or shortchanging them as it helps the story at hand, the comic that is Marvels. But it pretends to be historical, to have a historical setting, even though that setting is an imaginary and unplotted history of a thousand different comics rubbing against one another in a shared universe. And the references and research can be intimidating, just as it might be welcoming to others. Further, it by necessity makes Marvels as meta as all get out.

Metatextuality is a kind of intertextual discourse in which one text, such as Marvels, makes comment or causes us to understand another text differently, as Marvels does with the hundreds of comics it references, alludes to, or otherwise connects by nature of its setting and intent. There’s not a page in Marvels that does not refer to another comic. Some refer to several other comics all at once, and so, too, are there references and direct relations to films and novels that go back and forth, one coloring the next perception of the other.

Marvels does not strive to make us forget that this is the result of a thousand single issue comics, decades of publications. Marvels reminds us on every page, with each step, that this is a metatextual and experimental game, part pastiche, part chronology establishment, part social commentary, part comics commentary, and part detournement, reversing the looser abstraction and hard lines of inked over pencils with gouache and realistic lighting effects while flipping the focus from the all-too-human superheroes of the Marvel Universe to the all-too-not-super man on the street in that same world. The great Stan Lee innovation of two-dimensional characterization in superhero stories is flipped so that superhumans are seen for the most part only at a distance, as forces of nature or otherwise dehumanized entities, while not surrendering the technique entirely, and instead transferring it to Phil and his family. That’s a radical departure from the traditional Marvel methodology and it does, again, draw attention to this comic as an artifact.

The first page of Chapter One, is our introduction to the wonkiness of Marvel-time, a pattern of progression that does not match our real world time and cannot. J. Jonah Jameson and our protagonist, Phil Sheldon, are alive and adult in pre-WW2 New York and by the last page of Chapter Four, Danny Ketch, introduced in our real-world Nineteen Nineties and the Marvel Universe’s Nineties, is a kid with a paper route, when Jameson and Sheldon are at best twenty, twenty-five years older by those last pages, and Jameson will be virtually unaged by the time young Danny Ketch has reached adulthood and become a Ghost Rider. The child of Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Girl, who arrives off-screen, but implicitly, towards the end, will not age more than a few years for the decade Danny Ketch will have weathered away before becoming possessed by the urge to ride through your town with his head on fire.

If that is not intentional, why draw attention to it? It is not naturalistic in the sense of forcing the conviction of a natural occurrence. It does not make the Marvel Universe “more like ours,” more realistic. It is detrimental to the mechanics of a naturalist story. I posit that it has to be intentional. And it has to come from the authors poring over various Marvel comics and recognizing the disjunction between how time operates in that shared universe and how it is generally acknowledged to function in our reality.

The second story page of the collected Marvels, opens with a quote from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein that applies simultaneously to the character pictured alongside it (Jim Hammond), and potentially to the approach of the comic at hand, to the shared universe in which this comic takes place, and the era that in this comic will be called The Age of Marvels, but if also to those things, then the “I” of the quote is essentially the text itself, the comic, the universe, and the age speaking as if aware.

Two pages later, of the six overlapping sections that make up the page, one is given over to text with no representational illustration, and two are wholly symbolic, abstract to the events pictured in the other three but relevant to them and the story as a whole; da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, and a schematic of blood vessels in ropy reds. Half the page is nothing inherent to the scene, nothing of an emic perspective.

The page between? A collage of three distinct moments in the creation of Jim Hammond, as Professor Horton extinguishes a cigarette and looks to the heart and lungs of the Human Torch he will present to the world. Oh, fraught with potential symbolism and relevance, to be sure, from fire to carcinogenic and of perspective, but nothing is drawn out loudly, so let that pass as a naturalistic, unassuming presentation. The pages delineated above, though? On either side of that possibly unassuming page, pages that cannot be read and still denied their exercising of non-naturalist techniques.

And, now, with the prologue completed, we have the first of several interruptions to the world of the comic, in form of commentary by the talent of our world (in order, essays by Stan Lee, Kurt Busiek, Alex Ross, John Romita, and Marc McLaurin). These are lovely, and informative, with beautiful spot illustrations, but they do not take place in the world in which we are otherwise immersed, in Marvels. Each is a reminder that even the marvels and newsmen of the world are but tools for collaborative authors far beyond them. It’s a little bit creepy, but awe-inspiring too. In Marvels, intended or otherwise, we witness one godlike creator dedicate an entire chapter to another godlike creator. Too, one of these beings from beyond the Earth Marvels primarily deals with, looks down into that world and sees the death of a person he has been familiar with for more years than she has had, in her world, life, and finds that this death is wrong.

That cab driver is based on John Romita, watching the Green Goblin
carrying off Gwen Stacy.

The death of Gwen Stacy is wrong according to a being from beyond who had a hand in bringing her life, to the world. That’s immense. It’s immense, it hangs over the entire back end of Marvels, and it is not even generated by either of the two (as it is generally agreed upon) authors.

Perhaps not every disjunction of this sort is intentional by the authors. Why place the interrupting nonfiction throughout the story, if they are not part of, or meant to interrupt the story? Probably not planned as world-expansion or meta-reference. However, as the footnotes in the back show, and the extensive annotations folks not paid by Marvel have compiled, there is an awful lot of meta-referencing, allusions, borrowed characters (Clark Kent! Popeye!), and consideration to how chronologically synchronous but initially unrelated stories parallel and enhance one another when it is acknowledged that they happened simultaneously and at close distance. The majority of the allusions, deliberate detournements, reappraisals, valorizations, and attempts at differentiating cannot be disregarded as unintentional or unconsidered and to continue to do so is a disservice to the talent and efforts of all those who made Marvels what it is.

Nov 27, 2012

Easter Eggs: The Filipino Heroes League in Skyworld

Welcome to another installment of Easter Eggs in Comics! Click here for the archive!

Today's Easter egg comes from Skyworld: Testament by Mervin Ignacio and Ian Sta. Maria. Testament is the second chapter in the Skyworld series, so in the new editions, it's the second half of book 1. But I have the old editions and this is the cover.


There's a scene in it where our to-be protagonist Andoy runs down the street just as Rianka's aswang army is invading the city. Check out the left side of the panel.


Why, that's the Filipino Heroes League! Yep, that's Kidlat Kid, Invisiboy, Flashlight, and Maria Constantino the telepath on the left side of that panel. (I guess Maria's getting overwhelmed by all the soon-to-be-really-dangerous action.)


Huh, I wonder where they were during the big fight... Maybe Mervin, Ian, or FHL creator Paolo Fabregas can answer me!

Got an Easter Egg for the Cube? Email it to comicscube@gmail.com
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