May 16, 2013

Great Back Issues: Daily Bugle #1–3

I was rifling through my back-issue bins, most of which house stuff from the 90s when I was really collecting, and I ran across the 1996 miniseries Daily Bugle, by Paul Grist and Karl Kerschl. As the title suggests, this three-issue series focuses on the crew of the Daily Bugle, Marvel New York's most prominent newspaper. This would have already been unusual for 1996, as it was a series focusing on supporting characters, but the real catch is that it's in black and white.

Paul Grist, then known for his independent crime comic Kane, tackled the staff of the Bugle in an ensemble fashion, giving the principal characters — Betty Brant, J. Jonah Jameson, Robbie Robertson, Angela Yin, Ben Urich, Charlie Snow, and Ken Ellis (I wonder where those last three are now? I stopped reading Spider-Man comics for about a decade) — all something different to do. Grist is accompanied by the shadow-heavy work of Karl Kerschl, and his work here may be a revelation to those more used to his lighter stuff, like the Flash feature in Wednesday Comics.

Kerschl uses a wide range of emotions and body language to get the story across, and it's the mood he sets and that aforementioned body language and expressions that really make this one worth tracking down, since I don't think the actual plot of the story is anything to write home about. Betty Brant goes to cover the opening of a new restaurant called The Food Factory, only to find out that it's mired in a lot of dirty business. Charlie Snow is dealing with a drinking problem, Ben Urich is being Ben Urich and trying to dig up the dirt on some mobsters, and Jameson is trying to keep Spider-Man off the front page by undertaking an investigation on his own regarding a series of burning buildings. The final issue, in which Betty Brant is kidnapped, brings most of the stories to a head.

There's no Spider-Man in these issues, save for an appearance as a front-page headline, and Peter Parker is only there sparingly, so for all intents and purposes, this is very much a street-level, "no superpowers" comic, much like, I suppose Gotham Central, which focused on the Gotham City Police Department over at the Different Company. This doesn't really give the series much in the sense of genuine suspense (since at least four of the main characters would have been untouchable anyway in terms of any permanent changes), but Grist makes up for it by taking us into the issues, both moral and legal, that the Bugle journalists have to deal with. In the first issue, Ben and Angela find out that a congressman with otherwise good intentions is having an affair with a porn starlet, and when they run the story, Angela wonders what they've really accomplished, since the bad guys are still on the loose and one of the politicians against them now has his dirty laundry out there. Jameson tries to explain the Bugle's position to the congressman, essentially espousing truth as freeing him at the end of it — that way, he can't be blackmailed.

Check out how quickly Kerschl changes Jameson's expression there.
He goes from the buffoonish curmudgeon you're used to as a Spidey
supporting character to a superserious main character.

In the second issue, Jameson tries to keep Spider-Man off the front page by investigating a series of burning buildings. When he finds out that the landlord has been negligent in terms of safety and security, he pays him a visit and sets fire to an architects' model of a new building (to replace one of the burned-down ones) in his office. This leads to Robbie telling Jonah that he's unable to run the article, even though it's really good.

Great character work, moral ambiguity, and appropriate art to match. Daily Bugle reads like the start of something more, something that would last, something that would define any or all of these characters. It didn't happen. This is what we got, which is why, if you see these things in the back issue bins, don't hesitate to buy them.

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