Category Archives: Spotlight

Quickstarter Roundup: Three Comics Campaigns to Back This Week

Welcome to the inaugural Quickstarter Roundup, a shortlist of currently-running comics crowdfunding campaigns that are worth your time and money. If you have tips about current or upcoming comics crowdfunding projects, you can reach out at quickstarter at ckstewart dot com.

On to this week’s round-up.

MINE! A Comics Collection to Benefit Planned Parenthood

Top literary and artistic talents are coming together to support the constantly besieged Planned Parenthood with a brand new reproductive rights anthology. Mine! features stories from writers like Tee Franklin (Bingo Love), Rachel Pollack (Doom Patrol), and Sarah Kuhn (Heroine Complex), with art by illustrators Fabian Lelay (Jade Street Protection Services) and Devaki Neogi (The Skeptics). Already more than 50% backed with two weeks to go, and promoted by some of the biggest names in comics right now, Mine! is a safe bet for full funding. The project is up front about its communication with Planned Parenthood and what’s most likely to cause delays, meaning it’s easy to understand where your money is going, how the project works, and reasons for potential delivery date changes. Reward tiers start at $5, with a digital copy of the book available for $10 and a digital/softcover bundle available for $25. This campaign ends on September 15.

The Sun and the Wayward Wind

Managed by the Dandelion Wine Collective, The Sun and the Wayward Wind is a full-color anthology focused on reimagining North American legends and lore. This anthology includes some incredibly talented illustrators, including Ashanti Fortson (Galanthus) and e. jackson (Baby, Summer Fright Nights). Donation tiers start at $15 for a DRM-free PDF, which includes a digital wallpaper. This is the Collective’s first project, and they’re only at $8k of $32k with two weeks left to go, but the campaign states they have all materials and vendors lined up to start production as soon as the project wraps, and the sample art is so beautiful it’s worth at least chipping in a dollar or two for the lower-level reward tiers for a shot at purchasing the full anthology at a later date. For those looking for innovative and original indie comics to add to your shelves, this Kickstarter is worth chipping in for and signal boosting. This campaign ends September 14.

Gothic Tales of Haunted Love: A Comics Anthology

This is one of the safest bests in this round-up. Gothic Tales of Haunted Love is already fully funded and managed by Bedside Press founder Hope L. Nicholson, who has a number of high profile, successful campaigns under her belt. Gothic Tales brings together powerhouse creators like Sarah W. Searle (Ruined), Mel Gillman (As the Crow Flies), and Hien Pham (It Will Be Hard, an 18+ “choose your own gentle smut” graphic novel also currently funding on Kickstarter) for tales of heroes and villains, romance and tragedy, across worlds and decades. If you backed The Other Side anthology last year, this is a great (though unrelated) companion to that, with genre-hopping tales for romantics of all stripes. The PDF is available for $15CA, and the digital/physical bundle is a little pricier at $30CA but includes a 4×6 print and exclusive bookplate. This campaign ends on September 12.

Black Canary Releases a Second EP

“From Gotham to Apokolips, songs for broken gods and superwomen.”

In March 2016 Black Canary dropped a 3-track EP via Bandcamp, a great marketing tie-in and something fun for fans of comics and quality music.

Today, a second 3-track EP dropped with three all-new songs for fans of the band to enjoy (and listen to while reading the comics featuring the band). The new EP helps celebrate 70 years of the character.

EP2 features three new songs, “Get in The Car,” “Lost Art,” and “Last Days,” all can be bought as a track or the whole album for $3.50.

The release is the combined awesome of Black Canary writer Brenden Fletcher along with Michelle Bensimon, Joseph Donovan, Ryan Morey, and m van ark. The cover art is by Annie Wu.

You can read about the adventures of the band now in Black Canary Vol. 1: Kicking and Screaming and Black Canary Vol. 2 New Killer Star.

Back to School: Ultimate Spider-Man #26-27

USM26CoverBack to School is a weekly issue by issue look at the beloved superhero teen comic Ultimate Spider-ManIn this week’s installment, I will be covering Ultimate Spider-Man #26-27  (2002) written by Brian Michael Bendis, penciled by Mark Bagley, inked by Art Thibert, and colored by Digital Transparency

Ultimate Spider-Man #26 starts by showing the fight between Spider-Man and Green Goblin from SHIELD’s POV where Nick Fury gives the order to fire on the Goblin after Mary Jane is dropped. Then, it cuts to Mary Jane waking up in Peter’s arms where he tells her go to an abandoned warehouse to be safe while he and the SHIELD helicopters battle the Green Goblin. Spider-Man is holding back at all against the Green Goblin, and he is a little freaked out between trying to balance, dodge helicopter gunshots, and fight the physically stronger Green Goblin. However, the Goblin’s Oz formula is starting to wear off so he returns to the penthouse for a cocktail of injections and runs into his son, Harry. The Green Goblin makes Harry pass out by saying the trigger word “cellar door” and then become veinier and Hulk-ier and throws Spider-Man through a window. The comic ends with Harry slowly waking up and seeing the Green Goblin clutching an unmasked Spider-Man while there are SHIELD helicopters outside. Someone has some splainin’ to do.

Ultimate Spider-Man #27 opens from Harry’s POV, and he realizes that his father is the Green Goblin and Peter Parker is Spider-Man. Green Goblin is about to squeeze Spidey to death, but he has enough energy for one last kick before webbing a piece of debris as the Green Goblin takes the fight outside to the civilians. Spider-Man pleads with him to keep the fight contained before Harry unexpectedly impales him with a piece of rebar presumably killing him as the Green Goblin reverts back to Norman Osborn. Finally, Nick Fury and SHIELD agents come to clean up and collect both Osborns. Nick Fury tells Peter that he did an okay job and shouldn’t confide so much of his life as Spider-Man to Mary-Jane, who is confirmed to be safe. Then, he says that as an “illegal genetic mutation” that Peter will become a property of the U.S. government and SHIELD, which he’s obviously not a big fan of. Furious, Spider-Man swings away, which Fury is cool with after he dropped that bombshell. The issue ends with Peter and Mary Jane embracing, and then Mary Jane telling that he didn’t do a good job communicating his problems with the Osborn. Mark Bagley and Art Thibert draw them seated apart on the final, silent page showing that their relationship is now strained, the complete opposite of their total adoration in Ultimate Spider-Man #13.

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In the final two issues of the “Legacy” arc, writer Brian Michael Bendis takes a step back for a bit and lets Bagley and Thibert flex their action chops and draw a Spider-Man, who isn’t holding back one bit after Mary-Jane almost died. The speed lines come fast and furious as Spidey tries to beat the crap out of a physically stronger opponent in the Green Goblin and even makes the presumably jaded agents of SHIELD shudder a little bit. With the exception of some cluttered panels, Bendis, Bagley, Thibert, and the colorists at Digital Transparency Studios bring in Goblin’s drug addiction, Spider-Man’s fear and anger at his family being threatened, and SHIELD non-interference interference into play during several extended action sequences. The more Oz he takes, the dumber and stronger the Green Goblin gets. I’m more of a fan of the smarter, conniving Osborn a la Dark Reign so it’s refreshing to get dumb Goblin for only a few pages versus a couple issues in the first arc of Ultimate Spider-Man.

There is a real sense of danger in the battle between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin in Ultimate Spider-Man #26-27. For the most part, he’s substituted strategy for rage and emptying his web cartridges, and Bendis’ clipped, freaked out inner monologue plays off this feeling along with him losing his costume yet again. He’s had his share of victories, but Spidey is still kind of winging at a superhero. Trying to avoid bullets and Goblin fireballs, holding onto a building, and stopping civilians from being crushed by debris is tougher than it looks. This is why Bagley and Thibert draw Spider-Man constantly on edge trying to contort his body and stay one step ahead of the Green Goblin. He’s still just a kid.

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I wouldn’t say that the Green Goblin is scary per se in Ultimate Spider-Man #26-27, but Bagley leans on some horror influences and draws him super grotesquely. Throughout both issues and even when he’s verbal, the Green Goblin is always slobbering some disgusting green mixture that is either like an animal foaming at the mouth or an addict vomiting during an overdose. To be honest, it looks like the ooze that gave the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles their abilities, but Digital Transparency uses the most unappealing shade of green so that pizzas and underground lairs are the last thing on your mind. It complements his hellish red eyes and shows how inhuman Norman Osborn has become in his quest for power. Like a rabid dog, maybe it’s time for him to be put down.

Even though he doesn’t explicitly call Peter “son” like he did in Ultimate Spider-Man #25, the father/son dynamic between Norman and Peter and Harry plays a crucial role in the conclusion of the “Legacy” arc, and by extension, two years of Ultimate Spider-Man stories with long breaks for Kingpin and reality show contestants. However, Norman’s attention switches to Harry in Ultimate Spider-Man #26 and #27 when he accidentally sees him slavering and taking the Oz drugs. Unlike Spider-Man, who he wants to groom as an ally and possible heir apparent to his genetic mutation “throne”, Harry is just an afterthought. He’s an embarrassment to Norman, who wants him to know as little as possible about his real work. That ends in an intense six panel grid of Harry realizing what’s going on before Norman puts that hypnotherapy to work and uses a kind of killswitch to make him faint.

HarryKillsNorman

But Harry isn’t just an innocent victim, who gets saved by Spider-Man. He has been inducted into a world of superhumans and mutations that he has witnessed with his own, two, heavily medicated, yet still human eyes. And, in Ultimate Spider-Man #27, he actively joins the narrative when he kills the Green Goblin with a sharp piece of wood to stop his friend Peter from being crushed to death by his father. Bagley goes full epic with his art during this moment surrounding the page with reaction shots of Peter, SHIELD Agent Quartermain, and even the Goblin himself while Harry is the picture of remorse on his face. In this moment, he goes from being a side character with little or no agency to a double for Spider-Man. Peter Parker was partially responsible for the death of his father figure, Uncle Ben, and now Harry Osborn is solely responsible for his own father’s death because he wanted to save his friend and hero. Except he doesn’t get catharsis or any kind of , but gets shuffled off by SHIELD

SHIELD in Ultimate Spider-Man #26-27 reminds me of the military in Doctor Who. They are reactive, mostly ineffectual, and then bulldoze in and take all the credit for everything. At least, their leader looks like Samuel L. Jackson. The opening of Ultimate Spider-Man #26 shows that SHIELD almost got Mary Jane killed, and their job for most of the issue is to piss off the Green Goblin by constant helicopter gunship and sniper fire. It’s the tactical equivalent of using guns to fight the Hulk. SHIELD really only gets their act together after the Green Goblin has been taken down and proves that they’re basically a more expensive, less discreet version of Mike Ehrmentraut from Breaking Bad with plasma shields and anti-grav boots.

FuryTruthBomb

Nick Fury and SHIELD reach peak dickishness in Ultimate Spider-Man #27 when Fury drops the bomb that Peter Parker is government property once he’s of voting and cigarette smoking age. This makes sense with the whole Superhuman Test Ban mentioned in Ultimates, which considers him to be a WMD. And Bagley and Thibert draw Peter like only someone whose freedom is going to be taken away in a few years with his face a mix of sadness, anger, and the feeling that he wants to do to Nick Fury what he just did to the Green Goblin. This is yet another instance of the Parker luck as Spider-Man only has a limited time to be a friendly neighbor superhero before Fury puts him on a superhuman black ops team with the murderers Hawkeye and Black Widow and the incestuous, ex-terrorists Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch. At least, he makes one hell of an exit, swinging through a window, and scoffing at Fury’s “big boy’s club” aka superheroes, who do George W. Bush’s dirty work.

PeterMJSad

Instead of ending with a teaser for the next villain or an epic superhero battle, Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley close out the “Legacy” arc with a character moment. Peter and Mary Jane’s relationship has hit some snags in this past arc, and Peter/Bendis finally let her speak and confront Peter for not telling her anything about Norman Osborn’s abilities and plans. When he told her his secret identity back in issue 13, Peter was supposed to be open about his life as Spider-Man and confide in her. But he has shut her out, and this didn’t make her safe, but put her in danger. And Peter is still pretty reticent to talk about what happened to Harry, and thus we get our final page of Peter and Mary Jane spaced apart and not speaking. It’s not a breakup, but Peter’s double life as Spider-Man has hurt their relationship. This issue is kind of like a sad version of Ultimate Spider-Man #13, which was when they grew closer in attraction and being honest about their feelings plus Peter’s life as Spider-Man.

Some of the panels in the action scenes are a little busy, but Brian Michael Bendis, Mark Bagley, and Art Thibert end the rematch between Spider-Man in a grotesque, slightly unexpected way that still riffs off the “father/son” theme they have building since Ultimate Spider-Man #1 and gives Ultimate Harry Osborn his big moment for better or worse. Plus there’s bonus satire of SHIELD and Mark Millar’s take on the Ultimate Universe in general, and Bendis and Bagley show the consequences of Peter Parker’s life as Spider-Man on his closest friend and lover, Mary Jane Watson and don’t hold back at all.

P.S.: “Back to School” is going on hiatus because I have returned to (graduate) school, but it will return…

All Hail The King!: 100 Years Of Jack Kirby

On August 28th, 1917, in New York City’s rough-and tumble Lower East Side, the most visionary and significant artistic innovator of the 20th — and, so far, the 21st — century was born. I say that without a hint of hyperbole, exaggeration or, even more appallingly, irony, because the boy that  Rose and Benjamin Kurtzberg named Jacob (or, in their native Hebrew, Ya’akov) went on to shape modern popular culture — and, by extension, culture as a whole — more than anyone else you can name.

And speaking of names — he had many, in addition to the one written on his birth certificate. Some called him Jolly. Some called him The King Of Comics. Some shortened that to simply “King.” Early in his career he experimented with nom de plumes such as Fred Sande, Curt Davis, Jack Curtiss, and Ted Grey, among others. But the “handle” by which he is best known is the professional moniker that he stuck with, the one that would adorn all of his monumental works in the decades to come, the one that would eventually be engraved on his tombstone — Jack Kirby.

If you love it, odds are better than good Jack created it : Captain America. The Fantastic Four. The Hulk. Thor. Iron Man. Black Panther. The Avengers. The X-Men. The Silver Surfer. The Inhumans. Doctor Doom. Magneto. Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. Galactus. Darkseid and The New Gods. Kamandi. The Demon. The Newsboy Legion. The entire romance comics genre. And all this? It’s only the tip of the iceberg.

Jack Kirby created characters as effortlessly as most people concoct excuses. He was literally a non-stop idea generator. And his ideas stuck. The overwhelming majority of them have not only stood the test of time, they’ve gone on to earn billions. What is cynically called “intellectual property” these days? Most of it came from one man’s intellect.

Here’s the damndest part of all, though — he never slowed down. Never stopped. Innovation was in his blood. He may not have created the comic book. He may not have created the super-hero. But he re-created both so many times that they would be unrecognizable today, if not extinct altogether, were it not for him. And with each successive project he undertook, he went bigger. Bolder. Challenging himself to push beyond what he’d done before, and to re-shape not only his readers’ expectations, but their perceptions.

No less an authority than Grant Morrison has called Kirby “the William Blake of the 20th century.” The comparison is apt. Like Blake, Kirby seemed attuned to something beyond that he was able to translate into the immediately recognizable. He filtered complex thought-forms into visionary illustrations and stories that were both mythic in scope and human in scale. The universe of the imagination was his playground, and he not only went to worlds far beyond our own, he invented them. Time and time again.

Jack Kirby re-wrote the rules with explosive force. While his predecessors concentrated on making four-color action smooth-flowing and balletic, he set out to sock you in the jaw. While they went for something akin to formal grace and even elegance, he went for impact. Art that you’ll always remember is nice, but art that makes you remember how it feltto see it for the first time with each subsequent viewing? That’s something else altogether. That’s, as the kids say today, “next-level shit.”

Look beyond comics for a minute and consider films. Consider that Jack Kirby gave us “The Source” and Orion being Darkseid’s son before George Lucas gave us “The Force” and Luke Skywalker being the progeny of Darth Vader. Ask yourself if the concept of the “blockbuster” film as we’ve come to know it would exist if not for Kirby. The scale, the magnitude, the grandeur of the multi-million-dollar Hollywood production — Kirby did it all on the printed page first.

How about video games? Today’s “POV” and “multi-player/interactive” games all put the action right up “in your face.” Who was the first person to introduce that perspective? To put the consumer right in the middle of the action and “see” things from their vantage point before he put pencil to paper? You got it.

To drag things back to the medium that Kirby not only operated in and excelled at but flat-out owned, there are entire artistic tropes that he devised from whole-cloth and that remain entirely his as surely as the label “King Of Comics” does and always will : “Kirby Krackle.” “Kirby Tech.” “Kirby Collage.” All these are spoken of not only with awe, but with reverence. There’s nothing else like ’em. There never will be.

Let me add one more innovation to the list that The King never gets enough credit for — “Kirby Dialogue.” It was singular. It was, appropriately, mythic. It was as unconventional as his art — and every bit as effective. It contained, and communicated, entire universes of meaning. It was magnificent, in the strictest dictionary definition of that word.

What could motivate one man to do all this — to reach for the stars and bring them down to the rest of us day in, day out? How about love. Kirby was never too proud to admit that he was, at the end of the day, a worker. And he took pride in how hard he worked for the best and most noble reason of all — he was doing it to put food on the table. To provide a better future for his wife, Roz, and their four kids. Sure, he wanted to keep us glued to the page — but he did so in order to provide for them. Intentions don’t come any more pure than that.

Jack also served his country in the European Theater in WWII. Those experiences, as well as his hard-scrabble upbringing, frequently made their way on to the pages he wrote and drew, and that leads to yet another point I want to make : for much-larger-than-life modern mythology, the entire Kirby canon is, in all ways and at all times, a highly personal one. There’s more than virtuoso artistry and dynamic scripting in every Jack Kirby comic, there’s a hell of a lot of heart and soul. His work speaks to us all on a core level in a way no other comic-book creator has ever been able to duplicate — and trust me when I say, they’ve all tried.

In the coming years, we’ll be hearing more about Jack Kirby than ever. The power of his imagination, having been tapped by the Marvel/Disney bean-counters and suits for well over a decade at the box office, is about to bear lucrative financial fruit for DC/Warner, as well — Darkseid, and the rest of the Fourth World characters, are about to take center-stage in the so-called “DCEU” in a big way. Residuals, which hopefully his heirs won’t have to fight tooth-and-nail for as they spent decades doing with the so-called “House Of Ideas,” should be enough to help guarantee them all a comfortable retirement. Yup, even 23 years after his passing at the age of 76, The King is still providing for his family — and something tells me that if he’s looking down on this world, that fact makes him proudest of all.

As for everything else going on down here on the mortal plane? Kirby saw it coming. Streaming entertainment, consumerist gluttony, pointless war, clashes of ideals, global communication, even Donald effing Trump — all predicted, often with uncanny accuracy, in the pages of his books.  The King was a product of his times, without question — but he was also, and always, a few steps ahead of them. That depressingly-overused “genius” label that now gets applied to anyone who writes a half-decent novel or makes a watchable film? It’s actually too small in this instance.

And so the legacy of this great man is destined to continue on, for as long as there are ideals to aspire to and children (and grown-ups) to dream. For all the turmoil Kirby foresaw in the times ahead, his work always retained an essential and irreducible optimism — a belief that the human spirit would not only endure, but triumph. If you were to ask me to name a more aspirational, and inspirational, artist, I couldn’t do it. But Jack did a lot more than hope for the best from us — he was the best of us.

I have four heroes in this life : my mom, my dad, my wife, and Jack Kirby. The first two raised me, and continue to do so, because goddamnit, I’ll always have a lot of growing up to do. The third saved me. The fourth inspired me to dream and his work continues to keep those dreams alive. My existence wouldn’t be anywhere near as rich, as rewarding, as joyous without them. And they each, in their own way, show me the way forward every day. One could argue that I only personally know three of these remarkable, extraordinary individuals, sure —

but then I pick up any random issue of New Gods. Or Captain America. Or Kamandi. Or Machine Man. Or Black Panther. Or Silver Star. Or Challengers Of The Unknown. Or Mister Miracle. Or OMAC. Or The Sandman. Or The Forever People. Or my personal favorite, Captain Victory And The Galactic Rangers, and I realize — the fourth name on that list? I know him, too. And I know that, cliched as it may be to say, “He Will Always Be The King.”

(originally posted on Trash Film Guru)

Educator’s Perspective: “Sh*t My President Says”

It’s said that no work of literature is written in a vacuum.

One of the first things you learn to do as an undergrad in any course in literature is to unpack the political, cultural, and societal implication of whatever it is you’re reading, because whether the author intended it or not, he or she was assuredly influenced by the circumstances in which it was written.  Even as a high school student I learned that Shakespeare’s fascination with witchcraft in Macbeth is likely an influence of the King under which he was writing, who had an interest in the occult himself; The Lord of the Flies and Animal Farm both have their roots in a kind of British political anxiety, and the only way that On the Road can be more of a manifesto of the early counterculture movement is if copies of it are beaten by riot officers.

Yet I’ve always been more interested in the political, cultural, and social capital hidden away in the more obscure media, the stuff that, for whatever reason, has for so long escaped the notice of conventional scholarship. Though teachers have long adored the political cartoon there remains a strange, standoffish attitude toward the comic book, as though we’re all still in the 1950s and Dr. Wertham is sitting across from us making all sorts of uncomfortable eye contact over a stack of World’s Finest. Thankfully that attitude has receded significantly in recent years and I’m happy to see more and more that teachers like myself are having success in using the rife political and cultural content of comics as a springboard to discuss ideas as diverse and grandiose as race relations, diplomacy, and the importance of de-mystifying the “other”ness of foreign cultures, peoples, and ideologies.

The conversation about the political and sociocultural implications of comics – really, of all media – is always hobbled somewhat when it hits a K-12 classroom environment.  There begin conversations about correctness and age-appropriateness, and whether a book can or should be introduced to the student population for fear of indoctrination. Year after year mainstays like The Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird are called into question by school boards and parent groups across the country, and while their reasons are varied they general boil down to what we want our children to discover about who and what we are.  Works that are censored for classroom use have a common thread: they oftentimes highlight the worst of us, in an attempt to ensure that we avoid making the mistakes of our ancestry.

That being said, it seems highly unlike that Shannon Wheeler’s “Sh*t My President Says” will ever see regular use as a implement of classroom instruction, given that it is both a comic book, and therefore still a subject of academic uncertainty by some of my colleagues, and demonstrative of one of the most deranged, startling, and ultimately embarrassing garbage fires of the 21st century.  It is eye-opening in its candor, tragically funny, vitally informative, and ought to be required reading for anyone hoping to study the political machine of the early 21st century. It may very well be one of the most important historical artifacts of this decade.

All because of Twitter.

“Sh*t My President Says” is a perfect example of the historically-embedded nature of media. Even without Wheeler’s accompanying caricatures of Trump as a riotous toddler with a phone fetish, the collection of our mentally-errant President’s 140-character temper tantrums provides a sobering look at just how we got to where we are. Taken with Shannon Wheeler’s supplemental artwork, the Tweets take on a second life: their childishness is thrown into a stark relief with the inclusion of the author’s idealized boy king Trump, and indeed the whole work might read as a fiction were we not living it as we are now.

From a teachable standpoint, nothing beats a work that provides the subject’s words as they were uttered while simultaneously offering a responding critique of them. In this way Shannon Wheeler has submitted to his audience a kind of living primary source, an artifact that both serves to document history as well as record our collective reaction to the oftentimes unbelievable events of our current political climate – which, of course, is a form of history in and of itself.

Is it teachable? Absolutely, and pertinently so: in much the same way that we recognize the crassness of the language in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or the sexuality of “The Awakening” as indicative of the societies and cultures of the time in which they were written, Wheeler’s compilation of the fractured thoughts of our enfeebled Commander-in-Chief are likewise a reflection of the state of our society. Wheeler provides a means to process an pivotal event in American political history in a way that is accessible for its simplicity, honest for its presentation, and as painless  an experience as it could be possibly be for the author’s satirical approach to her bumbling, foolhardy subject matter.

Nevertheless, I give Mr. Wheeler a great deal of credit for his work in compiling this trainwreck of a timeline in recording the Trump tweets he has.  For the levity with which it is presented, there is something truly sinister about seeing these words become actions, and those actions engender other, more awful actions. Longtime exposure to those levels of ego-maniacal word vomit cannot be healthy for an individual, and I hope sincerely that Mr. Wheeler recovers quickly for his exposure.

While its unflinching revelation of the worst of our potential all but guarantees it never sees widespread classroom use, I fully expect that passages from “Sh*t My President Says” will find their way into political science and literature classrooms across the globe. This cutting work of comics journalism is a vibrant reminder of how we ended up in this mess, and I wager that there’s more than a few daring educators willing to make the case that, like Mockingbird and Rye, just because something is uncomfortable doesn’t mean that we turn a blind eye to its implications.

Literature isn’t written in a vacuum – but sometimes the stuff that inspires it sucks nonetheless.  It’s our job to learn from it, and works like Wheeler’s make that possible.

Defenseless: How The Defenders Fails and Augurs Poorly for the Future of the Netflix-Marvel Union

You know it’s a bad sign when in the middle of a superhero team miniseries you find yourself pining for the team members to work solo again. Yet this is precisely the thought I had watching Netflix and Marvel Television’s long awaited miniseries The Defenders.

Debuting last Friday, the miniseries was the culmination of a plan that goes back over three years. Laid out in the first quarter of 2014, The Defenders would serve as the fifth act to a cycle of Netflix series focusing on the “street-level” Marvel heroes. The plan sounded promising. Unlike their comic book counterparts, the Marvel Cinematic Universe films had acquired an unmistakable post-Avengers bloat. It became a running joke that all the (solo character) sequels after Avengers featured antagonists and earth-shattering stakes that really merited the team reforming. In the comics, the solo titles have the freedom to take a single Avenger and put him or her in decidedly intimate stories where the stakes weren’t so dire, but the blockbuster mentality of movies overruled that.

So the idea of focusing on heroes who fight in alleys rather than the roofs of skyscrapers held a lot of appeal as did the selections of characters who (with the exception of Iron Fist) were all fan favorites with staunch followings. The first show would be Daredevil, the scrappy blind brawler who plays like a working class Batman with Catholic angst. Then Jessica Jones, a recent creation from an innovative neo-noir title called Alias that explored gender politics, trauma, healing so well it earned the show a Peabody Award. Next came Luke Cage and finally Iron Fist (the latter show breaking the impressive streak of critical approbation).

But what we got on Friday wasn’t just a disappointment, it reflects a lack of vision at the top of Marvel Television that is stunning. The team behind The Defenders had over three years to make this show and yet every one of the 8 scripts feels like it was rushed on a Sunday evening for a Monday deadline.

The first catastrophic flaw is the utter lack of connection this series has to the comic books or the MCU. In truth this is really two flaws that have interwoven so tightly as to appear fused together.

The first half of this is seen in the total lack of excavation on the part of the storytellers of Defenders lore, plotlines, or iconography. When you watch the miniseries, you wonder if the writers and showrunner even know who the Defenders are or what makes them unique.

For the uninitiated: The Defenders first appeared in 1971 as the brainchild of Roy Thomas. The series began as a contingency plan for the cancellation of Doctor Strange. Thomas shrewdly figured out how to continue Strange’s story arc: by continuing it with a new team. He brought Strange together with the Hulk and Namor the Sub-Mariner to finish Strange’s plot line involving the planned invasion of Earth from beings from another dimension. And so the Defenders were born.

The Defenders had to establish its own identity quickly. All the major teams were already in place so The Defenders needed to claim its own corner of the Marvel Universe. They became Earth’s line of defense against mystical threats and in essence the team served as the as-needed backup for Doctor Strange, the Sorcerer Supreme of Earth.

The Defenders were branded a “non-team”: unlike the others they had no headquarters, no symbol, and their roster fluctuated wildly. The Defenders were a team of rugged individualists who could never be an Avenger (Joss Whedon beat them to the bunch by bringing some of that “band of misfits” energy to the Avengers films).

A major blow dealt to the series is the loss of Doctor Strange. Strange is more of a constant presence in the Defenders than any other single Marvel character has been to any other Marvel superhero team. If you’re asking why Strange isn’t in the Netflix series, the answer lies in the unsexy world of corporate structuring.

Marvel Studios and Marvel Television have for some time regarded one another as stepsisters despite the central conceit that the so-called Marvel Cinematic Universe would reflect the unity and continuity of plot in a way heretofore only seen in the comics. Lore has it that the split began when Marvel TV decided to resurrect Agent Phil Coulson (much to the consternation of the Marvel Studios), the everyman SHIELD agent whose death cemented the Avengers as a team. This seems to be largely accurate. Agent Coulson was a mainstay in the Marvel films before his “death” in Avengers. Since his small screen resurrection, he has not appeared in any of the films or even been mentioned (even in Age of Ultron when it would’ve made sense). As a result, the Marvel TV series became the bastard sons of the Marvel movies; the shows would pattern themselves after the storylines of the films, the films pretended the series didn’t exist. This has been frustrating to fans since it violates the whole idea we were promised when Iron Man was released 9 years ago.

And worse yet, the problem has gotten worse. Now the bastard sons, having grown tired of rejection, have walked away from the family.  In the Netflix series there has been a marked decline with every show of references to the big events of the MCU. Loki’s thwarted invasion of Manhattan is crucial to the first season of Daredevil and is mentioned many times in the first season of Luke Cage. But in both Iron Fist and The Defenders it is never mentioned once; nor are Ultron, the Sokovia Accords (which make it a crime to practice superheroing without government registration and oversight), or the fact that the Avengers dissolved spectacularly in a very public brawl.

Doctor Strange was claimed by Marvel Studios and denied to Marvel TV, which is a shame not just for The Defenders but also for Doctor Strange because I’m quite certain the character would’ve been better served in a Netflix series than on the big screen.

Finally, when Marvel Studios honcho Kevin Feige outmaneuvered his boss Marvel Entertainment Chairman Isaac Perlmutter (famously conservative, both politically and with the purse strings), he took Marvel Studios away from Marvel Entertainment and put the parent company Disney in charge. This was a shrewd move and will likely be beneficial as now Feige can operate without any input from the Marvel Chairman (Perlmutter appears to have been somewhat toxic: he famously drove Joss Whedon into the arms of the competition, sparked standoffs with talent over pay, and once blocked Rebecca Hall’s character in Iron Man 3 from being the villain simply because she was a woman). But Marvel TV wasn’t part of that deal. They stayed under Perlmutter. So the rift has widened.

All of this leads to a curious sense of disconnection from the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is a shame. The timing of The Defenders is perfect since it coincides with the shift toward mysticism in the MCU. And the “non-team” element fits because the Defenders are in essence filling the void created by the implosion of the Avengers, an entity that is never once mentioned or referred to in the miniseries.

The idea that four loners are compelled to join forces to become a team because the team everyone relies on is MIA is the perfect comic book metaphor for life under Trump. The norms and oversight we’ve taken for granted became null and void on January 20, 2017 and many citizens have made the decision to become defenders as a result.

It would be easy to write another 10 pages about what The Defenders should have been, but let’s focus on what it is. For one, it is short. The Netflix solo series have all run 13 episodes and that is the most consistent complaint. By the 10th episode, these series, even at their best, begin treading water in order to fill out that episode count. The Defenders which one would assume could easily fill out 13 episodes, has a hard time filling out eight.

Plotting is often overrated in importance. But if you’re going to underplot a story, it better take up character development and/or rich, complex themes to fill the void and The Defenders does neither. Instead we get an endless procession of ‘what are YOU going to do” scenes, broken up by utterly uninspired fistfights.

Not one character in Defenders has anything approaching an arc either. The supporting characters that once brought so much to their respective solo shows, are relegated to waiting room small talk. Claire Temple, the fifth Defender in essence, who has been a vital presence in all four solo series is relegated to Love Interest. Claire’s payoff for entering this world appears to be the honor of getting to be Luke Cage’s lady (no small accomplishment, I grant you). It would have been great if she’d found a way to fulfill her own destiny in this culminating miniseries, like floating a proposal to Danny Rand to set up a clinic (perhaps with a hidden purpose of healing outlaw heroes), but this was beyond the imagination of the writing team.

And then there’s Alexandra, the putative nemesis. The miniseries reveals the casting of Sigourney Weaver to be nothing more than a stunt. Her character is a compendium of bad guy cliches and comes to naught. I hope she was paid well. Alexandra shores up one of the unspoken rules of comic book movies that showrunner Marco Ramirez and his staff foolishly flouted: do not make up villains. Draw from the source material.

The Hand returns and one hopes for the last time as the laughably generic sinister secret society (dripping with Yellow Peril Orientalism) is pushed past the point of absurdity. It’s objective is ill-defined, trite and nonsensical, the scenes between its immortal “fingers” is a crushing bore, and even their corporate cover (Midland Circle Financial) offers nothing of interest. Foolishly, I thought perhaps we’d learn that all of their origins- Matt Murdoch’s blinding, Jessica Jones’ car accident, Luke Cage’s experiment, and Danny Rand’s plane crash- are interconnected. We do not.

Again, with over three years to plan The Defenders, I am staggered by the poverty of ideas. We know they can’t fight the Chitauri in the way the Avengers did or travel to space but you can write interesting scenes as cheaply as you can write bad ones. Everything in Defenders is borrowed or a retread. The big bad guy twist from Luke Cage is employed again without any of the emotional impact that made the twist work in the earlier series. Daredevil has a climactic battle that is almost dialogue identical to the helicarrier fight between Captain America and the Winter Soldier.

Marvel's The Defenders

Worst of all, The Defenders doesn’t copy the good stuff from better films. The Defenders never have the “now we’re a team” moment one needs in this kind of story (e.g., using their skills in tandem to defeat something they’d be unable to stop alone). The creators seem to think having them stand shoulder to shoulder makes them a team.

The Defenders was always going to be tricky. Combining street-level action with the epic dimensions of a team story is contradictory at best. But after the stupefyingly poor Iron Fist series and what looks to be an ill-conceived Inhumans show over on ABC (word has it Perlmutter insisted the Inhumans become the X-Men of the MCU despite almost no significant fan interest in the show) it appears that Marvel TV is at a crossroads. Perlmutter’s parsimoniousness combined with Marvel TV honcho Jeph Loeb’s lackluster attempt to compete with Marvel Studios is ruining the entire endeavor which at one brief, shining point looked stronger and more interesting than the theatrical releases.

Next we’ll get a Punisher series, and in the next few years, new seasons of all four of the Defenders’ solo shows. Loeb has been vague about whether or not there will be a second season of The Defenders (I would prefer a Daughters of the Dragon miniseries that puts Misty Knight and Colleen Wing front and center). Loeb and company still have the characters they need to make TV series every bit as good as the best of the theatrical offerings. The Marvel films work best when they hire a storyteller who connects to the material in a deep way, and the Marvel TV series need to find showrunners with the same passion.

 

Brandon Wilson is a Los Angeles-based filmmaker and educator. He has directed numerous short films and two feature films, most recently “Sepulveda” sepulvedathemovie.com which he co-directed with his wife Jena English. He writes essays on film and culture at geniusbastard.com. He also tweets a lot.

So You’ve Made A Comic? Now What? A Reviewer’s Guide To Getting Our Attention.

So you’ve made a comic? Now what? Well now you’ve put in the hard work creating your comic, graphic novel or anthology you probably want to get some coverage, but how do you do that?

There are a couple of options, and what works for you may not work for another, just as there’s also a chance that you’ve thought of something I haven’t – I’m not claiming to be an expert in this because I’ve never reached out for coverage for a comic I have created simply because I’ve never created a comic. But that said, I have done my best to promote as many independent comics as I can so any and all tips from here on out are going to be based on what to do in order to garner the attention of the websites and the folks writing for them based primarily (but not exclusively) on my own experiences.


We’re often quite busy. I’m not saying this to sound important, but one of the first things you’ll want to be aware of is that a lot of reviewers don’t get paid for doing what we do. What this means is that we’re often balancing a full time job, school of some level and/or a part time job as well as our typical duties for the website. Personally, for me that looks like two columns a week (one of which requires between eight to twelve comics being read), between one to four reviews as well as a couple of other features on top of a day job. The reason I want to make you aware of this is that unless our main source of income is from the site we write for, there’s an excellent chance that our time is quite limited. What that means for you is that if we don’t cover your comic it isn’t because we don’t like you or your work, it’s because we just don’t have time and, unfortunately, it didn’t jump out at us so you’ll want to spend some time…

Crafting your pitch. What that means is that you’re going to want to make your pitch stand out. Whether that’s with a deep synopsis that gives an accurate, largely spoiler free overview of your comic or a two line elevator pitch; if you’re able to make an impression then you’re ahead of the game. One of the best pitches I’ve ever heard came from Markisan Naso for Voracious: “Time travelling chef hunts dinosaurs.” It may be very short, but it drew me right in without the need to see any art whatsoever because if you can grab me with a brief synopsis then I’m yours. However, in talking to other contributors, I’ve come to learn that some are more likely to ignore a pitch because there isn’t any art included – something to keep in mind when writing your emails. Make us want to read your comic. 

Do more than the bare minimum when contacting sites. While many sites have a “Contact Us” form that encourages you send submissions through this way (and honestly, it’s a great option), some contributors tend to gravitate toward covering comics from those they have a preexisting relationship with, whether digitally or in person. For the sake of this guide, I’m going to assume you don’t have a friend or acquaintance writing about comics. So what can you do? First, spend a bit of time finding reviewers who tend to cover a similar style of comic than the one you have to offer, and try to approach them directly; for example whereas I’ve got a fondness for steampunk, fantasy, and vigilante stories I don’t tend to read as many horror comics as other folks, so am I the best person to cover your reinvention of Dracula? Take some time and figure out who you want to read your comic (but don’t put all your eggs in one basket).

Food for thought: Speaking from experience I’m more likely to cover a comic from a person who has contacted me directly than from a Contact Us form (I have a much higher rate of return on those because I tend to see less), but I’ve covered more comics that have come to me from such a form than I’ve been sent directly.

Reach out to a reviewer directly. However your comic ends up getting coverage, once it does, reach out to those who took the time to do so – you can usually find our names somewhere on the article byline – and offer some form of (purely verbal) appreciation. It’s a simple step, and often overlooked, but it can pay off in the future simply because once a dialogue is established between yourself and a reviewer then it’s easier to keep the flaky reviewer engaged. Once you’ve got their attention, then there’s  greater chance that they’ll cover your next project. I say that from personal experience, but it was also a common theme with the contributors I spoke with.

Take advantage of our laziness. A review is great, but what about a preview? This is where a press release comes in super handy. Have you ever noticed how most previews are exactly the same across multiple different sites? There’s a reason for that; most sites will just rewrite the press release (if they even bother to do that) so that it fits the style of the website publishing the preview. So if you want additional coverage other than a review or interview, provide a press release.

Help us help you. It’s corny, but something as simple as a link to where people can buy your comic. I’ll always include it if it’s provided, and sometimes I’ll track it down if it isn’t, but not always. This is especially crucial for digital only comics.

Don’t be discouraged if we don’t cover your comic right away. Sometimes we genuinely are very busy. If you get a quick turnaround, great, but be prepared to wait at least a week, if not closer to a month before you see a review (personally I consider two weeks to be a good turnaround for myself, so take that into consideration). We don’t always get the time to cover what we want to cover right away – for example there are two issues that sat on my desk top that have been there for nearly a month that I haven’t read yet.


Hopefully the above tips will help you out a little once you’re ready to send your comic around. Thank you to Ben Howard, Patrick Goddard and Elana Levin who also contributed to this guide.

Listen to Dr Sheena Howard and David Walker Talk Catalyst Prime’s Superb on Demand

On demand: iTunes ¦ Sound Cloud ¦ Stitcher ¦ BlogTalkRadio ¦ Listed on podcastdirectory.com

Written by David Walker and Dr. Sheena C. Howard Superb follows teenager Kayla Tate who is forced to move back to her hometown of Youngstown, Ohio. Meanwhile, the mysterious superhero Cosmosis battles the supposedly-benevolent corporation Foresight. The series is unique in that the superhero, Jonah, has Down Syndrome. Lion Forge is also working with the National Down Syndrome Society on the portrayal of the character and will include educational material for readers.

Joining Graphic Policy Radio to discuss Superb is writers David Walker and Sheena C. Howard.

Sheena C. Howard, is a Past Chair of the Black Caucus and Associate Professor of Communication at Rider University. Howard is an award-winning author. That includes a 2014 Eisner Award winner for her first book, Black Comics: Politics of Race and Representation. She’s also the author of Black Queer Identity Matrix and Critical Articulations of Race, Gender and Sexual Orientation. Howard has appeared on NPR, The Washington Post, ABC, Philadelphia Weekly as well as other networks and documentaries as an expert on popular culture, race, politics and sexual identity negotiation. She also writes for The Huffington Post.

David F. Walker’s an award-winning comic book writer, author, filmmaker, journalist, and educator. His work in comic books includes working with Dynamite, Marvel, IDW/Monkeybrain, and Dark Horse. He’s also the creator of the YA series The Adventures of Darius Logan.

Walker is recognized as a leading scholar expert of African-American cinema. Walker has directed and produced films, written for numerous sites as screen editor and film critic, and taught courses such as documentary filmmaking, writing for comics, and film criticism.

Listen to the show on demand and take in on the go.

Have Them Fight God: Everything Starts on Yancy Street

I’m reading every Fantastic Four comic and posting four thoughts on each. The concept of articles about the Fantastic Four was invented by Rich Johnston. No infringement is intended.

Today it’s…

Spider-Man #90

Spider-Man_Vol_1_90

… from April 1998. A Spider-Man/Fantastic Four team-up with a difference.  

Written by Howard Mackie. Penciled by John Romita Jr. Inked by Scott Hanna. Coloured by Gregory Wright. Lettered by Kiff Scholl. Edited by Ralph Macchio.

ONE

This issue is a prelude to an event called ‘Identity Crisis’ which….WAIT! STOP! COME BACK! It’s alright. It’s alright. Different ‘Identity Crisis.’ This one’s a bit of harmless fluff about Spider-Man dressing up in four different costumes as part of an elaborate plan to beat a murder rap. It’s bags of fun. Fun which I’m over-simplifying it a little, as Spidey doesn’t just adopt four new costumes but four new names, four new personae, four new fighting styles, and three new speech patterns. The costumes are what matters here though, as this issue is the origin of one of them.

The ‘Hornet’ costume he gets given by a friend, the ‘Ricochet’ costume Mary Jane puts together in a charity shop, the ‘Prodigy’ costume he and MJ design together, and the ‘Dusk’ costume is inherited from the figurehead of a revolutionary uprising within a universe of antimatter. Only that last costume is thought to need a whole introductory issue rather than a brief introductory flashback, which probably sounds fair enough until you know that the look the spider-spouses collaborated on is the one that involves Peter slathering himself in gold body paint and gluing on a big fake nose. My opinion on how entertaining their marriage is to read about could be completely reversed by twenty pages of them workshopping that. Trying on different noses. Brilliant.

But this issue is about introducing the Dusk costume, so let’s try concentrate on that. Which won’t be easy because the issue doesn’t. Before it gets to Dusk it introduces another new costume that’s got nothing to do with any of this. Another new costume that serves no narrative function whatsoever and which only gets referenced once in the text. “A little costume change,” notes Peter as he takes stock of the effects of being converted into anti-matter and crash-landing on an alien world. After that no more is said about it. Not much is shown of it either. Three pages pass between Peter noticing that he’s wearing something different and us getting a proper look at what it is he is wearing.

littlecostume   

That one panel, bunched up at the top right of a page, is as good as it gets for full-length looks at this outfit, which is then just shown in head shots, long shots and ass shots for another four pages before he changes out of it and into into the Dusk clobber. There is an implicit rationale for the design – Peter has been gifted part of the Dark Force of a vigilante called SHOC and this get-up shares some features with SHOC’s costume to the extent that it’s monochrome and John Romita JR-ish – but it’s still incredibly eccentric. We’re given a new costume for Spider-Man that isn’t talked about or shown off, and we’re given it in an issue whose purpose is to introduce a different costume for Spider-Man. What’s going on there?

I’ve got two guesses! Maybe you could look this up somewhere, but guessing is fun. One is that Romita Jr designed this costume for the ‘Identity Crisis’ event without it having been explained to him that the concept wasn’t ‘four different Spider-Mans’ but ‘Spider-Man dressed up as four different people who aren’t Spider-Man.’ The mix-up having left him with a spare spider-look, he decided to get some use out of it here whether the story called for it or not. Does that sound plausible? I don’t blame him at all if that’s how it went. This costume really is pretty cool. Monochrome Spider-Man outfits are almost always onto a winner – the symbiote costume, the Future Foundation costume – and this is no exception.

My other guess would be that JRJR was maybe just trying to put off drawing the Dusk costume for as long as possible because it’s a bit shit. It’s a featureless silhouette, such as could only be of any possible interest as a move in the Anish Kapoor/Stuart Semple artwar, and it’s got those stupid flying squirrel wings that join your arms to your legs. You know the things – Banshee has them sometimes and Spider-Man threatens to go that way whenever his armpit webs are getting out of hand. Here they’re even worse than usual. Take a silhouette, join its arms to its legs by big flaps of material, and put it in an action pose and all you’ve got’s a big ol’ blob. Monochrome Spider-Man outfits are almost always onto a winner and this is the exception.

I might hate the Dusk blob but it means a lot to the people of Tarsuu, the planet within the Negative Zone where all this is going on. There’s a heroic rebellion against an evil empire underway round those parts and Dusk was its inspirational leader until he went missing and a second Dusk took on the identity. That second Dusk  gets wounded in this story and passes the identity to Peter. At this point you’ve probably got suspicious that this is all a bit like the Dread Pirate Roberts from The Princess Bride and that there’s no single individual who is the authentic ‘Dusk’, just a myth and a lineage. Doesn’t seem to be the case though. The leader of the evil empire understands his opponent to be a singular, recognisable individual and the later Dusks to be imposters. The second Dusk believes that the first is out there somewhere, that he’s just keeping his seat warm, and his final words are an unheard repetition of his plea that Peter find the true Dusk.

So becoming Dusk, as it’s explained to Peter, doesn’t mean that you actually become Dusk. Just that you take on his responsibilities and the further responsibility of having a look round to see where the original’s gone. Which I think makes what he does next a little bit rude.

He deals a big blow to the evil empire, which is helpful. Then he gives a speech to the grateful rebels about how Dusk will always be with them when their need is greatest, which is a big fib but also probably helpful. Then he vamooses back to Earth, which is fair enough as it would have been a big ask for “Dusk fights an endless war across the Negative Zone” to be the new status quo of the Spider-Man titles, but the least he could have done is leave the costume behind for a fourth Dusk to stick on. The very least! What’s he need it for back on Earth? He can get new identities just by rummaging around charity shops and gluing on comedy noses, while these beleaguered rebels are short a mythic figurehead now he’s run off with their vantablack pyjamas! What a dick.

Look at what goes through his mind regarding the Dusk role. As he leaves Tarsuu everyone’s cheering him and he’s loving it. As, still dressed as Dusk, he returns to New York with some rescued kids then everyone there is cheering him and he’s loving that too. “I don’t mind basking in a little hero worship for a change,” he tells SHOC. Peter ends this issue thinking about how much he likes being Dusk because everyone likes Dusk.  But once ‘Identity Crisis’ starts then he’ll opt to play Dusk as a sinister crook and disgust himself so much that he’ll start showering excessively. Starting to suspect this boy doesn’t want to be happy.      

Someone else inherits this identity after Peter, so maybe she eventually returns to Tarsuu, finds the original Dusk and sorts it all out. Looking her up, it seems like she falls off a roof and dies in her first appearance so it doesn’t sound too promising.  

TWO

There’s a lot of overlap between the world of Spider-Man and the world of the Fantastic Four and many team-up stories explore that, but there’s another sort of Spidey/FF adventure that works by putting Spider-Man in the parts of their world that are not part of his. Often those stories are written by Dan Slott and often they’re my favourites.

I’m thinking of things like that abortive trip to ‘a weird dimension’ from Spider-Man/Human Torch #2 or the two different jaunts to the Macroverse we see in Amazing Spider-Man #590-1. Stories that have the Fantastic Four going about their most generic day to day work of travelling to new realities with different laws of physics and finding themselves in circumstances where they have to decide the fate of entire alien civilisations, some of which will probably be some kind of techno-barbarians who’ve glued canons to big lizards. The sort of FF stories that can become very overfamiliar, but defamiliarised by having Peter Parker along to be freaked out by it all.

HTFGjaunt  

Beyond having Spider-Man be alarmed and refreshed by the technobabble and the Kirby dots, stories that contrast his life with the Fantastic Four’s tend to want us to notice two big differences; Scale and integration. Swapping jobs for a day in that Spider-Man/Human Torch issue then Peter wishes Johnny good luck with saving the city and Johnny tells him he’ll need good luck with saving the universe. We’ll investigate scale below, but the basic idea of having Spider-Man visit somewhere called ‘the macroverse’ is obviously to put forward the idea that he’s stepping into a bigger world.

Integration’s where the real emotional stakes are in contrasting Spider-Man’s life with theirs. His life is defined by a harsh separation of its components and by the horrors that arise from his struggles and failures to keep those walls up. The Fantastic Four’s lives are defined by the absence of those walls. Being adventurers and being a family are the same thing for the FF, family is the word for the adventure they’re on, and so there’s a real poignancy in seeing Peter Parker on a Fantastic Four adventure. They’re inviting him into their family, where they all have reasons to want him, and there are limits to the extent to which he’s capable of accepting. Limits set by his inability to imagine living one life where the pieces fit together. Imagining being five different people is easier for him than that.       

Spider-Man #90 has almost all the features of a story in which Spidey tags along on an FF romp. We open on Yancy Street, part of their New York, not his. Mary Jane immediately understands that they’ve stepped out of their personal story space and opens the issue with the words, “I told you we shouldn’t have gone walking in this part of town.” Sure enough, this part of town soon leads us to the Distortion Field, and the Negative Zone, and Blastaar the Living Bomb-Burst and having to decide the fate of entire alien civilisations, and everything short of techno-barbarians gluing canons to big lizards.  As soon as he swings down on to Yancy Street then, other than a brief appearance by SHOC, everything he encounters originates from, or is typical of, the Fantastic Four mythos. Spider-Man spends none of this issue in a Spider-Man story.

One odd thing though. The Fantastic Four aren’t in this comic anywhere.

That’s annoyingly disruptive for the rules I’ve chosen for what this project is and isn’t supposed to cover, but really interesting in terms of what it reveals. How does Spider-Man cope with a Fantastic Four crossover to which only he’s shown up?

The answer is “Um…kind of…better?” Or at least with much more comfort and confidence. Part of that is because they’re with him in spirit as a knowledge base; He can remember what Reed once told him about surviving the Distortion Area. He can remember what Johnny once told him about fighting Blastaar. With all these facts in his head he breezes through this issue with aplomb, leaping between worlds and toppling empires without breaking a sweat. He has a lovely time and everyone’s very pleased with him.

If Spider-Man’s life contrasts with the Fantastic Four’s in terms of scale and integration then it’s clearly not the scale part that spins him out. He ignites flames of revolution that burn from world to world without really stopping to reflect that this is an unusual day’s work for him. When it does register then it’s with mild approval. “This is cool! I get to fly… and have an entire world singing my praises!” is as reflective as he gets.  

Spider-Man can step out of his life and into the Fantastic Four’s and it doesn’t rattle him at all. As long as they’re not there. As long as there’s nothing to remind him that the parts of one’s life are parts of a whole.  

THREE

In Onslaught/Heroes Reborn, as I find myself summarising most weeks, the Fantastic Four and the Avengers died, only to be somehow transferred across to a new universe of Franklin’s creation. A lot of things happened and then they sailed back to their original lives in a big space boat.

I am fascinated by every trivial detail surrounding the journey in that big space boat. It feels to me like such a strange and poetic move between the physical and the metaphysical. The heroes who Franklin initially shunted over into his world have different bodies and minds to those that died in their own, so if we grant that he really did save anyone then he can only have done so as an essence distinct from both physicality and consciousness. Those who entered Franklin’s world did so as souls. Then they left it by all physically getting on a big space boat.

How they reenter their original universe is not consistent. The boat explodes and the heroes return home at different times, in different places, with different mental health problems and with differing levels of memory regarding the alternate lives they’ve just lived. Nobody just passes from one world to another as a stable object; They’re run through Google Translate and then run back through it again the other way.

This comic is unusual in that it addresses Spider-Man having been on that boat.

Spider-Man didn’t die in Onslaught, nor did he get reborn in Heroes Reborn. He was kind of just along for the ride. Heroes Reborn: The Return saw him accidentally dragged into Franklin’s universe because he was holding the Hulk’s hair while the Hulk was being accidentally dragged in. Once there he performed his plot function of being an independent witness who could confirm to the Avengers and Fantastic Four that a bigger world existed and they were all from it. Then he stood politely in the background as he caught a lift home. He was with the Avengers and the Fantastic Four as they returned. He was on the boat when it exploded in the gulf between realities.

Then next we see him, in relation to these events, is in Marvel Team-Up #6, where it’s still the night of the Heroes return but now Peter is sat at home learning about it with Mary Jane. She’s keen for details and he’s not really got any to give, unable to recall what Franklin’s universe was, how anyone got there in the first place, or who made it back. The most he can manage is to say that it was “Weird. Very weird.” We don’t know how he got from that inter-reality explosion to that sofa, but the process seems to have left him with less than perfect recall of the details. Then, in Amazing Spider-Man #360, we see him swinging about shouting “They’re alive! They’re really alive!” as if this is information which he’s either only just learned or only just been convinced of. Everything suggests that, for Spider-Man, his late game involvement with Heroes Reborn has been left as a bit of a blur.

Here, however, he seems well appraised of the specifics. Passing through the Distortion Area, he thinks to himself, “I recognise [this] place. Made a trip through it not too long ago… during the return of the heroes from that strange universe. I think I heard Reed Richards call this the Distortion Field. A Portion of subspace where matter is converted into anti-matter and vice versa.”

What’s interesting about this isn’t the inconsistency but rather the consistency with how Heroes Reborn frames the Negative Zone. In Heroes Reborn it’s the place you go to remember things that happened to you outside of your life. The Reborn Fantastic Four visited there from inside Franklin’s universe, met Blastaar the Living Bomb-Burst, and received visions of their lives in their previous continuity. These visions changed Sue, who would continue to dream of a son she’d met but never had. Later, Reed proves to Tony Stark that their lives aren’t what they thought they were by getting him to carbon date some old rock; dating it within the world showed it to be a sensible age for some old rock to be, but taking it outside of the world and into the Negative Zone to run the test showed it to be less than a year old.       

If the logic of Heroes Reborn positions the Negative Zone as a figurative space between the Fantastic Four’s two lives, the logic of the boat trip home goes further, making it the literal gulf between the two realities in a complex multidimensional geography that brings in the Distortion Area and the literal boundaries of Franklin’s imagination and invokes the Microverse. All these bits of what Sandman calls “psychic real estate” are rezoned as places to be traversed in the act of translating yourself from one person to another. The Negative Zone is established as a space between who you are and who you aren’t. As places to acquire a new identity go, it’s at least as good as the rubber nose factory.    

FOUR

Some things become absurd when you try and systematise them (I’m reading every Fantastic Four comic and posting four thoughts on each). ComicVine’s summary of Fantastic Four #29, for example, lists the issue as featuring four different ‘teams’; The Fantastic Four, the Yancy Street Gang, Super-Apes, and Communists.

That FF issue is titled ‘It Started on Yancy Street…’ while this Spider-Man issue is titled ‘It Started on Yancy Street…Again!” but what event is recurring? Can’t find any Super-Apes or Communists round here.

They’re all over Fantastic Four #29 though. Especially the letters page, the story pages serving almost as a prequel to its debate over how Fantastic Four should address the Red Menace. Alex Nicholson from Nashville wants to see the FF continue to be pitted “against the forces of Communism, which is a much bigger threat to our nation than crime is” while Jim Gibson from Santa Rosa reckons that the book “should quit cutting down the Soviet Socialistic Republic’s leaders.” Jim is concerned that Fantastic Four might start to look a little like propaganda. Surely not!

As ever, the story itself has no interest in considering or discussing Communism as anything other than a Foreign Threat. It likes the idea that it’s Totalitarian, because that’s a bit like Nazis, but that’s about as concerned as it gets with any ideological critique.  But the story is very interested in puzzling through questions such as those raised by Nicholson from Nashville’s letter. Who should the Fantastic Four be fighting? Nicholson’s approach to answering the question is to consider various real world threats (“Crime! The Commies!”) and rank them in order of danger, with the FF best advised to direct their efforts against the most severe. That’s fine as far as it goes, but is sod all help in working out how they should prioritise time travelling Pharaohs and pranksters from the planet Poppup. Where do they fit on your national threat scale, eh Nicholson?

As Superman says in JLA Classified #3, superheroes live in a complex world. Comicvine has it right; Fantastic Four #29 has the Fantastic Four, a street gang, communists and super apes. It has all those things and a real interest in sussing out how they fit together. Does Spider-Man #90 have similar interests, or it it happier to live in the desert of the toybox? Let’s play both stories out alongside each other.

The Spider-Man of Ninety Ninety-Eight visits Yancy Street to investigate some Algerian cuisine he’s read about. The Fantastic Four of Nineteen Sixty-Four visit there to investigate a drastic rise in crime they’ve read about. One is under the impression that they’re someone who gets to go out for a nice meal and the other under the impression that they’re suited to investigating urban crime. Both are swiftly disabused of these notions, Spider-Man by witnessing some teenagers being dragged into another reality and the Fantastic Four by having some cabbages and things thrown at them. Spider-Man throws himself into the portal and the Fantastic Four just go home to have a think.

It starts on Yancy Street for both of them , but it leads them to very different places. On arriving in the Negative Zone, Peter clocks the space war that’s going on around him and thinks, “A good old-fashioned, George Lucas inspired, rebels versus the evil empire rebellion is taking place.” He’s keen to pitch in but unable to tell which side’s which. “Oops! Problem solved!” he says a panel later, “The bad guys would be the ones blasting the buildings with women and children.” His conclusions are shown to be uncannily correct, right down to the rebels being called ‘The Rebels’ and the empire being called ‘The Empire.’

Peter’s journey has two stops; from Yancy Street to the Negative Zone. The Fantastic Four’s has several. From Yancy Street back home to look up who might be behind all this in their Big Book of Baddies, then back to Yancy Street to fight Super-Apes, then to the Moon, then to the Watcher’s home. Each move comes with an escalation of scale; our first visit to Yancy Street deals with spiralling crime so petty that it would be truer to say the area has seen an alarming rise in the prevalence of pranks, our second visit deals with a Communist plot enacted with the help of super-apes, and from there the sky’s the limit.

“Let me warn you that this ship works on magnetic power and can be controlled only by my orangutan!” cautions the Red Ghost, and you’re not going to read a better sentence than that today. Magnets and monkeys lift us off to the moon, where our concerns eventually move beyond the solar system as the Watcher shows off his treasures from other galaxies and our dastardly communist foe falls through one of them and off into infinity.

That’s a move from the criminal, to the super-criminal, to global politics, to the solar system, to intergalactic space, to a vastness beyond knowing; Fantastic Four #29 but every time it gets faster. What’s remarkable though is, as we shift scales, everything remains in play. There’s a little of this in the Spider-Man comic. Peter found himself in the Negative Zone because of his attempt to rescue those teenagers and so, when the rebel leader asks him what he’s doing there, he answers “the protection of innocents” and the rebel leader concludes they are in the same line of work. But other than the endorsement of this uncontroversial principle, there’s no interpolation of the two worlds. Peter is not left with any impetus to fight crime on Tarsuu or incite revolutions on Earth. It starts on Yancy Street, but it will not continue there.

The Fantastic Four issue is the very opposite, in that story then everything is part of everything. Supervillainous microdrones buzz unnoticed around Yancy Street. Familial proximity to supervillains forces Ben to reevaluate his love life. The Russian space program begets super-apes. Super-apes fund street crime. The Fantastic Four may operate more effectively at certain scales, as they abandon their efforts at community policing Johnny comments that he hopes Spider-Man never hears of it, but once again it’s less a matter of scale than of integration. Because what happens on this one New York street happens because of Space Gods and the Cold War and what happens to Space Gods and in the Cold War happens because of one New York street. It starts on Yancy Street and it never leaves.

       

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