Saturday, November 26, 2005

Ghastly Rider

Throughout the 1960s, mainstream comics were growing up, growing away from the silly, tame, light-hearted fare for children to which they'd been forcibly reduced by the Wertham-inspired witchhunt of the 1950s. Marvel Comics led the way, with Stan Lee and his merry band crafting a gigantic comic universe populated by a more diverse and complex group of characters than the medium had ever seen. The 1970s opened with Marvel successfully challenging the overbearing restrictions of the Comics Code Authority, that most prominent remnant of the Wertham reign of terror. The move led to the reform of the code, and, with the straight-jacket loosened, the medium hit puberty, and an era of wild experimentation was inaugurated at Marvel. Old ideas were re-tooled, while new ones blossomed in remarkable abundance, and often seemed to be carried from thought directly to the page without much consideration as to how or even if they'd actually work in execution. It made for a lot of interesting work, both among the successes and the failures. Marvel has just collected, in one of their wonderful Essential volumes, the first few years of one such experiment, "Ghost Rider."

I was quite a "Ghost Rider" fan when I was younger, but I'd first gotten into it a little later in the run, during Michael Fleisher's excellent stint on the title, and I've never gotten to read most of these earliest tales. Unfortunately, having now done so, I can only report that "Ghost Rider" was a book that radically improved after the period covered in this first Essential volume. GR was launched by Gary Friedrich and Mike Ploog, the writer/artist team that would subsequently unleash upon the world the classic "Monster of Frankenstein." GR proves not to have been their most glorious moment. Ploog departs after four issues, and art chores on the title become a revolving door, but Friedrich stays on for 13 of the first 14, at which point he's replaced by the normally rock-solid Tony Isabella, whose run, reprinted in its entirety, is, likewise, not his finest moment. The book suffers from--and, in fact, is crippled by--a most common ailment of books from its era: no vision. Right from the beginning, there's no sense of what the book is supposed to be about or where it's supposed to be going or even what it is, and there's no more of a direction evident at the end of the 28 issues collected in this volume as there was at its beginning.

"Ghost Rider" tells the story of Johnny Blaze, stunt cyclist extraordinaire, who makes a pact with Satan to spare "Crash" Simpson, his adoptive father, from a disease which is killing him. There's not a single line or hint of buildup to Blaze's interest in the occult, prior to the page in which he decides to enter into this arrangement, and the panel in which he does so had me howling:

NARRATION:
...you couldn't go... Not when they needed you! Still, there was no one you could turn to... No one except...

BLAZE:
SATAN!

That "Satan" in HUGE letters, on the page, would have been funny, in any circumstance; a reader in a world that has experienced Dana Carvey's Church Lady character will, of course, find it even more amusing.

That little bit of silliness aside, Blaze makes the deal, and Simpson miraculously recovers from his illness. But the Devil proves, as devils usually will, not to have been an honest broker, and, three weeks later, Simpson is killed while performing a motorcycle stunt. Satan appears to collect on Blaze's debt, but, in the midst of working some horrific hoodoo on the stunned cyclist, he's interrupted by Roxanne Simpson, Blaze's adoptive sister and the love of his life. As it turns out, she's a woman "pure in heart," and her love for Johnny prevents Ol' Scratch from carting off Johnny's soul. Vowing vengeance, the stymied Satan departs, leaving his intended hoodoo half-worked. Half a hex is still a hex, though, and, with the coming of each night, Blaze finds himself transformed into... the Ghost Rider!

From this point, it becomes painfully clear the creative team had no clue where to take the story. Later in the series (beyond the scope of the Essential volume), the book's writers would introduce a Jekyll and Hyde element, explaining that the Ghost Rider is Johnny bonded with a VERY violent, ruthless, and powerful demon (the two having seperate personalities, always battling for dominance). In these early issues, however, the transformations, aside from being visually stunning, are pretty lame, as such tranformations go. Blaze retains his thoughts, and full control over himself, and the change doesn't even seem to give him any more stength or durability than he normally has. It almost begs the question of why the writers had him transform at all. Admittedly, having one's head change into a blazing skull every night is an inconvenience, but, under the circumstances established in early GR, it isn't really much more than that. In any case, it doesn't give one a direction in life, particularly one worth chronicling in a bi-monthly comic, so the book's standard plot, introduced in the second issue, becomes "Ludicrously incompetent Satan hatches some absurd and needlessly complex scheme to get revenge on Blaze, and fails." That, believe it or not, adequately describes the substance of the first 19 issues of the book.

Even that, however, doesn't come close to doing justice to how very little direction there seems to be to the title. Plot points are introduced then contradicted or discarded. The Ghost Rider's powers seem to change from one issue to the next, often with little or no explanation. Characters are created, developed, then disappear forever. It's quite a mess.

Satan proves to be one of the most incompetent Masters of Evil in comics. Unfortunately, this is an inherent flaw in the scenario established by the book's creators. For over half of the Essential volume, Roxanne's love for Johnny is the only thing protecting him from Satan--if she dies, Satan will possess his soul. The obvious answer, if you're Satan, is to kill her, which would seem a VERY simple matter for any Prince of Darkness worthy of his title. This one doesn't quite seem to have gotten the hang of this "Evil" business, yet, though. He tries to kill her once, in the second issue, but his plan for seeing it done is so absurdly convoluted, it comes off as farce. He has the soul of Roxanne's father, Crash Simpson, returned to earth in a new body to do the deed, but instead of simply having Crash shoot her, stab her, bludgeon her, or kill her in any of the hundreds of easily available ways, Crash is ordered to "sacrifice" her to Satan. This leads to some cheesy b-horror-flick-derived "Satanism," and Roxanne escaping, as GR rides to the rescue. Satan and Crash are even thoughtful enough to schedule the planned sacrifice at night--the night after they kidnap Roxanne--so that Blaze could be transformed into GR for the occasion. From this point, issue after issue is filled with Satan huffing and puffing, threatening, menacing, and all the while watching his laughably ineffectual scheming fail miserably because he doesn't attempt a simple assassination that would solve all of his problems. Worse, four issues after trying to do her in, one of Satan's minions actually saves Roxanne's life when she's on the verge of death from snake-bites!

As those snake bites indicate, the fact that Satan is too incompetent to simply arrange for her death doesn't mean Roxanne has a very good time in these stories. She is, in fact, kidnapped four times in the first four story arcs, menaced by a mentally unstable fellow in the the fifth, then kidnapped again in the sixth, this time by Satan himself. When she leaves the book for a time, the damsel-in-distress role is assumed by Daredevil gal-pal Karen Page, who dutifully gets kidnapped by the Orb then by Death Stalker. Before the book's end, however, Roxanne is back and being kidnapped again, this time by a being known as the Challenger, who swipes her in order to force Johnny to run an odd "race" designed to challenge him "on every level" (the Challenger, btw, turns out--no surprise, here--to be Satan, undertaking another of his ridiculous schemes).

Storywise, the collection's lowest point is the story arcs set in Arizona, during which it's fairly obvious that the very creative people working on the book are merely grinding it out for a paycheck. It's difficult to overstate this; the book becomes almost completely incomprehensible. Johnny plans to jump "Copperhead Canyon" on his bike. He run afoul of some local Indians who say the canyon rightfully belongs to them. They're in court trying to get it back, but if Blaze jumps it and "makes if famous", they're afraid they won't be able to reacquire it. Go figure. Their leader is a medicine man named Snake Dance, who describes his goal as delivering his people from "hunger" and "despair." In his first appearance, he demonstrates the power to control the minds of others, conjure serpents from thin air, and even tranform himself into a giant snake monster; by his second issue, he's revealed to be a charlatan without any real powers, and no effort is ever made to explain how he accomplished any of his previous feats. This revelation also makes rubbish of his grand scheme, which is to kidnap and sacrifice Roxanne to a "snake god." He sees her death as an unfortunate but necessary part of his charade. It's never clear how needlessly bringing kidnapping and murder charges upon himself would further his aims of helping his people. It's just an excuse for filling more pages. So Roxanne is once again kidnapped, once again about to be sacrificed, and once again saved by GR. By the next issue, Snake Dance's story changes again and he's presented as a crazy old man who genuinely believed that the sacrifice would mean "the gods would smile on our people once more." Whew.[1]

With this last flip-flop, we're introduced to Snake Dance's daughter, Linda Little Tree (in later issues, because, I guess, no one could remember, "Linda Littletrees"). Much time is spent on Linda, and it seems as though she's being primed to become a major character in the book. It's revealed that, as a child, she was once saved from being hit by a truck by Crash Simpson. She's given a lengthy origin story; most of Spotlight #11 is dedicated to detailing her past. Unfortunately, Friedrich simply treats her as more page-filler--she's created, developed, then thrown away, just when it looks as though she's about to become a regular. Her story begins with her posing as a skeptic of superstition. She's quickly revealed, however, to be a witch in the service of Satan. Roxanne is, at this point, dying from those snake bites (acquired during her near-sacrifice), but Linda, Satan's little helper, inexplicably saves her life. Even more inexplicably, she then goes forth to claim Johnny's soul for her boss, something she'd theoretically just rendered impossible. She fails, of course, and she's ordered to destroy herself. She does so in spectacular fashion, setting herself ablaze and diving from a cliff. In the next issue though, her entirely unburned and unbroken self turns up at her father's house, in a trance. Satan possesses her body and goes forth to commit more mischief. Much pointless page-filler follows, including a crossover with Daimon Hellstrom, the rebel Son of Satan. At the end of it, Linda is returned from Hell to Earth and apparently restored to normal; no longer dead, no longer a witch, no longer under Satan's power, and stripped of her own powers--no explanation for any of it.[2] She was earlier established to have a fiancee, but he disappears and is never mentioned again, as Friedrich begins setting up Linda as a romantic rival for Johnny's affections--she's suddenly seriously aflame for Blaze, and she has it bad. So bad, in fact, that she follows him to Las Vegas. Seeing Roxanne there in his arms, she seethes. "I should just march in and claw her eyes out. But I won't! If I bide my time, my moment's sure to come!" She apparently stays there, in Vegas, for two months while Johnny recovers from some injuries. The first time she tries to put the moves on the cursed cyclist though, he kicks her to the curb and she's never seen again!

In the Vegas storyline that follows, Johnny goes to work for stock car promoter Dude Jensen. At first, Jensen is just a corrupt businessman. He owns enough police and politicians to get Johnny out of a legal jam and he even puts out a hit on an independent driver who, he says, is "costing me a fortune." The book's lack of focus rears its head again though. After the first issue set-up, Friedrich leaves and the story is completed by Doug Moench and Marv Wolfman, who have Jensen suddenly emerge as yet another of Satan's little helpers. He partakes of the book's tradition of kidnapping Roxanne then sets out to burn Las Vegas, but the Ghost Rider puts him away.

With "Ghost Rider" #6, Tony Isabella assumes the authorial reins with the obvious intention of turning the book into more of a regular superhero comic and away from horror-related stories. The pronounced shift in tone isn't as jarring as it would be on most books precisely because the book had already proven to be so lacking in any other direction--it comes across as par-for-the-course. In his first storyline, Isabella has GR team up with the Stunt-Master, a rather lame reformed villain (the Stunt-Master's own creator once dismissed him as "a very lackluster character."[3]). The two join forces to take down a super-villain, Aquarius, but, in a tip of the hat to the previous GR tales, the villain turns out to be--you guessed it--another servant of Satan. Ack!

By his third issue, Isabella begins his most talked-about change in the book. Satan kidnaps Roxanne, insists he still has possession of her father's soul, then tells her he could be persuaded to release it if she'd only renounce her pesky love for Johnny. Poor Roxanne comes across as a bit of a twit; after a little finagling, she takes the bait. Satan howls with delight, tells her he'd never had possession of her father's soul and mocks her for handing him Blaze's soul on a silver platter. Why her "renouncing" her love for Johnny when she still, in fact, loved him would have changed anything isn't clear, nor is there any reason offered for why she can't just un-renounce him, when informed she's been duped. As sloppily as it's done, though, this still comes across as a gutsy move by Isabella. The whole "Roxanne's love" thing had been used as a deus ex machina device from the beginning of the series. No matter what else happened in the book, it was always there to foil Satan's various schemes. Isabella would have deserved kudos for removing it, except for the fact that, only six pages later, he immediately replaced it with an even bigger deus ex machina.[4] Just as GR is about to buy the farm, no less than Jesus Christ appears on the streets of Sausalito to save his bacon, and tell Satan that "Johnny Blaze's soul is beyond you."

The introduction of Jesus acts as a check on Satan's scheming and results in a brief period of stability wherein the book focuses on standard-issue superhero stuff. GR battles the Orb, the Trapster, and, most implausibly, the Hulk, who can withstand brief period in the open vaccuum of space but is defeated, in "Ghost Rider," by having GR use fire to "burn up all the oxygen in the air around him" (while he just stands there, stationary) until he faints. Yeah, that's really in the book. There's an even worse fill-in issue during this period by Bill Mantlo and Geoge Tuska, where GR goes to Mexico and tangles with a fellow who obsessively shoots dolphins (don't ask). The standout story in the entire Essential collection, however, occurs during this period. It's "Phantom of the Killer Skies," from issue #12, which sees the Phantom Eagle, a hero of the first World War, return as a ghost to haunt the man who, 60 years earlier, murdered he and his parents. It's a fantastic read from beginning to end and features the first--and best--work on GR by the late, great Frank Robbins, whose artwork here, under the inks of Frank Giacoia and Mike Esposito, is pure Golden Age-style poetry. Though GR's involvement is merely peripheral, the story is much closer to the kind the book would see in its later glory days, and is actually out-of-step with the rest of Isabella's effort to turn GR into just another superhero book. Reading through these stories, I came to see that effort as terribly misguided. Admittedly, I'm perhaps not the best judge of this, being tainted by knowledge of (and affection for) what the book later became, but this sort of approach came across, to me, as an extended exercise in missing the point; failing to recognize what made GR unique. Nearly all of these stories could just as easily have appeared in Spider-Man, Daredevil, Captain America and any number of other Marvel books of the time, with GR seamlessly replaced with one of those characters. "Phantom of the Killer Skies," on the other hand, would have looked quite strange in one of those books. It looks out of place among the other superhero tales in this phase of "Ghost Rider," but it points the way to the better material that was to come.

Isabella has complained bitterly about the sabotaging of the conclusion of his run by Jim Shooter (who, after Isabella's departure, would briefly assume writing chores on the book). Shooter changed Isabella's story so that the Jesus whom Isabella had introduced was revealed as a phony, a ploy by Satan. Shooter's actions, as described by Isabella, were undeniably ham-handed--among other things, the changes were instituted after the issue had already been finished--and, of course, Shooter is notorious for being an overbearing ass. Still, given the title as it had existed to that point and given the fantastic book it later became, I suspect history's ultimate judgment is that those changes were for the best, whether anyone at the time realized it or not. I'm a fan of Isabella's work and I certainly disagree (quite strongly) with his own assessment that his run was "one of the best extended stories I ever wrote." Aside from the excellent #12, I found very little in his time on GR to recommend, and I found his description of what he would have done with the book, had he remained on it, equally uninspiring,[5] particularly compared to the direction in which the book was ultimately taken. It's undeniable that Shooter's changes made a hash of the Jesus plot. In all honesty though, the book was already a hash. As I think I've indicated here, a lot of what Isabella had, himself, done with the book was just as bad (including introducing the Jesus plot in the first place). The changes by Shooter aren't particularly jarring by the time one gets to them--by then, it's just the sort of thing one has come to expect from the book.

The Essential volume concludes with a two-part crossover with Daredevil, a standard-issue superhero slugfest written by Marv Wolfman and with art by John Byrne. Byrne's artwork is excellent, as usual. The story wouldn't belong in this collection, though, if it didn't inaugurate some new and bizarre change, and Wolfman's script radically alters Johnny's previously rather nondescript speech pattern into a thick Southern accent, reminiscent of Jonah Hex. Go figure.

Early "Ghost Rider" hasn't yet found its way, and in this respect it's reflective of many of the various experiments of its era. A lot of the others never got their act together and went away. GR grew into a much better book and became a success. Another pair of Essential books could collect the rest of the original run. The good news is that Marvel has, for a while now, been timing the release of their Essentials to coincide with the release of films based on the characters, and with the "Ghost Rider" movie scheduled for next year, we're likely to get a second--and much better--Ghost Rider volume in the near future (probably the only good thing that will come out of that movie).

--j.

----

[1] The Arizona-set storylines put away another page-filler subplot Friedrich had introduced then taken nowhere. Back in Showcase #7, he'd brought in a character named Bart Slade, a security man for the cycle show Johnny and Roxanne own. In the course of his 7 issues, he appears a handful of times to secretly pine for Roxanne, then, in Arizona, is ignominiously killed while trying to jump Copperhead Canyon, after Johnny goes MIA.

[2] While all of this is going on, Roxanne is kidnapped yet again, this time by a no-good thug of a biker by name of Big Daddy Dawson. Blaze being a bit of a celebrity, this bright boy assumes he's all money-bags, and plans to ransom the lass for big bucks. Unfortunately for him, the Ghost Rider, freshly returned from Hell, catches him first, and the hog-riding pig is reduced to a mere pork rind.

[3] Roy Thomas, interview, Comic Book Artist #13.

[4] He later admitted "I set up the scenario...and probably discovered I'd written myself into a corner." --Tony Isabella, "Vengeance Unleashed" interview

[5] Johnny becomes a Christian, reclaims his soul, and "you wouldn't have seen either Jesus or Satan in the book again. Johnny would have led his new life according to Christian principles, but without the heavy religious overtones I'd brought into the book specifically to bring Johnny to this point. He would have continued his dual careers: working as a Hollywood stuntman and helping people as the Ghost Rider. He and Roxanne would have married and had as normal a life--kids and all--as possible in a super-hero comic book. I'd always pictured Johnny as a motorized cowboy and this new direction would have transformed him from Kid Colt Outlaw to the Lone Ranger." --Isabella, interview with John Knutson

Sunday, October 30, 2005

The Tangled Web of "Spider-Man 2"

It raked in a fortune at the box office, was greeted with nearly universal critical approval, and, in the year since its release, has frequently been a hailed as one of the best comic book movies of all time. Often, as the best.

But I didn't like SPIDER-MAN 2.

More than that, I didn't even think it was a good movie. I didn't hate it, though my reaction to it admittedly becomes much firmer when faced with the blind adoration of many of its fans. It had its moments, some of them wonderful. Overall, though, not good. Frequently awful, in fact. Inferior to the mostly excellent original in pretty much every meaningful way.

Being a lifelong comic fan, I'm always trying, when I begin one of these reviews, to work out some sort of formula that allows me to offer criticism of these movies as both movies and as adaptations. A movie can, after all, be a good one even if it's a poor adaptation, just as the reverse can be the case, if the material isn't well suited for the screen. For fans of the characters and stories, of course, the ideal is to have both a good film and a good adaptation. For this piece, I'm not going to make as much of an effort to separate the two, aiming, instead, for something a little less structured and a lot more free-flowing; more like a series of observations. This are several potential pit-falls to this approach, and I may not avoid them all. For the record, though, I'm not one who thinks a poor adaptation necessarily makes for a poor film.

On with the show...

In discussing the film in different venues, I've often referred to it as SPIDER-MAN 1 FOR MORONS. Thematically, the movie is simply a rehash of SPIDER-MAN, retreading the same power/responsibility theme that had already been covered in the first film and doing so in exactly the same way, often using exactly the same scenes. Have great power, shirk responsibility, bad things happen, resume responsibility. Rinse. Or, depending on the metaphor one feels is more appropriate, wipe and flush. Essentially a remake, it adds exactly nothing to the story of the original film and in fact takes much away from it in the retelling. Most of the humor is eliminated, most of the elements that allowed us to identify with Peter are removed or severely watered-down, and, most egregiously, the story is retold with all the subtlety of a loaded log-truck traveling up a bad road. Lots of noise, lots of flash, lots of driving home the points the film wants to make in sledgehammer-to-the-face fashion, but far less intelligence, little charm, little wit, and no real point.

This alone isn't necessarily sufficient grounds to damn SPIDER-MAN 2. The power/responsibility theme, even if it is simply being rehashed, is still a Spider-Man theme (though, as I'll get into in a moment, the movie deviates wildly from the source material in most matters). And big, dumbed-down rehashes can be fun sometimes, too.

"Fun," however, isn't a word in the vocabulary of SPIDER-MAN 2.

In the comics, being Spider-Man caused Peter Parker plenty of problems but it also served as a release from the frequently high stress of his ordinary life. As Spider-Man, he could swing free through the city on a pleasant day, flip off rooftops with reckless abandon and be as big a clown as he wanted. The mask freed him. As dangerous as his activities could be, they were also fun. His Spider-Man persona was that of a merry prankster, a smartass, always throwing wisecracks, relentlessly teasing and taunting the stuffy underworld stiffs he battled, revelling in the role.

This is a crucial elements of Spider-Man, one of the central ones. The first film, though arguably underplaying it, clearly understood it. The second, however, hasn't a clue. Being Spider-Man is presented in it as some sort of cold, harsh discipline, to be engaged in relentlessly, joylessly, in martial fashion, and as a matter of "responsible behavior," regardless of whatever trouble it may cause in one's own life. Everything else is to be held as a secondary concern; the discipline must always come first.

This is, to put it mildly, quite out of step with the spirit of Spider-Man. Having chosen to shear away such a crucial element of the character, however, director Sam Raimi inexplicably chooses, as the major source for the film's story, a plotline from the comics which depended entirely upon this clown persona element he'd excised. The result is a hollow adaptation, one that uses superficial elements of the original story to tell an entirely different one.

In "Spider-Man No More,"[1] the principal comic story from which most of SPIDER-MAN 2 is drawn, Peter, after years as a costumed crimefighter, had lost touch with why he'd become Spider-Man in the first place. Maintaining the identity was causing him a lot of problems and he was becoming convinced that, because it was fun, and got in the way of his more adult pursuits, it was an immature thing. "...every boy, sooner or later," Peter thinks, "must put away his toys, and become a man." It was time to grow up, so "toy" Spidey went in the trash, in that famous image from the comic recreated in the movie. After Peter renounced his secret identity, crime became, for him, what it is to most people; a distant thing about which he heard on the news. Though it took some adjusting, this distance made it much easier to ignore. One night, though, Peter, passing by a warehouse, sees a night watchman being attacked by a pair of thugs. With the crime no longer distant but right there, up close and personal, he doesn't hesitate for a moment to jump into the fray and put away the two would-be thieves. The incident and the sight of the watchman, an older fellow, bring flooding back the memory of his Uncle Ben and of the reason he really became Spider-Man--those things with which he'd lost touch--and this makes him realize he'd gotten the equation reversed. Spider-Man wasn't a toy of childhood. It was his mature acceptance of responsibility, not a youthful shirking of it. He reclaims the mask and swears that no one will ever come to harm because Spider-Man failed to act.

In SPIDER-MAN 2, being Spider-Man isn't something Peter enjoys at all and, though he helps others, it seems to serve no positive function in his own life--it is, instead, a joyless exercise through which he puts himself in almost masochistic fashion and that he allows to utterly consume his life because he feels it's the responsible thing to do. He hasn't lost touch with why he became Spider-Man. He has, in fact, become obsessed by it to a very unhealthy degree. When he has an imaginary conversation with his deceased Uncle Ben and tells him he's going to stop being Spider-Man, it's a conscious walking away from what he'd seen and accepted as a responsibility.[2] Such a characterization of Peter is a drastic deviation from "Spider-Man No More," and from nearly all of the over 40 years worth of comic stories. This sharp disconnect from the source material is made even sharper by a scene in which Peter witnesses a mugging a few feet away from him, mirroring the one in the original "Spider-Man No More" story, and, with the victim yelling for help, just walks away.[3]

Such a gross mischaracterization is actually the point where an earlier ill-conceived snowball became an avalanche. That early snowball was set to rolling at the end of the first film, when Peter tells M.J., the love of his life, that he can only be her friend, nothing more. It was only one scene, and, troubling though it was, it did arguably help give a more operatic ending to the movie. And, of course, it could be written off later without too much trouble. Unfortunately, Raimi decided, instead, to build an entire movie upon it. Thus was born the Peter Parker of SPIDER-MAN 2 who, out of a combination of masochistic commitment to being Spider-Man and an obsessive fear of putting loved ones in danger, shuns intimate human contact and commits himself to a lonely, loveless existence--that harsh, joyless discipline. This is a Peter Parker entirely alien to the comic character. In the book, Peter actively pursued romantic interests over the years, like any other normal person. Even after Gwen Stacy, whom he intended to marry, was murdered by the Green Goblin because of her connection to him, he never adopted the course chosen by the movie Peter. And for good reason; it's a completely irrational choice. In the first film, it appeared at the very end out of nowhere. During the course of the movie, the Green Goblin had learned that Peter was Spider-Man and had menaced M.J. and his Aunt May. This is a problem, but the obvious solution is for Peter to zealously guard his secret identity. If it's compromised, all of his friends and family would be in danger in any case.[4] Unless he planned to cut off all human contact--and he clearly didn't--it made no sense to deny himself a romantic interest. Yet that's exactly what he decided to do in "reaction" to the Goblin's actions. The filmmakers arbitrarily committed movie Peter to this inane choice, setting up being Spider-Man and having a real life as all-or-nothing mutually exclusive options. This notion doesn't logically flow from anything in the movie and has more patently obvious holes in it than a Swiss cheese, but it becomes the "rationale," if the word can be so abused, for his giving up Spider-Man. It's the only way he thinks he can live a normal life.

In the all-important matter of M.J., we can only empathize with Peter to the degree to which we choose to ignore the fact that he's losing the love of his life only because he, himself, is needlessly throwing her away.[5] M.J., at the end of the film, easily refutes his "reasoning" for doing so by pointing out another of those obvious holes in the cheese; she's an adult, and can make her own decision about what kind of risks she's willing to take. In the meantime though, we've had to sit through two hours of a movie allegedly about Peter Parker/Spider-Man wherein a character who isn't recognizable as Peter Parker or Spider-Man commits to a transparently illogical, arbitrarily-imposed decision Peter Parker never made, requiring him to go through a process through which Peter Parker never had to go in order to reach a conclusion that should have been obvious to anyone from the beginning.

Not very impressive, either as an adaptation or as a film on its own merits.

In the adaptation department, Dr. Octopus doesn't fare much better than Spider-Man. The movie appropriates the spectacular visual of Doc Ock with little of the substance. This isn't necessarily a bad decision--in spite of the efforts of various writers over the years to better shade the character, Doc Ock, in the books, is still rather bland and lacking in depth. He's insane, obsessive, greedy, self-absorbed--quite a weird little guy. The accident that grafts his mechanical arms to his body damages his mind but he wasn't in very good shape in that department to begin with; the brain damage only made bad matters worse. Unfortunately, the filmmakers don't succeed in replacing this with anything better. Their attempt to build a better Dr. Octopus makes of him a sort of sympathetic pseudo-villain. Movie Ock is actually a good guy, a fellow with a loving wife and stable life, selflessly dedicated to the cause of bettering mankind. He only does bad things because a protective microchip on his neck burns out during the accident allowing the artificial intelligence in his mechanical arms to manipulate him into it.

The scope of Spider-Man's powers in the film offers another wild deviation from the source material, adopted to the film's detriment. This, too, was born, somewhat, in the first film, where we see Spider-Man exhibiting strength and ruggedness that if not completely beyond the abilities of the comic version are certainly at the extreme end of those abilities. With SPIDER-MAN 2, however, all restraint goes out the window. At one point, when his webs stop working in mid-swing, he falls what looks like 50 or 60 stories, crashes into a roof and gets right up without even having the wind knocked out of him (comic Spidey would have been killed instantly by such a fall). Later, he takes another nasty fall and lands with his bare midsection crunching, full body weight, across the lip of a dumpster. Again, no apparent harm. Later, another nasty fall and he bounces off the roof of a car. This time, he appears to be injured, but only for humorous purposes (the scene is a repeat of the playing-across-rooftops scene from the first movie[6]). In his battles with Dr. Octopus, he's repeatedly slammed, face-first, into stone and brick walls; slammed so hard those walls crack and crumble under the impact of his face and body. They leave him completely unmarked and don't even slow him down. (Comic Spidey has, when weakened, been bloodied by ordinary human foes). He falls off a speeding el train, landing on the paved street far below, and zips right back into action without a moment's pause. By far the most outrageous scene though (and the most embarrassingly awful), is the one wherein he stops that train, speeding out of control, with his bare hands.[7]

Such things look absolutely ridiculous on the screen; they're abjectly pointless, brutal assaults on the willingness of the audience to suspend disbelief. Perhaps more importantly, they amount to an attack on another core element of the Spider-Man character: his basic humanity. This was the very thing that made Spider-Man so revolutionary in the 1960s. He's "not Superman," to quote Aunt May's laugh-line from the first movie. He isn't a god pretending to be a regular fellow; he is a regular fellow, who just happens to gain amazing powers. Throughout SPIDER-MAN 2 though, he's presented as an all-but-indestructible juggernaut, with strength and durability so far beyond our frame of reference as to seem positively otherworldly. This works to undermine our ability to relate to the character; it's a constant visual reminder that he's not one of us--taken to the extreme it is in the movie, not even remotely one of us.

Related to this is another of the character's core attributes brutalized by this treatment: his bravery. For all of Peter's doubts and anxieties, Spidey is a very gutsy fellow. Frequently, he's completely outmatched by his opponents. In the early years of the book, which saw the introduction of most of the key villains, it became a virtual formula that he would fail in his first attempt at taking them down, sometimes rather spectacularly being served a dish of his own posterior. In the latter category belongs his first encounter with Dr. Octopus.[8] Ock dismantled him in short order, tossing him aside when he was through like a piece of refuse. But as in all those other stories, Peter gets it together, comes back, and, defying the odds, puts the villain away. By contrast, it's difficult to imagine anyone giving too much trouble to the character with the capabilities we see in SPIDER-MAN 2, much less outmatching him. He's relentless, unstoppable, possessed of Hulk-like strength, and nearly impossible to injure; attributing bravery to him for what he does is like attributing it to a person who squashes a bug.[9]

Of course, no one wants to see a movie about a "hero" squashing a bug. The filmmakers deal with the problem they've created in so radically amping up Spider-Man's powers in exactly the wrong way; they radically amp up the durability of the villain in order to make him more of a match. They don't bother to give any in-story reason for it either. As with their Spider-Man's vow of celibacy earlier, this is a matter of one bad decision dictating another. The result is both an absurdity made even more absurd and a thing so completely removed from the source material as to be unrecognizable. In both the comics and the movie, Dr. Octopus is bonded with his mechanical arms via a lab accident but he, himself, has no superpowers--physically, he remains a normal human. In a fight with Spider-Man, comic Ock must let his mechanical arms do the work and be careful not to let Spidey land a solid blow on him. One good shot and it's all over. In the movie, though, Spider-Man is shown laying into Ock with full-blown, right-to-the-face haymakers over and over again, to little or no apparent effect. In a bank, he hits Ock so hard with a very large bag of coins that Ock is blasted backwards, his head and body leaving a crater in a rock wall, again little effect. Moments later, he hits Ock with a desk so hard it blows Ock off his feet, across the room, through a plate-glass window, and into the side of a car outside. Even after all that, Ock's impact on the car is still violent enough to blast it off the ground as though another car had plowed into it at a high speed. It doesn't even slow Ock down.

And so on.

"Spiderman 2" isn't one to let a little thing like internal logic or consistency get in its way either. The fellow who can stop a train with his bare hands can't even slow down Ock with repeated haymakers but frail old Aunt May manages to stagger Ock by striking him with her umbrella.[10] The film's lowest point in this regard occurs as the dreadful climax of the elevated train sequence. As noted earlier, the entire film presents Peter as being almost pathologically obsessed with the notion that his activities as Spider-Man pose a danger to his friends and family; it is, in fact, his central motivation throughout the film. If such a fear had no other effect, it would certainly lead him to zealously guard his secret identity, exposure of which would be the very thing that would place his loved ones in danger. His anxiety about this is so great that he's made of his life a misery, but during the train sequence, he whips off his mask and needlessly exposes his identity to the entire train full of people.[11] Rumor at the time was that this was done at the insistence of star Tobey McGuire, who wanted to be more strongly associated by moviegoers with the character of Spider-Man rather than just nerdy Peter Parker. This seems likely, as the entire film is replete with scenes where, while out as Spider-Man, he removes his mask. It thus offers a character far more more obsessed than his comic counterpart has ever been with the fear of placing his loved ones in danger via his Spidey activities, but one who, paradoxically, is far more careless--almost cavalierly careless--than his comic counterpart about having his identity revealed to the world.


SPIDER-MAN 2 was a big success and I know I'm pushing a very large rock up a very steep hill on this one but I also know that history's judgment of a film often isn't the same as that passed by the temporary passions of its own day. I don't really have any formal closing comments here. These are some of my observations on the film and why I didn't like it. Take them for what they're worth.

--j.

---

[1] From "Amazing Spider-Man" #50

[2] Raimi visualizes this by having Peter revert to his former pre-Spider-Man nerdy self from the first film.

[3] The only exception to this that springs readily to mind is "Spidey Cops Out," from "Amazing Spider-Man" #112, wherein, in the course of two pages, Spidey encounters but refuses to get involved in a mugging, then a kidnapping, the latter with the victim screaming to him for help. In the story, Aunt May had disappeared and he'd decided it was more important to try to find her than to get involved in the incidents in question. Still, it comes across as a gross mischaracterization (the fact that I even remember it attests to that). The story was written by Gerry Conway. It was only his second issue on the book and he hadn't quite gotten a handle on the character yet. He went on to a classic run.

[4] He keeps M.J. at "just friends" arm's length throughout SPIDER-MAN 2 but she's still kidnapped because of the Spidey connection.

[5] In the comics, the creators were forever devising ways to put Spider-Man between Peter and his various romantic interests but as contrived as they sometimes were, they made much more sense and you could empathize with Peter's plight. Betty Brant, after the death of her ne'er-do-well brother, was very firm on the point that she wanted a stable, boring mate who took no chances. Gwen Stacy believed Spider-Man had murdered her father. And so on.

[6] Significant portions of the movie were direct repeats of things from the first film. We get Peter taking out the garbage again, leading to another familiar conversation with M.J. We get the villain-talking-to-himself scene (in the first movie, it was Osbourne talking with his evil Goblin side--this time around, it's Octavius conversing with his mechanical arms). Another rescue of another child from another burning building. Another conversation with Uncle Ben (same car set, same wardrobe as the first time around). A repeat of that roof-jumping scene, played for comedy as it was the first time around. M.J. is once again kidnapped by the villain in order to draw out Spider-Man. The villain once again has a last-minute moment where he comes to his senses. And so on.

[7] Regarding the scope of Spidey's strength, there are moments of wild inconsistency in the comics (the most outrageous--and idiotic--probably being his takedown of the cosmically-powered Firelord in Amazing Spider-Man #269-270), but stopping a speeding train like that is a feat worthy of the Hulk; it isn't even remotely within the power range of any version of Spider-Man we've seen before. I singled out the train thing but that's only the most outrageous example of this sort of thing.

[8] From "Amazing Spider-Man" #3, another story from which SPIDER-MAN 2 is drawn.

[9] To put a finer point on this line of criticism, one of the most celebrated moments from the comic came in "Amazing Spider-Man" #32-33, when Spider-Man is pinned beneath a large piece of machinery in a room that is rapidly flooding. A few feet away is a new serum that will heal a dying Aunt May. If he can't free himself, he'll die, and, without the serum, she'll die. He's completely exhausted though. He's been running for days without a break. He'd just fought his way through a phalanx of hoods then gone 10 rounds with Dr. Octopus. The machine above him is massive. When he first tries, he can't budge it an inch. Between the two issues he spends seven pages--an eternity, by Silver Age comic standards--struggling to free himself, thinking of Aunt May, beating himself up again for Uncle Ben's death, insisting to himself that he won't let May die. And, throughout the course of this, slowly, ever so painfully, he manages to begin lifting the machine off his back and, with the strain so great he's on the verge of blacking out, he frees himself. The sequence is one of the greatest moments in the history of superhero comics and is widely regarded as Spider-Man's defining moment. As such, its a severe criticism of SPIDER-MAN 2 indeed to note the obvious fact that such a sequence--Spidey's defining moment--would, after seeing what he does in the second film, look insultingly disrespectful of continuity if included in any subsequent film.

[10] She saves Spider-Man's life by doing so--Ock was about to skewer him on a large blade. In SPIDER-MAN 2, May is a fan of Spider-Man and dislikes Dr. Octopus, exactly the opposite of the comics.

[11] The passengers' subsequent promise that they won't tell anyone is pure corn, and handled in such a disgustingly saccharine manner as to be wretch-inducing--easily the lowest depth the film plumbs.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Essentially Doomed

Since the birth of superhero comics (and throughout the history of their predecessors, the pulps), the megalomaniac who wants to rule the world has been a standard villain archetype. He's brilliant, often a mad scientist or a dabbler in arcane arts. He's ruthless, passionately hates his enemies and is forever devising some grand (often outlandish) scheme to accomplish his goals. He has a high opinion of his own abilities and is frequently prone to monologues wherein he shares the view. In creating Dr. Doom, the dream-team of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and a slew of subsequent creators took this generic template and, over time, forged from it a complex and fascinating character--in my view, one of Marvel's best.

Way back in 2001, I decided Dr. Doom deserved his own Essential book and began agitating for one on the Marvel Universe usenet group. My suggestion as to contents--the Doom solo stories from "Astonishing Tales" and the run of "Super-Villain Team-Up"--was, oddly enough, exactly what ended up in the present Essential volume. I'd be happy to take credit for it but I doubt my infrequent suggestions had anything to do with the book finally being published. You never know, though...

As it turned out, most of the "Astonishing Tales" weren't particularly astonishing (I'd never read them before this volume). In the first seven issues, there are some good Doom moments but they're mostly small ones[1] and they occur in the midst of stories that are otherwise entirely forgettable. Among other things, the run is crippled by the space restrictions. These being Doom stories, their scale always verges on the epic but, crammed into a book with another feature, they're only allowed 10 pages in which to play out. Events that should have taken place over several pages are stuffed into two or three panels; they're exceptionally rushed. I'd recommend any of these first few "Astonishing Tales" to those who so frequently complain about today's "decompressed" storytelling: there are worse things in comics than are dreampt of in your philosophy.

Roy Thomas and Larry Lieber author the first six "Astonishing Tales," with Wally Wood (#1-4) and George Tuska (#5-6) handling art chores. With #7, Gerry Conway assumes the writers' chair, finishing off the storyline from the previous issue with the wonderful Gene Colan--one of my personal favorites--coming in as the new artist. Conway is one of the better Doom writers and he immediately infuses a rather dull story with some interesting characterization. Doom, impressed with the Black Panther's courage, nobility and tenacity, intentionally allows the Panther to foil one of his schemes, reasoning that he may one day make a better ally than he ever would a slave.

With "Astonishing Tales" #8, however, Conway and Colan turn in a genuine masterpiece--one of the best Doom stories ever published, perhaps the best. "Though Some Call It Magic" tells the story of how, every year on the night of Midsummer's Eve, Doom seals himself in the cellar of his castle and conjures demons, challenging them to battle for his mother's lost soul. The story offers a very rare glimpse of Doom stripped of his trademark self-confidence. As it begins, he's preparing himself for the ordeal to come. A momentary tremor in his voice unnerves his faithful servant Boris, who has been with him since childhood. Doom is clearly tense, perhaps even afraid, but he puts on a brave face, affects a coldness of manner and continues on, for the sake of honor and the love he bears his mother. The contest itself is brutal and Doom, though managing a stalemate, takes a shellacking, as he has, we're told, every time he's initiated this contest. "We'll continue our yearly struggle," says the demon, mocking a battered Doom. "It amuses me, as all the petty plans of humans do. So... plan, my friend--plan. There is next year--and the year following that--and the year after that..." Doom picks himself up, brushes himself off, staggers to his mother's crypt to apologize for his failure. "Perhaps next year, when I'm stronger." Many years later, Roger Stern and Mike Mignola would team up to produce the graphic novel "Triumph & Torment," a sequel to this story and one of the only serious contenders for the title of greatest Doom story.

Next, we're into Super-Villain Team-Up. The regular series is prefaced by two "Giant Size" issues, laying out the premise of the book, the efforts of Doom and Namor the Sub Mariner to get past their distrust of one another and forge a mutually beneficial alliance. The first Giant Size issue has Namor recovering Doom after the Latverian monarch had nearly died in a satellite explosion in Fantastic Four #144. Reviving him with the aid of Atlantean technology, Namor suggests a partnership. "Together, we could rule that world which has rejected us both."

"There is food for thought in your words, amphibian," Doom replies. "But my mind is still sluggish. Let me consider for a moment..."

And this becomes the excuse Roy Thomas uses to fill the bulk of the issue with flashback sequences, reprinting, as Doom's reminiscences, a pair of earlier stories. The first of these reprints is a mostly forgettable Doom/Namor encounter from "Sub Mariner" #20. The second, however, is one of the key Doom stories. "This Man... This Demon!" from "Marvel Super-Heroes" #20 retells Doom's origin, introducing the gypsy Valeria, whom Larry Lieber and Roy Thomas establish as a key character in Doom's mythos. Many years earlier, in Latveria, before Doom had become an armor-encased megalomaniacal conqueror, she'd been his childhood friend and later his lover. She'd watched as the dreams of their life together were replaced in his heart by a cold thirst for power and even as he left her to pursue it, she still loved him. Lieber and Thomas make her the living symbol of the life Doom could have had and for the first time, we see Doom tormented by thoughts of what he lost by choosing the path upon which he now walks. Or, he wonders, did it choose him? In the end, Valeria offers him a new choice. "Tell me you would renounce your towering ambition for the girl you once loved." She's met with silence, which is answer enough. "I must leave you now... my love. We will never meet again." The final page of the story--a brooding Doom, seen from a distance, standing alone--is, for my money, one of the greatest images of Doom ever committed to paper.[2]

The first Giant Size issue ends with Doom rejecting Namor's offer of an alliance. The next begins with Doom, having reconsidered the matter, approaching Namor in a more agreeable state of mind and the series is off and running. I'd read the early issues before and they're quite good. Under Roy Thomas, the two begin to set aside their mutual distrust to at least a sufficient enough degree to seriously consider an alliance. Under the always-capable Tony Isabella, the book features a very introspective Doom, seriously reevaluating his goals, his methods, pretty much everything. He sees the benefit to making an ally of Namor and seriously embarks upon making of him a friend instead of merely a useful pawn. Under Jim Shooter, he tries to show Namor the foolishness in always allowing his momentary passions to dictate his actions. He puts the resources of Latveria to the task of avenging Namor's murdered love Betty Dean Prentiss. Great stuff. It looks like we're seeing the beginning of an alliance that could cause the world a good deal of trouble.

Unfortunately, the book, like so many Marvel floated in those years, lacks any sort of overriding creative vision. There doesn't seem to have been much thought given to what the book is actually supposed to be about beyond the initial gimmick of a villain team-up book. An "editorial plea" written by Roy Thomas in the first Giant Size volume (a plea not reprinted in the Essential book) asks "where do we go from here?" The "plea" makes it very clear that the Marvel gang had no idea where they should take the project. "You tell us, okay?" Not exactly confidence-inspiring. Nevertheless, Thomas, Isabella and Shooter manage, through the course of the first five books (the two Giant Sizeds, and the first three issues of the regular title), to lay the groundwork for what could have been--and should have been--a monstrously good book.

It just wasn't to be though. With #4, Marvel, seemingly unsure of where to go with the project, gives the job of changing its direction to Bill Mantlo, who, in one page, blows all to hell the carefully constructed scenario of the first five issues and sets Doom and Namor to fighting again. STVU #5 included some comments on the letters page, presumably by Marv Wolfman (who was editing the book at the time) about this abrupt change of direction:

"The main problem with the series so far, as we see it, is that we couldn't decide who the lead characters were. Dr. Doom was a bad guy acting almost like a good guy. Namor was a long-time good guy trying to act like a bad guy. And very few people that we've talked to could get themselves to buy it."

Reading something like that makes you wonder why Marvel ever decided to launch the series in the first place. The fact that there was this sort of bewilderment resulting from a book's defiance of the simplistic is a rather unflattering comment on the creative state of the House of Ideas at that particular point in history. The first five issues of SVTU have, intentionally or not, a definite direction and quite a good one. There's no reason a great series couldn't have been built upon them.

With very few exceptions, SVTU is all down hill from the moment they decide to abandon that course. After Mantlo's single issue dismantling of the book, we get Steve Englehart assigned as the new writer, a telling sign of the shocking degree of cluelessness at Marvel regarding the book. Englehart is a solid craftsman and very good at what he does, but what he does is straightforward good guy/bad guy stuff. His rendition of Dr. Doom is, to put it bluntly, startlingly incompetent. Englehart is a talented writer but this is a character on which he was just never able to get a handle and it would have been difficult to intentionally choose a worse writer for this series.

Englehart lasts four very painful issues. In his first, a godawful character called the Shroud is introduced. He's a straightforward ripoff of Batman and the Shadow. His origin is a blend of the two and when he gets around to telling it in SVTU #7, the first page of it is a panel-by-panel reproduction of the original Batman origin from Detective Comics #33. Englehart and artist Herb Trimpe give no indication that this is intended as satire--it appears, rather, to be straightforward theft.[3] The characterization from the early issues is ignored. There's no longer any effort at a meaningful Doom/Namor alliance. Their continued relationship is, instead, reduced to an oath by Namor to be Doom's virtual slave, an oath Doom extracts by blasting to pieces ancient structures in Atlantis until a weakened Namor agrees to swear it.[4] The run's one potentially great idea--a U.S. alliance with Latveria--is introduced then just as quickly discarded in favor of a lot of mindless mayhem like a battle between a reluctant Namor and the Fantastic Four and a Namor/Shroud tag-team against the Circus of Crime (!!!). Englehart's lowest point, however, came in SVTU #7, where he makes Dr. Doom a practitioner of droit de seigneur, the right of a feudal lord to the company of any woman of his lands. He has Doom go to the home of some of his subjects and demand the company of what looks to be a very young girl. He calls her "my child" and the reader is given the distinct impression that he means to instruct her in the ways of the world, if you will. Thankfully, the Shroud shows up before he gets down to business (the only time an appearance by the Shroud is a good thing).

Englehart's departure after #8 puts the book in Bill Mantlo's hands and is immediately followed by a multi-part crossover with the Avengers. Readable and with a well-done Doom--Mantlo in SVTU with Gerry Conway writing the Avengers portion of it--the story is hampered by the inherent idiocy of almost any Avengers story. Once again, we have the Avengers' trademark plot at work: some bad guy just shows up and wants to do something bad to the Avengers for no reason at all.[5] Attuma has created a powerful being called Tyrak and is working on a whole army of such creatures to aid him in his dreams of conquest. This Tyrak guy is such a Billy Badboy that he squashes the Avengers as though they were bugs. Attuma then kidnaps them, puts them under his control and sends them out to beat up Namor. That immediately raises the question, "why didn't he just send Tyrak to beat up Namor?" The Vision even points out the idiocy of this to Doom. The explanation the Vision provides for this is one that would only make sense to an Avenger. Attuma, he says, didn't want Namor to know he was responsible for Tyrak. Of course, Tyrak would presumably have killed Namor in such an encounter, so what difference would it make? At the same time, why would the Avengers, whom Tyrak defeats, have a better chance against Namor than Tyrak himself? To the Vision, however (and, once suspects, to the average Avengers fan), this makes perfect sense. A little later, Tyrak puts a finer point on it by effortlessly pounding Namor to a pulp. The great George Perez artwork in the regular "Avengers" portion of the cross-over certainly argues that he deserved better than the Avengers. This story, however, only made my prejudice against them stronger. The high point: they attack Doom and he chews them up and spits them out with very little effort.

Next, the book under Mantlo's direction kicks into high gear again when Doom teams up with Captain America for an epic three-part clash with the Red Skull. It's a classic Marvel free-for-all and Mantlo and artist Bob Hall outdo themselves.[6] It concludes with Doom rocketing to the moon to dish out a royal ass-kicking to the Skull. He leaves the defeated Nazi stranded on the surface, screaming ineffectually into his damaged, leaking spacesuit. Doom: "...soon, even the Skull will realize his screams waste what little air he has left. And then he will be quite silent."

SVTU #13 should have been SVTU #4. Reading them, in fact, they seem as though they are, with a few cosmetic changes, direct sequels. Early in the run, Doom wanted to make a friend of Namor rather than merely using him as a pawn. He promised to help free Namor's people from their state of suspended animation (a result of events prior to SVTU). By the end of SVTU #3, it looked as though they were about to become a serious problem for mankind. In issue #13, Doom finally gets around to curing what ails the inhabitants of Atlantis and, along the way, delivers a brutal clock-cleaning to Krang the Warlord, who was trying to take over the city. There was no reason for Doom to do this except as a token of friendship--Krang was, by that point, broken and fleeing--and Doom doesn't kill Krang, choosing to allow him to live in order that he may face Namor's judgment. The issue brings the book's early storyline full-circle, offering a hint at what it could have been if Marvel had stuck with, rather than abandoning, the opportunity it originally presented. Read it and imagine it as SVTU #4, with an ending wherein Namor commits to an alliance with Doom rather than kicking him to the curb.

Brings a smile, doesn't it?

That thought is the great book SVTU could have been rather than the uneven mess it was.[7]

--j.

---

[1] Doom teleporting an object to the moon in advance of the U.S. space mission there in order to demonstrate his scientific superiority, for example. The astronauts find the object when they land. Nice!

[2] "This Man... This Demon!" and "Though Some Call It Magic" are particularly recommended to fans of Mark Waid's recent inane butchery of Dr. Doom. There was a time when this characters' writers didn't confuse a lot of empty shock-effects for a "good story."

[3] Though Namor's reaction to his story is funny. When the Shroud finishes his origin and tells him he intends to kill Dr. Doom, Namor lays back in his tub: "Oh. I see... you're insane. For a moment there I thought you might be of some help to me."

[4] Doom describes Atlantis as "the sole surviving link with a past so ancient, most surface-dwellers refuse to believe it existed. I propose to destroy it!" Englehart seems aware that he's assigning Doom a rather un-Doom-like task here and covers it over with a few additional remarks: "It pains me deeply to do so--I, too, love history." Brack.

[5] The real reason, of course, is to provide the Avengers with an "adventure" because they lack a point. Being about nothing, they don't have a premise to provide them with stories, and this sort of thing is usually the best they can do.

[6] Cap and Doom make for an interesting and entertaining team. I love the way Doom regards Cap throughout the story; appropriately contemptuous but respectful of his abilities. Great sparring dialogue between the two.

"Doom! But I thought..."

"Did you, Captain? How interesting. When last we chatted, I detected no such predilection in you."

[7] Speaking of uneven, the next issue plunges the title into the abyss that would be its final downfall; a positively awful two-part crossover with the Champions about Doom releasing a gas that makes everyone on earth subservient to him. A great Byrne/Austin cover on #14 can't save this turkey. The more you read of it, the worse it gets. The worst, however, is yet to come. Doom is then cut from the title entirely, sounding its death knell, and under yet another writer (Peter Gillis). The last two utterly forgettable issues make the Red Skull the central character, after which the title is mercifully dragged behind the storage sheds and shot.

Friday, July 8, 2005

The Non-FANTASTIC FOUR

Given its troubled production history and what I considered a very poor choice for director, I went into Fox's long-awaited film adaptation of "Fantastic Four" with the lowest expectations with which I've ever entered a film I paid to see in a theater. It seems reasonable to assume that such low expectations mean, in practice, that a movie has nowhere to go but up but even my low expectations couldn't help this one. As a movie, it's really bad. As a Fantastic Four movie, it's just short of a complete disaster.

Roger Ebert correctly described the film as all buildup. It sets up and sets up and sets up and never gets around to telling a story. Even with all this setting up though, it incredibly never even gets around to giving us an origin of the Fantastic Four. In the film, the "group" is a press creation. They're thrown together only because of their common condition, super powers developed as a result of being clobbered by cosmic rays during a mission to space. With the exception of Johnny Storm (the hot-headed "Human Torch"), they treat these powers as an affliction and spend the bulk of the film trying to undo their transformation. At no point do they ever actually decide to form a team or dedicate themselves to any common mission. The logical extension of the film's ending is that they all go back to living their normal lives.

Super-genius Reed Richards, "afflicted" with the ability to stretch his body to great lengths, succeeds in creating a machine which can return the four of them to normal. Ben Grimm spends the entire film angsting over having become the monstrous Thing, then, toward the end, is restored to human form by the machine, only to have to change himself back into the Thing again in order to save the others. The Reverso machine still exists though, but at the end of the film, Ben, in a move that boldly contradicts literally everything else we see regarding the character, doesn't want to use it again to become human. In the comics, Ben has a long relationship with blind sculptress Alicia Masters then, over time, begins to develop the idea that she's really in love with the Thing rather than Ben Grimm. This makes him reluctant to attempt any reversal of his transformation. In the film, the relationship with Alicia has only just begun and logically, this would only add to his very deeply held desire to return to normal. Instead, he wants to remain as the Thing.

Unfortunately, this isn't even remotely the only example of the film's lack of internal consistency. Throughout the movie, Ben anoints himself matchmaker between his pal Reed and Reed's would-be girlfriend Sue, then, merely because the filmmakers wanted to arbitrarily take the movie in a different direction, Ben allows "Doom," the movie's villain, to convince him that he's still the Thing only because Reed is spending too much time playing footsie with Sue and not enough working on a way to return Ben to normal. Ben is inexplicably sold on this notion, a completely ridiculous turn of events made even more absurd by the fact that Ben is the one who, throughout the movie, never likes "Doom" and is always warning Reed against trusting him (after "Doom's" defeat at the end, he even reminds Reed of this). Yet he takes "Doom's" comments so seriously that he returns to the Baxter building and physically attacks Reed.

In the film's favor, it can be said that, except for when the filmmakers arbitrarily (and crudely) impose this plot point on Ben, the characterization of both he and Johnny is quite good. Here, fidelity to the source material pays off. Their characters, as presented in the film, are drawn directly from the comics. Both individually and in their interactions with one another, they work, and for the same reason they've worked in the book for over 40 years.[1]

Unfortunately, the same can't be said for the quartet's other half. Neither Reed nor Sue are remotely recognizable as their comic counterparts. Reed Richards is certainly not the clueless idiot and perpetual foul-up portrayed in the movie. He's a sharp, take-charge, think-on-his-toes leader of men who knows what he's about and doesn't take any guff from anyone. The film gives us, instead, Reed as an unemotional egg-head stereotype, a guy who has to have a constant boot in his ass from his best friend or from his domineering girlfriend in order to get anything done. And, of course, comic Sue isn't the domineering character we see in the movie either. One of her most significant characteristics over the years has, in fact, been an inferiority complex--it's something against which she's had to battle throughout the book's history. It's impossible to imagine the character in the movie having this problem. The filmmakers are presenting an exaggerated version of who Sue became in the book after decades of experience and development--a much older, more mature, less shy, more self-confident character--and imposing it on a much younger Sue. Through most of the film, she's much more level-headed, much more of a leader than Reed or anyone else. The result is a much stronger character but one with much less depth--a one-dimensional one-trick pony without much room for any real growth. She's far less connected to the source material and her strength comes at the expense of Reed's.

About "Doom," the less said the better. The movie's version of Marvel's greatest villain is an unrecognizable travesty in every particular (though one, I suspect, that will please fans of Mark Waid's idiotic single-dimensional take on the character). He's robbed of the comic characters' wonderful backstory, scientific genius, nobility. In its place, the film gives us a dull, cloned rehash of Norman Osbourne's story from the first "Spiderman" film; the book's mighty monarch of Latveria reduced to just another smarmy, self-obsessed businessman on his way down. He accompanies the four principals into space and, like them, is bombarded with cosmic rays, whereupon he begins to mutate into a living electrical conductor, his flesh becoming a sort of organic metal.[2] He's presented as obsessively vain throughout the film, to such an extent that it's his defining--and for the most part only--characteristic, but instead of employing Reed's machine to return himself to normal (after becoming a rather unattractive metal man), he chooses to disguise his disfigurement, the excuse he has for donning the movie's variation on the familiar mask of the comic character. Reed is determined to return everyone to normal but "Doom," rather than just letting him do so after Reed has perfected the means, chooses to confront them while they still have their powers. He wants revenge on Reed for ruining him and there's a single vague hint that he wants "power" but he's never given any larger goal. For all intents and purposes, he ceases to exist as a character and becomes, instead, an empty thing to serve the plot, a generic Insane Villain with no internal logic or consistency and present solely to provide a big fight scene at the end of the movie.[3]

I had a lot of other major problems with the film. There are a lot of relatively minor nitpicks as well. The reaction of Ben's wife to his condition--she sees him, screams, and runs away without further comment--is extremely silly and begs the question of why this character, which didn't exist in the comics, was even included at all. Her second appearance, on a bridge after Ben has just saved some firefighters, is one of a number of absurd coincidences that run through the film. Of all the places in all the world, she just happens to be there on the bridge so she can use the occasion of Ben proving himself a hero to very dramatically break up their marriage (she catches his eye, lays her wedding ring on the ground and walks away without comment). Also coincidentally on the bridge are Reed, Sue, and Johnny, who show up just in time to help Ben pull off the rescue. Then, there are the timing gaffs. Johnny appears at a motorcycle stunt show and, afterwards, talks to the press covering the event. Reed, Sue, and Ben, by another of those odd coincidences, happen to be watching the show, and, angered by Johnny's antics, set off to confront him. It apparently only takes them seconds to leave the Baxter building and get to the site of the show--they're there to meet Johnny as he comes out the door after talking to the press. Later, near the end of the film, "Doom" is battling Sue, and Reed notices the lights flickering at the Baxter building across town. This is Ben turning himself back into the Thing. He's clearly on the other side of town but only scant minutes later, he comes bursting through the door as the Thing to battle "Doom," no explanation.

And so on. Any movie is in trouble when its most endearing characteristic is a 20-second Stan Lee cameo. FANTASTIC FOUR is a horrible, wasted opportunity, saved from complete disaster only by the fact that it didn't so decimate the property that future sequels of, one would hope, far superior quality are rendered impossible.

--j.

---

[1] The only thing missing was a strong scene in which it's established that they are, in fact, pals. Without it, Johnny--much older than his comic counterpart, who can be somewhat excused for his behavior by virtue of being young and stupid--comes across as a bit of a prick.

[2] All, again, creations of the film. In the book, Doom is the only serious intellectual rival to Reed Richards, and has no superpowers beyond his scientific genius. Movie "Doom" is a smarmy corporate CEO cliche, and never even displays any scientific knowledge.

[3] As I said before, the logical extension of the film's story--the end toward which the entire film has built--is the group returning themselves to normal and returning to their regular lives. Were "Doom" an outside menace (as he was in the book) rather than one of the astronauts, he could have provided a rationale for the others to form a team. With "Doom" as one of them, though, his defeat simply amounts to a clearing up of the last bit of outstanding business from the space mission. The end of the story of the "Fantastic Four" rather than the beginning of it.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Batman Ends: My Thoughts on the Much-Hyped BATMAN BEGINS

In evaluating BATMAN BEGINS, an important point right up front is that, louder-than-informed claims to the contrary notwithstanding, the film is not an adaptation of any version of the Batman from the long-running comics. The filmmakers radically altered most of the fundamental elements of the character, retaining only the most superficial.

So where to begin?

Unbelievably ill-conceived. That's it. BATMAN BEGINS is a film that, rather than picking a story and sticking to it, tries to be everything to all people and ends up being nothing as a consequence.


This one had a lot of potential, and it was hard to watch it fall apart as it went along. Some grumble-inducing moments notwithstanding, it's actually quite good in the early going. It's engaging, well-constructed, and despite a lot of high-fallutin' monologues about the psychology of fear, doesn't really come across as overly pretentious. The first indication of trouble, however, occurs in this early part of the movie. Bruce Wayne, our future Batman, has been in training with the League of Shadows, a ninja-style group led by Ras al Ghul (Ken Watanabe). Upon his "graduation," Ras explains his master plan, offering an utterly incoherent rant about "destroying Gotham," Bruce's home city, for no apparent reason other than that it is "corrupt." As Watanabe rambled, I started giggling. That the film, in standard Hollywood tell-you-what-you're-supposed-to-think-about-what-you're-seeing fashion, presents this as a very somber, serious moment only added to the joke. Bruce, having listened to this, then turns to Ducard (Liam Neeson), the man who'd recruited him into the League, and asks, totally deadpan, if he really believes in all of this, at which point my giggles turned into outright laughter, shared by others in the theater. It's an embarrassingly idiotic moment that immediately took me out of the mood that had been established.

Though this early misstep unfortunately foreshadows things to come, the film, in real time, bounces back fairly quickly from it. Back in Gotham, we have uber-boss Carmine "The Roman" Falcone, a powerful gangster whom the filmmakers establish as the virtual monarch of Gotham, a guy who runs everything in a corrupt sewer of a city. At one point he threatens to shoot Bruce in a restaurant full of city officials, convincingly explaining that he could do so with impunity. Why the filmmakers bothered spending so much time and energy setting him up is anyone's guess though, because nothing much ever comes of it. They could have built a movie (or an entire series of movies) around Bruce's efforts to clean up the town as they'd established it. More importantly, the first part of the film gives every indication that this is exactly what we're in for. Instead, the mighty Falcone is decimated by the Batman in mere minutes, in ludicrously implausible fashion, none of his power helping him a bit.

The quick disposal of Falcone after so much set-up is very poor storytelling and, for the viewer, quite jarring. It's a broken promise. Director Christopher Nolan has spent the entire film suggesting to the audience that the process of bringing down the gangster is going to be a real fasten-your-seatbelts epic and the focus of the film then, in only minutes, it's suddenly over and the film is off on an entirely new tangent. If this new tangent was better, of course, this would be somewhat excusable.

It isn't better.

It isn't even good.

Nolan and David Goyer, the film's screenwriters, tried to take BEGINS in two diametrically opposed--and irreconcilable--directions. The end-product is a cut-and-pasted mess, drawing both from great and solidly grounded Batman material like Frank Miller's "Batman: Year One" (which should have been this movie) and very bad, very dated, and embarrassing comic book stuff from yesteryear featuring motiveless, pretentious, overblown, super-villains with some incredibly idiotic (and laughably inefficient) plot to "destroy" something.[1] When it kicks into this second phase--the new post-Falcone tangent--every minute of the movie seems to be worse than the one before.

The movie essentially disintegrates from the moment Bruce dons the Batman mask. Sitting in the theater, you can almost physically feel the film's IQ drop. Christian Bale, who had done an admirable (if largely unexceptional) Bruce Wayne, never comes close to getting a handle on his characters' alter ego, his Batman voice and persona being phoned in from the Keanu Reeves School of Acting. When Bruce becomes Batman, all he has to do to rid Gotham of the mighty Falcone is rough up a dozen of his men[2] who are, at the time, in the middle of completing an illegal drug transaction then attack Falcone, leaving the gangster chained and beaten senseless at the scene of the crime. This, along with some evidence gathered by the Batman that would be inadmissible in any court in the civilized world will, we're told, send Falcone away forever. Uh huh. Then Nolan and Goyer get into the meat of Phase Two (rancid pork, in this case): Ra's al Ghul returns, still looking to "destroy Gotham" for no real reason. His means of doing so is the most ludicrous item in a film filled with ludicrous items and the final hour of the movie is dedicated to a lot of empty standard-issue Hollywood sound and fury as the plot plays itself out. Unforgivably, the film's last scene is a straight steal of the great ending of Frank Miller's "Batman: Year One," which, by spoiling the scene for some future filmmaker who may one day want to make a real Batman movie, only serves to rub salt in the wound this film had created.

I have no tolerance for this sort of thing anymore. If I hadn't been with a friend, I probably would have left long before the movie was over. In the final analysis, BATMAN BEGINS is inferior in pretty much every way to the original Burton flick and is even less of a Batman movie. For my part, I hope it's going to be ending, rather than beginning, a Batman franchise. I'm rather fond of the character and have had quite enough of Hollywood dragging him through the mud.

--j.

---

[1] A depressing possibility is that the filmmakers may have thought they were actually playing to the comic-reading audience with this kind of rot, when, in fact, this sort of mindless plot went out of fashion in the medium over 30 years ago. More generally, even with the recent spate of good comic book movies, the level of sophistication in the source books almost always exceeds, by a significant margin, what is committed to film.

[2] This, like all of the scenes of violence in the film, is remarkably badly done on every level--direction, camera-work, editing, even sound. It's assembled in such a way that it's impossible to tell what's happening until its over.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Essentially Pointless: A Review of Essential Avengers #1, 2, & 3

Comics' Silver Age could be fairly redubbed "The Marvel Age". It was the 1960s, and Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were at the height of their powers. Marvel was the vanguard of the Age, and Stan and Jack were the vanguard of Marvel. Their collaboration was one of the high points of the form, a form they virtually re-invented in those years. So ripe was their talent in those heady days of glorious four-color mayhem that it's impossible to say, with any certainty, that the pair of them would have been unable to produce an illustrated version of the phone book that would have been anything less than a must read.

And yet they couldn't do anything with the Avengers.

Neither, it seems, could anyone else who worked on the team in their formative years. Taken together, the first three Essential Avengers books, reprinting the first five-and-a-half years of the adventures of "Earth's Mightiest Heroes," are a harrowing experience. Even so dedicated a fan as I of All Things Silver Age Marvel found them agonizingly dull and tedious. From practically the beginning, reading them became merely obligatory for me--I did it only so I could say I'd done it.

The book's crippling problems begin with the inaugural issue, a stunning piece of phone-it-in hack-work that unfortunately sets the standard for most of what is to follow.

The characters who will make up the Avengers come together for the first time by what is, even by the standards of the day, an absurd fluke. The story opens with Loki scheming against Thor, as usual. Physically stranded on Asgard's "dreaded Isle of Silence," Loki sends his "disembodied self" to Earth to seek out his nemesis, in hopes of luring the thunder god back to Asgard for another round of one-on-one. Unfortunately, Thor is then in his mortal guise of lame physician Don Blake--hardly a match for Loki. Getting Blake to turn into Thor would seem a small matter--as Thor had earlier admonished Loki never to interfere in the affairs of men, it could probably be accomplished by simply projecting that "disembodied self" into Blake's presence and saying "Hey, I'm interfering in the affairs of men again!" Instead, Loki resorts to an unbelievably convoluted plot involving framing the Hulk for attempting to wreck a train, the idea being that, as word of the incident spreads, Thor will hear of it and come to meet the Hulk in battle. How this would lure Thor to the Isle of Silence is anyone's guess, but that's the set-up, and Loki, self-described "master schemer," seems quite proud of it.

All seems to be going according to plan at first, as the incident with the train hits the national news. Suddenly, a fly in the ointment appears in the form of Rick Jones, sometime Hulk sidekick, who, reading the story in the paper, gets on the radio and attempts to call in the Fantastic Four to find the Hulk. Loki is horrified! "The Fantastc Four will ruin everything!" Of course they could "ruin everything" in exactly the same way merely by hearing about the incident on the news and deciding to get involved on their own, exactly as Loki wanted to happen with Thor, but we're apparently to presume the FF either don't bother to follow the news or are indifferent to the danger posed by a rampaging monster. Stan and Jack need an excuse for the soon-to-be Avengers to come together, so they have Loki scramble Jones' radio signal, sending it to a frequency to which Blake is then listening. Unless Blake has, as his hobby, listening to random dead radio frequencies, this means the signal was broadcast to thousands of listeners of a regular radio station (one that apparently doesn't carry the news), but Stan nevertheless assures us that, "unsuspected by Loki, others have also heard the radio message..." (A bright boy, that "master schemer."). The others include Iron Man and Hank "Ant Man" Pym, with his gal-pal sidekick the Wasp, all of whom, along with Thor, pack their bags and head out west.

Arriving simultaneously at Jones' HQ, the heroic quartet are no sooner in the same room together than Loki, seeking battle only with Thor, puts that "master schemer" brain of his into action to try to seperate Thor from the pack. Noticing a moment when Thor is looking out the window, Loki sends a mental image of the Hulk skipping by. Thor doesn't even bother to tell anyone else ("No need for me to disturb the others!")--he just steps outside and gives chase. When he discovers it isn't the real Hulk, he deduces (sans any real evidence) that only Loki could be responsible, and, without a word of explanation to anyone, disappears to Asgard to face his arch-foe, leaving the remaining characters to hunt down and needlessly battle an innocent-of-attempted-train-wrecking Hulk.

And so on. Most of the rest of the book is dedicated to a two-front slugfest, Thor vs. Loki, and everyone else vs. the Hulk (who is discovered working as a circus clown!). In the end, Thor brings Loki to earth and exposes his scheming. Though Loki is, quite literally, a god, Ant Man dumps him in a lead-lined tank from which, Ant Man confidently assures everyone, he will be incapable of escaping. The end.

But not before this crucial exchange:

Ant Man: "If we combined forces, we could be almost unbeatable!"

Iron Man: "Work as a team? Why not? I'm for it!"

Thor: "There is much good we might do!"

So, with even the Hulk favoring the idea, they form the Avengers.

"I pity the guy who tries to beat us!"
--Hulk

The events of the first Avengers book form the basis of what will become a 40+ year series. Or, to put it more precisely, they
don't. Traditionally, an origin story is intended to provide the starring characters with a motivation, a reason for what they do. With the Avengers, no further thought seems to have gone into this all-important tale than the dollar-driven need to appropriate the gimmick of rival DC's successful Justice League (throwing a bunch of the companies' popular characters into a team). Is there really any need for a team such as the Avengers (much less one established on a permanent basis)? Perhaps one could make a case for it, but the origin story doesn't even try to do so. It's just about Loki, portrayed as a decidedly un-masterful "master schemer," messing around with Thor for the umpteenth time, and being smacked down by Thor, again for the umpteenth time. The book begins without a usable premise. It isn't about anything.

Now, if you ask a die-hard Avengers fan about the team's premise, you'll hear something about it being Earth's mightiest heroes coming together to protect the world from superhuman threats too powerful and dangerous to face individually. While this could theoretically work,[1] one of the things made abundantly clear by the team's first 68 issues is that this interpretation is of much later vintage, and wasn't at all what Stan and Jack or any of the subsequent creators during this period had in mind. What we're presented with, instead, is a random group of diverse characters who come together on an astonishingly contrived fluke, decide to stay together for no reason, and create a team that has no point and, hence, nothing to do.[2]

This lack of a usable premise made creating stories for the Avengers all but impossible. In practice, they simply stumble upon their "adventures"--or, to put it more precisely, their fights--or have them otherwise thrust upon them. The model of the first issue becomes a pattern with the next: At the beginning of issue #2, the Space Phantom, a new villain, appears, intent on destroying "the Avengers," even though the Avengers haven't yet done anything as a team except deciding to found the Avengers--certainly not an event that would have reached the ears of a "Space Phantom.". This establishes what will become the book's signature "plot", if the word may be so abused: Villains just show up intent on "destroying" them, they fight back. That (and variations on it) is almost exclusively what passes for an Avengers "adventure" for years afterwards.[3]

This opens the book to another interesting criticism. Reading through the endless repetition of this same story issue after issue, one inevitably comes to the realization that if the team would simply disband, all of the troubles catalogued in the pages of their book could be avoided. Thor thought forming the team was a good idea because "there is much good we might do," but what the pattern of their "adventures" suggest is, in fact, just the opposite; that their mere existence as a team is pernicious. For five-and-a-half years, it prompts the emergence of one public menace after another. Perhaps worse than this, it encourages existing menaces to become even bigger menaces in response. The Avengers, by combining, set off a sort of superhuman arms-race.

This latter element emerges in Avengers #3, where the Hulk, having left the team at the end of the previous issue, meets and is talked into partnering up with Namor, the Sub Mariner, who tells him "our first mission shall be"--what else?--"to deliver a smashing defeat to the accursed Avengers" (As fate would have it, the Namor/Hulk tag-team doesn't survive its first encounter with the Avengers, but Namor returns, alone, with another destroy-the-Avengers plot in issue #4, and the Hulk returns, also alone, to attack them again in #5.).

The sixth issue takes the superhuman arms race to the next level. We're introduced to Baron Zemo, one of Captain America's old enemies from the war, who's still nursing an old grudge against Cap for--I kid you not--super-gluing a hood to his head. Learning Captain America has now reappeared, he founds the Masters of Evil, a new team of superbeings made up of old enemies of the individual members of the Avengers and devoted to destroying the team. This inaugurates what will become a
very tedious series of encounters between the two teams, which consumes most of the next year of the book's run. The Enchantress and the Executioner show up and volunteer for Zemo's gang. Zemo creates Wonder Man as "a living engine of destruction" to destroy the Avengers. Immortus appears from nowhere and volunteers to help destroy the Avengers. And on and on. Of the book's history covered by the first three Essential volumes, this period is the hardest on the reader.

Stan had been tinkering with the team's line-up from the beginning--he needed
something to write, after all. The Hulk left after the second issue. Captain America
joined two issues later. In #16, Stan puts the Masters of Evil business to bed for a while, and Iron Man suggests, to the apparent approval of Giant Man and the Wasp, completely disbanding the team. They change their tune only when Hawkeye turns up wanting to join, opening the door to the possibility of replacements. Still, the entire original roster decides to leave the team, and, in one stroke, "Earth's mightiest heroes" are shorn of all their might.[4] Only Captain America, the weakest Avenger,[5] remains to head a trio of reformed villains (the Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, and Hawkeye). Any one of the departing "powerhouse" members was more powerful than the entirety of the new team, and there's much implied by their casual willingness to disband, then, barring that, to leave the team so shorthanded merely because they want, in Iron Man's words, "a rest."

With the new team, Stan imports, from the Fantastic Four, the idea of bickering characters, a device particularly ill suited for this book. There was some of this in the early issues, but it was mostly just arguing with the Hulk (or because of the Hulk). For the most part, the early Avengers actually got along. They weren't "friends"[6]--they didn't even reveal their real identities to one another--but they weren't arguing all the time, and they frequently expressed their mutual admiration for one another. Perhaps because this tended to make them as dull as dishwater (and more probably because Stan was attempting to recreate the success of the FF in their pages), the bickering character angle appeared with a vengeance after the original members leave. Hawkeye is a mouthy jerk who doesn't get along with anyone. Both he and Quicksilver are constantly scheming to take leadership of the team away from Captain America--they each want it for themselves. Cap himself doesn't even seem to want to be there anymore--he wants to run off and join SHIELD. At one point (issue #22), he
does abandon the team, returning only when Kang, who'd earlier been introduced into the series, appears again, intent on--you guessed it--destroying the Avengers (for what was, at that point, the third time). Who can blame him for wanting to leave? Even with the original line-up, the members of the team have no ties that would serve to keep them together in adversity. They weren't family, they weren't friends, they have (subsequent baseless claims to the contrary notwithstanding) no overriding mission to which they could idealistically subscribe. The constant bickering makes this already critical flaw much worse by making the already-pointless task of being part of the team very unpleasant. They can't stand to be in the same room with one another, and, reading through the issues sequentially, the reader can't understand why they'd bother to try.

With the new team in place, the old pattern returns--they're immediately drawn into a Mole Man plot to destroy the Avengers. Two issues later, the Swordsman shows up, trying to join the Avengers in order to use their clout as a cover for his criminal activities. When they decline his offer, he sets about trying to "trap" one of them, in order to make the others accept his membership! The Swordsman is just that, a guy with a sword, and no superpowers, but he proves to be no end of trouble for the once-mighty Avengers. Next, another villainous team-up, as the Mandarin, one of Iron Man's arch foes, forcibly conscripts the Swordsman: "I merely desire to destroy the Avengers! And I have selected you to be my agent!" Why? This is classic: "...my most hated enemy--Iron Man--may one day return to them! And when he does, I want you there, as a member of the Avengers--to smash him from within!" Then, the Masters of Evil return, repeating the process that had earlier empowered Wonder Man to create Power Man, yet another engine of destruction with the same old mission: Destroy the Avengers! Kang returns again, same goal. And on and on.

In the middle of this latest dreary cycle, Stan, in one story, stumbles upon a
very intriguing notion. In issue #18, the Avengers respond to what they think is a request for aid from a rebel group battling the communist government of Sin-Cong (a fictional central Asian nation), and, by the end of the story, have overthrown that government.[7] The implications of super-powered characters carrying out such an act were rich with story potential, indeed, and, in fact, the story seems to chart a bold new direction for the team. When Cap announces his decision to take the team to Sin-Cong, Quicksilver, backed by the Scarlet Witch, sees this as outside the traditional scope of the team's activities and asks "why need we concern ourselves with international affairs?"

Hawkeye: "Let me spell it out for you! We're supposed to avenge injustice, right? Well, when liberty's threatened, justice goes down the drain! That's it in a nutshell!"

At the stories' conclusion, Captain America makes it even more explicit, addressing the people of Sin-Cong:

"...be always on your guard! Their [the communists'] goal is nothing less than total world conquest and world enslavement! Only constant vigilance and devotion to freedom can stop them! And remember--the Avengers always stand ready to do their part!"

Unfortunately, Stan was simply using this as a plot device, and this intriguing theme was immediately dropped. It remained largely unexplored in any depth until the birth of "The Authority" in the 1990s.

Issue #26 and 27 offers a break from the "destroy the Avengers" cycle, but, unfortunately, not a break from the hackwork-level plotting. Here, the Avengers repel a genuine menace, a plot by the ocean-dwelling Attuma to attack the surface world. The story begins as the Sub Mariner has apparently just wrecked a ship at sea and declared his intention to do bad things to New York. The Wasp, on board the wreck and with no other means of warning the mainland, sets off in flight to sound the alarm. On the way, she stops for a moment to float on the surface and rest, and just happens to pick the one stretch of water, in the whole, wide ocean, in which Attuma has moored his undersea headquarters. He captures her, decides she's a spy, immediately tells her his entire plan (another bright boy), then locks her up. She
escapes, makes it to a radio, and calls in the Avengers, who promptly flatten the would-be conqueror. The Avengers' method of "uncovering" Attuma's plot--simply
stumbling upon it via outrageous one-in-a-million coincidence--becomes their standard one.

The next issue has the Wasp once again taken captive, this time by the Collector, whose variation on "destroy the Avengers" is, as his name suggests, to "collect" them, permanently displaying them in his own little museum. #29 has the Black Widow, newly brainwashed by the KGB, sent back to the U.S.: "Your first objective shall be... to destroy the Avengers!!" Recruiting the Swordsman and Power Man, she spends the next two issues in the attempt. The book continues to wander aimlessly throughout the rest of Stan's run. Stan's last issue (#34) has the team investigating a bank robbery, and introduces the Living Laser, who, taking one look at the Wasp, falls madly in love with her; by the end of the issue, he's taken her captive--the third villain to do so in the last 7 issues.

With #35, Roy Thomas takes over writing chores. In the period of his run covered by the second and third Essential volumes (#35-#68), he continues to tell the same old story, but, as he goes along, he at least begins to tell it in different ways. He puts more focus on characterization, and frequently sprinkles his recitations of the book's tired formula with many wonderful little moments that serve to raise them far above the book's usual standard. Such touches allow him to somewhat sidestep the team's inherent pointlessness, and, by doing this, he allows the reader to do the same. At its best, his work here is the artistic equivalent of alchemy; he manages to make some little something out of a whole lot of nothing.

Unfortunately, Thomas is not often at his best in these tales, so, for the reader of the Essential volumes, there's still that whole lot of nothing to contend with. I'm a big fan of Thomas' work, and I'm sort of sad I didn't read some of his issues here outside of the context of the rest of the series. I suspect collecting the run together does an injustice to the handful of issues that could, if ingested in isolation, passably serve as brainless entertainment. By the time you get to them in the Essential format, you've read the same old story until you're sick to death of it, and the book's structural problems, which remain throughout Thomas' tenure, have been forcibly drilled into you until they've come to overwhelm any virtue one may have found in an individual issue. Thomas' work, as a consequence, isn't nearly as interesting in collected form as it might be to a reader unpoisoned by the rest of the series, who was picking up a given issue for the first time.

Shortly after he takes the reins, Thomas imports Hercules into the team, after the Masters of Evil's veteran Enchantress works some of her trademark hoodoo upon him in order to get him to "destroy all five of the accursed Avengers." Having traveled to Earth without the permission of Zeus, he's sentenced to remain there in banishment for a period of one year, and, the Enchantress' spell having ended, decides to become an Avenger. At this point, Thomas seems to decide that, when it comes to villains, what's good for the Fantastic Four is good for the Avengers; over the course of several issues, he imports, in direct succession, the Thinker, Namor, the Mole Man, Diablo, and Dragon Man. In #43, he has the commies create and unleash the Red Guardian to "destroy Captain America." The commie superman takes Hawkeye captive in order to lure Cap and the other Avengers into a trap. Agonizingly tired (and ridiculous) plot elements aside, the book becomes much more readable here, with some good character moments, and great artwork from John Buscema. Unfortunately, the spell is immediately broken by King Sized Avengers #1, still another dreary "destroy the Avengers" plot, which reunited most of the Avengers from the past, and featured no less than six re-re-retread villains.

Next, Thomas embarks upon a series of stories wherein old enemies of the invididual Avengers reappear for more "destroying." Issue #45, with the Super Adaptoid: "Captain America must die! That is the mission I was created for!" Issue #46, the Human Top, now redubbed the Whirlwind: "...it is time to re-establish my reputation--and what better way to do it than by destroying the one who captured me? Goliath must die--so that the wondrous Whirlwind can live!" With issue #47, it's Magneto, pursuing Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch: "...know this--if you choose to live as Avengers, you shall also die as Avengers!" The next three issues continue the Magneto plot, but are centrally concerned with an irrelevant plotline concerning Hercules' solo battle with Typhon, a new character, said to be an old enemy of the Olympian gods: "Now, 'tis time to destroy you!" As it to close this loop, issue #51 is another return engagement for the Collector, an enemy of all Avengers.

Thomas had been playing with the membership during this period, having Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch leave to rejoin Magneto, then having Hercules, upon the defeat of Typhon, remain on Olympus. At the end of #52, the Black Panther joins the team, having been recruited by Captain America. The next issue puts a Thomasian twist on the standard plot; the Panther arrives at Avengers' mansion, all set to join the team, and discovers that they've all been murdered, a crime of which he's immediately accused. As it turns out, of course, they haven't been murdered; only made to look as though they were dead. The villain is the Grim Reaper, whose goal is... well, you know it by now. After openly disclosing his intention to murder the Avengers, he inexplicably chooses merely to stun them, then, with the team helpless before him, to leave them there, appearing dead, rather than actually killing them. The Black Panther escapes police custody, fights it out with the Reaper (who, for the sake of plot convenience, tells him the Avengers can be reawakened and exactly how to do it), and saves the day.

Next up is the conclusion of a crossover with the X-Men, the first part of which is not reprinted. Its only noteworthy attribute is a good twist at the end wherein the Toad finally gets tired of being slapped around by Magneto, and gives him, quite literally, the boot. The cover alone on #54 made me want to skip it. Yes, it's yet another Masters of Evil story. Their "destroy" attempt runs on for two issues, this time. They're led by future Avengers arch-foe Ultron, in his debut, making their activities represent his own first "destroy" attempt. Issue #56 has Cap playing with Dr. Doom's time machine, as an excuse to rehash Zemo's World War II destruction of Cap's former sidekick Bucky (Cap's constant angst over this event, which had become tiresome within a few pages of its first being introduced, had been dragging on for over four years, at this point). This helps set up King Sized Avengers #2, yet another variation on "destroy the Avengers," which just has to be read to be believed; qualitatively, it's probably the lowest point of Thomas' run. The next issue introduces the Vision, an android who appears from nowhere intent on "destroying the Avengers." At the moment of truth, however, he locks up and, for reasons he can't understand, doesn't want to hurt them--now, he feels compelled to lead them to his master, who, he tells them, is Ultron. It's a trap, of course--the Vision has been programmed by Ultron to react this way--but the Avengers, bright as ever, go right along with him and fall into it. With the team on the verge of becoming toast, the Vision then saves the day, confronting Ultron and defeating him. Though this is a strictly by-the-numbers formula story, it's bookended by a great opening page, the poetic reveal of the Vision, and an epilogue in conclusion that has to be one of the best last pages ever, a marvelous use of Shelley's "Ozymandias." Exposing an Avengers-level audience to such a literary classic, alone, deserves some sort of prize.

The oft-heralded issue #58, "Even An Android Can Cry," turns out to be another dud, but, with this issue, John Buscema's already-great artwork kicks into serious overdrive, setting a remarkably high standard that is maintained, through Buscema and three subsequent artists (Gene Colan, Barry Windsor-Smith, and Sal Buscema), for the remainder of the run covered by the third Essential volume. Colan is the best of the batch, but all of the artists are in top form, and these are beautiful issues to look at. Unfortunately, this beauty is wasted on a book that remains mired in telling the same old story. As it rolls along, Goliath becomes Yellowjacket, Hawkeye becomes Goliath, Hank suffers temporary insanity and marries Jan, the Black Panther gets an issue-length unrelated-to-the-Avengers solo story. Egghead, the Thinker, and the Puppet Master return, this time as a team and sporting a sattelite-mounted death-ray capable of destroying a city. What they're up to with it is anyone's guess, though, because, while they spend a good deal of their time over the course of these issues cackling over their grand scheme, Thomas, doesn't even bother to reveal what it is (The story is apparently only part of a crossover with the Sub Mariner, and the non-Avenger issues are not included). From there, the Swordsman returns yet again, Egghead returns, Ultron returns yet again, and, finally, the third Essential Avenger book mercifully comes to a close.

One reviewer of the first Essential volume put the matter of the early Avengers bluntly; it's the kind of trash critics of comics would use as evidence of the lack of redeeming merit in the form. Memories of Roger Stern's run in the 1980s excepted, I've never been much of an Avengers fan. I didn't really dislike the book; it was just something I hadn't often found to be as engaging as other things I read. I'm a huge fan of Silver Age Marvel material, warts and all, but, prior to the Essentials, I'd only read a handful of Avengers issues from this period. I was astonished by how bad the book, as a whole, really was. Its defining characteristic is, quite literally, its awfulness. It isn't awful in a fun way, either, which is a virtue possessed by several Marvel books of the period.[8] It's awful in a dry, monotonous, ridiculous, mind-numbingly dull way that left me wondering how on earth it survived more than a few months, much less for 40+ years. I could have reviewed these issues much more appropriately with but a single word (one that certainly wouldn't pass Comic Code scrutiny), but after the unbelievable drudgery involved in reading the three volumes back-to-back, it's almost as though I felt compelled to take revenge on them in some way. I realized, as I began to write this review, that the Masters of Evil and Ultron and even the Space Phantom suddenly made a lot more sense to me, their oft-repeated goal seeming a lot nobler. I'd entered the Essential Avengers as an ordinary writer and comics fan; I came out the other end as a partisan of the Avengers' villains, wishing this awful, awful book could just be made to go away.

--j.

---

[1] A few years later, it did work, in spectacular fashion, in the Defenders.

[2] Compare the Avengers to the X-Men, whose book debuted the same month as theirs. "X-Men" was about an enigmatic professor's efforts to secretly recruit and train an army of natural born super-beings--mutants--to help protect mankind from other mutant super-beings. The world they're trying to protect hates and fears them, to use the oft-quoted phrase, and, for contrast, the ideological conflict between the professors' approach to it and that of mutant supremacist Magneto is set up almost immediately. Besides telling a great story, a marvelous metaphorical richness underpins the proceedings. The X-Men was a book
about something.

I'm leaving out a lot in that description, of course, but even that helps make the point--there's that much to leave out. The Avengers, on the other hand, is "about," to quote the nail-on-the-head assessment of a usenet poster, "a bunch of random heroes fighting a bunch of random villains." Period.

[3] That "almost exclusively" is not hyperbole. It's nearly impossible to overstate the degree to which the book relies upon this. A few noteworthy points, here: Every title Marvel was producing at the time occasionally featured revenge stories. The hero would foil some dastardly plot by the villain, the villain would return to try to "destroy" the hero in revenge. In the Avengers, however, the villain skips the hero-foils-their-plot stage--from his very first appearance, frequently with no motive or higher goal that's ever more than hinted at, he goes right to the destroy-the-hero stage. And, of course, the Avengers rely upon this same "plot" more than all of the other Marvel books of the time combined--it's virtually the only thing that happens in the Avengers.

[4] Maybe the originals weren't technically "Earth's Mightiest Heroes," but with powerhouses like Thor, Giant Man, Iron Man, and the Hulk on board, it's probable that no one was going to dispute the notion to their faces.

[5] Captain America, with no superpowers, is completely out of his class in the early Avengers. Stan's method of compensating for this does the team no favors. In #4, Cap, even after being frozen for nearly 20 years, single-handedly trashes the entire team. Iron Man, Thor, or Giant Man should be able to drop Cap like a bad habit with--quite literally--the flip of a finger. Instead, in #9,
all three of them are shown having to struggle to hold back an angry Cap. Iron Man: "Cap stop! Uhhh--! It's like trying to hold back a tornado!" Issue #10 opens with Cap again in combat--this time, mock combat--with the other Avengers, and, again, he is able to avoid being tagged by them for nearly a minute. And so on.

[6] They make no pretense of interacting with one another as friends, either. Perhaps the most embarrassingly silly thing in the early Avengers is that they run the team like it's some kind of Elk's Lodge, everything handled with strict formality. They meet once a week and, instead of just talking over whatever business is pending (what little there ever is), they designate a chairman to direct the meeting, which is handled as though it was a court, with titles, formal language, rules, and so forth. Though they came together only by accident, decided to found the team in an entirely arbitrary fashion, and spend all their time battling menaces that only come into existence to destroy the team, the members act as though being an Avenger is some sort of major honor, and are often insufferably full of themselves. One would think, from the way they talk, that they're an elite, carrying on some age-old tradition, and that they'd had to struggle for decades to achieve their position as a member. One particularly hilarious moment comes when Iron Man, after failing to answer an Avengers summons due to events in his own book, is sternly reprimanded by the team. Thor passes sentence: "You are hereby suspended from all Avengers activity and duties for one week! You may go now!" (Oh, NO! NOT THAT!) So when the Masters of Evil attack, in that same issue, the Avengers are short one of their most powerful members. What heroes! In one issue, when they're trying to remember whose turn it is to direct a meeting, the Wasp complains: "Personally, I think it's silly not to have a permanent leader." Iron Man replies "Silly, perhaps, but more democratic!" This concern with "democracy," however, departs along with the original members, and Cap is made, for all intents and purposes, the Maximal Leader and final authority on all matters with regard to the team.

[7] "The Commissar," the evil commie head-of-state in Sing-Cong, had faked the rebel broadcast hoping to lure the team to his country so he could "destroy" them.

[8] Many of the individual problems with the Avengers--those identified here and the legion left unmentioned--are also present, to varying degrees, in other Marvel books of the time. They stand out so sharply in the Avengers because the book has, quite literally, nothing else to offer, no counterbalancing benefit to allow one to look past the problems.