Ben Reilly Happens While You're Busy Making Other Plans

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Merry Christmas

I'll be minimizing my internet activities in the following week to clear my mind and meditate on the holiday, but not before I wish everyone who follows my blog a very merry Christmas.

All the Best,


Friday, November 26, 2010

ASM 649: BND 2.0?

Amazing Spider-Man #649 cover by Humberto Ramos

On the whole, the BND era of Spider-Man was a personal disappointment.

Don't get me wrong. The stories were rarely bad, sometimes brilliant, but never consistent. It felt more like several loosely connected miniseries rolled out consecutively than Amazing Spider-Man. You could rarely trust the good or bad developments to go anywhere. The most apparent evidence? After going to devlilish extremes to remove the marriage, Peter Parker's romantic life went virtually nowhere for three years. With the thrice-monthly format, that's closer to nine years worth of ASM where nothing came of Peter's single status. So there's a bit more than passing-of-the-torch symbolism involved in the fact that Peter could only get together with Carlie in the final BND era story.

I was already predisposed to prefer one writer per title, so I was excited by the news that Dan Slott would be the sole writer of a twice-monthly ASM. The buzz surrounding Slott's BIG TIME arc only fed my excitement much more. And for anyone who's had the privilege of chatting with Dan online, it's pretty clear just how excited he is about this gig. You want someone writing ASM who has dreamed about this their whole life. (Now if we could just get Mark Waid on Superman, but that's a different story...)

So even before the first issue of BIG TIME hit stands, I really felt as though Slott's run would be much closer to what Marvel originally promised with BND: a back-to-basics fresh start. I'd like to say I wasn't disappointed with Slott's first issue, but I can't.

The $%^ thing sold out.

But hey, I'm a charitable guy. I'll take a hit for the team if it means that ASM could be Marvel's flagship title again during my lifetime. On a related note, I couldn't find a copy of Spider-Girl #1 either. Good news for Dan Slott and Paul Tobin, bad news for me.

Luckily, I was able to snag a copy of ASM 649 yesterday, and it was....yeah, I'm not beneath going for the cheap pun. Amazing Spider-Man...feels amazing again. Or at least this issue did.

So here's why I think Slott's run is so promising, based on what little I've seen:

1. Big Ideas. Slott's wanted to write ASM since before he was born, and he's reportedly got notebooks full of plots. So Slott just might be attached to ASM for the rest of his natural life, and he could conceivably be a co-plotter years after he's shuffled off this mortal coil. In two issues, Slott has given Peter a really cool job as a scientist, brought the Bugle back into play under the direction of Robbie Roberston, returned the Kingpin to Spider-Man's world, given us the return of the Hogoblin, and then something really wild. We're only a little ways in, but I'm genuinely excited (and intrigued) for the first time in a while.

2. Supporting Cast. Slott has utitlized so many cast members in such a short amount of time that I won't even try to summarize it. Suffice to say the supporting cast is not only a nice blend of new and old, but they genuinely feel connected again. Norah Winters is dating Randy Robertson, but Phil Urich is back and he's got his eye on her, too. And he's just a tad...well, he's got issues. That's just one example of how Slott is making Spider-Man's world a tangled web again, and I love it.

3. Bang for Buck. Remember the old comics, where characters had a lot of interaction, and panels were crammed full of witty dialogue? And it took you more than five minutes to read it, and you could it read it twice and pick up on stuff you'd missed the first time? Yeah, good times, and by good times I mean yesterday when I read ASM 649.

It's still early in Slott's run, but it looks as though we finally got our Brand New Brand New Day.

Friday, October 8, 2010

$#*! My Dad Says: "Sooner than Later"

Last night's $#*! My Dad Says featured a recurring punchline that's relevant to every new show's attempt to find itself: Ed likes things sooner than later. Viewers do, too, and that's why a show only has so long to prove itself. If last night's episode is any indication, audiences won't have to wait any longer.

Last week I talked about some of the problems the show needed to overcome. It's been enjoyable, but uneven at best, a show that felt more like the sum of its parts than something whole. The takeaway moments tended to call attention to themselves rather than building to a satisfying resolution. It's all symptomatic of the show's seeming reliance on Shatner to carry it. The scripts were generic, if decent, and the chemistry between Shatner and Sadowski was practically nonexistent. I'm thrilled to say "The Truth About Dads and Moms" addresses all my concerns.

First off, Sadowski's improvement is remarkable. The chemistry is suddenly there. I don't know whether to attribute that to the smarter script, a shift in tone, or the learning curve.Most likely it's combination effect, but regardless, he's gone from showing up to having screen presence.

Looking at the script, it's no wonder that Sadowski should feel energized. This time around his issues with his father dip deeper than money or technology. Henry feels like he's carrying his mother's burdens because his father wouldn't. Ed's refusal to admit this carries over into Henry's feelings about another apology Ed owes. Apparently Tim, the DMV worker from the pilot, was fired for fudging Ed's test results. It ultimately leads to a revelation that challenges Henry's assumptions about his childhood. Sadowski hits all the right notes, so maybe all he needed was something more to do than waiting around for Shatner's punchlines.

In talking about the show's tonal shift, it's worth comparing this week to last. Like last week's "Wi-Fight," this episode finds another third party caught between Ed and Henry. Last week Ed threatened a hapless, stoner technician at gunpoint while Henry egged him on. It was over-the-top in the worst possible way, a power struggle devoid of romance or humanity. The "DMV Tim" subplot turns the same kind of struggle into something much more meaningful, and I can't help but feel it's due in part to Tim Bagley.

Bagley was the only actor who held his own with Shatner in the pilot. He brought a quiet humanity to his character that freed Shatner to be more human, too. It's no wonder, then, that as the entire show last night echoed the tone of the DMV scene, Bagley's character took on a bigger role. It's seems like a sure sign that $#*! My Dad Says' creative team is paying attention to what works.

I know some people felt frustrated with the pilot and swore the show off altogether. It's worth remembering that even Seinfeld took some time to find its footing. If $#*! My Dad Says can keep the momentum going from last night, I have a feeling it will be a success. When that happens, you're going to want to catch up.

Why not sooner than later?

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

"The Future in the Instant..."

Will Leitch has an interesting article up about Zack Snyder directing the new Superman film. Among other things, he speculates why Hollywood hasn't been able to make Superman work since Superman II:

Superman projects have vexed filmmakers as varied as Tim Burton, Kevin Smith, McG, J.J. Abrams, and Brett Ratner. The main problem with "Superman" is that we have turned into more of an antihero culture. We like Batman because he's human and flawed and full of rage and guilt. We like Tony Stark because he's selfish and vain and a party guy.

RAGE!! Because sculpted, plastic and filled with joy never caught on.

I think Leitch's argument, while thoughtful, is flawed on several counts.

For one, I object to his definition of antihero. I don't think it's "wrong," it's just not very accurate or useful in this context. Antiheroism is relative to the values of the community being represented. Wayne might be bitter and Stark's an alcoholic, but they still embrace traditional superhero values. They seek noble ends like justice and redemption. And while they push boundaries, they rarely step outside them.

If you want a more accurate representation of antiheroes, I'd look to the Punisher and Deadpool. Punisher works outside the boundaries and Deadpool doesn't even acknowledge them. Anger, guilt and womanizing hardly compare to unrelenting homicide and madness. If they're all lumped together under the heading of "antihero," the terminology is taxed to the point of irrelevance.

"Tony didn't say anything about a cover charge!!!"

If Mr. Leitch means only to say that we like flawed heroes, that's been true at least as far back as Moses, and it was equally true of Christopher Reeve's Superman. His motives, while pure, are still mixed. He rebelled against his father's commandment not to reverse time because of his obsessive devotion to Lois, then turned his back on humanity for the same reason in the second film. This doesn't make him bad by any stretch of the imagination, but it does highlight how we tend to pass over Superman's flaws even when they're as pronounced as Batman's.

Leitch goes even further:

Superman is, by his very design, perfect and cheesy - he's a relic, Ward Cleaver in a blue skintight suit.

"Golly, Lex, I don't know. How can we hold Metropolis hostage when we promised Superman we'd do our homework?"
 I think Leitch is confusing perfection and idealism. Perfection is essentially completion or fulfillment. Saying we can attain perfection (Idealism) isn't the same as being perfect. By that same token, Superman can't be perfect until we're perfect, because he exists to remind us we have a destiny. Yet Veitch's Superman seems indelibly linked to the past rather than the future:
Singer attempted to capture that naïveté and bring it to today, but his Metropolis seemed as steeped in the '50s as the Steve Reeves films were. The reason the first two "Superman" films worked was that they were rooted in a recognizable place: Metropolis was late-'70s New York City, with all the grime and cynicism that came with it. Superman was an alien (he's the one who was out of place), an actual hero here to save the day, to give everyone faith again. To believe a man can fly, you must at first believe a man cannot.

I'm agreed with Veitch that Superman's faith in humanity is the root of his alienation. That's why Superman ultimately comes into conflict with Luthor, who sees Metropolis and humanity as mere extensions of himself. If Superman were half the relic Veitch thinks him, Luthor wouldn't feel so threatened. But Luthor understands what even Metropolis can't, because he fears it. Luthor has always believed a man can fly, which is why he devotes himself to clipping humanity's wings. And he knows where Superman really hails from: the future.

Lex Luthor just became irrelevant.
One of my favorite lines from Macbeth is, "Your letters have transported me beyond this ignorant present, and I now feel the future in the instant." Superman is Lex Luthor's window into a future where power struggles are obsolete. Lady Macbeth goes mad because she cannot help but bring the future to pass; Luthor because he cannot hold it back.

If Snyder wants to make Superman work, I think he needs to tap into "The Man of Tomorrow" vibe. That's been critical to most incarnations of Superman, but the one we're most familiar with is Donner's. His Superman can't be with Lois because it's still Today, which makes their relationship tragic and uplifting all at once. It's a metaphor for where humanity finds itself now, where we've always found ourselves, somewhere between the Fall and Redemption, Impossibility and Infinity.

When the time comes to bridge that gap in Hollywood...

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

$#*! My Dad Worked On Last Week

The second episode of $#*! My Dad Says , "Wi-Fight," is showing signs of improvement, but there's still a lot of work to be done.

They took one step toward correcting the show's biggest problem, which is its reliance on Shatner to carry every scene. Will Sasso (Vince) and Nicole Sullivan (Bonnie) had more script to work with this week, as Ed's blunt way of putting things carried over into their bedroom. Vince convinces Bonnie to let his dad examine her breasts when she develops a rash. Ed makes the mistake of casually describing the culprit, a fungal infection, as looking like "spaghetti and meatballs under a microscope" to his son Vince. This leads to a relatively funny scene where Bonnie makes advances and Vince tries to get around his breast/fungus/meatballs hangup.

It's not the most ingenious concept or even the best execution, but it accomplishes a few things. First off, it establishes how the $#*! Ed says actually has bearing on his family even when he's not in the room. If the show is going to work, Ed's words should be as much of a character as Ed himself. This was absolutely a step in the right direction.

Second, it gives Sasso and Sullivan a chance to establish chemistry, which they pull off pretty well. Maybe a little too well, in fact, if the rest of the show can't keep pace. Compared to Jonathan Sadowski's uninspired performance, it makes one wonder if the show couldn't be about them living under Ed's roof and dispense with Henry altogether.

"Who's Henry?"
And that brings us to some of the continuing problems. The fact I'm talking about the fungus subplot and not the "Wi-Fight" the episode gets its name from shows just how uneven the show can be. Ed's most memorable interaction in the pilot episode wasn't with his children, but rather the unnamed DMV character. The good news is the DMV character is set to return this week.

So what's really going to need to happen to take the show to the next level? Sadowski needs to find his voice. The producers would have been better off if Sasso and Sullivan were the weak link, seeing as how the show's crux is Henry's relationship with Ed. So far, Sadowski hasn't illustrated the comedic timing or emotional depth the show needs.

"Dad, my back hurts. Can you carry the show tonight?"

That said, Sadowski's material isn't exploring his character's potential to its fullest. For instance, the script seems to call for a pretty bland relationship with half-brother Vince. I tend to think that Henry, unemployed and trying to make up for the life he didn't have with his father, would be a tad jealous of Vince, who lived with Ed growing up, and is now successful and married.

So all in all, not a bad week, and reason to keep watching. But the producers need to look into ways to make Henry work.

Friday, September 24, 2010

$#*! CBS Taught Me Last Night

I'm kind of ambivalent about the new Fall lineup for Thursday.

For one thing, I liked The Big Bang Theory right where it was. CBS' Monday night lineup lost momentum with the shift to Mike & Molly, a decent enough pilot that still suffered by comparison. It felt like following up three headliners with the warm-up act.

But I can see the logic behind the shake-up, because I'm still into CBS Monday but they blew the lid off my NBC Thursday. When it came to TV, I was like the guy who wouldn't let the entree touch the side dish. There was CBS Monday Night, ABC Wednesday Night, and NBC Thursday. I'm not opposed to channel surfing, but my sensibilities just grativated toward one-channel, one night last year.

So I sacrificed Community to watch Big Bang Theory last night. It was a little stressful, sure, but only as much as sacrificing a pawn to capture a queen. The real problem came with the 7:30 Central matchup. There's no question in my mind that 30 Rock is the best NBC comedy out there. The Office has been sinking for a while, but 30 Rock gets better every season. So what could CBS possibly counter with?

I didn't think Bleep! would be anywhere close to 30 Rock quality, but I figured it was worth a shot just to see Shatner in his first sitcom. I was right on both counts. And that's left me feeling even more ambivalent about Thursday nights.

Bleep! was pretty much everything you'd expect when you've got that kind of talent experimenting with a new format. Shatner occassionally blew some of the better lines with awkward delivery, but he single-handedly saved the weaker material, too. I laughed out loud more than I expected. The emotional core, an aging absentee father trying to reconnect with his son, is solid. If Bleep! can find the proper balance between cariacture and real human emotion, I suspect we'll see a second season.

"#$* it Jim, I'm a doctor, not a !@# network censor!"

Where does that leave Thursday? I'm not ready to say. But one thing I am sure of: CBS came out a winner for shaking things up. Sure, I'd have been happier if they'd left well enough alone on Monday night. But CBS is in the business of keeping audiences engaged, not comfortable. They didn't lose me Monday, and they might just have gained me Thursday.

And that's $#*! CBS taught me last night.

Wide H50pen Spaces

"We've got to find a way off the Island!"
Okay, so Hawaii Five-O is a little before my time. I was two when the show ended its recordbreaking run in 1980, and I honestly can't say I've seen a single episode in its entirety. That said, CBS has done good work with the hype. So much so that I felt a little pumped going into this premiere Monday for a variety of reasons.

"Respect the shades, McGarrett."
First off, H50 grabbed the 9 Central timeslot that's been held by CSI: Miami for nearly a decade. While the CSI, Law & Order, and NCIS franchises are well-crafted, I find myself longing to return to a more romantic take on law enforcement. Numbers is my personal pick for the best crime drama from the past decade.

You could transplant the setting to Arthur's Camelot, make Charlie a wizard instead of a mathemetician, call the FBI the Knights of the Round Table, and it would essentially be the same show. The math is mystic, the characters are fun, and the action felt larger than life.

The crime procedural dramas, by contrast, feel claustrophobic after a while. The characters are dwarfed by the science. They view law enforcement through the lens of professionalism rather than adventure. There's nothing inherently wrong with that take, which actually skews closer to the reality, but that's precisely the problem for me.

So I entered the H50 pilot already somewhat invested in its success. The advertisements promised big action, an expansive setting, and an old-school buddy cob vibe. As someone who came of age at the height of the 80s action franchises, this naturally appeals to me.

So did it meet my expectations? Absolutely. The teaser sequence feels like something straight out of a Schwarzenegger or Stallone film. Within a minute there's a hostage situation, a military grade helicopter attacking a federal prisoner transport, and a cold-blooded murder. H50 is built for widescreen.

The characterization keeps pace with the action, too. McGarrett's partner, Det. Danny "Danno" Williams, is a "mainlander" who hates Hawaii. He's only here to be closer to his daughter, who lives with her mother and very rich stepfather. His divided loyalties pave the way for conflict with the single-minded McGarrett. This leads to some humorous exchanges, like when a sulking Williams reminds McGarrett that it's common courtesy to apologize when you get someone shot. It's a classic complementary mismatch in the vein of Lethal Weapon's Riggs/Murtaugh dynamic, if a bit more subtle.

While it will take some time to see where the group dynamic goes, Detectives Chin Ho Kelly (Daniel Dae Kim) and Kona "Kono" Kalakau (Grace Park) round out the task force nicely. Kelly's motivation as a cop on the outs looking for a way back has potential, and "Kono"'s easygoing nature offsets McGarrett, Williams, and Kelly's brooding ways.

H50 still has room for some slight tweaking. Nearly every chase ends with lethal force. While I have nothing against these scenarios in moderation, I do see a need for balance. A chase is typically more fun because the bad guy gets caught, not killed. The commercials made use of the nostalgic, feel good "Book 'im, Danno" line. Unfortunately, that line loses something coming right off yet another dead perp.

The pilot deals with McGarrett's quest to avenge his father, though, so it's likely the tone will balance out by the next episode. Here's hoping they can take down the body count a notch without losing H50's edge.

Regardless of that minor criticism, this show's off to a strong start in the race to make my "can't-miss" list. It's not quite Numb3ers good, but it might fill the "fun-factor" void left by that show in time. Here's hoping H50 is just the beginning of a programming shift that takes crime drama out of the lab and back into the wide open spaces.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Back-to-Back to the Future

This weekend I watched the entire Back to the Future trilogy in a single sitting. I'm not sure if devoting this much time to television is something I should brag about, but it certainly didn't feel like wasted time when all was said and done. I was a huge BTTF fan in the day, but this was the first time I experienced it as a trilogy.

When I was seven, BTTF blew my mind in the best possible way. It ignited my lifelong love affair with time travel, dopplegangers, alternate universes, paradox, and the music of Huey Lewis. The final sequence is still one of the most memorable moments in movie history, one that held out the promise that the real adventure was just beginning.

And so it was.

By the time BTTF II came out in 1989, the Delorean had already shattered dimensional barriers forever. Doc Brown and Marty McFly's adventures carried over into my readings of shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation and Quantum Leap.

So did it live up to my exploding expectations? The difference between seven and eleven is a big one, after all. But man, did it ever. Hoverboards, a dystopian 1985, and the overlap between Marty's future/past selves blew my mind all over again. And then taking it into the Old West for one final adventure? Heaven.

BTTF was at the forefront of my thoughts for several years. BTTF: The Animated Series followed Doc Brown and his family's misadventures for two seasons. Here's a clip from the intro to the first season, and here's the intro to the second.

I also spent a lot of time playing two BTTF video games. The first game followed the events of the original BTTF:

It's a fast-paced game that's worth looking into if you're a fan of 8-bit gaming.

This was followed up by another that covered the rest of the trilogy:

It's a crawling monstrosity of a game that's worth forgetting (and heaven knows I've tried).

My BTTF kick probably ended around 1991, a year or so after the final film. I'm not sure I ever watched the second or third films again until now.

I rented the first installment about a year ago and it became a massively disappointing experience. The DVD was scratched and I never reached the end of the movie. To make matters worse, I got disapproving glances from my wife every time Marty cursed and my son thought the whole thing was lame.

So when I happened upon the trilogy this Saturday on Ion, I was playing for big stakes. This was the first time I had ever watched the trilogy as a unit. Would it succeed as one continuous storyline? And would my son feel differently this time around?

Thankfully, the answer to both these questions was a resounding yes. My son was as enthralled as I was for the next six hours. He has a habit of repeating lines he likes over and over, and it was halfway through the second film before I got him to stop yelling, "It's not you, Marty! It's your kids! Something's got to be done about your kids!" That in itself was interesting (if a bit annoying). I got more mileage from the line, "Roads? Where we're going, we don't need roads!" when I was his age. But we're clearly not getting our hoverboards by the year 2015, so who can blame kids these days if they're a bit jaded to the whole flying cars thing?

But on to why I think the films benefit that much more from viewing them as a whole.

1. The Compression Paradox. When you view the films independently, it's easy to forget the action takes place in the span of a few short weeks. I know both sequels make it clear we're just coming off the events of the last, but there's a huge gap between intellectual assent and experience. When you watch the films as a unit, the result is a delightful paradox that contrasts the way we measure Time with the way we feel it.

Eastern sages have long held that Time is an illusion, and a Christian sage tells us that a day is as a thousand years and a thousand years a day to God. But it was Gale and Zemeckis' vision that first opened me to the possibilities that go far beyond a life ticked out one second at a time.

As Marty would say, "That's heavy."

2. The Marty/Doc Brown Dynamic. Taken individually, both characters would be eminently watchable. But the real joy is the bond they share, and more than that, the way it deepens with (dare I say it) time. That comes across even more forcefully in a single sitting.

There's a real sadness in the sequence when the oncoming train wrecks the DeLorean. It truly feels like the end of an adventure. But it's not so much about the time machine for Marty as the implication that he'll never see Doc Brown again. The centuries are merely the landscape where the real adventure-- Marty and Doc's friendship -- plays out.

Which makes Doc's return in the final scene that much more enjoyable. It's a thoroughly satisfying conclusion, and yet one that's as open-ended as the first film. The possibilities of friendship are endless.

3. The Uwritten Future. There's a core message to the trilogy that's as relevant today as it's ever been. The future isn't written in stone. For that matter, neither is the past. It's a message that rings true wherever I find it. Around the same time I was watching BTTF II & III in theaters, I was thrilling to the adventures of Sam Beckett in Quantum Leap. Two years later I also dug it when T2 reversed Judgement Day and put the future back in our hands. Of course, they went and screwed that up with T3...but that's another story for a crankier blog.

It occurs to me that BTTF AS trilogy might get shortchanged because we tend to attach epic expectations to that label. If you're not taking down the Death Star or storming the Gates of Mordor, it's just a boxed set. But it's precisely this focus on the human side of history that makes BTTF such a substantial accomplishment.

Compare the philosophy of BTTF with that of, say, "City on the Edge of Forever," and you'll see what I mean. In the latter, McCoy inadverently alters history for the worse when he saves the life of pacifist Edith Keeler. Her philosophy will delay America's entry into WWII and lead to Nazi rule. Even though he loves her, Kirk is forced to prevent McCoy from saving her yet again to set the timeline right.

In BTTF III , Doc Brown has a similar "right time, right place" experience with Clara Clayton, a teacher destined to plunge to her doom. While Doc expresses some concern over the implications of saving her, it only amounts to the ravine where she died going by a different name in the future. It's the difference between a universe where man meets the needs of history or vice versa.

I can't say with any certainty where the idea we transform history at the local level first struck me, but it's a safe bet it had something to do with the BTTF trilogy.

So that's what I took away from the films this time. Like any other form of storytelling, movies are an experience. There are different ways to approach (and transform) that experience.

So go ahead. Watch them again for the first time. You'll need six hours, some popcorn, and a couch. But you won't need roads where you're going.

And by all means, let me know what you think. Do you see BTTF as a cohesive trilogy, or a diluted brand? Is my "City on the Edge of Forever" comparison way offbase? And did you ever get past the DeLorean stage in the original Nintendo game????

Thursday, August 19, 2010

"What If Billy Pulled the Trigger...and His Name Was Martin?"

A few weeks ago I blogged about my second favorite Punisher story, Daredevil 183-84. It boasts one of the greatest moments in Marvel history, when the Punisher offers Daredevil a truce...and ol' Hornhead pops a cap in his ass. Well, his shoulder, actually, but you get the point.

It was shocking, sensational, and surprisingly in character.

But there's another plot thread in DD 183-84 worth discussing, one that works its way into David Lapham's Daredevil vs. the Punisher: Means and Ends miniseries. Actually, Lapham utilizes nearly every idea from the Miller story...and improves on it. So while there's no single moment that stands out like Daredevil shooting the Punisher, Lapham brings the concepts that Miller threw out there to their logical conclusion.

Miller's story featured a young boy named Billy, who was determined to bring some local pushers to justice when his sister died on an acid trip. Billy stole his father's gun and attempted to kill a drug dealer named Flapper. Then he lost his nerve and shot over his head instead. Problem is, someone else got to Flapper that same moment...and Billy took the fall. Matt Murdock naturally defended Billy from the charges, and this led to the arrest of Flapper's partner, "Hogman."

When Hogman attests to his innocence during his arraignment, Matt assumed he was innocent because his heart rate was steady. So Matt took Hogman's case and proved his innocence, only to have Hogman confess his guilt to Murdock after the trial was over. As it turned out, Hogman's heartrate didn't fluctuate because his pacemaker regulated it. It was a really cool Primal Fear style twist, made all the more impressive because that movie wouldn't come out for nearly another decade.

Daredevil and the Punisher eventually fought over Hogman's fate in a school playground. When Punisher agrees to a truce and Daredevil shoots him, it leaves Billy open to grab Punisher's gun and finish the job on Hogman. Ultimately, Daredevil talks him out of throwing his life away for revenge. The next day Matt gives Billy a pep talk on the merits of the legal system. What Billy ultimately makes of that speech is left to the reader, as he walks away while Matt "looks" on.

Billy is a fairly one-dimensional in Miller's story, but you really can't fault him for that. Not every character needs to be fleshed out. Billy pops in and out as needed (sometimes in very convenient fashion), putting Matt's faith in the system to the test. He is used very effectively. Still, I get the impression that Miller pulls some punches with Billy at the end. It makes me wonder how Miller would have handled the story differently if Billy had pulled the trigger. We'll never know for sure, but I imagine Lapham gets us pretty close in the form of Martin Bastelli.

Major Spoilers

Daredevil vs. the Punisher revolves around DD's attempts to keep the Punisher from turning Hell's Kitchen into a warzone in his fight with Hammerhead and the Professor. The Professor is, interestingly enough, a clone of the Jackal. That in itself makes for an explosive situation. The Punisher sees the Jackal as the emodiment of losing control, since he almost manipulated him into killing an innocent (Spider-Man) when he was angry, stupid, and unfocused.

This fear of innocent casualties is the driving force behind Dardevil and the Punisher's conflict. Both men feel the other's involvement makes Hell's Kitchen more dangerous. But the real emotional hook is Frank Castle's involvement with the Bastelli family. When Frank stops by the Bastelli's family diner for a quick meal, he finds the spitting image of his murdered wife in the young girl Mary. The Bastellis come to represent the "decent" people Frank has lost faith in. So when Mary's younger brother, Martin, tells Frank his family is being shaken down by local mobsters, he takes aggressive action.

All this happens in the first issue, and the implications of Frank's actions are the emotional catalyst of the series. Unlike Miller's Billy, Martin doesn't interact with Daredevil. That leaves him with two distorted male role models: his father, who lets the thugs run over him and his family, or the Punisher, whose solution is murder. Martin is the kind of character that tragedy thrives on, a sweet, sincere kid who is doomed from the beginning. He can't take abuse like his father, or dish it out like the Punisher. So naturally when he buys a gun he has no idea in hell how to handle, things spiral from there.

Eventually Martin becomes an unlikely hero when he saves a young woman from her abuser at a nightclub. Martin's celebrity scores him the girl, and really, that's all he cares about. But another visit from local thugs pushes him too far. Unlike Miller's Billy, Lapham's Martin doesn't have a counselor in his hour of need. He just has the gun.

Soon Martin has blood on his head and a target on his back. Martin's father sends him away for safekeeping, but refuses to deal with the police. He doesn't believe there's anything that can't be handled with a payoff. He pays for that choice with his life, taking his wife into the next world with him and leaving Mary in critical condition. That brings Martin back into play. It all comes down to a brutal showdown between the police, the mafia, Daredevil and the Punisher. When the smoke clears, the Punisher is under arrest and Martin is dead.

Daredevil vs the Punisher has the makings of an oppressively bleak story, but thankfully, it's not. Lapham pulls it back around with Mary. You'll recall she's Martin's sister and the spitting image of Frank's dead wife, Maria, which puts her in the perfect place to save Frank's soul. Mary writes Frank in prison, telling him she forgives him for Martin's death and knows he was only trying to help. It's a beautiful, human, divine gesture.

Now when all is said and done, it's not as though Frank gives up violence and becomes a monk. But Mary does find, if only for a moment, that piece of Frank's soul that he's been trying to shut out since he "failed" to save his family. And that's why this is my favorite Punisher story.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Billy's Got a Gun!

Due to the glory that is Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited, I recently read Daredevil vs. the Punisher. If you don't subscribe to Marvel's digital service or you prefer TPB, you can buy it used here. It's recommended reading in any format. But before I tell you why it's now my favorite Punisher story, let's backtrack a bit to the story it knocked out of the top spot.

The Punisher was conceived by Gerry Conway as a Spider-Man antagonist, but he really found his footing in the Marvel Universe when he met Daredevil for the first time. With Frank Miller at the helm, Daredevil's world was the perfect breeding ground for the Punisher's kind of justice.

The story begins in DD 183, when Matt Murdock witnesses a girl on an angel dust trip jump through a window to her death. Her young brother, Billy O'Koren, steals his father's gun and vows to bring the dealers responsible to justice. This naturally pits Daredevil in a race against time to find them first. His search leads him to pusher Robert "Hogman" Grunter's right hand man, Flapper, where the Punisher comes onto the scene. As Daredevil fights to keep Punisher from killing Flapper, someone else takes him out from the shadows. Daredevil finds Billy O'Koren standing nearby with a gun, but he swears he fired over Flapper's head. Daredevil's senses and a quick investigation confirm Billy's story. Matt defends Billy in court while he chases down the real killer as Daredevil.

This is the story that sets the standard for what the Punisher's existence ought to mean to the Marvel Universe, and how these conflicts ought to play out. When Matt promises Billy the system always works, it rings hollow given the circumstances. It makes readers wonder whether Frank Castle's war on crime isn't more effective than Matt's faith in the judicial process. That's especially true when Matt defends "Hogman" from the same murder rap he saved Billy from. Because Hogman's pulse rate doesn't change when he denies killing Flapman, Matt assumes he's telling the truth. But in a Primal Fear style twist, Hogman confesses he's guilty to Matt after he's been acquitted. His pacemaker threw off Matt's natural lie detector.

If the argument seems slanted in the Punisher's direction, though, it's not quite that simple. The Punisher nearly kills a junkie he's pumping for info on Hogman. After Matt saves him, that junkie's testimony acquites Billy. Castle is so hellbent on punishing crime he nearly destroys Billy's life in the process. Of course, if the Punisher had killed Hogman before Billy's sister died maybe things would have been different. Then again, maybe someone else would have filled the vacuum and the Punisher's war on crime is ultimately meaningless. It's pretty clear the Punisher doesn't care.

It's these kinds of complications that make the Punisher/Daredevil conflict so compelling. There's really no question that the Punisher's existence is a miserable one, emptied of the faith, hope and love that keep Matt Murdock from sliding into the abyss. But the real question behind it all is how we make sense of the world. Billy doesn't shoot Flapper but he still ends up on trial. Matt tries to do the right thing by defending Hogman and it bites him in the ass. It's a world filled with seemingly stupid, tragic, arbitrary coincidences. It's a world where heroes fail and the best intentions can yield disastrous results. It's our world, and it's easy to see why the Punisher's black-and-white worldview is such a tempting alternative to Matt's faith in God and man.

Miller brings the conflict to a riveting conclusion in DD 184, where Daredevil and the Punisher fight over Hogman's fate on a school playground. Daredevil ruthlessly exploits the Punisher's unwillingness to shoot him, forcing him to propose a truce. And that's when Miller offers up one of the most shocking, satisfying, and yet surprisingly in character moments in Marvel history. As the Punisher walks away, Daredevil picks up a gun and shoots him in the shoulder. "No truce," he says before he pulls the trigger. "You're going to jail."

It's satisfying on several levels, but especially so after having so many unlikely truces crammed down our throats during the antihero craze of the 1990s.

True to the law of unintended consequences, Miller throws one last curve the readers' way. Billy O'Korman, who apparently didn't learn his lesson the first time around, picks up the Punisher's gun and aims it at Hogman. Daredevil ultimately talks Billy down, and Matt Murdock later assures him that even if the system fails the law is all we've got. It's a touching moment that nonetheless feels a bit out of place in this story. One wonders if Miller felt compelled to pull his punches here, and how this story might be different if Billy pulled the trigger.

Which brings me around to David Lapham's Daredevil vs. the Punisher, a series which hits many of the same beats as Miller's classic but improves on them. A story that perhaps answers what would have happened if Billy pulled the trigger...

To Be Continued.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The House of the Rising Sun

During the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Benjamin Franklin is said to have been fascinated with a portrait of the sun painted on the back of the President's chair. Franklin argued it was difficult for artists to distinguish between the rising and setting sun. When the Constitution was signed, however, Franklin was pleased to declare the painted sun was indeed rising.

I have a similar question.

Well, okay, not really. Mine is less about the future of the free world than the future of one of my favorite comic books. Still, I can't help but think Ben would smile on my efforts. He was, after all, one of the only founders to recognize the potential of the novel. (Nice guys, the other fathers, but a bit stiff.) So here it goes:

Is the sun rising or setting on Marvel Team-Up?

I know what some of you are thinking. There have been two efforts to revive MTU in the 616 proper, making for a measly collective 36 issues since Volume 1 ended with #150. Maybe it's not about whether the sun is setting or rising at this point, but how close we are to midnight. Fair enough. But I'm big believer in Cinderella stories. The stroke of midnight is where the action is.

But first I'll talk about what works against MTU in today's Marvel Universe.

1. Spider-Man isn't Marvel's flagship character anymore. Originally, MTU served as a primer for the larger Marvel Universe. In the early 80s, Spider-Man was the only character I read consistently. I often learned about other Marvel characters through MTU, and sometimes I even tried their titles out because of it.

But even when I was reading MTU, Spider-Man was losing ground fast to Claremont's X-Men. Wolverine started showing up in more titles than Spidey by the mid-80s, and he's just as known to mainstream audiences as Spidey these days. In the current Marvel Universe, the Avengers are front and center.

2. The Market. In MTU's prime, you didn't go looking for comics. They found you. They were at the convenient store, the cornerstore, the newsstand. MTU was the perfect title to grab a kid's attention while he was grabbing a soda and some baseball cards. It was summer blockbuster fare, light on continuity and heavy on action. There was a little something for everyone, from space adventures to barbarians. You weren't likely to find swords and sorcery in ASM, but you could here.

For better or worse, the market is increasingly specialized now. Comics have all but disappeared from the public view. You won't find them by accident, and you might not even find them on purpose. Comics aren't aimed at that potential ten year old's first comic experience. The primary audience is now thirty-somethings and up who have been reading comics for years. They know the characters inside and out.

The result is a more focused narrative style where the pitch precedes the team-up vehicle rather than the other way around. We might get as many team-ups as we ever did now, if not more, but they tend to gravitate toward one-shots and mini-series. The upside of this approach is that a concept generally has to be decent to get off the ground. The downside--well, I'll get to that.

3. Spider-Man as an Avenger undermines the MTU concept. Ben Franklin had a saying: Be civil to all, social to many, and known to few. That strikes me as a pretty good motto for Spider-Man's place in the Marvel Universe. He should be close to a few heroes, mainly the FF and Daredevil, but even then not that close. More catching up with an old friend close than the what's changed since I saw you five minutes ago variety. Spidey's a guy who knows how to keep his distance.

So you can imagine I'm not charitably disposed toward the idea of Spider-Man joining the Avengers. For one thing, he's historically very guarded. His relationship with the FF developed over time. Daredevil discovered his secret identity coincidentally. And he's never been predisposed to organization of any kind. There's a reason he's a freelance photographer. You can call him an Avenger if you like, but he's not going to show up for your "stopping Kang the Conqueror" roundtable and he won't bring donuts if he does. That's just not how he rolls.

That's why MTU worked. There was just the right blend of familiarity and mystery to Spider-Man's relationships with the other Marvel heroes. They feared, admired, loved, used, hated and wondered, but never knew him.

It also lent itself to the sense that the Marvel Universe was connected in the same way our world is. You know how you can't just dart into Wal-Mart to grab a carton of milk without running into some old friend who wants to get chatty? It was the same thing with the MU. Spider-Man ran into these guys because they lived in the same city, not because he had them on speed dial.

Except now he kind of does. "Hey, Cage, pull the jet around and meet me at Starbucks in half an hour."

Which is soooooooooooooo much less interesting to me than a world where he might accidentally run into Cage, who's looking to cash in the bounty on his head, all while trying to catch Sandman. But I digress. On to the Cinderella story that's playing out in my head.

Here's why I think now is the perfect time for a MTU revival:

1. Flagship or not, Spider-Man is still the most versatile hero. Wolverine is the best at what he does, but Spider-Man is pretty darn good at everything. If you're faster, he's stronger. If you're stronger, he's smarter, and so on. That means he can hang with almost anyone in the MU without becoming irrelevant to the task at hand. He's essentially the rock/paper/scissors of the MU.

And that's why he's still the best hero for a monthly team-up title.

2. Bringing Spidey and the Market Back to Basics. If one of the goals of the post-marriage direction is to bring Spidey back to basics, it's been compromised by his Avengers status. It really doesn't gel that Spider-Man is hated, hunted, and broke in ASM, while he's got the Avengers on tap in the Bendis-verse. One sign of that disconnect was the discrepancy in the way ASM handles his secret identity as opposed to New Avengers. Over in ASM, Spidey has trouble opening up to the Fantastic Four about the psychic block that keeps his id a secret. Buuuuuuut over in Avengers, he spills his identity to the entire team.

When Luke Cage and Hawkeye know Spidey's secret id and DD doesn't, that's entering Bizarro territory. The big problem here is that Spidey doesn't work at the top-down organizational level. (Isn't that what got him into trouble in Civil War?) If he reveals his identity, it will happen at the personal level.

My solution? Kick Spidey's butt off the Avengers and revive MTU. Not only will this be in keeping with what ASM is trying to accomplish, it would also give us a back-to-basics gateway title for Marvel outsiders. Get it on the magazine rack at Wal-Mart, and make it accessible for the ten year old reader's first potential comic experience.

Ideally, MTU should thrive on the fantastic. In fact, that's one thing that today's oh-so-focused narratives have lost. We're so concerned about keeping the writing on track, we're forgetting how to make stories fly off the page. There's something to be said for both approaches, and that's why we need a title that isn't afraid to fly by the seat of its pants again.

So c'mon, Marvel. You can speak to the 10 year old inside of me, and the 10 year olds outside the marketplace, too.

Let's bring the House of Ideas into the House of the Rising Sun with this battlecry:

"Loner Assemble!"

Monday, July 5, 2010

I Can Only "Imaginalis"...

If you're a fan of children's fantasy written in the vein of C.S. Lewis and J.K. Rowling, you might want to give J.M. DeMatteis' Imaginalis a look.

Here's why I think it works:

1) The Concept. I'll admit I'm not especially familiar with the young adult market these days, but Imaginalis strikes me as pretty unique at the conceptual level. It's the story of Mehera Crosby, a young girl crushed when her favorite fantasy series is canceled midstream. She is so distressed, in fact, that it begins to strain her personal relationships. Her cynical best friend and doting father both think it's time for her to move on, but she just can't. She even goes so far as to tell her father that the Imaginalians and their world are as real as he is. Of course when that turns out to be truer than even Mehera suspected, things get interesting.

The Imaginalians are trapped in limbo, fading into shadow and out of existence forever. Mehera's faith in their universe is their last, desperate hope for salvation, because she's the only one with her foot in both worlds. Well, there is one other, but I don't want to say too much here. Suffice to say this is a concept that has broad literary, philosophical, and spiritual applications.

But more than that, it makes for interesting reading.

2)The Characters. I like Mehera. When you're writing a story about a girl who can't let go of fictional worlds, you definitely run the risk she'll come across like a self-absorbed snot (even if she is right). In DeMatteis' sensitive hands, though, her biggest flaw is also her saving grace. Mehera is a delightfully self-aware girl who knows the risk she's running. What that amounts to is this: when Mehera struggles to balance her faith in IMAGINALIS with her personal relationships, you'll root for her to make it work.

The other characters are engaging, too, from Mehera's inner circle to the Imaginalians. DeMatteis injects their backstories with elegant details, like when we discover that Celeste is the product of a union between an atheist and an interfaith minister. "I just can't figure out how that works," Mehera muses. Though it's never picked up again, it's an interesting detail that lends itself well to a recurring theme in the book: How do you make an 'impossible' relationship work?

That question manifests in a multitude of 'impossible' relationships: the cynic and the enthusiast, the fan and the recluse, the real and the imagined. It all comes down to the idea that the 'small' conflicts are every bit as important as the larger ones, and the choice is always ours what to make of them.

3)The Poetry. It's been said before, but DeMatteis' musical training lends itself to a rhythmic kind of prose-poetry. But it's the type of poetry that isn't afraid to let the characters speak in alternating high and low tides. Mehera can praise a stirring line from the books, "into the hope of night," or compare the villain Prayala's true form to an overflowing toilet. The result is something sometimes beautiful and always authentic.

I highly recommend Imaginalis, a fun read with a message of faith, hope and love.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

WOS 8: Revenge of the Satellite

The Satellite Title is back, and this time it's personal!

No, it's not a Steven Seagal flick. But there is something of a "Hard to Kill" motif running through this post.

For a long time now, I've been arguing that the Spider-Man line needs an old school satellite title. I may have just gotten my wish.

I'll make no secret that some of my fondest Spider-Man memories come from the original PPTSSM, later abbreviated to SSM. It began with the tail end of Mantlo's run, where I was treated to the Doc Ock/Owl Gang War and then Silvermane's return. There's a misleading argument that says the real action has always been happening in ASM. It's the worst kind of misleading because it's mostly true.

But then, there's always this:

Or this:

And hey, there's even this:

And who could leave out this:

But my real point isn't that a satellite title needs to keep pace with the developments in ASM to be worthwhile. Quite the contrary, actually. I'd only argue that a satellite title has as much potential to tell memorable stories as ASM. And I think the satellite title has some advantages working in its favor that complement ASM. And if WOS 8 is any indication, Marvel agrees.

1. Consistency. Three years ago this wouldn't be a unique advantage, but since ASM went thrice monthly with a rotating team, it's a big deal. Without getting into which approach is "better," I think having the best of both worlds is a nice way of filling a need. I'm inclined to prefer a consistent team for ASM, too, but I'll be happy to take this. I'm pumped because the title could hardly be in better hands than Fred van Lente's. How cool is he? Well, when he wrote Marvel Adventures Marvel Superheroes, he made my then five year old son think Ant-Man is cool. Think about it. Ant-Man. Hey, I like Henry Pym and all, but I never thought he'd be in comptetition with Spider-Man for a young boy's affections.

Then there's his ASM work. If you haven't read his Spot, um, spotlight in ASM 589, then grab it! Not only did he make the Spot lethally effective, he tied it into Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island . His reworking of the Chameleon as (and I'm paraphrasing here) "Dr. Phil as serial killer" is genius.

The first part of "The Extremist" doesn't disappoint, so stay tuned for more FVL goodness.

2. Backups. If it were up to me, I'd say make this a one-two punch with FVL in the lead and J.M. DeMatteis on Ben Reilly backups. The DeMatteis backups are, I'll admit, the biggest draw for me personally. I don't like to pay a lot, but I'd probably pay $5 for a ten page JMD Reilly story alone. (Shhh! Don't tell Marvel. Or my wife.) Better yet: double the size, give DeMatteis equal space, and maybe throw in another back-up. Call it Marvel's FVL/JMD/IAH (Insert Ad Here) Three-in-One! That's a spicy meatball!

3. Focus on the Supporting Cast. This was always a huge draw for PPTSM. ASM has tended to squeeze out the supporting cast in favor of the bigger developments. But Jonah Jameson, Flash Thompson, Robbie Robertson, Betty Brant, and the rest are just too good to go to waste like that. Look, neither ASM or WOS can be everything to everybody. But put them together, and we've got a winner. Now throw in Marvel Team-Up and we'd be set.

4. Less financial burden. Right now ASM is a huge drain on ye olde paycheck. One issue into the new WOS format, it appears to be a title you can enjoy without reading ASM. Marvel needs an entry level Spider-Man title that doesn't require taking out a second mortgage or a huge readership commitment. Long, sprawling arcs and subplots like the Gauntlet are wicked cool. But they can be intimidating, too, and it's nice to have a title that can complement ASM or stand on its own merits. Right now the Bat-family at DC has done tremendous work making each title accessible on its own, which is no small task. I ask no less of Spider-Man!

All in all, it's a good time to be a Spider-Man fan again. And I was wrong to compare the satellite title to an old Seagal flick. It's more like a Jackie Chan/Owen Wilson buddy team-up.

You may argue amongst yourselves which title fills which role. But we here at REILLY FACTOR encourage informed decisions, so for Pete's sake, watch Shanghai Noon before you decide!

Cultural Currency: Jonah Jameson and the New Media

One of my earliest formative reading experiences was Spectacular Spider-Man 80. For those who aren't familiar with his work, Bill Mantlo had one of the strongest (and most underrated) runs in the history of Spider-Man. The only reason I can think of why his work doesn't get the attention it deserves is because he was really hitting his stride just as Roger Stern's ASM run was hitting stands. But this is the guy who wrote the Doc Ock/Owl Gang War, so if you haven't already, check it out!

But this isn't about Bill Mantlo. It's about my love affair with J. Jonah Jameson. I must have been about five when I read this comic. Jameson had always seemed like a joke to me. A very funny joke, but no one I took seriously. But this issue rocked my world.

Long story short: Jonah, worried that he's getting soft in his old age, sets out to prove that he can still cover the crime beat like nobody's business. Now the premise is something of a running gag. Spider-Man ends up pulling Jonah's fat from the fire and best I can recall he doesn't even realize it. But there was something beneath the skin of that joke, something much deeper, that blew my mind.

For one thing, it was the first time I ever thought of Jonah as a character with a history. As far as I was concerned, Jonah had always been the publisher of the Daily Bugle. He was born there. He would almost certainly die there if he wasn't too mean to die. (And in the alternate reality of Reign, that logic holds true. He's got to be pushing a hundred and twenty.)

It was also the first time Jonah appeared vulnerable. Now, he'd always been the butt of a very long-running joke. But the gist of the joke was that Jonah never got it. Jonah could go from hiding behind teenage kids at the Bugle to ranting about his old-fashioned courage without missing a beat. And he did it so convincingly that he came across as more delusional than hypocritical. Jonah was the ultimate unexamined life.

This insecure Jonah, this older man who was fighting to prove he could still hack it with the young reporters, was a revelation. And more than that, I was rooting for the old bastard because this time he had something to fight for. Jonah was fighting to prove himself to his younger lover, Marla. I could relate to that, even as a five year old who thought childhood stretched out forever. Now that I'm 32 it breaks my heart more than ever.

At the end of the day, the gag held. Jonah thought he had proved himself when Spider-Man had been covering for him the entire time. But my perception of Jonah had shifted. Jonah's "triumph" was so tender, so sincere, that I could almost believe it myself. I wanted to believe it. And now I realize that Spider-Man or no, it was a personal victory. Jonah proved he had what it took to take on his personal demons. He'd take on many more in the years to come (the Scorpion comes to mind), but this was the issue that opened me to viewing him in a new light.

Fast forward several years to this issue:

WOS 52 is a gem from yet another underrated run. This time it's from the legendary scribe Gerry Conway. He wasn't in competition with Roger Stern so much as himself (not the worst place to be). If you ask me, his WOS and SSM runs are better than his original ASM work, but I digress.

As I recall, this issue fell in the midst of a long-running subplot where the Chameleon was making a power play during one of the Kingpin's extended absences. The Chameleon kidnapped and impersonated Jameson, making him a prisoner in his own apartment. As Jameson plots his escape, the issue flashes back and forth between the present and the past.

It was almost a reversal of the SSM 80 scenario. In PPTSM 80, we see Jonah as the successful publisher who yearns for the struggles of youth. Here, the older Jonah is facing impossible odds. The commonality seems to be that Jonah finds strength in his formative years as an up and coming reporter.

But the real treat is seeing the younger Jonah in action, a cub reporter in Depression era New York. Once again Jonah has something real to fight for. In this case it's political corruption. I won't spoil anything, suffice to say you'll root for Jonah in both timelines. By story's end, I saw Jonah in a different light again. Sure, he has a blind spot for Spider-Man, but he's also a fighter who can apply the full weight of the press to noble ends.

Now I get to my question, and it's one I'm not sure how to answer. SSM 80 has a 40s-50s noir feel, like something pulled from Dashiel Hammett. WOS 52 naturally skews a little earlier, and it feels like it's set in the same era as Don Corleone's rise to power. Both stories rely on a timeline where Jonah's formative years are spent during the rise of the newspaper.

So what does the future hold for J. Jonah Jameson?

It's not that important that newspaper be our primary source of news. That ship had sailed by the 70s, and really, it fed the sense that Jonah was fighting a losing battle against the youth culture that Spider-Man represented. But it does strike me as important that Jonah's worldview was developed when reporters chased their beats with a pencil and a notebook, and image wasn't king.

Why is this a potential problem? Well, it's 2010, and if Jonah is in his mid-fifties, he's never seen a world without television. His formative experience would be the footage of the Kennedy assassination. There's still some great newspaper moments to be had--for instance, the breaking of the Watergate scandal, but somehow it's not quite the same. Given Jonah's worldview, I still tend to see him as being born prior to the materialistic Baby Boom generation. But that would see him pushing eighty these days, and I think Jonah's still pretty vital.

If Jonah wasn't so rooted in our reality, we could slip him some Infinity Formula or actitave a latent healing factor and be done with it. But Jonah doesn't get the Nick Fury or Logan magicial fix. He's rooted in our history. As long as the Marvel timeline shifts with ours, that's going to create some issues down the road that need to be addressed.

Still, and I feel old for even saying this, I'm not willing to give my Jonah Jameson up. And I'm not sure it would be wise to go down that road. Brian Michael Bendis re-envisioned Jameson as more of a tabloid publisher chasing down trials of the century. It made perfect sense for a generation whose formative media experience was now the O.J. Simpson trial (this was 2000). But somehow that interpretation of Jonah didn't really click with me.

Jonah's dilemma is closely linked to a close associate of his, Robbie Robertson. As I see it, these are guys who fought in the trenches during the Civil Rights movement. You'll remember that Robbie was often at odds with his son, who saw him as a sell-out, while Robbie would remind him that he knew what it was to fight for equality. But today's children will be more likely to equate gay marriage with the civil rights movement. And more power to them. Today's generation deserves (and needs) figures who fill their needs and represent their struggles. But is Jonah rooted in those same concerns?

As I see it, Jonah and Robbie would see the current struggles through the lens of the 60s Civil Rights movement. But how long can that last, and is it as important as I'm making it out to be?


Monday, June 14, 2010

Web of Spider-Man 8: "Un Nuovo Inizio?" Review

DeMatteis' second original Ben Reilly story this year makes it clear he was just getting warmed up with "Nobody."

"Nobody" was an excellent character piece that got Ben Reilly where he needed to be, but "Un Nuovo Inizio?" makes the cast and setting seem incidental by comparison. I can pretty much take or leave Ben's jerk boss or the Portland setting from WOS 5, elements which served the Story well but did little else. Not so with this outing. I'm enthralled by the setting, I'm in love with the characters, and the Story has possibilities that reach far beyond this ten pages and into the future.

The Story finds Ben in Rome teaching English Lit. I hope something jumped out at you there, and not just the TEACHING. Ben is teaching ENGLISH LIT!!! Now I'm admittedly a little biased, being an English/Lit major and all. But with this important distinction DeMatteis shows us why Ben Reilly isn't redundant, and it's a moment that's not out of step with his Parker heritage in the least. Peter could easily teach English Lit if he wanted, just as Ben has already taught science. But this step goes a long way toward showing readers how Ben's lonely life has made him more introspective. Peter struggles to reconcile his social life with his secret world; Ben struggles to protect his inner life from the world.

And that, of course, means that Ben will find new ties to break. Actually, new ties will find him. Ben's as much a recluse as Peter was a geek, but neither of them seem to have any trouble attracting a circle of friends. In this case it's Paolo and Simona.

Paolo's as instantly likable as Foggy Nelson, and that's good, because he plays wingman for Ben. Because if you haven't read it and you haven't guessed it, Simona is hot and she's into Ben. But she also has a bit of a mystery surrounding her that factors into the story's conclusion. And this leads us to a scene that shows if Ben Reilly is more introspective than Peter, he's also more explosive!

I won't spoil any more, suffice to say that this is everything a Ben Reilly story should be. It's got the wanderer mystique that made Kung Fu and Incredible Hulk such hits. It's an exciting setting and an intriguing set-up.

Viva I'Italia! Viva Reilly!

Saturday, June 12, 2010

"The Unbearable Tug of Opposites..."

I went to my first Comic-Con in the summer of 94.

I was young. I had $200 in my wallet with no real idea what that meant. And like pretty much everyone else those days, I was caught up in the speculator's market. But best of all? My mom left at the door because she didn't want to pay the $10 entrance fee.

I met Peter David and saw Vampirella that day, but that's not what this story is about.

No, this is about Amazing Spider-Man 149.

You see, unbeknowst to my mom, I was on a mission. These were the months leading up to the big revelation that the clone who 'died' in ASM 149 had not only survived and taken the name Ben Reilly, but he was actually the one, true Spider-Man. Now back in these days of speculator greed, Wizard Magazine was in the habit of spotlighting a back issue that was sure to skyrocket in value. If that feature was a bit, shall we say, mercenary, it still holds up better than their Babe 'n Hunk of the Month spotlight, which in hindsight is just embarrassing. But I digress.

I was walking into that convention center with every intention of owning the Holy Grail of the '94 speculator's market. I just knew that when Ben Reilly was revealed to be the original Spider-Man, that issue was going to be paying for cars, colleges, and God willing, a date with a girl that wouldn't qualify for Wizard's Babe of the Month because she was flesh and blood.

And sure enough, within five minutes I had found a vendor hawking ASM 149. I don't know who this guy was, but clearly he was some kind of moron who didn't realize the goldmine he was sitting on. He was willing to part with the holy grail for $100. I was drooling.

But my better angels prevailed, and in a surprising moment of clarity, I decided not to buy a copy of ASM 149.

I bought two.

Hey, you do the math. If one copy was going to pay for a car and a decent college education, I figured I was more a Harvard and Ferrari kind of guy. I was sixteen, you know. I had needs.

So within fifteen minutes, my wallet was empty and I was on the fast track to the fast life. I spent the next hours strolling around, reveling in my purchase. Mom didn't, shall we say, appreciate that you've got to spend money to make money. No, her reasoning was that you've got to have money to pay for gas.

Fast forward a few years later. I'm rich, right? Riiiiiiight. Well, I could have been (easily), but circumstances intervened. The marketing department had pressured Marvel to keep the Clone Saga rolling past its natural limits, Marvel was in chaos (and bankruptcy), and pretty much everyone just wanted it to be over in some way or another.

So now Ben Reilly, who was the one, true Spider-Man, wasn't--and my two issues of ASM 149 were collectively worth $30.

But fast-fast forward sixteen years later, and I'm holding two treasures in my hands again: a copy of Spider-Man: The Complete Epic Clone Saga, Book 1 in one, and ASM 149 in the other.

You see, in the years that followed, I've (re)learned a lesson that's taken me back to the very first Spider-Man comic I ever read and into the now again.

In his autobiography Brooklyn Dreams, J.M. DeMatteis uses a definition for duality that's stuck with me. And as I look at 'the beginning' of Ben Reilly's story in one hand, and the collected 'beginning of the end' on the other, that's the only way I can think to describe this whole experience: 'the unbearable tug of opposites.'

I'm convinced what makes Ben Reilly's Story so special is that it taps into something that's always been important to the Spider-Man experience: History. But it's not the kind of History that's closed off at either end. No, it's a history where Ben Reilly's Story ended before it began, and came back with a vengeance in a way that Gerry Conway could never have anticipated. It's a Story that continues through JMD's backup stories in Web of Spider-Man Vol. 2, which fall between The Lost Years and Web of Spider-Man 117.

That's why I titled my blogspot ASM 149. Everyone thought the clone's Story was finished in ASM 151 (to be fair, he did get dropped down a smokestack). Everyone thought Ben Reilly's Story was over with PPSM 75, but the Clone Saga seems to be coming back with a vengeance this year. There's a life lesson in ASM 149's wild history, its improbable future, and its God only knows what falls next, and it's this:

Ben Reilly is what happens while you're busy making other plans.