Ben Reilly Happens While You're Busy Making Other Plans

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.