Ben Reilly Happens While You're Busy Making Other Plans

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

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?


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