Ben Reilly Happens While You're Busy Making Other Plans

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.