Tag Archives: Marvel Comics

In Media Res

Show’s over, It certainly was a good one, and I may have stories and pix to share about the Summer Art Market 2019 after I sort through the post-show jumble. Few will match this one, from my second post, just after SAM 2009.

That’s right- a few extended silences notwithstanding, This blog is now 10 years old! It calls for a post of some sort. The 16th, the actual date of my first post is Bloomsday, the day of Leopold Bloom’s Odyssean wanderings through Dublin. But after what is usually one of my busiest periods of the year, thoughts turn to lighter fare. Comics and videos are definitely part of that. This Squishtoid blog, originally an attempt to document my creative life after leaving my day job, also functions as an outlet for my reading and pop culture musings. So while I dig out, and prepare for summer’s workshops, here are some thoughts about Marvel, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Earlier in spring reduced class time and social life during a fairly cold winter led to more reading and quiet time. I do enjoy reading up on ideas, and the most recent post for that is here, but sometimes, especially after a long hard day wrestling with those ideas in the studio, some comics are in order. While there are many literary and artistic comics out there, I think what most people first think when you say ‘comics’, is superheroes. This simplistic confusion of genre with medium dogs serious discussion of what comics are capable of, but on the other hand, superheroes remain, at least sometimes, a unique and vital genre.

It really makes no sense commenting on Marvel’s comics without having at least a passing knowledge of its movies, which have mined its long comics mythology to create one of the great Hollywood, or pop culture franchises. I’ll never really be a mainstream superhero guy, as far as comics go. But the movies are certainly hard to ignore. I’ve probably seen just over half of them now, and I’ve seen some major links in their ongoing narrative as the culmination comes in the release of Avengers: Endgame.

But it also makes sense to bone up on the source: the long history of the comics mainstream’s major superhero innovator :

Marvel: The Untold Story, Sean Howe : A book I’d been meaning to read and inhaled when I finally did. Marvel Comics had been the one of the formative pop cultural epiphanies of my youth, as I grew into them about the time Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were hitting their stride with angst-ridden characters on real urban streets. 

I was mostly done with them by ’75, and having returned to university, completely abandoned them for the alternative comics revolution of the mid 80’s, which tapped into the twin themes of high art and punk culture informing my life. Interestingly, this was in Laramie, Wyoming. If there were any doubts about the reach of the punk/alternative revolution that came in reaction to the Reagan repression of the 80’s, I’m here to tell you that it was alive and vibrant even in the red states.

The book fills in the gaps of my experience of superhero comics, describing the editorial turn to dope-fueled space-opera ( and the advent of movie mega-villain Thanos), then X-mutant melodrama- not a part of the movie universe, as another company owns the franchise. All leading to the 90’s hype years of foil covered ‘collectables’ and dark mannerist heroes in impenetrably convoluted crossover plot lines.

Each was the product of editorial office drama, which lead to bankruptcy, creative defections and the beginning of Image Comics, which failed to challenge Marvel’s dominance in super heroes, but eventually transformed the industry with royatlies and creator-owned properties. Eventually a lot of these characters and story elements popped up in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, about which, more below.

The book, transitioning smoothly between the creative innovations and eccentricities, and the board room maneouvers to control and exploit them, tells a compelling story well. It seems well researched and avoids fan boy platitudes, along with emotionally charged revisionism. The story of Lee and Kirby’s now controversial collaborations and subsequent break takes center stage early and often. Who invented Spiderman? Thor? The Fantastic Four? It’s difficult for me to imagine that Thor would ever be grossing billions in cinemas without both Kirby’s myth-making artistic dynamism, and Lee’s corny but engaging faux-Shakespearean patois, and gift for making highly relatable characters, all of which have been liberally mined for the movies. 

These characters from a highly marginalized medium have resonated as much as any Hollywood ever came up with, as tacitly acknowledged by Disney when they shelled out billions in the 90’s to acquire them. This book, paced like a four-color thriller from the early days, helps to explicate the genius and the strife that spawned them.

 But the name of the game for the movies, as it has always been for the comics, is ‘crossover’. Marvel has always tried to get one to try different superheroes with different storylines, by linking their exploits in one great ‘Marvel Universe’. In the comics, by the 80’s, this had led to needlessly tangled plot lines running across multiple titles, which has created a geeky insularity that has ultimately hurt direct market comics outlets. But the movies have proven that it can be very compelling, narratively.

The movies have managed their affairs rather well. This is mainly because, as an economic juggernaut, Hollywood has felt free to make different sorts of movies out of different characters. Each flick that finds its way to the theaters has focused on a different niche of the broader public. Guardians of the Galaxy were C-list heroes played for laughs, for example. They date from the 70’s, when stoned writers wandered the halls at Marvel’s offices, inventing characters like Howard the Duck. This strange creation, by Steve Gerber, made one of the all-time bombs early in the MCU, but also enabled the fourth wall-shattering irony that more successful efforts, like Thor: Ragnarok have used to mainstream camp in the cineplex.

It was up to Marvel, notably producer Kevin Feige, to enforce a continuity on the franchise, which they did an excellent job of with the now famous ‘end-credit’ scenes. This encouraged movie-goers of the ultra serious Captain America movies to try goofier characters like Ant Man, and allowed directors latitude in how they presented the material. The apotheosis of this approach came with Thor: Ragnarok, which appalled older fans of the Lee-Kirby canon of my youth by applying the silliness of Guardians to an A-list character. It’s as though whole movies were being made of the Star Wars ‘cantina scene’. The movies I’ve recently seen epitomize this blending of sub-genre, with A-list, B-list, and C-list characters from the comics all playing their parts in the oncoming Endgame.

Ant Man and the Wasp: Because it taps so wonderfully into the humor and absurdity of super heroes ( especially ‘B’ or ‘C’-list characters like these two, who haven’t gotten so much as a phone call from Marvel since 1965, recent revivals for the YA market excepted), and yet does not fuck with sacrosanct Lee/Kirby texts of my youth, as does Ragnarok, this is probably my current fave MCU movie. The directors have a real feel for the comedic potential behind comic book fantasies such as instantly shrinking and enlarging objects, which also provides lots of thrilling sfx. 

And in a brilliant and highly underrated creative choice, this flick resembles in its plotting nothing so much as one of those madcap ‘caper’ movies of the Rat-Pack 60’s, such as It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, where diverse groups quest maniacally after the same prize. Rather than money, in this case, it’s the technology to enter sub atomic space. There are subplots galore, all deftly interwoven ( well organized plotting is an MCU hallmark), and each more uproarious than the last. A few examples: a prolix security system sales crew debating the efficacy of ‘truth serum’, a shrink/expand suit with a fidgety control, an entire shrunken office building that is stolen and continually popping up in expanded form in multiple convenient/inconvenient times/places, and numerous running gags about actual ants. 

I underestimated how much the movie ties in to previous installments in the ongoing Avengers storyline, such as Captain America: Civil War, which I haven’t seen. So I was a bit flummoxed at the beginning, but the movie doesn’t require that knowledge to enjoy its antic charm, and stands with Gaurdians of the Galaxy, and yes, Thor: Ragnarok as MCU flicks that are probably friendliest to Marvel Cinematic Universe outsiders. Again, the MCU genius for blending lively expository with propulsive action erases any need for a fan boy guide book/litmus test. And the visual humor passes the eye test . Despite the accelerated pacing, Jacques Tati would approve of the subversive cinematic non sequiturs, which include a Bullit-like (shrinking, expanding…) car chase on San Francisco’s serpentine Lombard St. Tati, who made suburban garden hoses into dragons, and rondel windows into peeping eyes, would also approve of the flick’s transforming animism.

I’m amazed by how often MCU movies that that stretch the bounds of suspended disbelief at first have me on the edge of my seat by the middle. Nor can this really be described as a formula, because each film and set of characters engenders its own unique solutions. As has been pointed out, different directors have felt free to make radically different movies, such as Captain America: Winter Soldier as a libertarianism-tinged political thriller; Ant Man and the Wasp as caper comedy; Guardians as prison flick/space opera, etc. 

Captain America: Winter Soldier: More of a traditional action-political thriller than Ant Man and the Wasp, but it is not afraid to foreground serious contemporary issues, in this case the very relevant dichotomy between security and government control. Along with contemporaneous S.H.I.E.L.D. episodes from 2011, when it was released, Cap, Nick Fury et al, must fight their own government, making for a very timely but painless exploration of the libertarian strain now in our political dialogue.

The body count, had these events with their 9/11-style SFX destruction happened in real life, would have been catastrophic. Here it’s just another well-paced shoot-em-up, a larger, more expensive version of the S.H.I.E.L.D. series. Unlike the paranoid anti-government fantasies of America’s right wing, Winter Soldier at least, admits it’s a fairytale. 

Doctor Strange: The hubris/redemption tale is relatively hackneyed, the ‘mystic arts’ turn out to be a punch-up with arcane spells, and the ending feels more like a prelude than climax, but this was definitely enjoyable, if mostly for the hallucinatory special SFX.

When B-lister Dr. Strange started in the 60’s, he was a vehicle for the oriental mysticism enjoying a vogue with the hippie crowd on campuses, and also for the unique autodidactic artistic visions and philosophies of Steve Ditko, who was the third, and most reclusively embittered, of the creative triumvirate that started Marvel’s 60’s renaissance.

More than Kirby, Ditko blamed Lee for taking too much credit for characters like Spiderman and Dr. Strange he felt he’d developed. And even more than Kirby, his post-Marvel creations, done without Lee’s promotional flare, tended to be wooden and dull. He was given to expressing Ayn Rand’s objectivism in comic book form- yecch!, and gradually made himself impossible to work with.

His Dr. Strange was a milestone in visual storytelling, however, and the movie takes off from there, with mind bending cityscapes and strange universes. And wormholes- lots of wormholes.

Three different movies, three very different directorial visions. Yet each advanced the overall Avengers storyline in their own way (warning: no spoilers ahead). I may see Black Panther soon, another movie with a very different take on what a superhero might be, and another with a meta-narrative (of racial achievement) that transcends its place in the MCU.

Marvel’s superhero franchise, which took my entire youth to finally make it to the big screen, has become somewhat of an epic must-see. And whether Kirby, or Ditko would ever have admitted it, Lee’s sense of playing to the crowd was all over these movies. Many people contributed to the making of this historically successful franchise for sure, but Lee’s wit, persistence and personality- his vision, however superficial many might see that to be- were essential to its existence.

I also recently watched Wonder Woman, from Marvel’s staid rival DC: I need to see it again, it was too suspenseful during the first view to really analyze. 1st impression was very positive. It was an eccentric choice, placing it during WWI, but it makes sense in the execution. Director Patty Jenkins was able to make a myth/fable of the origin of WW, much as William Moulton Marston, the pioneering pop psychologist/feminist who wrote her early adventures did when he created her. It’s set in a time of great existential crisis for the western world, and not coincidentally, at the climax of first wave feminism. Yet by distancing the setting, Jenkins and Gal Gadot are able to forge a fable about women’s power and peace and justice without heavy didactic symbolism. Gadot projects both a steeliness, and a young girl’s naivete, while Jenkins builds in combat/action vignettes to a climactic battle that blurs the line between comic book slugfest and allegorical battle between peace and war, thus allowing the viewer the psychic space to judge it in his own terms. I’ll definitely watch it again, and it expands the potential for comic book movies.

Revenge of the B-List: Marvel Now!

Matt Fraction’s innovative Hawkeye, from Marvel Comics

I’ve spoken of a current comics renaissance, but as with the actual Renaissance, it’s not a single movement but a series of interrelated developments. These have often been seen in small press comics in opposition to an ossified ‘mainstream’ comics establishment embodied by “The Big Two”, Marvel and DC. The quote marks are an acknowledgement that, as I’ve mentioned, and as the latest revival of The Comics Journal’s print edition examines in depth, the mainstream is in flux. Bookstore-market stars like Hartley Lin, Alison Bechdel, YA queens Noelle Stevenson and Raina Telgemeier and others might be the new ‘mainstream’ in terms of numbers sold.

DC was once the mainstream that Marvel, with the innovations of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby et al, were reacting against as the Silver Age dawned, but lately both have struggled to define what their role is in an era of change: shrinking direct market sales and expanding movie and TV licensing.

DC’s ongoing creative paucity seems to derive from the same corporate ills that characterized their wholehearted embrace of the 50’s censorship: a complete lack of respect for the care and feeding of creative energy in comics. Marvel, on the other hand, was birthed, depending on whose version of history you subscribe to, in a 60‘s reaction to the corporate blandness of DC and others, such as Dell. Lee and Kirby really did intend to make great comics (I’m going to ignore the ongoing controversy over which of the two contributed more- my view is that it couldn’t have happened without both). Most of the comics discussed below are mentioned in the context of what might attract a longtime comics reader back to the Big Two, or into the odd, famously insular world of the comic shop.

Both corporations are trying to parlay licensing of properties, whether ill-gotten or not, into billions in media licensing deals. Real imagination is rare in either camp, though Marvel has managed their cinematic ‘universe’ quite well. Their comics, not so much. Few have escaped the general sales attrition afflicting the mainstream industry. We don’t know how much of this is due to shifting formats, such as digital comics and ‘graphic novel’ collections, which are cracking into or even buoying the bookstore market. But certainly there is change in how the medium reaches readers, and the Big Two, along with their ‘direct market’ retail network, are not handling it well.

Overall, there’s a general atmosphere of creative desperation, even as the movies and TV shows mine past storylines and continue to set records. The comics now are often ‘ret-conned’ (retro-conceived, to establish a retroactive narrative continuity) to match movie tropes. This explains why there are two Nick Fury’s- the white one from the Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos from the Stan Lee/ Jack Kirby comics of Marvel’s youth; and the black one, played by Samuel L. Jackson in the movies. The tail is wagging the dog.

There have been exceptions, though, and they are well worth looking into. Marvel seems to have gotten into an experimental frame of mind during the Marvel Now! retcon/marketing campaign of 2012-2016, and several titles featured imaginative re-boots featuring the work of fresh, vibrant artists, many obviously influenced by the alternative comics revolution.

From ‘Grim and Gritty’ to Feminist Noir: Jessica Jones

The whole Marvel Now! push seems to have been inspired a few years earlier with the Marvel Max adult themed titles that included Jessica Jones. Brian Bendis invented the character, a failed former superhero and does pretty well with his spot on the margins of the Marvel Universe, including the obligatory preposterous origin story, but Jessica Jones had already disappeared from print when the success of the Netflix series engendered a series of GN collections, then a revival. The revived series serves up creepy, gritty, bone chilling thrillers of Jones, now a PI, raising her interracial kid with another c-list Marvel superhero, and trying to stay in one piece between whisky benders. In The Secrets of Maria Hill, Bendis hits his stride, with the superheroes thankfully being downplayed.  Hill, from Marvel’s 60’s James Bond rip-off S.H.I.E.L.D., pivots the series into hard boiled spy/crime fiction. S.H.I.E.L.D has been a linchpin in the interplay between Marvel’s cinematic and TV offerings and the comics. This instance makes for an exciting fusion rarely seen since Jim Steranko integrated it into the mod 60’s spy fiction genre.

Understand, I’m not generally a crime fic guy, though I’ve had my binges with Marlow and The Thin Man in college, and more recently, Darwyn Cook’s excellent Parker adaptations. Still, this is good crime fiction, channeling Chandler and Westlake’s ambiguous moral landscapes to use in this tale of  a near-dysfunctional detective/a failed superhero helping a troubled spy with her PI skills. A ret-con of a faux ret-con, inspired, in typical Marvel fashion, by the TV versions (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, Jessica Jones) the comics inspired.

The fact that both main characters are women cannot be ignored. It is mind boggling in what it attempts to say and the very understated way in which it says it. And- first things first- both characters, Jones (essentially, in the “Purple Man” episodes, a rape victim) and Maria Hill (S.H.I.E.L.D. agent suffering from a bullet-proof glass ceiling?), are very much victims, but only in the best noir tradition- of a corrupt reality, and of the complex moral code they live by, and of their own self betrayals of that code.

Exquisite writing, really; the book communicates its agenda through the lips of its characters without ever getting in the way of their right to make bad decisions. Bendis sometimes overplays the stuttering, conversational mash-ups he employs to keep the pacing brisk, but the incomplete sentences also convey very well at times the incomplete lives in extremis and real existential fears of its two main protagonists. True noir, in that sense, and a bright ray that is completely the opposite of the ‘grim and gritty’, women-in-refrigerators world of the superhero genre in the 90’s. When the genre speaks forthrightly to female power and its price, it has much to say still.

Many mainstream comics are only now starting to update their pacing and dialogue, usually by copying the faux-expository colloquy of TV’s S.H.I.E.L.D. and the revved up narratives of the MCU. This is fresh and dynamic writing, much like Brian K. Vaughn’s in Saga.

Often, in my infrequent mainstream explorations, I have to ask: when did Wikipedia become such an essential tool to understanding comics? The convoluted backstories, the changing marketing imperatives, and the fact that one rarely reads these in order, because who has time for a weekly trip to the comics store, makes it necessary. I have a copy of Silver Surfer #9 with “#1” emblazoned across the top. Huh? The months-long arcs across multiple titles are hard to follow, another obstacle to good writing, but here Bendis keeps it simple with breathless pacing, gut punch twists, and small, redemptive epiphanies. If one must write in five-chapter story arcs, then this is probably the way to do it.

This, with Hawkeye(s), is why I can’t write off the superhero ‘mainstream’ altogether.

My Life as a Trick Arrow: Fraction’s Hawkeye

Matt Fraction’s brilliant 2011-2015 Hawkeye run got a lot of critical exposure (here’s a thorough examination in The Comics Journal) and won several industry awards. It was plagued by delivery date issues due to the artist, David Aja’s deadline problems, which didn’t help sales, and it ended after only 22 issues.  I hunted these obsessively after coming in in the middle. It concerns a tenement in New York, bought by Hawkeye with money he’s earned with the Avengers, and that stands in the way of developers. Clint defends his building to give his tenants a place to live, but a Russian-ish gang appears, first comically threatening, and gradually more violent. The series is funny and innovative but also emotionally rich. One issue is told in American Sign Language, after the hero temporarily loses his hearing after a fight, but it calls up memories of a similar occurrence as a child, after being beaten by his father. The episode intersects with another, told from the point of view of Lucky, a dog Hawkeye has rescued from the abusive Eastern European gangsters, who knows only a few English words, and thus, must also understand signs. When he does this correctly, during a fight with his former masters, he is able to make a crucial intervention, and the moment is glorious.

Fraction engineered many such glorious moments during this series, a miracle due to the irregular publishing schedule (again, the deadline problems) which caused a major shuffling of storylines, and finally a split storyline. In it, Kate Bishop, the other Hawkeye- a Clint Barton protege, strikes out on her own across the country for alternating adventures in LA. This is in addition to challenges relating to shifting formats alluded to above, in which stories are offered in the episodic, cliff-hanging monthly pamphlets sold in the comic shops, then collected into somewhat resolved ‘graphic novels’ for the bookstore/Amazon market. Hanging over the creators’ heads after all of that, is the need to maintain a certain sales level, even as the direct market seepage continues. Yet despite that, perhaps because of it, the series holds together, without feeling like ‘infinite crises on gold foil variant earths’. Fraction decamped to Image Comics, where he owns the rights to his own stories. These are good, but nothing so far (that I’ve read) has matched the pathos, bathos and sheer car-chasing, plate-glass-window-shattering energy of this series. And Aja’s simple, muted but expressive art has been worth the lengthy wait times.

I did patch together, with GN’s and fill-in issues from the comic store, most of a run of a subsequent Hawkeye arc. Kelly Thompson’s Hawkeye, illustrated by Leonardo Romero, follows the further LA adventures of Kate, and while it didn’t get the attention that the Fraction/Aja run did, it’s surprisingly strong. It also ended after 16 issues this year.  This is sort of Jessica Jones light; she starts a private eye office and must scrounge for jobs to feed her dog and cat. Running gags accumulate as Kate blunders her way through capers, but the storyline escalates when it becomes about her father, whom Kate suspects of murdering her mom. The art by Romero, straightforward and chromatic, eschewing the over-rendered, muddy, mannerist posing of most mainstream comics, and not coincidentally reminiscent of Aja’s, is dead on. Comic-y enough to convey humor and irony, not so much to counteract the tension. Marvel recognized what made the first series so unique, and against all odds, was able to do something almost as compelling. But at some point, declining sales caught up with them, too. It’s been a continuing problem with all comics, not just the innovators.

Scrapyard Pulp: Revenge of the B-List Heroes

Several other titles from this period also pushed stylistic and narrative boundaries: Black Widow also mined the spy/crime fiction vein, and also featured punchy, stylish art. She Hulk, by Soule and Pulido, about a giant green attorney at law; and Secret Avengers, another S.H.I.E.L.D.-based meta comic that pokes fun at superhero angst, not to mention Post Modern dialectics. The funny and endearing FF took Marvel’s iconic group, Fantastic Four, and re-imagined it as a gifted (super) child academy, guided by b-list heroes (She Hulk, Ant Man, etc.) with Fraction and Madman alt-comics auteur Mike Allred.

Dan Slott and Allred’s visually ambitious Silver Surfer fared less well, dragged down by specious plotting and the character’s inherently limited range of emotions, a longstanding problem since his invention by Kirby. It could have been a classic with just a bit of focus on character and storyline, but came far short as it fell into a puerile romance and easy answers to cosmic questions.  The spectacular art became sort of a superficial space-born travelogue. It reminded me of DC’s mawkishly teen-centered Legion of Superheroes of the 60’s. Is this a case of Kirby and Lee’s ‘Marvel Method’ going all wrong?

Most of these were ‘B-‘ or ‘C-‘ list characters, or even one (FF) fallen from the A-list, and the alchemy of turning scrapyard pulp into genre gold was part of their thrill. Marvel had little to lose. They all lasted about 16-20 issues, getting cancelled around the time they dipped beneath 25k in sales. These titles often sold 200k or more in the early days of Marvel; now they seem satisfied with 30-40k. But feminist noir and ironic, ret-conned superheroes don’t seem to do so well in the fan boy enclave of a direct market comics shop. In the ones I visit, these titles seemed to be there simply because they appeared in the catalog, not because they shone a light out of the grim and gritty comic shop past and into the bookstore market. At Mile High Comics, one of the country’s oldest and largest direct market stores, you’d be hard pressed to know that the new, bookstore-oriented mainstream even exists, though comics (the bookstore market calls them ‘graphic novels’) have been credited with being one of the fastest growing categories in publishing. Mile High simply is not interested in what is driving the renaissance.

Marvel’s undergone yet another re-boot, re-emphasizing ‘core’ (A-list, movie-tested) characters in order to cash in on the cinematic success. Company marketing now talks in terms of TV seasons; the usual series running 13-16 episodes per season. That’s something like three standard format ‘graphic novel’ collections, then onto the next creative team, the next ret-con.

I hope things like Hawkeye and Jessica Jones can hold steady sales in the TPB format, so Marvel might be tempted to try other adventurous projects. Stepping away, occasionally, from the restrictive 5-floppies-then-a-GN marketing format and trying euro-style album format might work with the more mature, and thus bookstore-friendly content. I don’t really blame writers, or even editors for this failure to innovate. It’s another case of corporate micro-management, I’m pretty sure. Fraction’s Hawkeye and Bendis’ Jones have been steady presences in bookstores and libraries that I visit, so there’s hope. However, a new vision of Jessica Jones by Kelly Thompson suffered from mundane art and a weak, superhero-centered story. Perhaps give it time.

These books proved that superheroes are not devoid of creative potential. After all, that’s kind of how the comic book industry (paperbacks, too!) got started; selling the odd, pulpy vigilantes of marginalized imaginations. Comics were humble, transgressive, and not audience-tested. They were never really meant to be a feedback loop. If Marvel and DC can’t figure out how to use this vibrant medium for something other than cineplex content creation, then there certainly appears to be others who can.