The Best of Marvel Lives in the Margins

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First off, apologies to all three of my regular readers (okay, I’m probably inflating those numbers) for the inexcusably long break between blog posts. I’d like to say that life gets in the way most days, but the fact is, so does laziness. Yes, I’ve been churning out new fiction at a rate unheard of since the days when I did meth on the regular, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be able to find an hour a week, at the very least, to punch some keys and paste something here to justify maintaining a blog in the first place. I could make promises and claims to do better going forward, but I’ve done that before and much like all the times when I’d say I was going to quit smoking and then smoke twice as much in defiance of my own better angels, I’d probably just double down on the apathy and take a whole year off from here.

And it’s not like I don’t find inspiration everywhere, from stuff I’m reading to things I’m watching to the eternal tectonic shifts of dark reality, but every now and again I find a reason and a minute and all the stars line up and BAM, you guys get another blog post. You lucky fucks!

The unlikely source of today’s inspired ramblings is a comic book character I’ve rarely thought twice about, except whenever Comixology puts some of her books on sale and I see a writer’s or artist’s name attached that piques my interest. I’m talking, of course, about your friendly neighborhood Spider-Woman. I don’t know much about her historically as a character, except that she exists as the result of Hydra genetic experiments and not because she was standing at the back of the class and got bitten by the same radioactive spider as Peter Parker later that same day (there’s a whole other recently introduced character, Silk, with that origin, because comics!). I imagine she exists as a result of the same possibly craven motivation that’s given the world Supergirl, Batgirl, Batwoman, She-Hulk, and various other gender-swapped variations on wildly popular superheroes. I don’t know if that impulse involves a desire to recruit more female readers and thinking that’s the best way, or if comics creators just wanted to craft versions of their power-fantasy figures they could daydream about having sex with after a super-battle (“That Spider-Man sure is dreamy–golly, if only he was a girl! Hey…!”).

Whatever their inauspicious origins, once these characters prove to have some lasting appeal, they inevitably fall into the hands of writers and artists who genuinely find them interesting, or at least seize the opportunity to do interesting things with characters who are perceived to be “second-tier.” That’s how you get books like J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman’s incredible “Batwoman” run, Babs Tarr and Cameron Stewart’s recent bestelling “Batgirl” revamp, “She-Hulk” in the hands of Dan Slott or Charles Soule, and now, Dennis Hopeless‘s excellent take on Spider-Woman.

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Hopeless is a writer I’m not particularly familiar with, so if anything made me snap up digital copies of these books, it was Javier Rodriguez’s glorious artwork, which strikes the perfect balance of cartoony without going too broadly comical, realistic without belaboring the details, and enhanced with Alvaro Lopez’s fine-lined inking and Muntsa Vicente’s bright poppy colors. What that told me at a glance was that this book was going to be fun, embracing the inherently over-the-top silliness which is the only sane way for a grown-ass adult to approach and engage with a superheroic universe. The borderline indie-comic spirit put me instantly in mind of Fraction’s “Hawkeye,” the current “Ms. Marvel” and my much-loved “Superior Foes of Spider-Man,” all books that bring a kind of cable-series vibe and a much-deserved spotlight to some of the outliers of the Marvel Multiverse.

What I love about those other books, and indeed what I usually look for in a superhero book these days, is the way they engage with this preposterous reality from a fresh perspective, sneaking humor, humanity and even heart into the dialogue and character interactions, creating small relatable details that don’t interfere when the action gets big; in fact, they enhance it. I love stories that dig into unexplored nooks and crannies of the superpowered world, like who a D-list henchmen hangs out with in his downtime, or what an Avenger watches on cable on her nights off, or the consequences of sneaking out past your bedtime when you’re a hero who still lives with your parents. I also love to see an industry titan like Marvel upgrading its characters so that the “world outside your door” at least starts to look somewhat like the world outside mine. Making the new Ms. Marvel a Pakistani Muslim immigrant was an excellent step in that direction. Giving Jessica Drew a new costume that looks like something she picked out for herself, rather than had painted on against her will, is another. For a character that’s always been presented as a powerful, if conflicted, woman, she’s spent too many years in an outfit that rendered her a hypersexualized male fantasy figure rather than a legitimately self-empowered individual.

I’m not saying I hate this, because my Neanderthal lizard brain most certainly responds to it…

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…but this is way more practical, a whole lot cooler, and while I can’t necessarily picture my wife in it, I could at least imagine running into her somewhere…

SpiderladyContinuing this streak of real-world feminism and self-propelled sisterhood, Hopeless and Rodriguez craft a terrific story arc in which Jessica, now striking out on her own as a private detective, her time with the Avengers in the rearview mirror (for now), takes a keen interest in the cases of multiple missing women. All of these women–and some children–have one thing in common: they are the wives, girlfriends and significant others of a who’s-who of supervillains, henchmen, and assorted powered goons. Teaming up with the Daily Bugle’s hardest working investigative journalist, Ben Urich, and a third-tier criminal with a bad rep and a big heart with the unfortunate alias Porcupine, Jessica finds her way to an idyllic small town inhabited almost solely by women and children. As it turns out, an enterprising abuse survivor has established a kind of underground railroad for women who’ve been victimized by their good-for-nothing, often psycho costumed spouses and boyfriends, spiriting them away to this rural getaway to live a peaceful life off the abusers’ radars. Unfortunately, the brains behind this operation has become something of a criminal mastermind herself, convincing a number of the crooks that their loved ones are being held hostage and forcing them to pull jobs that will funnel funds and resources to the fledgling community/sanctuary. That’s how Porcupine ends up in Jessica’s orbit, becoming a surprisingly sympathetic ally as Jess attempts to find a solution that will put an end to the criminal activity while preserving the much-needed retreat for these unfortunate women and their offspring.

Needless to say, when I downloaded the first issue in this run, I was not expecting a story of such depth and complexity, where a segment of the expansive Marvelverse becomes a potent metaphor  not only for the victimization and subjugation of women, but of the potential for even long-suffering victims to find the inner strength and resources to stand up and fight back, not with the fists of their oppressors (well, not just the fists anyway) but with solidarity, and smarts. It’s the second time inside of a year that I’ve come across a Marvel story with such a well-crafted contemporary feminist slant, the other being the Netflix version of Spider-Woman’s namesake and fellow superpowered P.I. Jessica JonesIf this is a sign of things to come as Marvel plays catch-up with the world, and caters more carefully and overtly to their many female fans, I can only say we geeks are richer for it. And it leaves me eager to get my hands on the next volume, where this happens…

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The Deep Dork Forest

You might think, with my background in comedy and my years as a writer in LA, that I should’ve been on dozens of podcasts by now. Or at least a few. Or hell, even started my own, by gum. But that just ain’t the case. In fact, my pending appearance on episode #307 of Jackie Kashian’s The Dork Forest is the official cherry-pop that will hopefully open a floodgate, or even just a small babbling brook of guest podcastery leading up to the release of my next magnum opus, CItizen Skin.

Recorded about a month ago, this was a fun, freewheeling conversation that used superhero prose fiction as a jumping off point to talk about the current state of mainstream comics, Marvel vs. DC movies, the ever-widening world of comics-based TV, and, in a moment of accidental depth, the value of redemption tales over bloody revenge stories (not that I don’t still love a good bloody revenge story from time to time).

Anyway, give a listen, and if you like what you hear, go ahead and subscribe to Jackie’s terrific show, where she invites a wide swath of guests from within and without the world of entertainment to come geek out about their favorite subject, from pop culture specifics to California surfing to obscure moments in history to hard futurist science to just about any topic worth throwing your mind, heart and soul into. She’s a great, game host with a quick wit and many dorkable passions of her own, and one of the best comedians on the scene these days.

And if you already know about her but are just now learning about me, go on and buy my books, cause I write better’n I talk!

The Greatest Fan Fiction Ever Told

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This guy, am I right?

I’ve never been a big Spider-Man reader, so my awareness of the character Herman “Shocker” Schultz–frequent Sinister Six member in reasonably good standing and a Spidey foe for pretty much as long as I’ve been alive–was dim at best before I read Superior Foes of Spider-ManIn that fantastic series, Herman makes a fateful decision that leads him and the other five members of the Six (if that doesn’t seem to add up, just read Superior Foes, dammit!) down a path that could spell doom for all of them. But in the end, out of everybody, it’s the Shocker (whose only superpower is the shock-resistant suit and vibration gauntlets he built in prison, because he’s actually kind of a genius even though he doesn’t know it) who pulls out a big win when he single-handedly takes down…well, why should I spoil it for you?

It was my childhood friend and brother from another mother Jeff Coleman who turned me on to Frank Miller’s Daredevil and Claremont and Byrne’s X-Men and Dave Sims’ Cerebus when they were the freshest things on the spinner rack, and thus inspired my lifelong dalliance with comics. He’s also the artist responsible for the 3D rendition of HandCannon that graces the top of this blog. He recently stumbled across a terrific piece of fan fiction that basically answers the question “what would The Villain’s Sidekick be like if I’d written it using licensed Marvel characters?” 

Shocker: Legit,  written entirely on spec, or for fun, by Max Landis (son of filmmaker John Landis, screenwriter of the found footage superhero flick Chronicle) concerns itself with what might happen if Herman Schultz were to grow weary of being a punching bag for metahuman crimebusters like Spider-Man and try his hand at doing the hero thing himself. He gets his first opportunity when he comes across the Hulk-ish Ravage running riot in downtown Manhattan and manages, through grit, determination, and some dumb luck, to take the monster down.

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During this encounter, he gets an unexpected assist from Felicia “Black Cat” Hardy, who becomes his unlikely ally as they uncover a vast conspiracy involving a company called First Person Shooter that allows regular, high-paying citizens to operate mind-controlled supervillains and use them to wreak real-world havoc as if the actual death, destruction and carnage were all some kind of virtual reality game. And that’s just the tip of the conspiratorial iceberg. Meanwhile, Felicia becomes an even more unlikely love interest for the embattled  Herman.

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It’s not hard to see why (and for the record, I had to search far and wide to find an image of Black Cat that made her look like the badass she is in this story, rather than the hypersexualized fantasy figure she’s usually portrayed as). No sooner do they start investigating this dark conspiracy than they are the targets of not only the drone-operated super baddies, but mercenaries for hire like Bullseye and the Enforcers, and while Herman and his crew manage to beat the odds time and again, they are well-brutalized for their troubles–in addition to repeated nose-breakings, contusions, lacerations, stabbings and shootings, at one point Herman loses an ear. A fuckin’ ear!

The story’s not perfect. Considering it’s fan fiction, there’s an impression from the typos, occasional grammar mistakes and tense switches, and a few places where small but crucial bits of information seem to be missing, that you’re reading a first draft. And considering it’s unsolicited fan fiction, one can’t really fault Landis for not going back and fixing it all for our consumption. Plus, it compensates with a pretty ingenious story, a smorgasbord of well-placed Marvel character cameos, and an extremely likable, relatable take on its accidental protagonist.

I’m not exactly sure when Landis wrote it–my best guess is that it’s from sometime in the mid-oughts–but what struck me right away, from the first page, was how stylistically similar it is to Villain’s, Confessions of  D-List Supervillain and other works in this subgenre (bad guy/henchman goes good) of a subgenre (superhero narrative fiction). Like my own book, it concerns a street-level goon with self-esteem and anger issues whose abilities are purely technological; it’s first person present tense, highly comedic without resorting to parody, and as loaded with heart as it is with violence and insanity. Especially touching, along with Herman and Felicia’s love affair, is his equally unexpected friendship with this guy:

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Landis’ and Herman’s portrayal of Rhino is as a not-always-gentle giant with a heart of gold and the mind of a child. He’s simple, sweet-natured, capable of terrific destruction but loathe to hurt innocents or civilians even as their war heats up. Again, I haven’t read enough Spidey to know how accurate this portrayal really is, but it works well here, providing another sympathetic layer to Herman as he looks out for his big loyal lug of a buddy.

Along the way, Herman scores some more unlikely admirers and allies in a quest for truth that leads to some (emotionally as well as physically) uncomfortable places: Reed Richards and Tony Stark marvel at the genius of his prison-created suit and power gauntlets and begin to treat the low-level schemer as an intellectual equal…

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…and after an extremely unpleasant initial encounter, he even earns the grudging admiration of this taciturn motherfucker…

1819576-punisher_get_castleThe-Punisher

More than anything, for fans of this kind of stuff, which I obviously am, Shocker: Legit is just one of those unexpected treasures the internet coughs up every now and again that hits right in the sweet spot. Well worth a read. And the price is unbeatable.

The Best Book We All Weren’t Buying

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These guys, am I right?

By now it’s a given that the Platinum Age of Television began on Jan. 10, 1999 with the premiere of The Sopranos, when indie cinema sensibilities started trickling down into the storytelling on that “vast wasteland” people of a certain age used to call the Idiot Box. After that defining date, cable TV–both premium and basic–began to allow for a model that let tightly contained long-form narratives like Six Feet Under, Deadwood, Mad Men, Battlestar Galactica (at its best anyway) Breaking Bad (and its so-far worthy successor Better Call Saul), Orange is the New Black and even The Walking Dead unfold over shorter seasons, without outstaying their welcome, and often telling stories as worthy of our time and attention as any Great American Novel or Important Awards-Baiting Film. The upside of this is more great entertainment at the click of a button. The downside is constant access to and constant replenishment of the narcotic that’s been my biggest bane since early childhood.

As we move further into the 21st century, a similar phenomenon is occurring in my other favorite serialized storytelling medium. In the funnybooks, the indie comics sensibility has made definite headway into the mainstream, allowing for a greater diversity of art styles, narrative approaches, creators and characters. This is probably most evident in one of Marvel’s most popular recently launched titles, Ms. Marvel, in which a teenage daughter of Pakistani immigrants and a practicing Muslim herself develops superpowers. The subject of personal faith probably hasn’t been this front and center with a mainstream superhero since Daredevil’s Catholicism. But the book’s second boldest choices have less to do with featuring a Muslim female than with its choice to be irreverent, smart, and boundlessly interested in the lives of young urban people coming of age in a way that’s reminiscent of a basic cable dramedy. And the art style is reflective of that in a way that’s hip and indie without losing track of the fact that’s it’s set in the Marvelverse, intricate and detailed without being overly busy, cartoony without seeming juvenile.

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Marvel seems to be leading the pack with this kind of book, letting writers and artists who’ve done great work in and out of the mainstream take a book and character and really put a strong creative stamp on them. Hawkeye would be another prime example, a book that felt like a wiseass character-driven cable action comedy series from the first issue, and that has made some of the boldest creative choices of any recent superhero book while keeping things on a mostly small, narrowly focused scale. The most acclaimed issue so far is an almost wordless noirish detective adventure told from the POV of Clint Barton’s recently adopted dog. It’s hilarious, clever, and a masterpiece of visual design.

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Both of these books have received attention, acclaim, and whatever passes for reasonably strong sales in the current comics market, but by far my favorite book representing this trend toward smart, funny, indie explorations of the Marvel world seemed to slip through the cracks. The Superior Foes of Spider-Man just ended its run after a mere 17 issues. Granted, that was five more than its originally planned twelve, but when it got the initial extension, I imagine all involved were hoping for an ongoing. I was (and yet also wasn’t!) It’s a curse that’s also a blessing, in its way, because writer Nick Spencer and artist Steve Lieber were granted the freedom to make the book they wanted, and to give it a proper ending. In the past, in comics as in TV, this opportunity to close the loop was rarely afforded, and many books and arcs were left open-ended as their titles died on the vine. Much like a particularly satisfying show that ends while still at peak creativity (many of my friends kept whining for more Breaking Bad but I thought it ended right when it should), there’s plenty to be said for a short-run comic that sets out to tell a tight yet sprawling story and is able to do so within some nicely defined parameters, escaping the trap of treading water and giving in to mediocrity due to creator changeover or simple exhaustion.

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Focusing on a new incarnation of the Sinister Six and pretty much eschewing Spider-Man altogether is a terrific choice, because from the title on down, it establishes these characters as the coattail hangers they are. Because this is not just a story about bad guys, it’s a story about losers, about the guys on the margin who are always being beaten down by the heroes, manipulated by the major players and big bosses, and left to fend for themselves when the shit goes down. They may have big dreams and big plans, but they will never be A-list baddies no matter how hard they try. It’s just not in the cards. Personally, having written my first book, The Villain’s Sidekick, about just such a guy, I am of course all about this. And I’m sure there’s a whole other level of fun for Spencer and Lieber just getting to play in this little corner of the Marvel sandbox, where they get to dream up lives and backstories and motivations and nuances for these characters that haven’t been considered or explored in their entire histories, which in the case of guys like Boomerang and Shocker runs to nearly half a century each. A key difference between my story and this one is that Spencer succeeds at keeping his anti-heroes very much on the wrong side of the law. There may be one–the more recently conceived Overdrive–who longs to flip from bad to good like Hawkeye or Scarlet Witch before him, but in the end it’s a pipe dream and he’s just another sorry schmuck whose life is defined by a long string of rotten luck and poor choices.

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Many of Spidey’s more infamous gangster-type rogues and bosses put in appearances–from Tombstone, who’s daughter joins the new Sinister Six (who, it’s worth pointing out, only boast five members throughout the series, yet keep the name regardless), to the Owl, to Silvio Silvermane (who’s severed yet still chatty head is both a major McGuffin and constant thorn in the various characters’ sides). There are superfights and action sequences and occasional stakes, but this is really one of those books where it’s all about the largely comedic dialogue (and the amazing, perfectly complementary artwork, which is filled with clever gags of its own). Fred “Boomerang” Myers narrates the book, and despite his many machinations and double-crosses and general not-a-good-guy-ness, I found myself rooting for him to pull out some kind of small victory, even if it was the hollow win of a nefarious plan gone right for once. He frequently introduces a staple character with the dismissive eye-roll line: “This guy, am I right?” If you’re familiar enough with the Marvel stable, you’ll find yourself agreeing time and again.

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And just to demonstrate that creating a fun book that asks you to root for the bad guys isn’t as easy as it might sound, I recently attempted to read the first volume of DC’s apparently popular Harley Quinn solo series. Also a comedic farce about a villain’s lackey, the words that came to mind while I tried to wade through it’s soup of moronic slapstick violence, terrible puns and cheap jokes was “hot garbage.” I think Harley’s a great character in the right hands, but this book seemed pitch at a level just south of adolescent. At one point, while she helps an aging cybernetic Federal agent (real name: Sy Borgman; hilarious…) snuff some Russian sleeper agents (who really don’t deserve their horrible, played-for-laughs deaths) they take out a female spy named, get this, Ivana Brekemoff. Again, hilarious! Right? No, me neither.

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Suffice to say, if you enjoy the company of wiseass wannabes and amoral a-holes with wicked senses of humor and the scruples of a basement rat, if more than once in awhile you find yourself wondering what the henchmen are thinking, how they live, or what they do with their downtime, you could do a helluva lot worse than giving Superior Foes a shot.

http://www.amazon.com/Superior-Foes-Spider-Man-Getting-Together/dp/0785184945/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1423863876&sr=1-2&keywords=superior+foes+of+spider-man