Home - is where I want to be / But I guess I'm already there /I come home -
she lifted up her wings /
Guess that this must be the place...
- Talking Heads, "Naive Melody"

Thursday, May 16, 2013

State of the Marvel Universe: 1967

I'm reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which dovetails neatly with both this project and with my recent read of Marvel Comics: The Untold Story. It's actually difficult to enjoy Chabon's work when I'm so conscious of the extent to which he's being kind to his subject matter. "What is the why?" It's what's missing from nearly all of these books.

Dinner table conversation at our home has introduced the idea that most people read these comics through a lens of nostalgia, either for their own childhood or an imagined one, and that they are therefore generous with their interpretations. Most people who read them (if they do read them, and don't just nod to the received wisdom) are not 40-year-old women, or writers themselves. There are things about these comics that I like, but that's not the same as them being well-written. Anyway, back to the wrap-up.

I spent most of this issue year thinking that 1967 was the year Marvel killed romance. Jane Foster got written out of Thor. Pepper eloped with Happy. Peter continued to aggressively not date either Gwen or MJ. After 20 issues of teasing, Steve went on a date with Agent 13 only to learn that she was too committed to her work with SHIELD to have a relationship. The FF was something of a bright (less dismal?) spot: Johnny and Crystal dated and argued, and Sue got pregnant. Ben and Alicia continued to wallow in "how can she possibly love me" angst. The X-Men had most of the action. We saw new life breathed into the Jean/Scott/Warren/Ted/whothehellknows situation. Warren's ex-girlfriend showed up. Bobby and Hank continued to date their girls in a low-key fashion.

The overall tone edged darker, with more self-sacrificing villains and a couple of deliberate kills on the part of Our Heroes (at least in theory, since we know Mandarin and Red Skull aren't actually going anywhere no matter how many times you blow up their lairs). The stable of employees continued to expand.

In other respects, Spider-Man continued to be a leading light, with strong stories and a hefty supporting cast. The continuity tightened up; rather than unspecified periods of months between issues, each one led into the next. That's good for pacing, and makes it easier to keep the subplots simmering.

After an enjoyable run in the latter half of '66, Thor went off the rails. Jane got shuffled off-stage. Sif joined the cast and set up a love triangle with Balder (yawn). We finally got back to Thor's secret identity for a few panels here and there, but there was no coherence or direction, and the stories were dull.

The Hulk only appeared in two archived issues this year, but those suggest that he remained directionless as well.

Tales of Suspense turned out reasonably good action, and the art was good, but none of the stories were memorable. Steve's long-teased romantic plot stalled, and he didn't have any other ones. With his supporting characters married to each other, Tony was bereft of subplots as well. 

Stan's stranglehold showed its first signs of slipping as Roy Thomas took over scripting the Avengers. Hercules got added as a team member. Black Widow got some fleshing out, despite still not being on the team. Quicksilver learned to fly, and it looks like Ant-Man is going to be a regular again. As with most of the others, there was no center to the book, nothing propelling it forward but a series of villainous encounters.

Fantastic Four introduced the Kree and broke new ground by announcing Sue's pregnancy. The plots were solid and actually cohered around a theme--with Blastaar, Him, the Kree, and the Psycho-Man, the team faced a steady stream of threats from Beyond Human Ken. While I'm not thrilled with the Inhumans, they gave the team other people to interact with. The college subplots vanished.

X-Men was also under Thomas' writing care, with decent results. He did seem to grasp the idea of character motivation. The X-Men finally started to get origin stories! And personal histories! The plots were okay. I swear Roth's art got worse, and perhaps editorial thought so, too, because they kept shuffling the book to different artists.

So, a mixed bag of a year, with improvement in some areas and back-sliding in others.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

State of the Marvel Universe: 1966

1966 saw a lot of changes to the artistic line-up. This is the year Kirby really broke through, in my opinion; previous to this I'd been wondering what all the fuss was about.

Spider-Man leaves Kirby's hands for those of Rick Romita, Sr. We get a slew of relatively intricate, family-dependent plots. Word balloons start overtaking the panels, but overall it's a good year that sees a lot of world-building, and the introduction of Mary Jane Watson, for good or ill.

Buscema joins the Tales to Astonish crew as that book disintegrates in confusion (literally, the archives are full of holes).

Journey Into Mystery has Thor sharing his true identity with Jane, gets a title change to Thor which will play HAVOC with my screen shot archiving system, and descends into an annoying slog with Hercules. It gets back on track with the expedition to Rigel and Ego, the Living Planet, and Kirby is in brilliant form.

Gene Colan takes over drawing Iron Man's half of Tales of Suspense. I like Colan's work. There is a pleasing amount of angst and stabs toward characterization. Captain America is still trying to find a direction; they tease a love interest in the past and possibly one in the future, and connect him up with Nick Fury only to scotch the idea of Cap working for SHIELD, but at least he's got something to do other than punch Nazis.

The Avengers get political. The team dynamic seems to be settling down, though the roster remains unstable. Hank Pym reappears as Goliath, and is still difficult to like. Pietro and Wanda spend much of the year absent. Black Widow is kind of an ally now.

There are lots of introductions in the Fantastic Four, with the establishment of the Inhumans and the iconic milestone that is Galactus (argh). Kirby does a lot of good stuff, and in the second half of the year they try some more intricate multi-threaded plotting, which works well with such a large cast. They introduce the Black Panther and Johnny's roommate Wyatt in a decent-for-the-times stab at diversity, but the writing of Sue is just awful, and Alicia's only appearance is to play midwife to the Surfer's appreciation of humanity.

The X-Men are handed over to Jay Gavin and continue to meander along. Jean goes to college. It's not horrible, but there's nothing interesting about it.

Overall, plots are stretching out a bit more. The universe as a whole gets bigger with the addition of Olympus and the fleshing-out of the Inhumans adding yet another branch on the super-powers tree (to go along with radiation/chemically-enhanced humans, magic, and mutants), and the exploration of sub-space. There is an uptick in the acceptable level of violence, where you get more of the bad guys mowing down innocent villagers, or the Red Skull mind-controlling a guy into shooting himself.

A lot of this stuff is just not well-written. There's a lot of inconsistency, sometimes within a single issue. The characters are still embryonic. "Because Stan said so" crops up in plotting and character motivation. The women characters are uniformly appalling. They had a lot of potentially-interesting concepts and characters at this point, but really weren't doing much with them. The art has improved a lot, though.

Thursday, May 2, 2013


I have too many places on which to post things. To some extent I compartmentalize -- Twitter tends to get writing stuff, Tumblr gets fan stuff, Facebook gets stuff about the kids, and G+ is where I keep my collected screenshots of superheroes tied up in ropes and tentacles. This blog used to be mainly about cooking, but while I do still cook, it's nowhere near what it used to be in my life. I don't remember when I last used some quiet moments to leaf through a cookbook. Maybe it's just that disconnected quiet moments are all I get, most days, or maybe it's a failure of discipline.

I will have to get on the stick about that, so I'm posting my schedule here, and also so I don't lose the damn thing. The working title for the book is Prometheus, because I have to call it something other than "that thing I'm doing with Byron in it."
  • May/June - Research. I have several books on Byron to read, and a new copy of The Death of Arthur.
  • June/July - Finish first draft (abandoned at 45k last year)
  • July-October - Second draft
  • November - NaNoWriMo (It's how I fill my queue; I skipped last year, but I already have an idea to use this time around)
  • December - Polish and solicit critiques
Those normally take a couple of months to come back, during which I can do research for the next novel (a sort of urban fantasy set in New England just after the Civil War). And so on. 

State of the Marvel Universe: 1965

Background: Last summer I watched The Avengers. Then I went and watched the rest of the Marvel Phase 1 movies, and then I watched The Avengers again. It struck me that with not just this movie but most comic movies, we were getting characters and stories that are literally fifty years old. I got curious about this longevity, and decided to look in the comics to see what they might tell me about how these characters started, how they evolved, and maybe why they've lasted so long. So I've been reading along, and as I get to the end of every issue year I write a "state of" summary. It occurred to me that some people might find them amusing (or not).

The books I read for this year are: Amazing Spider-Man, whatever books the Hulk appeared in, Journey Into Mystery, Tales of Suspense, Avengers, Fantastic Four, and Uncanny X-Men
So, 1965. One of the things that sticks out to a reader is how tiny the shop was back then. Stan, Jack, Ditko, Heck, a couple more who show up near the end of '65, a handful of colorists, and I think three letterers. That was Marvel.

In terms of the stories, all of the pieces were in place that we recognize today: the heroes, the major villains (and a host of forgotten ones), and their supporting casts. I knew the universe was pretty static, but I wasn't expecting this extent.

In 1965, Marvel characters still barely qualify as such. Labels substitute for backgrounds: doctor, scientist, disgruntled circus performer, Communist. Motives begin and end with "because heroes", "I would like to be rich", and "I just like being evil okay." Thor has a signature formality to his speech, Cap a certain stolid patriotism, but everyone else sounds like Stan Lee. Fine details of appearance were restricted by the available printing technology. Character backgrounds are sparse and mostly occupied by dead relatives.

It occurred to me that this might not be a deficiency if what you're really after is reader self-insertion. It's not "good writing," but it gets a particular job done. Maybe if you're an adult writing adult characters for an audience composed (or thought to be composed) largely of pre-teens, maybe they assumed that any depth or significant time spent on character problems out of costume would have been wasted.

I'm not even going to start on the state of their writing WRT women at this point, or else I'll be here all day. I suppose I should be glad that they had any women characters at all, and that they were allowed to do something other than be taken hostage. I swant someone to track down Stan Lee and find out why he stringently avoided the word "woman" in favor of "female." Efforts to set stories outside the US are cringe-inducing.

For all the crowds that showed up for Reed and Sue's wedding, the universe feels thin; there isn't much of a supporting cast in any of the books. We see the teams being domestic among themselves, fighting among themselves, and fighting villains, but seldom interacting with anyone else on an ongoing basis. Spider-Man does a better job of this than the rest of them, because he spends so much time out of costume. Most of the supporting cast for other solo books are dedicated to love interest/triangles. So for Journey Into Mystery, Thor's got Jane and he's got his family in Asgard, but a big chunk of the family scenes revolve around the Jane Problem. Iron Man's supporting cast is just Pepper and Happy. The Hulk doesn't have one at all. Captain America has Bucky in past-set stories, and Rick in present-day stories, and that's it. Secondary characters shouldn't just be there to be kidnapped, rescued, and mind-wiped; they add depth to a setting and round out the main characters by letting us see them in a variety of circumstances. That's missing.

Plots were rudimentary; for the most part, they didn't draw out longer than two issues. Kind of funny to me that despite the serial format--which has been used to produce some long-ass novels--they didn't trust either their medium or their audience to support actual long-term stories. Bad guy appears (or breaks out of jail, or gets hired by some other villain), attempts some crime. There's a fight. After a more or less protracted exchange of blows/fire, a defeat and retrenchment, the hero wins the fight. Almost everyone has a romantic interest or two, and Peter and Tony have recurring job woes, but it's more furniture than plot, because nothing significant happens as a result of these features (other than the creation of the Scorpion, I suppose). The Hulk, oddly, got some of the most intricate and extended sequences, but his characterization was all over the place. It took forever to find a place for Captain America as anything beyond a Nazi-puncher.

I'm told that I should be judging these books against what had gone before, and against their DC contemporaries, which would make it clear where Marvel was breaking ground in art and story, but there are limits to how much time I'm willing to put into this project. I see flashes of promise, and I quite like some of the art, but in terms of story-telling I'm calling this bad to mediocre.
So that was 1965.