Brothers x Witzke: On How We Talk About Watchmen

March 19th, 2012 Posted by david brothers

I had some thoughts about how we talk about Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen after that last interview made the rounds. I think it’s about as good as everyone says it is, but I don’t agree that everything else is as awful in comparison. It’s a nebulous, annoying conversation to have, because there are so many variables to take into account–who’s saying it’s the best, what publishers allow creators to do, and on and on. Anyway, I wrote something up and emailed it to a few friends. Sean Witzke, supervillain, hit me with a response that I thought was really valuable. So, here: point/counterpoint, with David and Sean.

David: Alan Moore gave another interview, and that means that we’ve got another chance to think about how DC screwed him and how all modern comics suck and are just suckling at his literary teat even to this day. He’s upped the ante this time to saying that Watchmen, his masterwork with Dave Gibbons, is not only the best superhero comic ever and constantly ripped off, but single-handedly saved the comics industry, too, because the industry was in shambles in the early ’80s and then turned around after Watchmen came out. Which is demonstrably untrue, but whatever. More interesting is his idea that Watchmen is still the best cape comic ever.

You can’t really blame him for holding that position. Watchmen is a crystal of a comic book, self-reflective and reflective of our culture (at a certain point anyway) simultaneously. The writing is on point, the art is on point, and it’s a really good comic in general, no matter how I feel about the plot or whatever. It’s the real deal, and everyone’s said it over and over. So it’s no wonder that Moore looks at that book, and at what people have said about it, and at the current comics industry, and says what he says. Watchmen is the one comic, above all others, that gets the praise it does.

Watchmen is generally treated as Best Comic by the comics industry and its fans. It’s credited with moving cape comics past their genre roots, being a high watermark for cape comics, and the source of the brutality, ennui, and trauma that we think of whenever someone says the phrase “’90s comics.”

I don’t think any of these are strawmen that I’m setting up just to knock them down, either. Watchmen is consistently the one book that everyone (the generic, anecdotal everyone, so maybe this is a strawman, but I sure hope not) recommends to new readers or readers who want a bit of maturity. Watchmen was the only comic on Time’s Top 100 Novels list a few years back. When we look at the ’90s, you often hear that people “learned the wrong lessons from” or “missed the point of” Watchmen. Watchmen is a big deal, deservedly so, but I can’t help but feel like it is a bigger deal than it should be, if only due to received wisdom and a lack of a strong resource for comics history.

The Best Comic thing sticks in my craw the most, I think, because it’s such a fake idea. I can’t think of a Best Movie or Best Song, or even Best Western or Best Rap Song. It’s such a broad brush to paint a work, and therefore a genre, with that it doesn’t even make sense. No one out there is saying that anyone who watches movies absolutely has to watch Carol Reed’s The Third Man or Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. They might recommend those to you, but always as a part of a spectrum of must-watch films. “Oh yeah, watch this, that, this Kurosawa over here, and this De Palma once you finish that.” I like this wikipedia list of films considered the best, because it’s so diverse. The IMDB list is varied, too. I disagree with a lot of them (The Dark Knight is in the top ten?), but it’s still interesting to look at. I think it’s notable that no one film on this list has the same status amongst a broad subsection of movie fans (movie watchers? “people?”) as Watchmen does amongst comics fans. Ask ten people the best movie and you’ll get a variety of answers. Ask ten comics fans and probably at least half of them will say Watchmen. Why does Watchmen get the Best Comic treatment, other than being good?

Part of it is that Watchmen is the result of a conscious effort to make a literary comic. It’s not just about entertainment or ongoing adventures. It’s about competing with Moby Dick, or making a work intended to operate on that same level. Which is admirable, to be sure. The vast majority of cape comics are bent toward direct entertainment, which I think is also pretty admirable. But it has the effect of making Watchmen a stranger in a strange land. It’s got capes, but it’s exotic, too, because of that literary influence.

Conventional wisdom holds that Watchmen represents a watershed moment in comics, is partially at fault for the excesses of the ’90s, and is the peak of cape comics. You won’t find none better. I used to agree with that, more or less, but I don’t think I do any more. Watchmen wasn’t a quantum leap forward into a new context so much as it was another step in a road comics had already begun. It was step six, rather than an all-new step one. The idea of cape comics for adults, or cape comics that deal with heavy themes, had already been broached, most especially by Steve Gerber and several other cats working at Marvel in the ’70s. I feel like there’s this idea that Watchmen is the point when cape comics went from goo-goo ga-ga baby stuff to actual books adults could read — comic books blossomed into *~Graphic Novels~*, essentially. And that isn’t true, either.

You can track what led to Watchmen in cape comics, in pretty concrete terms, too, I’d argue. I’m far from an expert (an understatement), but you can find prior examples of the flawed in Lee & Ditko’s Peter Parker and Lee & Kirby’s Ben Grimm. You could look at several characters in Watchmen as examples of what happens when that flawed hero stops trying to be a hero. Rorshach is the opposite, even–he’s a hero who has no business being a hero, but keeps at it out of sheer hard-headedness.

The bleak miasma that gives Watchmen its tone, the sense of unrest and doom infests the book, feels very ’70s to me. That’s when Marvel was going hard with the idea of uncertainty and unrest, whether it was Luke Cage appropriating superhero iconography in order to escape a return to prison and make a buck or Spider-Man losing when it counts and not being able to do a single solitary thing about it. The Heroes for Hire area of ’70s Marvel, the Luke Cages and Shang Chis and Misty Knights, feels particularly relevant here, as their stories often dealt in moral ambiguity or a distrust of the establishment. Many of Marvel’s heroes were outlaws first, too, at least in the eyes of the public.

What I’m trying to say is that Watchmen is definitely a watershed moment, due mainly to the level of craft and approach that it brought to cape-based material, but it isn’t an unprecedented one, and I think that’s an important factor that we often leave out when we discuss Watchmen and its influence. If Watchmen never happened, I’d bet cash money that the ’90s, the ideal of the ’90s that most of us hold, would’ve still happened more or less as they did. The hallmarks of the ’90s, whether you’re talking pouches or grittiness or realism or whatever, were set in motion long before Watchmen happened.

The moral ambiguity, the physical and emotional trauma, the poison that hammered comics in the ’90s, all of that has its roots in the very beginning of the Marvel universe, when Stan and Jack and Steve and them were revolutionizing comics and making them cool again. They set comics down a road that inevitably leads to clones and crossovers and whatever else. There’s a logical progression from “Spider-Man screwed up, but now he tries harder” to “Spider-Man fails the love of his life and gets her killed” to “Spider-Man is a clone/crazy” to “Spider-Man is hardcore now.” It’s upping the ante on the flawed hero, bit by bit. The fallen hero and anti-hero are just another take on that same basic idea, which is itself another take on an even older idea.

Watchmen is very good, sure. It’s a high watermark for comics, but I don’t buy that it’s Best Comic. It deserves its place in the canon, it earned its place, but the highly elevated status we’ve given it is at least partially in error. It’s warped the conversation about the content of comics, the skill level, and comics history. It’s actually really frustrating to me, because I’m making an effort to go back and learn this stuff so I don’t put my foot in my mouth constantly, and Watchmen has twice the gravity of anything else. It’s hard to get around, and more than that, it’s hard to unlearn. Watchmen‘s GOAT status is a self-fulfilling prophecy, it feels like at this point.

Now that I’m done with this, I sorta feel like I’m saying “Watchmen is overrated.” That’s both not my point (in the sense of snarky dismissals) and my actual point at the same time (in the sense of taking a realistic look at comics history). Strange place to be.

Sean: Well, here’s the thing, though –there is a movie — Citizen Kane. And Watchmen totally is Citizen Kane, it’s the one work of art you have to reckon with, reconcile. Either disregard and burn down despite it’s legendary status (because its so boring, and so processed and its old and everyone who took from it took the wrong thing just like Watchmen) or realize that, yes, it is a masterpiece despite all those things.

I don’t know, you could also say that Pulp Fiction has a lot more similarities to Watchmen, because it spawned a million horrible tics and a million 70s references. So many bad tone deaf movies, but it also helped change the way movies were made and released. I mean, I just saw an interview with Paul Thomas Anderson where he said that Tarantino wasn’t an influence on Boogie Nights, but the reason he got to make it at all is because he was coming after Pulp Fiction.

I always think all the bad 90s grim and gritty hallmarks are so much like that. Because the ninjas and assassins and pouches and teeth, all of those things come from guys honestly making things they were interested in. They all became received wisdom, the way that Neal Adams and Gil Kane did for the previous generation. The 00s are a lot like the 80s, especially in comics, because there was such a rejection of the previous set of what is cool that it’s just knee-jerk “oh god 90s”. Which is kind of right, because there’s so much to be rightfully rejected, but in comics, everything was thrown out. Now the weirdest, worst things are all slipping back in from the 90s because we’ve got a good gap of time. There’s a reason that Dave Gibbons was playing with flat/exaggerated facial expressions, there’s a reason that Frank Miller was writing ninjas, because he wanted to write about honor, there’s a reason Moore wanted to discuss fascism with Steve Ditko’s iconography, there’s a reason Art Adams exaggerated gesture. I don’t think you can blame those guys for anything. All the people that came after them, yeah they fucked up. That’s not their fault. Anymore than it’s Moebius’ fault for Tron Legacy.

And beyond just Watchmen, there’s big works in all sorts of genre and media. There’s Moby Dick, there’s 7 Samurai, there’s Akira, and Pinnocchio, and Metropolis and the Twilight Zone, and The Godfather II, and Die Hard, and David Copperfield, and Illmatic, and Goodfellas, and the Searchers, and Star Wars, and I Robot – there’s all sorts of THE GRAND WORK in all sorts of media/genre, that you have to at least give your time, where if you’re going to take the genre seriously you have to give it your time because even if it isn’t the greatest thing you’ve ever been exposed to. Hopefully it isn’t, because if you have a certain level of tastes you’re going to have more personal preferences/ tastes — but you’ve got to reckon with that shit. If you like comics, you have to have really given Watchmen your time because of where it is in the medium, even if you fucking hate it. I hated Citizen Kane the first 3 times I watched it but I knew that I should keep giving it a chance. I’m not a Metallica guy, but I know that Master of Puppets is the “best” metal album.

Here’s the real thing that Watchmen did though, and I didn’t realize it until Abhay pointed it out for me. Watchmen said that you could take this material (superheroes, alternate reality stories) and tell a finite, complete story with it. There could be intertextuality and generational narratives and have legitimate minor characters, and actual consequences and politics. Stories, stories that matter, they have ends. And Watchmen is the first story that was taken to the real world (whether or not it was the first really doesn’t matter, the revolution starts when people notice fires in the street not when the plans are drafted) and said “oh yeah this stuff can actually work as a novel, it’s not just endless soap opera/pulp/sitcom that you can walk in and out of at any time because its an endless middle”. Making more Watchmen comics, as Abhay said, actually say that people were always right its just a garbage dump of endless dudes punching dudes, there’s no finite quality to anything. (I actually think the way trilogies are now par for the course in mainstream hollywood, and 6 season tv shows are doing the same thing to how people watch film and television). You’re right about Gerber and Stan And Jack – and shit, Miller and Moore both said that American Flagg was the reason they manned up and did Watchmen/Ronin, because it introduced real sophistication in a way that Marvel comics never ever ever did. Of course they’d both done Marvelman and Daredevil at that point, and it becomes all a gray morass of what happened first.

It doesn’t matter, no one outside of comics saw it. Watchmen they saw, and it was undeniable.

We’ve got to keep tearing it down so it can be replaced, because its still too big an icon, which actually paradoxically says a ton about how good the comic is. Comics as a whole needs to be able to say “fuck Watchmen” in a way beyond Grant Morrison’s shitty sniping in JLA: Earth 2, and I don’t know if we’re really at that point yet as a medium. I think the way that people are talking about/reacting to Moore isn’t the same thing, and Watchmen 2 really isn’t the same thing either, it’s wallowing in it rather than surpassing it.

Of course we know that Winter Men is the same story but better. But no one but us weirdos read it, it didn’t penetrate the culture. That’s important. Like, really important even though I could give a shit about ever getting anyone to read comics and actively try to avoid ever getting anyone “into” comics because i find evangelism disgusting. Great works, that shit matters, and no one with a brain is ever going to go “oh you liked Watchmen here read (whatever shitty comic people then recommend to people normally. Scalped, yeah Scalped is absolute shit that people like to read)”. No one goes “hey you liked Citizen Kane, you should see Dune“. Because no one starts with Citizen Kane, they have to watch it because it’s a monolith. If they like it or not is irrelevant. You shouldn’t start the film course with Eisenstein, you should have to work up to it. But you still have to cover it in the course, right?

Post to Twitter Post to Facebook Post to Reddit Post to StumbleUpon


Sons of DKR: Kaare Andrews’s Spider-Man: Reign

March 2nd, 2012 Posted by david brothers

For my money, the best superhero was invented back in 1962 by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko. Peter Parker, Spider-Man, is as close to perfect a concept as you’ll find for a superhero. On a most basic, “who is this guy?” level, Superman is defined by his innate God-like goodness. He’s Moses writ even larger, sketched out on a cosmic level. Captain America, too, has that same innate goodness. Batman is defined by his anger at one very bad day. Hal Jordan as Green Lantern is a man in an occupation. Wonder Woman is heir to a lineage of, if not outright heroism or adventuring, then at least mythological significance.

Spider-Man, though, is defined by his imperfect humanity. He got powers, went for the quick thrill, and his own arrogance led to him paying an agonizing price. His heroism since then is due to guilt and finally recognizing what it is that he was meant to do. “With great power comes great responsibility” isn’t just a pithy saying. It’s the Golden Rule and a positive way to live your life. If you have the ability to do something, then you should. It’s that easy. It’s that hard.

As a character, I feel like Spidey is one of the precious few genuinely inspirational superheroes out there. Too many of them are perfectly formed and flawless. Superman preaches being good and Batman preaches being good by doing the hard thing. Spider-Man tells you to be good, but also allows for the fact that you can, and will, screw up. Those screw-ups may be catastrophic, but you will recover and life goes on. Spider-Man would not exist without Peter Parker being a selfish human being.

Kaare Andrews wrote and drew Spider-Man: Reign, a four-chapter comic book about the end of Spider-Man. José Villarubia colored it. The art hasn’t aged as well as I hoped over the past few years — the 3D CG work looks a little too obvious, mainly — but it’s still as good as I remembered. It’s one of my favorite Spider-Man stories, and to be perfectly real, the last two chapters hit me about as hard as Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s We3 or Joe Kelly and JM Ken Niimura’s I Kill Giants. It’s not for reading on public transportation, if you’re at all attached to these characters.

Reign is an explicit homage to Frank Miller, Klaus Janson, and Lynn Varley’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. There are newscasters named Miller Janson and Varr Magnuson (or Jones–it changes), for one thing, and there are several other parallels that hammer the homage home.

DKR is interesting, because I think it’s a story that has near-universal appeal. It’s a story about one last job, for one thing. It’s about a man coming out of retirement to do something only he can do. It’s about coping with old age. It’s about respect and revolution and paranoia and Ronald Reagan. There’s a lot to like about it, and what I like the most is probably that it’s about the fact that everyone has something they are good at, something only they can do or are led to do. When you aren’t doing that thing, when you’re avoiding it, you are less than you should be. There’s this line about how the rain on Bruce Wayne’s bat-emblazoned chest is a baptism. Being the Batman is a religious experience for him. It’s not just about fighting crime. It’s about being who he is.

Spider-Man: Reign is about who Peter Parker really is. When the book opens, he’s old, bearded, and getting fired from a florist. He’s pathetic, and going nowhere. He’s not Spider-Man any more. He’s just an old and tired man. He sees his dead wife when he goes home and sleeps alone. He has no friends. He has no life.

What Reign gets right is that Spider-Man is a role that Peter Parker plays. Peter (and it’s funny that I think of him in my head as “Peter” instead of “Parker,” like he’s an old friend, so please bear with me and my attachment) is an orphan who was raised by his aunt and uncle. He’s meek, awkward, and dorky. He’s not uncool, exactly, so much as not traditionally cool. He’s the kind of person who would grow up to be a regular guy, once he escapes the toxic and fake classifications of high school.

When he’s Spider-Man, though… that’s when he puts on a personality. Spider-Man is funny, exciting, and daring. He’s all the things that Peter Parker believes a hero should be. There are points when Peter is clearly visible beneath the mask, times when his put-on confidence and expertise crumbles under the weight of a cosmic threat, but that only serves to highlight just how human Spider-Man really is under his mask.

Spider-Man is the suit that Peter Parker wears to be a hero. The jokes, the confidence, all of that derives from who Peter is, but it isn’t who Peter is, if you follow. Spider-Man is Peter Parker Plus, a purer, stronger version of his day-to-day life.

Early on in Reign, at the cusp of Spider-Man’s return, J Jonah Jameson visits Peter Parker. Jonah is excited to see him. He’s a believer now. He knows Peter was Spider-Man. He mentions that Peter seemed immortal to him, that he “thought you’d be twenty forever.” He gives Peter a package. Inside the package is a camera, one of Peter’s old ones from back in the day. Peter’s spider-sense wiggles.

Jonah goes outside and runs afoul of the fascists who police New York City. Peter picks up the camera and drops it, realizing what the fabric the camera is wrapped in really is. Jonah’s become a victim of police brutality. Peter realizes that the fabric has eyes. Reflective eyes. Eyes that show him as old, weak, and beaten. Jonah has been beaten bloody, but begins apologizing. “I’m sorry. So sorry,” he says. “I’m sorry for all of it, my boy. We have so much to talk about.” Page turn. Full spread of an old man wearing a black Spider-Man mask falling out of the sky.

Peter’s captions: “I’m not even there. I’m watching from far away. And all I know is that the mask… the mask thinks it’s funny. It’s laughing. Laughing.”

Meanwhile, Spider-Man dives into battle and cracks wise the whole way down. He mocks the thugs even as he effortlessly takes them apart.

Peter can’t take it. He can’t take the laughter. He turns off the volume and thinks about his past. He thinks about Uncle Ben’s murderer, “a yolk-filled body broken on the ground.” He thinks about the pressures his family put on him. He thinks about Aunt May telling him that he’s her life. (“But I don’t want to be your life.”) He thinks about Mary Jane telling him they’re connected forever, and that he’ll always protect her. (“What if I can’t?”) He thinks about Uncle Ben, the hole in his head still smoking as blood runs down his face like tears.

There’s a tangible difference between Peter Parker and Spider-Man. That difference is what makes Spider-Man so golden. With the mask off, Peter is just a man. With the mask, he’s bigger than anything else.

Andrews uses masks as motifs throughout the story. Spider-Man is restored to his former glory after Jonah delivers the mask. Masked heroes and villains are dubbed super-terrorists because they go against the order of things. The thugs who police New York look identical, thanks to their masks. The black mask has a different meaning than the red mask. When Kraven kills Spider-Man and takes his trophy, he removes Spider-Man’s mask, not his head. It goes back and forth — order and chaos, chaos and order — but it’s always about freedom.

A child is murdered in chapter two. His name was Kasey, and he was fighting on Jameson’s side. Kasey’s death spurs another, unnamed character into action. She holds up his beanie and realizes that it’s a ski-mask. When the alien invasion hits and everything’s gone south, the girl’s first move is to run to where she knows a lot of people are. She knows that she can’t outrun the aliens… but she can outrun the other people. She didn’t even realize what she was doing as she did it, but she looks back and something changes. She grabs a pipe. She rings a bell. The aliens leave.

“I just needed to do something,” she says. “Anything. Besides running. My shoes — they don’t quite fit anymore. We can’t rely on them any more. The old men. They can’t show us how to live. They took our city and made it a cage. They only hurt us. Stop running. Stop hiding. It’s time we became something more than what we are.” Another kid says that if they at out, then the authorities will hurt them and their families both. The girl looks at the mask and says, “Only if they know who we are. We’ll use masks.”

The old men turned NYC into a cage in the name of protecting everyone. The youth understand that this is completely unacceptable. If they don’t do right by you, you take it, by any means necessary.

Spider-Man, as a story, is universal. We can all relate to him, one way or another. A side effect of being universal is that it’s also open to reinterpretation. Kyle Rayner, Green Lantern, is very much in the Spider-Man mold. So are Richard “Nova” Rider, Virgil “Static” Hawkins, Miles Morales, and plenty more heroes. Each reinvention, assuming the quality is there, reveals another aspect of Spider-Man and shows just how far that concept can be stretched before it breaks. At the root of Spider-Man is us, and us includes 7 billion people. There’s a lot of wiggle room there.

The girl is the Carrie Kelly of Reign. She provides a hard dose of morality to the story, despite doing nothing more than witnessing Spider-Man in action. She stands up against men twice her age or more, armed with just a bell and her voice. When she runs into Sandman, agent of the Reign and the man in her way, it turns out she’s got a lot to say.

Let me tell you a thing about hope! Hope has three daughters: Anger at the state things have fallen into. Courage to fight to make things right. And the third daughter is truth. And she won’t hide her true face any longer.

Sandman watches her preach. His throat goes dry, “even for sand.” The girl has his eyes. She turns to stone right before his eyes and says “Nice to meet you.” She’s stronger than he is. Sandman says that she’s “more like cement than sand.” When the soldiers open fire, she stands there and takes it.

This is Spider-Man. Anger, at his failure to protect his uncle. Courage, to go out and make sure it never happens to anyone else. And truth — the idea that heroism is something that you must do, if you are able to do it. Standing tall against tremendous, insurmountable odds, and refusing to move. An unstoppable force breaking against an immovable object. Right versus wrong.

The girl, like Carrie, is carrying on in the name and spirit of the star of the book. Spider-Man as inspiration, both inside the text and out of it.

Spider-Man is about family. The never-ending battle for Peter Parker is how much time he can spend being a superhero instead of tending to his aunt or girlfriend. How much does Peter have to sacrifice to do this thing he must do?

In Reign, Peter struggles with family. He feels like he let them down. Peter knows what they expect of him, and he knows that he’ll fail them. Everyone died. The radioactivity in his body poisoned his wife. He failed his uncle. His aunt still died. His family wanted him to be one thing, but he couldn’t do it. He failed. Time took its toll.

On Mary Jane’s deathbed, he spends some time reminiscing about their time together. “I remember the day we met,” he says to her silent form. “The electricity tingled down my neck. You already knew it and you told me. I hit the jackpot.” He goes on and on. “My chest was too small for what you did to my heart.” “I wanted to tell you so much, but words didn’t have enough… so I tried to show you.” Bu his radioactivity is killing her, and the last thing he hears her say is “Go.” He leaves the room, off to stop another crime, and she dies while he’s out. He comes back to an empty room.

He’s in the middle of a horrific encounter with MJ’s corpse as this goes on. He spills his regrets and tears. “I once said that I’d sooner rip out my still-beating heart from my own chest before I ever hurt you. I’m a liar.”

MJ’s corpse, being pulled along by Doc Ock’s tentacles, says “Stop being silly. That last day… you never let me finish. I tried to tell you, ‘Go… go get ’em, Tiger.'”

(This is the part that murders me every time.)

This is why Spider-Man is about family. You think you’re a failure. You think you can’t live up to the expectations of others. You think that you should have been able to protect them, even when things beyond your control prove otherwise. You internalize all of this guilt and horror and self-loathing… and forget that your family is there for you, no matter what. Love is way deeper than that. On her deathbed, Mary Jane wanted Peter Parker to go do what he does. She wanted him to be Spider-Man, and all he felt was guilt over being Spider-Man. He didn’t understand that she loved all of him, Peter and Spidey both, and that he didn’t fail her at all. He became exactly what she wanted him to be. He was the man she loved, up until her dying moment.

Peter Parker buried his red & blues in Mary Jane’s coffin. It’s blatantly symbolic. His love died and so did his drive, blah blah blah. More than that, though, is the fact that that action equates Spider-Man and Mary Jane. The two are irrevocably linked. Now, he’s Spider-Man because of her, rather than Ben. She saw the best of him. It actually reminds me of something from El-P’s “TOJ”:

Everything you said, I took it all to heart
And you spurred a change in me
Before I could become a new sun, I had to fall apart
And I can see that now, and I wish you well
‘Cause you saw what was good in me
And I’ll be God damned if I didn’t see that myself

If you want to summarize Peter and MJ’s relationship, that’s it right there. Mary Jane is a rider. She makes him better simply by believing in him, and in making him better, she makes the world a better place. Everything has a point. Everything happens for a reason.

Spider-Man lost sight of the truth, and was lost for decades.

Even as a hallucination, Mary Jane knows the truth. I love the sequence where Mary Jane smiles shortly before something forces Spider-Man into action. She’s driving the car when Spidey hallucinates, too. You can see her fabulous red hair behind the wheel. She knows the truth. He never remembers putting on the mask, but the outcome is always the same. “Woo-hoo!”

Spider-Man is such a perfect hero because his relationship with his villains is so personal. Spidey’s best villain is undoubtedly Harry Osborn as the Green Goblin, a best friend turned enemy. But for some reason, he has intensely complicated relationships with all his major villains.

I don’t mean Batman/Catwoman complicated, either. That’s the kind of complication that derives from cheap wish fulfillment and lazy writing. Plus, Spider-Man and Black Cat’s relationship is infinitely more interesting. I’m talking Norman Osborn complicated, where one of his worst villains is also a corrupted father figure. Doctor Octopus complicated, where the older man is bent on proving himself to the younger man or obsessed with their status as children of the atomic age. Lizard complicated, where a beast erupts from a kind man who wants the best for his family. Sandman complicated, where the villain becomes a hero after being shown a better way. Morbius, Prowler, Vulture, Chameleon, Kraven, Electro, Rhino, and more — Spider-Man has been fighting these dudes since he was fifteen years old, and they have actual relationships beyond the punching and kicking. They can sit and talk as easily as they can throw a punch, and often have.

This is true in Reign, too. The Sinner Six — Kraven, Sandman, Electro, Hydro-Man, Mysterio, and Scorpion — are released from prison and sent after Spider-Man. They all have grudges to settle with Spidey. Jonah comes to Spidey because of their history. Venom is the prime mover behind the alien invasion, and it’s doing it in part because of their past together. Recognizing the truth of his relationship with MJ made him put the tights back on.

With Spider-Man, it always comes back to relationships, healthy or otherwise.

Andrews makes a big deal out of people watching what’s going on. There’s a newscast that runs throughout the series. Jonah hacks everything with a screen and livestreams Spider-Man’s fight. Families gather around TVs and mothers cover their children’s eyes and everyone watches. In watching, they learn. In learning, they realize that they have no choice: they must act. They fight back against the Reign. They protect each other. They save each other. They lift each other up. Spider-Man is a role model. The girl sees Spider-Man and realizes that he’s just an old man. “Weak. Like the rest of us.”

But if an old man is willing to fight for what he believes in, what excuse do you have?

Spider-Man watches, too. He loses a fight when he realizes that Kasey has been killed. He watches what people do around him. And then he acts. The things he sees require him to act. He has the power, so he has the responsibility.

Spider-Man’s got jokes. This is one of the most important parts of the character. He isn’t a stand-up comedian, or even particularly good at telling jokes. He’s just got a quick wit and a mouth that runs faster than he can think. He’s talky, he’s jokey, and he just won’t shut up. Andrews nails this aspect of the character.

Even when an aged Peter is old and morose, Spidey comes out of the gate with jokes, stunts, and flips. He’s a showman. It doesn’t really matter whether the jokes are a cover for fear or whatever. What matters is that they exist. They put him and the people he’s rescuing at ease. They break down the walls of aggression between him and his enemies, replacing it instead with mocking humor or genuine emotion. Peter remarks again and again that the mask is laughing, and that’s true. You can’t have a deadly serious Spider-Man but once or twice.

I wrote about a ’90s Spider-Man story where just that happened in 2006. I called it “No Laughing Matters,” a better title than I usually come up with. Spider-Man not laughing in that story mattered because it was a sign that Spider-Man was wrong. Spider-Man isn’t Batman. You can’t graft the most unpleasant parts of Batman onto Spider-Man and still expect to have Spidey.

I like how many aspects of that story are reflected in Andrews’s Reign. I hadn’t considered them in relation to each other before now, but they fit together like puzzle pieces. Shrieking is the type of story that benefits from the contrast between the Spidey we know and love and a darker, meaner version. “I am the Spider!” works once, and just once, because we all know that the Spider is actually the guy with a joke and a wry smile on his lips. That’s where these stories fall short.

Andrews doesn’t overdo it with the jokes. He uses them to great effect. Spidey tells Mysterio to never dress like a man’s dead wife… unless he pays you to. Spidey sings The Ramones once he puts the red and blues back on. He tells a knock-knock joke before he storms the tower with the end boss in it. He handles the big Electro and Hydro-Man team-up with ease. Scorpion tells Spidey that he can do anything with his new duds. Spider-Man says, “Can you fly?” as he kicks him out of a window. He tells a joke as he’s being beaten to death by aliens. And it all feels so right, so Spider-Man. Put him in dire straits and he’ll go to hell with a grin on his lips and a joke in the air.

Amazing Spider-Man 316 was my first comic. I can’t believe I don’t have it memorized. I think I still have it kicking around my apartment somewhere. It was a David Michelinie and Todd McFarlane joint, and they hooked me. I loved, and still love, how McFarlane drew Spidey’s webs and the creepy positions McFarlane put him in. I liked Michelinie’s soap opera script. I got lucky and managed to talk somebody into giving me that first Amazing Spider-Man Masterworks as a gift as a kid, and that let me go back to the Lee/Ditko source. I was a regular reader of the Spider-Man newspaper strip during the ’90s, when Alex Saviuk was drawing it. Later, when I got older, I got to experience the Romita/Conway/Andru years and JMS and JRjr’s run was waiting for me when I came back to comics. The first 130 or 140 issues of Amazing Spider-Man are some of my favorite comics ever, even over and above the Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four that everyone else thinks are the best. How could you not love those stories? Peter Parker grew up, met girls, went to college, and got on with his life. They’re beautiful.

Spider-Man is that one guy who made comics for me, above and beyond any other character. The guys who shepherded him over the past fifty years have had a huge effect on my taste in comics art and writing. The character they’ve created is one I’ve fallen in love with slowly. I didn’t even know it happened until it did, really. I probably thought to myself “Spider-Man is the best hero” and then realized it was true. A couple of his spinoffs and variations, most notably Static, are super important to me. I’m not a characters over creators guy at all, but he’s still a character I’ll check in on, just to see what’s new in his life.

I’m glad that Andrews and Villarubia did Spider-Man: Reign. It’s a book aimed directly at the heart of a Spider-fan like me, a guy who grew up with this schmuck who rocks red and blue and tells bad jokes. It feels like it was written for me, because it hits so many of the things I love about Spider-Man.

You can buy it on Comixology for eight bucks, total or on Amazon for twelve. I think it’s worth reading, if you like this guy like I like this guy. It’s a nice farewell to an old friend.

Post to Twitter Post to Facebook Post to Reddit Post to StumbleUpon


Stone Cold Steve Ditko Presents WWF Battlemania: Part Two

June 21st, 2007 Posted by Gavok

Oh… that is so wrong.

We’re back for part two of our look of WWF Battlemania. Before starting, I should point out that Sensational Sherri, who was featured in the last article, has passed away at the age of 49. That’s a huge shame. Add another line to the list, I guess.

On a happier note, I’d like to mention that the Wrestlecomics part of 4th Letter got featured on the Wrestling Observer (twice!) and Figure Four Weekly Online. That’s pretty sweet, as Wrestling Observer is like the wrestling equivalent of Newsarama, only with maybe a shuffled step higher.

Continuing on issue #3 of Battlemania, we get to a story involving the Ultimate Warrior that I thought was actually pretty good. It’s shocking. Even more shocking was when I discovered the reason it was so good. Dwayne McDuffie of all people wrote this thing. That’s right. The guy who will soon be writing Justice League of America wrote a story about the Ultimate Warrior. I’m not knocking the guy in any way, and I do understand that you write what you can get, but I think it’s just such a random realization. Next you’re going to tell me that this guy wrote a Double Dragon comic.

Huh? He did? Oh. Well, now I know what I’m reviewing in the future.

“Follow Your Spirit”: Ultimate Warrior’s Workout
Ultimate Warrior vs. Sergeant Slaughter

We start the story with neither the Warrior nor Slaughter, but a battle royal in a second-rate gym filled with generic no-names. One of these generic guys is Ben Bradford. While the announcer mentions that Ben is a bit unorthodox in his wrestling style, he continues to dominate the match. In the front row is Lewis, Ben’s little brother. Lewis is confined to a wheelchair and is a major wrestling fan and art enthusiast.

Ben wins the match and is announced the winner. As a special surprise, his trophy and prize money are delivered by the Ultimate Warrior himself. Warrior holds Ben’s hand up and congratulates him on his victory.

Read the rest of this entry �

Post to Twitter Post to Facebook Post to Reddit Post to StumbleUpon


Stone Cold Steve Ditko Presents WWF Battlemania: Part One

June 6th, 2007 Posted by Gavok

Welcome to the world of WWF Battlemania.

Unlike the WCW comic, Battlemania holds some sense of nostalgia with me. While I only owned one issue as a kid, the series takes off right as I started watching. I recall first catching onto the WWF during January of 1991. The Ultimate Warrior was in his final days of being WWF Champion, before losing the title to Sergeant Slaughter at the Royal Rumble. The Hart Foundation, Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart and Bret “Hitman” Hart, were tag champs, destined to relinquish their titles at Wrestlemania to the Nasty Boys. Months earlier, the Undertaker had made his debut, already showing signs of the monster push they were giving him towards the main event. So there is a stronger feel of familiarity with me.

In fact, there are many differences between the WCW and WWF comics. They’re like comparing apples and oranges. The WCW comic is just a bad comic. Battlemania is merely a sad comic. Don’t get me wrong, it’s far more competent than WCW’s ink and paper production in both writing and art. The thing is, that’s one of two reasons why Battlemania is depressing to see exist.

Battlemania was a production by Valiant Comics and half of the stories in the series are drawn by one Steve Ditko. Yes. That Steve Ditko. The guy who co-created Spider-Man and Dr. Strange. The man who came up with the Question and Captain Atom and the Creeper and Speedball. This guy was stuck working on a comic book about a wrestling corrections officer brawling with a wrestling zombie in the middle of a funeral home. It’s kind of disheartening.

Also depressing is the roster. Despite all the wrestlers in the WCW comic, only Rick Rude and the barely-there Brian Pillman are no longer with us. For a comic that only ran for five issues, WWF Battlemania has a harsh list of dead wrestlers. Not counting cameos, nearly every issue features at least one wrestler who has passed away.

One strange thing about the series is the complete lack of Hulk Hogan. For about the entire run, Hogan was the company’s champion. Not only does the Ultimate Warrior get the more marquee showing, but Hogan isn’t even mentioned once. I’m going to guess this comes from the legal issues based on his name and Marvel’s Hulk.

Read the rest of this entry �

Post to Twitter Post to Facebook Post to Reddit Post to StumbleUpon



December 3rd, 2005 Posted by david brothers

I love Marvel. I have ever since the beginning. I still own the first two comics I ever read. Amazing Spider-Man numbers 316 and 317, the second story involving Venom, I believe. It was a David Michelinie/Todd McFarlane joint. FOOM, Merry Marvel Marching Society, Marvel Zombie, you name it, I was it in an unofficial way because I was little and had no money. This stands to this day. Most of the DC books I read are published by Wildstorm.

There’s a lot of things I like about Marvel (Spider-Man). High on that list (after Spider-Man) is their trade policy. Is there a miniseries coming up soon that you want to check out, but you’d rather read it all in one chunk for better enjoyment? Grab the trade that’s gonna hit somewhere between one month and three months after the last issue ships. This is somewhere between two and two billion times better than DC’s trade program, which is “You’ll get the trade when we remember to actually print it.” Identity Crisis, for example, had a year-long wait and was released twice in floppy form before we finally got a trade. Common sense would tell you to strike while the iron is relatively hot and push that trade out there. Marvel does what DC don’t (that pun works a lot better with Sega and Nintendo, I think), though, so it’s all good.
Read the rest of this entry �

Post to Twitter Post to Facebook Post to Reddit Post to StumbleUpon