The Tiny Titans: Ant-Man and the Wasp

Sep-12-08

In the early years of the 1960s, Marvel Comics seemed as if it could do no wrong. It’s early concepts were very popular and ushered in a new way of doing comics. These characters would go on to become icons and parts of popular culture, the members of a new mythology. These early characters included Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Thor…..and Ant-Man and the Wasp. Well, not every concept can be a winner. But why didn’t Ant-Man and the Wasp ever become the popular characters that the other early Marvel heroes became? What was it about them that made them perennial second stringers?

Dr. Henry Pym was introduced very early in the history of Marvel Comics, and is one of their earliest heroes. A scientist, he develops a way to shrink to the size of an ant, and after his wife is captured and then killed by Communists (ah, early Marvel, where Communists were the go-to villains) he uses this method to fight crime. He fights crime on his own for some time, using his amazing ability to grow smaller and control ants to thwart the plans of evil doers and was given his own series of stories in Tales to Astonish, where he became the cover featured hero. However, while he may have been featured on the cover, it seems Marvel felt that he was missing something. That something was apparently a partner, and soon Marvel introduced the Wasp to join Ant-Man on his adventures.

Janet Van Dyne was the daughter of a wealthy scientist. Her father had befriended Pym, and when her father was killed by creatures from another dimension, Van Dyne turned to Pym for support. Pym offered to share his powers with her, and she agreed. She gained the ability to shrink to ant-size as well, but unlike Pym, she could fly on her own, and had “wasp’s stings” which she could use to attack her foes. The two became partners, but more, they became romantically involved, although never as romantically involved as the Wasp would have liked. Pym kept her at a certain distance, as he was initially not over the death of his first wife, and then because he was a somewhat introverted, dedicated scientist who had more important things to consider rather than romance. Of course, the real reason he kept her at a distance was because Marvel, in those days, very much enjoyed the storytelling device of having two characters in love with each other, but not able to reveal their feelings (and if you think that this storytelling device would get a little tired when used in ten different comic titles each month, you’d be very correct).

Over the years, these two characters would undergo numerous changes. They would get married, get divorced, and then date on and off over the years. Pym would soon change his super-hero identity from Ant-Man to Giant-Man to Goliath to Yellowjacket to Dr. Pym the Scientific Adventurer and then switch back and forth between them. The Wasp would go from a flighty socialite more interested in men than in catching bad guys to the chairman of the Avengers for years to an oddly mutated wasp creature, and back to human. There would be new people to claim the mantle of the Ant-Man, other heroes who would call themselves Giant-Man and Goliath, and villains who would take the identity of Yellowjacket (surprisingly, no one else would try to call themselves Dr. Pym, the Scientific Adventurer). These characters still exist, 45 years after their creation, but they always seem to be at the periphery of the Marvel Universe; never able to crack into the mainstream media the way so many of their contemporaries have.

Why? All of the ingredients exist within these two that are within the other Marvel heroes that have graduated to the popular consciousness. As mentioned, there was the unrequited love that Marvel enjoyed so much (were there any happy couples at Marvel in the 60s? Even Reed and Susan Richards started out as engaged, and had to contend with Sue’s infatuation with the Sub-Mariner during their early years). There was the tragic origins, with the loss of loved ones, which seem to populate the origins of most Marvel heroes (Spidey lost his uncle, Daredevil lost his father, Captain America lost his partner, the Hulk lost his ability to wear a 32 inch waist). Some would say that they were underpowered and Ant-Man was too weak to make it in the big leagues, but those leagues were a lot smaller than we think. Early Marvel heroes were much weaker than modern heroes. The Human Torch couldn’t flame on for more than a few minutes at a time. The Thing was only half as strong as he is today, and not as invulnerable. The early X-Men were a very weak team…Jean Grey’s telekinesis enabled her to thread needles and move small logs over holes, the Beast was just a little stronger than a normal man, Iceman looked like Frosty the Snowman and the Angel could…well, just fly. That’s it. Besides, even if Ant-Man may have looked a little weak in the Avengers, alongside Thor and Iron Man, over at DC, the Atom was doing just fine in the Justice League and the Atom couldn’t even talk to ants!

So, why do you think these characters haven’t been able to attain a stronger fan base? And do they have potential today?

Wow. That was a very well written introduction. As I was reading it, I kept coming up with arguments in my head but then you would diffuse them in the very next paragraph. First I thought, perhaps their popularity waned because they were older, age-wise, than most Marvel heroes…but then you brought up the Fantastic Four. Then I thought, well maybe their unimpressive power set made them seem (pardon the pun) minuscule…but you answered that with reference to other weakly powered heroes and a mention of the relative success of Pym’s DC counterpart. Now I’m intrigued.

I have to admit that I am, at best, only familiar with these two characters through their interactions with the Avengers. I do own a few of their early Tales to Astonish appearances, as well as the Essential Ant-Man volume (which I really should read someday), but none of their adventures really stick out in my head aside from Hank’s overblown beatdown of Janet in the midst of his nervous breakdown. I never knew that Pym had been married before. I did not know that they met each other through Janet’s father. Ah…communists and inter-dimensional aliens…the backbone of early Marvel villainy.

When you think about it, and consider they were created in the Atomic Age and shared a lot of context with Iron Man and the Fantastic Four, it is rather odd that these two didn’t take off. Perhaps it was the title they were originally launched in. Tales to Astonish began as a science fiction anthology similar to its sister title, Tales of Suspense. They both switched to superhero-based stories in 1962. Ant-Man was featured in TtA while Iron Man became the star of ToS. In 1964, both books went to a split format. In TtA, Ant-Man shared space with Incredible Hulk. ToS saw Iron Man and Captain America splitting time. Without having any sort of sales numbers for reference, I can only infer that Tales of Suspense had the more popular configuration. I can also surmise this based on the fact that Ant-Man’s split adventures were quickly usurped after 10 issues by the Sub-Mariner. Obviously, something was wrong.

Was the tone too romantically inclined for readers? Too much “will they, won’t they” and not enough hard science and fantastical settings? Were the personalities all wrong? Pym, by himself, came across as an accomplished yet troubled professional. He had some tragedy in his past, but was trying to move past it and discover new things while also upholding some sort of honor…much like Spider-Man and Hulk. Wasp, on the other hand, came from privilege and was more concerned with fashion than feelings. There weren’t a lot of strong females at Marvel in those days. Aside from Sue Storm and Jean Grey, you’d be hard-pressed to find a prominent woman with her own strong views or any sort of personality (the turning point of this trend coming, of course, in 1966 with the classic introduction of Mary Jane Watson in Amazing Spider-Man #42). Maybe the characterization of Janet Van Dyne irked the title’s audience.

I can honestly say I’ve never been a fan of the Wasp. She just hasn’t had a consistent representation for me. My earliest memories of the Avengers have her playing dress-up in front of a mirror and shopping at exclusive boutiques. In fact, in those early issues I think she was more known for her costume changes than for her participation. She also looked to make Hank jealous at every turn, constantly talking about how handsome Cap and Thor were. She was kind of a snotty bitch. Then decades later, she suddenly grows a pair and is handed the mantle of Avengers leader completely out of left field (correct me if I’m hazy here). Captain America always talked about how strong-willed and reliable she was, but I just didn’t get it.

I also don’t understand how, if Pym gave her powers to her, she ended up with a different set of abilities from Ant-Man. How was she able to fly, but he wasn’t? Where did the stingers come from? Maybe she’s a mutant (as she’s shown to be in the parallel universe Ultimates…where she still isn’t smack-proof).

Pym never really resonated with me either, until his days in the West Coast Avengers. He always seemed to be used in a utilitarian manner. For example, if something was at risk of falling over, Pym was called upon to get big and hold it up. If a door was jammed, Pym was asked to shrink and climb into the lock mechanism. However, he was never asked to actually fight. What could he do? Call some gnats to pester the Wrecking Crew? Ruin Ultron’s picnic? Take a bath in Red Skull’s coffee mug? It wasn’t until the emphasis was taken off the size thing that Pym was treated as a useful member of the team. By rejiggering his Pym Particles and their purpose, Marvel was able to turn him into some sort of armory master always at the ready with the right device or weapon. Even though his costume would make fashion designers go blind, Hank was kind of cool.

You know I eventually want to turn this conversation towards Stature and the new Ant-Man, but I think we need to talk about Hank and Jan some more first. Can you see any glaring reason as to why these two never hit the big time? Do you agree with anything I’ve thrown out there? And are there any solutions that could bring them around in this new age of comics?

I’m honestly not sure why they weren’t more popular, and it’s often confused me. I believe you hit on part of the problem when you say that you don’t remember any of their early stories. I’ve read quite a few of them, and even I don’t remember them. Part of this may be because Stan Lee didn’t write most of them. After the first few stories, he just plotted them and let his brother, Larry Lieber, do the scripting. Plus, Jack Kirby also jumped ship after only a few issues, and the penciling duties went to Don Heck. Now, I’m not here to knock either Lieber or Heck; both of them did fine work for Marvel throughout the 60s, and Heck is especially known for drawing the Avengers and Iron Man for respectable runs. That being said, they were kind of considered the B team of the Marvel Bullpen. Without their top talent on these stories, did the readers not care? Did they feel they were getting the second string, so these characters must not be very popular?

It’s also often said that a hero’s measure is seen in the quality of their villains. We can name Dr. Doom, Dr. Octopus, the Green Goblin, Magneto, Loki, and the Mandarin as some of the Silver Age Marvel villains who helped to catapult their heroes to stardom. Ant-Man and the Wasp had no villains of note. I suppose Pym’s archenemy was Egghead, but even if I tell you nothing else about him, I’m guessing you won’t imagine Egghead as being an incredibly impressive villain (which is kind of a shame, as he was used tremendously effectively by Roger Stern during his run on The Avengers). Many of their other villains are even worse. Their book introduced the Living Eraser, who was just as his name suggested, and for years was considered a punchline by most people, when discussing lame villains. Many of their other villains were assorted monsters and communists, which worked occasionally in other strips, but certainly couldn’t have been the basis for success for those characters that did become popular.

I also think part of the problem is that they kept changing Pym’s identity. Sure, he wasn’t working out as well as they had hoped, and they were trying to find something to make him tick. However, he changed identities four times in six years, which is practically unheard of in the annals of comics (I can’t think of another time it happened). It made the characters seem somewhat schizophrenic, and would become another punchline centering on this character. I think that perhaps, if Ant-Man wasn’t as successful as they had hoped, they might have considered giving him new and different powers, but keeping the identity the same. One change, that to Giant-Man may not have been a bad idea, if nothing else worked, but the two changes beyond that were just overkill.

I’d also point out that not every concept that came out of the Marvel Bullpen in the 60s was a success. The X-Men did horribly for the first fifteen years of their existence, almost being cancelled, and going to bi-monthly reprints for over a year. The Hulk saw his book cancelled after only six issues, and almost disappeared before he got stuck in Tales to Astonish after floating in limbo for a year. Daredevil, while considered popular now, was quickly knocked back to a bi-monthly schedule after being introduced, and stayed that way for over a decade. Perhaps the difference between all of these eventual success stories and Ant-Man and the Wasp is that these other characters managed to maintain their own titles. Even the X-Men, while in reprints for a year, were at least in the public eye. They were also portrayed consistently, unlike Pym, who never met a new identity he didn’t like. And we might want to throw in the Wasp’s costume changes you mentioned. While I think it was a neat addition to her character (hey, we don’t wear the same clothes every day. Why should super-heroes?), her constant costume changes meant she looked different every time a casual reader saw her. It’s hard to become iconic when you have a different appearance every month.

I will also agree that personalities were all over the place. Pym started with a consistent personality, but his buttoned down persona had already caused him to act slightly irrationally within his first year as an Avenger, when the Wasp was shot, and Pym practically had a breakdown trying to save her life. Sure, every Marvel hero in those days was overdramatic (they never met a piece of furniture that they didn’t feel couldn’t be improved with a little chewing), but he was really losing it. This theme was repeated over and over during his tenure with the Avengers, until he had his first actual mental breakdown in 1968. Sadly, this seemed to set the stage for future writers to simply allow Pym to act however they wanted. During the infamous storyline where Pym hit Van Dyne, and then attacked the Avengers, many fans were upset. I myself was also upset, not because it was a horrible storyline, but because it came out of nowhere! Jim Shooter had just started writing the book, and before he came onboard, Pym was fine and stable. The first issue Shooter wrote, it was like someone else inhabited Pym’s body, as Pym suddenly was an emotional wreck. Many other writers would do the same thing, twisting Pym’s personality to fit whatever storyline they wanted to tell.

Janet Van Dyne didn’t make out much better. A flighty female of the worst variety, this is a woman who married her husband after he had suffered a mental breakdown and thought he was another person. Yes, Pym was convinced that he had actually killed Pym and that he was a completely different person. Van Dyne knew this. And she married him anyway. There’s something wrong there. She retained her role as the “flighty socialite” until she was smacked by her husband, when her entire personality changed, as she became more businesslike. I certainly believe that an incident like that would change someone, but her change seemed a little sudden. Through it all, though, I do believe she has a well written personality, and her changes have made sense. Still, it must have been confusing for the casual reader to pick up a book and wonder what happened to the Wasp he had read about before, as she switched back and forth from being a competent and hardnosed leader to being a silly flirt.

Whew! More than I intended to write and more than anyone cared to read, but there it is. Do I think that there’s hope to make these two work in today’s marketplace? Well, I love both Pym and the Wasp. I think both characters should be used more often than they are, and should have a lot more respect, considering they are founding members of the Avengers. However, there’s so much history and water under the bridge with these two. I think it might be best to continue to use them as they are, working independently in the Marvel Universe. After all, there’s a new Ant-Man, and I think there’s a partner out there that could be teamed up with him to make a new team that could be much more popular than the old one.

Again with the excellent assessment! We make a good pair, you and I. You’re able to find the truth behind a character or situation and I’m able to take that truth and re-purpose it to improve the storytelling aspects. You set ’em up and I knock ’em down. We’re like a Fastball Special…y’know, if you were a big metal Russian and I fancied cigars.

You’ve hit the nail on the head on so many points. I had forgotten how many of the second-tier Marvel characters were kept on life support. Makes me wonder if the same would’ve happened to Hank and Janet had they been in their own self-contained series. The villain situation really was dire for the duo. Without at least one credible archenemy to fall back on, their adventures seemed aimless and disposable. And you probably wouldn’t notice it as much these days, but the costume thing is really a big deal when a character is first introduced. You need that frequency and repetition to reinforce the image.

However, after reading your thoughts on Pym’s various identities, I can’t help but think that this may have been the initial poisoning of the characters, the fatal flaw that they were born with. See, Ant-Man was pretty cool by himself. Ooooh! He can shrink down and show us the wonderful world of the near-microscopic. Then they added a female love interest. On face value there’s nothing wrong with that, but then it turns out that her powers nearly mimic those of Ant-Man to the letter. What was the point of having two characters in the same book with the same powers? That would’ve been like pairing up Hulk and Thing and expecting greatness. Sure, they’re good for a misunderstood fracas every now and then, but how boring would it be to have the two of them pounding on inanimate objects page after page after page?

I can only think that if there had been a greater dichotomy between the two of them, it would have made the stories more interesting, the situations more complicated. That’s why I believe that our crusading couple hit their collective stride when Pym became Giant-Man. Now we’ve got a huge dude with his little partner. And, just so it doesn’t look like I’m being sexist, the situation may have been even more interesting if he had stayed Ant-Man and she had become Giant-ette (or something).

Which brings me to the simply inspired pairing of Eric O’Grady and Cassie Lang.

Let’s be realistic. Hank and Jan are a bit too old and historic to be revamped at this stage. In the “Meanwhile…Comics” universe, Hank Pym has already been reassigned to Hawkeye’s west-side support team. And we may as well just let Wasp do whatever she deems appropriate. She’s been portrayed as a fashion designer and a talk show host already. Why not have her pursue life as a psuedo-celeb or government official (really the same thing anyway, right?).

Eric and Cassie are the future of size-based adventures. She’s the previously sheltered daughter of Pym’s successor as Ant-Man. After her father’s unfortunate passing, she rebelled against her family to pursue a path of heroic duty. He’s a former SHIELD operative with less than adequate respect for women (or anything else) who stole an experimental update of Dr. Pym’s Ant-Man costume right from under his nose. He’s been shown as a cocksure, sarcastic and selfish “hero” who is trying to work the system for his own benefit.

PERFECT. MATCH.

I’d like to explore a Wasp/Ant-Man cooperative sort of storyline with these two as the stars. And Janet could play a role as a MILF type character! Kidding…or not. I can see Eric and Cassie bickering constantly, with Eric sticking his foot in his mouth at every turn. There’s also a big difference between the morals and goals of these two that allows them to play off each other. Potential abounds. What say you?

I think these two are exactly what you called them: a perfect match.

These two are your stereotypical odd couple. One of them is part of a heroic legacy, values heroism and believes that being a hero is a higher calling. One of them is a snotty punk who managed to luck into some superhero gear, and has been trying to figure out how to make it work for him. What’s great here is that these two characters would never work together. Luckily for us, we have the Initiative (and isn’t this the mark of any successful writer in a shared universe? The ones I like the most are the ones that can take a company mandated direction, like the 50 state initiative, and make it work for them, rather than fighting it.) and both of these people are signed on with it. So, we simply have the Initiative pair these two. Now they have no choice but to work together.

We’ve already discussed how not every state has a superteam assigned to it, and how it seems like Marvel is scraping the bottom of their super-barrel to find heroes for every state. It seems likely to me that these two could be the only members assigned to one of the more out of the way states. Perhaps they could be sent somewhere like Nevada (does that state have a team yet? Whoops, looks like they do). Ok, scratch that. Let’s try Virginia. Considering that it’s very close to Washington DC and does contain at least one large city, I’m surprised that it doesn’t have a team yet, but it seems up for grabs. So, we send our duo somewhere like that. Then we watch them try to learn to live together.

Eric is a man who’s probably about 5-10 years old than Cassie. He’s got few redeeming qualities, and is more concerned with getting laid and getting rich than he is with helping people. Cassie is trying to live up to the legacy of her father, and seeing this man in her father’s old costume would certainly begin to bother her. Eric, for his part, probably cares not a whit for the previous holder of his super-human moniker, and I can’t imagine he’d have much time for someone he would likely view as a young girl (unless he thought he could get her into bed). I think watching these two trying to learn how to work together, without killing each other, would be a lot of fun.

There’s an interesting aspect to Cassie’s powers which I think Eric could exploit. It seems that her growth powers are affected by her emotions…growing when she’s angry and shrinking when she’s shy. Even though both of them can increase and decrease their sizes, I find it most interesting to have Cassie as the bigger of the two of them. It plays to their personalities. Cassie has big ideals. Eric is really a small and petty person.

Look at me doing all the philosophicalizationating!

I could eventually see Cassie growing (heh, get it?) to like having Eric around, maybe building a crush on him in spite of herself. I also think Eric would be oblivious to the whole situation, more concerned with where he’s going to get his next piece of tail or score his next paycheck and completely missing the fact that Cassie is right there ripe for the picking. There’d be a lot of that “he said, she said” stuff mixed with missed opportunities and tied up nicely with a bunch of crossed wires. It’s the feel good comic of the year! A genuine rom-com romp through superhero trials and tribulations!

I give it five stars.

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Expanding the Playing Field: Go West, Young Marvel!

Sep-02-08

Our last topic on Hawkeye and where we wanted to take him got me thinking about the Marvel Universe map. The House of Ideas prides itself on building a universe that is steeped in the “real world.” Their biggest heroes fly above the skyscrapers of Manhattan and the travails of our world are often mirrored in their own…from wars and disasters to celebrities and politics. Of course, establishing that, it often makes me wonder why nearly 100% of the Marvel Universe characters live and work in the New York City area. There’s a whole wide world out there!

I just wanted to rally together a post where we can bring up storylines that took place outside the Big Apple city limits. I’m talking major activities, not single issue excursions. And I’m thinking maybe we can propose some meaningful relocations or invent some new situations that would require the attention of superheroes elsewhere in America. Granted, the Initiative has been launched and, ultimately, there will be teams assigned and active in each of the fifty states. Though I don’t think that should limit our thoughts.

So let’s first show our hands on what “Westward Ho!” storylines we can recall from Marvel’s glorious past:

  1. The Champions – Marvel’s first attempt at making a left coast splash was a bit strange, with a membership that boasted a Greek God, a Russian spy, two members of the original X-Men and a demon on a motorcycle. The “group” located themselves in downtown Los Angeles and are most famous for fighting Swarm, the awesome Nazi beekeeper-turned-skeleton dude. Rumor has it, had the title continued, Black Goliath and Jack of Hearts would’ve been added to the roster.
  2. West Coast Avengers – Obviously. The team set up headquarters outside LA. The series lasted for 102 issues and then begat the horrendous Force Works which lasted an additional 22 issues and is notable for its cringe-worthy artwork and nonsensical plots. West Coast Avengers, however, was pretty dang awesome.
  3. The Order – Matt Fraction’s short-lived series about the new California Initiative team placed the team in Bradbury on the northeastern edge of Los Angeles.
  4. The Defenders – During their “New” period, the non-team centered themselves in a Colorado property owned by Warren Worthington’s family.
  5. Daredevil – Temporarily relocated his heroics to San Francisco alongside his then-girlfriend Black Widow.
  6. Incredible Hulk – Of course, Marvel’s re-imagining of the Jekyll and Hyde classic originally took place in the deserts of the American Southwest.
  7. Wonder Man – His brief solo series positioned him as a wannabe actor/stuntman in Hollywood.
  8. Spider-Woman – Jessica Drew began her costumed career in Los Angeles.
  9. Werewolf by Night – Poor, cursed Jack Russell lived in Malibu, California.
  10. Moon Knight – Not sure where he was officially based back in the day, but Marc Spector was born in Chicago and spent quite a bit of time (whether chasing werewolves or joining the Avengers) on the West Coast.
  11. Howard the Duck – Originated in the Florida Everglades and lived in Cleveland, Ohio.
  12. Great Lakes Avengers – Proudly representing the Upper Midwest.
  13. Uncanny X-Men – Recently relocated to San Francisco. Time will tell what that move holds.

Can you think of anyone else in Marvel’s stable who has spent considerable time somewhere in the United States that isn’tNew York (or New Jersey, which is pretty much just New York’s jockstrap)? And, furthermore, can you think of anyone who should spend time outside of Manhattan? Chicago, Miami, Seattle, St. Louis, Las Vegas, anywhere in Texas, even the New England states? It’s a big country. There’s bound to be some stories to tell out there somewhere.

I suppose we should mention Alpha Flight, who spend their time in the beautiful wilds of Canada, and Excalibur, who spend their time in jolly old England. With that being said, I agree that New York City has been overused to the extreme by the creators of the Marvel Universe. Of course, the original reason (so the legends say) that Stan and his co-creators used New York City so much in the early days of Marvel was because they all lived in the city, so they knew it. As time has passed, many creators of Marvel titles have left the city and now live all over the country, so this reasoning should no longer hold true.

I suppose you could make the argument that there is more crime in New York City than in many other places, but is there really more crime in NYC than there is in Washington DC? In Los Angeles? In any major city in the United States (and probably in other countries as well)? An argument could also be raised that there’s more going on in New York City to attract criminals, and more money for criminals to make. While I would certainly agree that it may make more sense to hit a bank in the middle of NYC than to rob a bank in the middle of Missouri, when you factor in the chances of being caught in NYC over being caught in Missouri, I’ll take Missouri, thank you very much.

As silly as it seems for their to be so many superheroes based in NYC, it makes even less sense to have so many supervillains based there. Why wouldn’t someone like the Shocker head out to Kansas or to Florida? He could clean up! We tend to look at someone like him as being pretty lame, and having stupid powers, but that’s just because Spider-Man makes the Shocker look ineffectual. Against normal policemen, the Shocker would be very difficult to beat. So, why doesn’t he go fight regular policemen, and stop banging his head against the wall that is Spider-Man? The same could be said of so many villains around his power level; they may not be perfect against superheroes, but they would do well in areas that doesn’t have so many super-powered do-gooders. Why would they stay in the superhero capitol of the world?

I’ve never understood why Captain America didn’t relocate to Washington DC. I know he doesn’t work for the government, but he’s concerned about protecting it, and shouldn’t the symbol of our country be located in the country’s capitol? Did he just stay in New York so he could hang out at Avengers Mansion?

The Avengers should certainly move out of the city. If they want to stay close to the city, for whatever reason, that’s fine. But the mansion has too often come under attack, and that endangers all their neighbors. They tried to move the mansion once, to a floating island off the coast of the city, but Doom sunk it, so they went right back to their old location, right in the middle of the city. I’m not sure why they’re so fond of the city, but at the very least they should be in a suburb. Maybe they can rent the X-Men’s old mansion in Westchester?

Of course, there are those characters that really do belong in the city. Spider-Man shouldn’t move out of New York, as he’s as much a part of the city as Batman is a part of Gotham City. I think the Fantastic Four should stay in the city; they were there first and it truly does help to ground them as humans first and heroes second. However, I would say that the other New York heroes, like Daredevil and Dr. Strange, should feel free to get the heck outta town.

I’d love to see Dr. Strange move somewhere a tad more atmospheric than Greenwich Village. Perhaps he could relocate to Boston or to Salem. It seems like New England would be a perfect area for him, one steeped in history and ancient secrets. Or, perhaps he should move to Louisiana, into the old French Quarter of New Orleans. There certainly must be areas that scream magic more than his current digs.

This has been a little scattered, I’ll admit, simply because there’s so much to discuss, and I’ve been throwing out ideas left and right. Do you have some ideas you’d like to focus on?

Well, Alpha Flight and Excalibur are givens (and both have had extensive runs in the past). I was focusing more on activity within the US borders. I just remember how DC dropped Chemo on the city of Bludhaven during Infinite Crisis and I can’t help but think of the near-complete super-community loss if Marvel were to do the equivalent with their Big Apple.

Hmm…Doctor Strange in New England is an interesting premise. Didn’t the Defenders have at least a temporary HQ up there? That’s where the Hellstroms were based, right? And, of course, Brother Voodoo is usually based out of New Orleans. But being that none of those mentioned are nearly as prominent as Strange, it would be an easy transition to get him out of town…especially considering all the troubles with Skrulls and Registrations and magical conflicts.

Relocating Captain America is an inspired no-brainer in itself. Look, Marvel clearly creates most of their heroes and villains based off of certain archetypes, stereotypes and themes. By extension, those characters should be placed in the cities that most perfectly mirror their most important attributes. For example, put the cocky, scene-stealers in LA…the political-minded folks arrive in DC…the down-to-earth hardworking heroes go to Chicago and other midwest towns…it all makes perfect sense.

I also LOVE the idea of a villainous mass exodus from the streets of downtown Manhattan. I can just picture one of those patented Marvel bad guy rallies in the basement of some abandoned church (or at the Bar With No Name) where the collected group just says “F*** This” and hits the road, hobo packs over their shoulders. That would make for a funny, if not enlightening, miniseries which could delve further into the operation and effectiveness of the 50-State Initiative. There’s no fighting the logic that even corny villains will do much better holding up the First National Bank of Wichita, then waiting in line with all the other thugs to rip off the same ATM machine across the same street from Peter Parker’s apartment building.

This would also create endless scenarios for up-and-coming characters to make a name for themselves. If I were trying to prove my worth, I certainly wouldn’t want to be battling evil on the same city block as the Fantastic Four. How can you compete with that? How do you get noticed (in a good way)?

I suppose we have to be careful with who we try to move where though. Some of Marvel’s oldest heroes have their origins built around their surroundings. As you’ve said, Spidey and the FF stay in New York. I also think, because of his strong ties to the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, that Daredevil has to stay put as well. As far as other folks with their own titles: Punisher seems to be everywhere at once, so it’s hard to rectify him being based out of NYC. For a hero whose motivation is based around removing corruption, I’d rather see him working in DC…Hulk is all over the place and rarely ends up in Manhattan anyway…Iron Man should clearly be located in a region that is more tech-heavy, somewhere like Seattle or San Francisco or The Triangle in North Carolina (though I can’t picture Tony Stark with a southern twang)…Iron Fist, due to his background, is fairly global…Black Panther is in Africa…Moon Knight could easily be placed in Chicago…Ghost Rider is on a motorcycle…Thor is, uh…

Quite frankly, I could care less where the X-Men call home. Their melodramatic adventures take them all over the universe, and their headquarters get blown up at least once an issue anyway.

I guess the biggest problem is the villains. If you remove them from the equation, then there isn’t a need for the hero density in downtown New York either. Villains are stupid.


1986: It Was A Very Good Year.

Apr-18-08

While doing research for our Defenders post, I began to realize that a lot of great (and a few not so great) things were going on at Marvel Comics back in 1986. So here, in a brief and highly disorganized ramble, is a recap of the year that Marvel Comics hit its stride (I think).

In 1986, I was making the transition from middle school to high school. It was a tumultuous year. I was saying goodbye to friends that would be attending a different high school and I was filled with anxiety over meeting new people at my new school (our school district is kind of twisted, don’t ask). This was the year that I embraced comics completely and let my paper friends comfort me in the transition. Granted, I had been reading comics since around 1978 and collecting them seriously since 1984, but this one year had it all for me.

I wasn’t the only one in transition though. Jim Shooter was running a tight ship at Marvel and the publisher was celebrating its 25th anniversary. However, not everything was puppies and rainbows. Marvel was about to be purchased by New World Entertainment, which looked great on paper and added both an animation studio and a feature film outlet for their characters. Unfortunately, New World didn’t know how to handle the business and soon sold it off to Ron Perelman. The rest of the debacle you can read in Dan Raviv’s excellent book, Comic Wars.

So what was the big deal with ‘86? I’m glad you asked. First of all, a couple miniseries hit the shelves that changed the way I looked at the Marvel Universe. Firestar was a character I knew from the Spider-Man cartoons and I was curious as to how they would work her into real continuity. Balder the Brave was an unknown Asgardian to me and I was eager to learn about more than Thor and Loki. And finally: The Punisher. The team of Baron, Zeck and Janson just blew my mind. At the time, all were minor characters and I don’t think anyone could have predicted what would become of Frank Castle’s story.

Punisher #1

Aside from the focus on new characters, Marvel was pulling off some of its best ongoing work as well. We had Bill Mantlo writing Alpha Flight AND Cloak & Dagger. Mark Gruenwald’s Captain America run was in full force (as was his Squadron Supreme maxiseries). Walt Simonson was working on what would become an iconic run on Thor. The West Coast Avengers, a pivotal book in my comic obsession, had recently begun their ongoing title. John Byrne was writing AND drawing not only the Fantastic Four but ALSO the Incredible Hulk!?! Oh, and Peter Porker, the Spectacular Spider-Ham was still going strong too. Sue me, I like the funny.

Spider-Ham #12

It wasn’t all joy and excitement for me though. Two of my favorite books disappeared from the shelves forever: The Defenders and Power Man and Iron Fist. Also falling casualty to slowing sales were three licensed books: ROM, Star Wars and the Further Adventures of Indiana Jones (which was actually a great read).

Indiana Jones #34

Unfortunately, not only was the dreadful Secret Wars II going on in 1986, but the New Universe launched as well. But those travesties were offset by the launch of the new X-Factor series. And the end of 1986 marked the beginning of what I believe to be one of the best written storylines in all of comics history: Roger Stern’s great “Under Siege” run in Avengers.

But the biggest event of 1986 for me had to be the introduction of the new Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe. I easily lost myself in the pages of each issue of that title…memorizing every detail, every event and every secret identity in Marvel’s intriguing world. To this day, I still test the true faith of supposed fans by asking them “Which villain’s real name was Bruno Horgan?”

Marvel Handbook #8

Yeah…look it up, posers! (CLUE: He’s in the issue shown above.)

1986. I can’t think of a better time to be a Marvel Zombie.

Interesting that you would pick 1986, and yet, as a Marvel Zombie, you don’t mention The Dark Knight Returns or Watchmen, two seminal mini-series from that time as well. They show up on most people’s lists, but not on yours, since you’re focusing exclusively on Marvel.

I know that Maggie Thompson from Comics Buyers Guide has said (and she may not be the only or even the first person to say this) that everyone has their own Golden Age of Comics, and that their personal Golden Age is when they were twelve. I’m not sure that the exact age is always correct, but I agree that the comics of our childhood will always be our favorites, or at least hold a special place in our hearts. It’s obvious that this describes 1986 for you. I also have a special place in my heart for many of these comics, but being a cold, unfeeling android, I can often separate what is good due to nostalgia from what is good due to quality.

I wouldn’t dream of arguing the memories of your childhood, so instead of mentioning a few of these series where I disagree with your opinion of them, let me focus on the ones where I agree wholeheartedly.

I think Mark Gruenwald’s writing was always underappreciated, especially when one considers that he was doing it while holding down a job as one of Marvel’s best Group Editors. I think that almost all of his long run on Captain America is worthy of reading, but I also agree that he was strongest right out of the gate. His stories involving the Serpent Society and Scourge were excellent. Captain America is, I think, a difficult character to write well, but Gruenwald seemed to understand how to make him inspiring and heroic, without being boring. As Jason says, Gruenwald’s Squadron Supreme was another excellent read, and about fifteen years ahead of its time, looking at a superteam in a more realistic way. Finally, while it came out after 1986, I need to take a moment to plug the first few dozen issues of his Quasar comic. The later issues devolved into overly complicated messes that tied into some truly horrible miniseries, but the early issues were an excellent examination of a super-hero just starting out in his career.

I could comment on a few other series, but instead let me take a few moments to mention Roger Stern. You bring up his “Under Siege” storyline in the Avengers, and rightly so, as it remains one of the best multi-issue storylines in Avengers history, and truly in the history of about any comic I’ve read. Why Roger Stern isn’t currently writing four books a month will remain a mystery to me. I consider him one of the best writers I’ve had the pleasure of encountering in comics and I have been continually amazed by what he has been able to do with what have been some truly horrible comics.

Two series illustrate this point very well. The first is The Incredible Hulk which he started writing at a time when the book, to my eyes, sorely needed help. The Hulk had been a mindless dolt, running around the countryside having random adventures for what seemed like years. His comic was pointless and dull. Stern came on board, set up a new staus quo, introduced some supporting characters, and give the comic a purpose. He was the first writer in the series history to make the Hulk interesting for me. Sadly, his run on the title was very short.

He performed the same amazing feat on the original Ghost Rider series. Ghost Rider’s series had been boring me to tears since Tony Isabella left the title back in the 70s. The stories since then weren’t necessarily bad as much as they were unconnected stories which seemed to blend into each other. Again, the series lacked direction. Stern came onboard, and again, he gave this title direction. He brought in a supporting cast and gave us plots that made us care about these new people in Blaze’s life (and, to be honest, to care about Blaze’s life, which I had stopped caring about some time before). Unfortunately, he again left the title in a short time.

I could go on and on, talking about his work on Amazing Spider-Man, Captain America, and a slew of other comics, but instead, let me just come back to the Avengers. If I had to pick my favorite comic series of all time, it would probably be the Avengers. There are many reasons for this, but part of it has to be because I was lucky enough to begin reading it during Roger Stern’s run as writer, which thankfully, lasted quite a few years. All of his stories are good, but his run really began to take off when he was paired with John Buscema and Tom Palmer on art. This art team gave his stories a weight and grandeur that made them more than comic stories; they became epics. The “Under Siege” story was certainly the highpoint, but it was quickly followed by a multi-part epic where the team when to Olympus to fight the Greek Gods, which is almost as incredible. Never before or since have the Avengers so embodied their title of “The Earth;s Mightiest Heroes.”

Yeah, DC was pretty active in 1986 too. You mention Dark Knight Returns and the beginning issues of Watchmen…there was also the start of solo series for both Blue Beetle and Booster Gold. Crisis on Infinite Earths wrapped up in ’86 and the important Legends series began. And don’t get me started on indie comics…Adolescent Radioactive Black Belt Hamsters, Ralph Snart Adventures and the relaunched Grendel all saw print then. It was a pretty busy year for all comics!

I’m not saying 1986 was the pinnacle of comics as we know them (although, not being alive during either the traditional Golden or Silver Ages, I think it was pretty close). Oddly enough, I was 14 going on 15 that year…so not too far off from Maggie Thompson’s ideal. I actually started collecting heavily when I was 12 though.

Anyway, yeah I know which of my spotlights — *cough*Firestar*cough* — you’re referencing when you talk about separating nostalgia from quality. But I think I pointed out the reasons WHY I thought they were important and, frankly, it had nothing to do with quality but more to do with coming from a different place and showcasing something new.

It’s funny that you touch on Mark Gruenwald. Not too many people know this, but I actually had a letter-exchanging friendship with Mr. Gruenwald around the time of his Cap run. We talked about the changing times in comics and he advised me to read what I liked. I was actually quite upset when I read that he had passed away.

And Roger Stern was perhaps my favorite writer of the time as well. Like you, I would call The Avengers my favorite book of all time (I have quite the extensive collection). While I came of age reading his run on the book, I was also active in collecting the back issues featuring runs by Englehart, Conway, Thomas and Shooter. In fact, right now I’m reading Assembled! by the folks at AvengersAssemble.net. It’s a fun read about Avengers history. DK Publishing also put out a pretty book called Avengers: The Ultimate Guide written by Tom DeFalco…beautiful art and brief write-ups of all the prominent members of the team, their villains and the important storylines.