Saturday, September 13, 2014

Marvels: Amazing Spider-Man #10

"The Enforcers!" by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko
(March 1964)

It's not a step backward, but this is the first issue of The Amazing Spider-Man that I don't quite think works. It's got a lot of good stuff in it, but I think the story is so stuffed full of characters and events that it doesn't have the impact it should. On the splash page, Stan promises that "with this classic tale, the Marvel Age of Comics reaches a new plateau of greatness!" And it sure tries. But I don't think it really comes off.

Part of the problem is the villains. Big Man and the Enforcers aren't exactly A-list members of Spidey's rogues gallery, especially coming after real greats like Electro, Sandman, Vulture, Lizard, and Doctor Octopus. The Big Man is a mask-wearing crime boss who unites all of the lower-tier gangsters in New York City under his command--something of a go-to for a number of crime bosses we've seen in the Marvel Universe, although the mask is new; still, remember when the Mad Thinker tried to do the same thing? I wasn't a fan of his, either, but he had the whole science villain thing going, plus the Awesome Android.

The Enforcers are Fancy Dan (a judo expert), Montana (a lasso expert) and Ox (who is, um, really big and strong). They don't really have personalities, which is fine, because there really isn't room for them. So Big Man is able to force the criminal underworld of New York City to unite under his leadership with a judo guy, a lasso guy, and a tall guy who punches really good.

I just... I guess after so many science-powered and super-powered villains, going to gangsters is a bit of a letdown. I know there are some people who love Spider-Man in crime stories, but I just don't think he's got the disposition for that. Give me the science fiction.

Well, a crime wave follows, and J, Jonah Jameson immediately suspects that this shadowy criminal overlord is actually Spider-Man in disguise.

He orders one of his writers, Frederick Foswell, to write a story accusing Spidey of being the Big Man, although Foswell at least warns Jameson that being wrong this time--right after being wrong about Spidey and Electro being the same person--could cause people to lose confidence in the Daily Bugle. (Great face on Foswell.)

Spider-Man gets involved with the whole mess when the Enforcers show up outside the Bugle office and threaten Betty Brant after work; apparently she owes the Big Man money and they want her to make good on it. Peter walks in on this, and the Enforcers slap him around and make threats, something which his teenage ego just can't take. He finds the Enforcers and confronts them as Spider-Man... only to get handily defeated. You know how this goes by now.

But the Big Man ducks out in the middle of the fight, and after a quick escape, Spider-Man sees J. Jonah Jameson walking down the street, and now he thinks that Jameson is really the Big Man! Hey, they both wear green suits, so there's that.

Meanwhile, Betty's made the decision to leave town for a while, much to the dismay of both Peter and JJ. She's trying to protect Peter from getting mixed up in this Enforcers business.

Peter decides he has to draw Big Man out, and begins telling everyone that he's figured out who the Big Man really is. The news reaches Big Man through a network of informants, and the Enforcers nab him, taking him down to their warehouse, where Peter changes into Spider-Man and fights the mob once again, this time in a scene that really reminds me of the warehouse fight in the early stages of the Spider-Man video game I used to have on PS2 (the one based on the first Sam Raimi movie). But during the melee, Big Man ducks out once again.

Spider-Man makes his way back to the Bugle office, ready to spring in and confront Jameson, when the police arrive and arrest the Big Man: Frederick Foswell! And with that revelation, JJ grasps at straws, begging Foswell to admit that Spider-Man was in on it, preparing to be a laughingstock yet again... which brings us to this issue's big revelation...

There you have it.

Meanwhile, Peter pines over Betty, who has left town and is now holed up in a hotel in small town Pennsylvania, having sacrificed her relationship with Peter to keep him safe from the Enforcers. What is Betty's tragic secret? Find out... next issue.

Stray observations:

:: Steve Ditko's art in this issue is a lot of small, uniform panels, more reminiscent of his Doctor Strange stories. It's a space-saving move, and the issue still looks great because, come on, it's Steve Ditko. But there's not a lot of room for flourishes of character. It's mainly functional.

:: This issue is so jam-packed that Stan barely has room for the regular supporting cast, other than Jameson. Liz Allan and Flash Thompson are seen briefly visiting Aunt May in the hospital, where she's still convalescing after her surgery last issue. After some uncertainty whether Peter can give her a needed blood transfusion (he does have radioactive blood, after all), May gets her transfusion and is then sent off with neighbors for a recovery trip to Florida.

There's also a nice scene where Flash actually takes Peter aside and warns him not to get on the bad side of the Enforcers. I guess that boxing match they had actually earned Peter some respect from his bully. Not a lot, but some. Hard to believe there was a time when your bullies actually didn't want to see you get too badly hurt...

:: When Betty won't level with Peter about why the Enforcers were intimidating her, he rather childishly assumes that she can't really care for him that much if she won't confide in him. Well, son... have you told her you're Spider-Man yet? No? Then shut up.

:: Spidey uses a bit of theatricality to get a low-level burglar to tell him the location of Big Man's hideout.

I love this thing. I want this to be the outside of my building on Halloween.

:: There's a letter this issue from John Favareau of Yonkers, New York. So close. Of course, Jon Favreau wasn't born until 1966, but still, fun coincidence. (Not really. It really doesn't add up to anything.)

Judging by the letters page this month, the readers really didn't care for "Marked for Destruction by Dr. Doom!" (the consensus seems to be it was Steve Ditko's "worst art yet"), but they loved "Face-to-Face with... the Lizard!" Some of the letters about Ditko's art are a little nitpicky, something Stan gets at in this reply:

Gawd, Kenny!

:: In the Special Announcements section, Stan says the reader's poll overwhelmingly favored keeping the letters pages in Amazing Spider-Man and Fantastic Four. There's also the first instance I've noticed of Stan referring to Marvel as "the House of Ideas." Some news coming up: Fantastic Four #25 will see another round between the Hulk and the Thing (but we've got to get through #24 first); the next issue of Amazing Spider-Man will finally see the return of Doctor Octopus; and the best news of all, which I'll just go ahead and share here as the tease for...

Next Marvels: Avengers #4, and the return of Captain America for real!

Friday, September 12, 2014

10 Books That Affected Me

Roger did this list over on his blog, and it got me thinking about which 10 books I'd put on my own list. So let's see what I can come up with. 10 books that aren't necessarily my favorites, but that really affected me in my life.

(I'd love to put these in biographical order, but these are just as they come to me.)

Charlotte's Web by EB White. I have to pick this one; it's the first novel I ever read on my own, the summer before I started first grade. I was always in advanced reading groups as a kid, until I got to high school and lost my confidence. Two things really worked against me: first, I failed the mandatory freshman speech class because, after years of being bullied and ridiculed, I had developed terrible stage fright and a fear of public speaking, so rather than have everyone staring at me I just didn't do any of the work and flunked; second, I ended up with a terrible case of bronchitis between the first and second semesters of my freshman year, which negatively affected my English 101 grade. After those incidents, they put me in the slow lane, so I excelled in English classes that didn't really challenge me. Read some good books and had one great teacher, but I guess I've always wondered a little if I was really that good of a writer, or if I just did really well in classes that didn't demand much. All because of bullying and illness. But I always remember that I was one of the most advanced readers in my grade school. And I always remember that I unconsciously learned that being fat and sensitive completely negates your humanity in the eyes of others. Yay, school!

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan. A collection of essays about skepticism, critical thinking, and the scientific method. It's designed for laypeople and very, very accessible. I read this just as I was starting college, and it really changed the way I thought about a lot of things in life. This one not only affected me, it altered me.

Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper. I read this science fiction novel when I was probably a little too young to fully understand it. When I was 6 or 7, Piper's Fuzzy books were re-released with these beautiful Michael Whelan covers, and bits of them were even condensed into storybooks (I remember being struck with them at Toys 'R' Us). The novel's a bit heady for a 7 year-old, though, as it involves a court case to determine the sapience of primitive/developing creatures on an alien planet. But it was the first time I really thought deeply about intelligence and exploitation, and taught me to be empathetic.

Industrial Light & Magic: The Art of Special Effects by Thomas G. Smith. As I've said a lot, when I was a kid I wanted to work in puppets, animation, or special effects. So I used to get a lot of big, oversized books from the library and read them over and over again to see how such things were done. This was a favorite of mine; I read it a few times and would just marvel at how practical special effects were done. Just thinking of this book takes me back to winter afternoons alone, bundled up and caught up in the magic of special effects and eating peanut butter sandwiches. I don't even eat peanut butter sandwiches anymore, but they used to be my favorite food, and I ate a lot of them while sitting and reading this book.

(I also want to mention, not as part of the list, a number of other books that I similarly experienced and ate up, often while eating peanut butter sandwiches: Don Shay's The Making of Jurassic Park, Charles Champlin's George Lucas: The Creative Impulse, Gene Roddenberry & Susan Sackett's The Making of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Frank Thomas & Ollie Johnston's Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life, and a trio of books by Christopher Finch: The Art of Walt Disney, Jim Henson: The Works, and Of Muppets and Men: The Making of The Muppet Show. To say nothing of many, many issues of Starlog and Cinefex...)

Watership Down by Richard Adams. This was the biggest book I'd ever read when I was a grade-schooler. I really wanted to read it because they had shown the animated movie on television and I immediately fell in love with that. I guess I always liked things that seemed dark, intense, weird and emotional. I need to read this again; I read it once in grade school, again in high school, and never since. Some people had The Lord of the Rings, but this was mine. I didn't read The Lord of the Rings until I was 24.

Travels by Michael Crichton. After Jurassic Park came out, I read a LOT of Michael Crichton's books, but this is the one that really stuck with me forever. It's an autobiographical book; Crichton doesn't tell the story of his life, but gives us a series of episodes and tells us what he's learned in his travels. I liked it a lot because I have problems with anger and impatience, and in every story, Crichton details how his own problems with anger and impatience nearly ruined trips or kept him from enjoying experiences, and ultimately how his experiences have taught him to have patience, both with life and with himself. I still have difficulties with that--and Crichton stressed that he had those same problems over and over again--but it's nice to keep in mind that, yes, patience can pay off, being polite works better than being angry, and holding everyone to the standards of your own experiences is shortsighted.

Alright, this is where I cheat. Three art books that I used to get from the library all the time and which not only fueled my art as a kid, but my fantasy worlds and even the way I relate to nature: Gnomes by Will Huygen and Rien Poortvilet, Faeries by Brian Froud and Alan Lee, and The Dinosaurs by William Stout. I count these as one because they're so linked in my mind. To this day, I still don't have a copy of Gnomes. I'll have to look into that.

The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel. This is probably my favorite novel. I think what it comes down to for me is that it's a story about how the circumstances of your upbringing don't have to make you a victim.

Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret by Judy Blume. I know this is about a young girl going through puberty, but it really affected me for a long time. Girls used to make fun of me for even having read it. The thing is, like a lot of kids my age, I had really liked Blume's Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing and Superfudge. So for Christmas or my birthday or something, someone gave me a boxed set that had those two books, plus Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great, which was about one of the same characters. All those books took place in the same fictional world. But it also included Margaret, an unrelated fourth book which was aimed at slightly older readers. So I went right from a book about a girl who was trying to make friends in her new grade school and having nightmares about the Headless Horseman to a much more frank book about a girl having her first period, worried about the development of her body, and searching for meaning in the various religions. But, I mean, it's a good book, it's just not necessarily for me. But I think that reading it made me more empathetic to what girls go through, and it made me understand that people aren't always irritable or mean because you're such a bad person, but because everyone is going through their own thing and sometimes it's really difficult for them. It was a good lesson in not judging people by their behavior.

There are so many more books I can think of, but the last one I'll add is E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial by William Kotzwinkle. This one routinely ends up on lists of the worst-ever movie novelizations, but I quite like this strange, metaphysical take on Spielberg's movie, told from the point of view of the strange, unknowable alien. It's trippy and weird, but it's heartfelt and it pleases me deeply.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Aw, Yeah

Back when the Agent Carter one-shot came out, I said I just wanted to see her leading the Howling Commandos. And that's exactly what she's doing in this picture from the Agents of SHIELD season premiere. I just... I almost never get what I want from my favorite pop culture outlets, so this is pretty beautiful.

It just occurred to me that, for me, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is like Pixar was years ago: a reliable and wonderful source of entertainment that hits me right in the heart. I really love this thing. I'm so glad I got to live through this. This is everything I wanted as a kid.

I Is for Icky Gunk

Icky Gunk is the only Muppet I know whose name starts with the letter "I." And I don't really know much about him. No one seems to. He's one of the Sam and Friends characters who is now in the Smithsonian. He's snakelike, except that he has arms, and his design seems to have inspired the snake character in the Riverbottom Nightmare Band in Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas.

That's all I've got, but that's okay, because that means I get to play another Sam and Friends clip!

One of the few episodes that survives features Kermit, Hank and Frank, and Icky Gunk (in a wig) lipsynching to a Stan Freberg recording of Cole Porter's "I've Got You Under My Skin."

I'm not sure of the year of this episode, but since it's in color, I'm guessing it was a later one, 1960 maybe or 1961.

Here's another case of recycling a good bit, and making it even better. The song appeared again on a first season episode of The Muppet Show--the episode hosted by Vincent Price, which is one of the best episodes of the entire series--this time with Behemoth and Shakey Sanchez and a dark, silly twist. Showing off their twisted sense of humor, this is one of the Muppets' signature sketches.

Sorry there's not more to say about Icky Gunk, but he's just lost to the past. Still, those two clips are a lot of fun.

ABC Wednesday

Only 105 Days Until Christmas

Well, yesterday I pointed out my first Halloween pop culture encounter of the season. Today was my first Christmas pop culture encounter. Just minding my own business watching The Golden Girls this morning on the Hallmark Channel, and there they are, showing commercials already for their big annual all Christmas movies all the time marathon, which starts on Halloween and continues until, I don't know, probably mid-January or something. I think they're a little freaked out because September is one of the three months a year when they're not showing an onslaught of cheap, hollow Christmas movies. (Whomever decided "Christmas in July" was a programming event instead of something tacky and lame can kiss my mistletoe.)

Man, Halloween gets a little extra attention and Christmas just can't handle it.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Halloween 2014: Everything Pumpkin Spiced

I see everyone's getting into the Halloween spirit already. Halloween seems to be the internet's favorite holiday, and I've been noticing how every year America seems to gear up for it earlier and earlier. I've been attuned to this because I've sat here before and talked to you in years past about how I thought Halloween was falling by the wayside and becoming more and more of an afterthought. In just a few short years we seem to have collectively decided that Halloween starts in mid-to-late August.

I'm not complaining, although I won't be celebrating that early, and my daily Halloween posts are still going to wait until October 1st. I'll get burned out on it if I start before summer's even over, though I don't begrudge that of anyone else and I love reading Halloween posts. (It's the same reason I don't start getting Christmasy until the day after Thanksgiving; when I worked in retail and we started getting Christmas stock in mid-July, it really took the fun out of the build-up. One month is all I need. Though I still resist Tumblr's insistence that Valentine's is a month-long "season" rather than just one day. You'll never convert me on that one.)

The stores are already rolling out new Halloween tie-ins, too; I've already had the pumpkin-flavored Toaster Strudel, which is really good, and I've already had some pumpkin spice coffee. Not the Dunkin' Donuts brand, but I used this picture because tonight I saw a commercial for their new Halloween coffee flavors. I couldn't find a copy of it, but it had the Headless Horseman in it. I felt like pointing it out because it was the first Halloween commercial I've seen this year, and you might recall that I love Halloween-themed commercials. There weren't as many as I'd have liked to see last year, so I hope we rack up some more this spooky season. The first Halloween commercial of the year is like the first robin of spring, and I just needed to say that I've spotted it.

Marvels: Tales to Astonish #52

"The Black Knight Strikes!" by Stan Lee & Dick Ayers
(February 1964)

This issue's villain begins life as Professor Nathan Garrett, a prominent scientist whom Giant-Man exposes for selling secrets to the Soviet Union. His bail is set at $100,000, which is promptly paid by other Soviet agents who smuggle Garrett out of the US and into "a remote Balkan kingdom." And while he's there, a statue of a winged horse gives him an idea...

Cut to weeks later, and the Wasp sees a knight riding around on a winged horse who is engaging in that time-honored Marvel villain tradition: robbing banks. Professor Garrett is back in the country for revenge on Giant-Man, riding upon an apparently quite successful genetic experiment and calling himself the Black Knight.

Giant-Man intercepts him while menacing a passenger helicopter. It's kind of neat how Hank grabs onto the bottom of the helicopter after being dropped by an Air Force cargo plane and their fight begins in the sky. It doesn't last long, though; Black Knight blinds him with his mirror visor and fires bola balls out of his lance which tie up Giant-Man, and then he explains all about his new identity and brandishes his lance, explaining that it is many weapons in one: a machine gun, an acetylene torch, etc. Black Knight also carries a paralysis ray and a, ahem, "itch ray," which he fires at Giant-Man. Unable to resist the maddening itching (just go with it), Hank lets go of the helicopter and plummets to his doom.

Or would, except he changes to ant-size and the Wasp rescues him. One of the things I like in this issue is that Hank keeps changing between Ant-Man, Giant-Man, and his regular human size. It's much more effective than just sticking with one trick like he usually does. This is a possibility I wish they'd actually use a lot more, since it's much more effective.

Having regrouped, Giant-Man and the Black Knight fight in an amusement park. I'll be honest, after their dynamic confrontation in the sky, it sort of fizzles. Not only that, but the Black Knight merely gives up because Hank's constant size-changing is driving him mad, so he just gets back on his horse and flies off, vowing to return. It's like everyone involved realized they were running out of pages and just decided to stop everything.

Stray observations:

:: The Black Knight is another revival of an older character.

The first Black Knight, created by Stan Lee & Joe Maneely, had his own comic that ran for six issues in 1955. Sir Percy of Scandia, a retainer at the court of King Arthur, acted as an agent of Merlin, defending Camelot as the mysterious Black Knight. I don't know if this character is supposed to be descended from Sir Percy, or if Stan is just reusing the concept the way he did with the Human Torch, but it is neat to see some of the older concepts becoming parts of the Marvel Universe.

Since I don't know if the original Black Knight is actually part of the past of the Marvel Universe (the way Sub-Mariner and Captain America are), I also don't know if the Merlin that fought Thor is the same Merlin of Camelot. Guess we'll see. The less said about Robert Bernstein's stories, the better.

:: When the Wasp is late to her meeting with Hank, she says it's because she was distracted by the appearance of the Black Knight. Before she explains herself, Hank admonishes her: "For the love of Pete, Jan! Can't you ever just admit you forgot instead of making up some ridiculous excuse all the time??" Wow, way to make this lab a safe space to share in, you jerk. And then he doesn't even believe her story about the Black Knight until the ants start reporting it and a police report corroborates it. You're just hitting every sexist note today, Hank.

:: Also, when Jan sees the Black Knight and turns into the Wasp to investigate, she does so in the back of a cab, leaving money behind for a driver who jumps right to "The jalopy's haunted!" I just... I hate this go-to so much, and the fact that Stan uses it three times a month doesn't make it any easier. It's hacky, Stan. Stop being so hacky.

:: Jan gets the winged horse to throw the Black Knight by using "a simple feminine trick" of pinching the horse. I just can't with you right now, Stan. I just can't.

It's a mixed bag, but the Black Knight seems like he has a lot of interesting potential as a villain, which is a weird thing to say about a Giant-Man villain. It's too bad his evil plan sort of wasn't really there and the issue just ended suddenly. I hope we see him again soon, but in a better-planned story. This one feels a bit filler-y, with some neat ideas that don't really come to fruition.

In the next Marvels: find out just why J. Jonah Jameson hates Spider-Man so much.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Song of the Week: "Tonight We Fly"

Songs for Becca #21. I love this song so much; this is one of those songs that grafted itself into my DNA, and I'm a little surprised that I've never featured it here before. But now I get to post it as a Song for Becca. This is the lovely Divine Comedy, from the 1994 baroque pop album Promenade. The lyrics really get to me on this one. I love it when songs declare love without being ironically removed from it. Commit to it! The forward march of drums, the flight of the strings... this song is like flying, like being in love, like dreaming, like heading off into the unknown. It's sort of the perfect love song for someone like me. It's like a culmination and a beginning. What an artful, beautiful song.

And the final denouement sticks with me forever:

And when we die, oh, will we be that disappointed or sad?
If heaven doesn't exist,
What will we have missed?
This life is the best we've ever had!