Tuesday, August 02, 2005

I'm An Alligator

I've got new reviews of The R. Crumb Handbook and Shuck the Sulferstar up at the Buzzscope. I'd also like to take this opportunity to spread the word that any of you indie publishers/ self-publishers out there who might like to see their books reviews on the 'Scope should drop me a note. I know that site hasn't always advertised itself as being very "indie" friendly, but when the editors asked me to start contributing reviews that's basically what they wanted me to do. I'm trying my best but I'd like to do a better job, and unfortunately my comics buying budget is not very big these days. So, spread the word.

Painful Disassociative Trauma

Gaze in wonder, my children...

It’s been in my bookmarks for quite some time, but I only recently got around to reading the entirety of Andrew Goletz and Glenn Greenberg’s massive Life of Reilly project. I have to say that this is one of the single most interesting achievements I’ve seen in terms of comic-related pseudo-journalism on the internet - it’s not going to win a Pulitzer, but it does a fascinating job of exhuming some of the worst moments of 90s comics in every gory detail.

Although in many ways the era can be seen as a definite nadir in the artistic history of mainstream comics, only the Golden Age tops it in terms of juicy backstage melodrama. Of course, we’ve all got a copy of Dan Raviv’s Comic Wars sitting on our shelves, but that’s really just the tip of the iceberg. The decade started with a gold rush and ended with a bust, and in between there are countless stories, both big and little, that add up to a collective industry clusterfuck the likes of which has rarely been seen in any field. If I were independently wealthy I’d devote a year or two to writing a book on the period, a book encompassing more than just Marvel’s bankruptcy - we’d have the story of Image, the rise and fall of Valiant, Jim Shooter’s gradual dissipation, the odd, sad, sleazy saga of Malibu, the death of Superman, the strange public disintegration of Dave Sim (and the political fallout from said disintegration), the folly of Tundra, the unraveling of the direct market system, the distributor wars, the slow, tentative rise of quality publishers like Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly in the background like a steady buzz of background radiation, the odd successes of Bone and Strangers in Paradise . . . it all adds up to a massively compelling piece of history. It is fascinating that we started the decade with million-selling comics on the nightly news and ended with the worst period of market attrition in decades. Of course we all know the general story, but I’d love to have the chance to connect the dots. Maybe if I get that MacArthur Genius Grant.

In any event, Life of Reilly is a crucial piece of the jigsaw. The actual bulk of the columns - Goletz’ story recaps - are probably not that interesting except in an anthropological fashion - as in, God these stories are awful. The vast majority of the books involved in the Clone Saga were very, very bad, and the few highlights that shine through are examples of creative heroism under the worst possible conditions. I read many of these books when they came out, back when I still absorbed a lot of superhero books on a regular basis, and I was amazed by how little I actually remembered of the stories. Bad comic books can traumatize a person - and most of my Ben Reilly memories are quarantined off in little bits of shrunken, mangled grey matter.

The really fascinating bits of the articles are Glenn Greenberg’s running commentary. He was one of the assistant editors in the Spider-Man office throughout the entire story. That might not seem very impressive, but as you read the saga you realize that creative and editorial turnover at Marvel at the time was simply phenomenal. By the very end, after the layoffs and shuffles and frustrated departures, Greenberg is one of very few people in any capacity who saw the saga from its humble beginnings on through its grim ending. If it sounds like Moby Dick, well, that’s more than a little accurate - by the end of the story, pretty much everything related to Spider-Man in either the real world or the stories themselves has been leveled to the ground. This is a cautionary tale that every person involved in corporate comics on any level should have to read.

Now, certainly, Greenberg is more than a little self-serving, but if you can filter out the bits of ego and obfuscation what emerges is a rather harrowing vision of a story gone mad. The problem is that Marvel needed something to compete with the death of Superman and the Batman’s Knightfall shenanigans. However, Marvel characters have historically proven resistant to this type of artificial boosting, probably because the soap-opera template Stan and Co. set so long ago was already frothy to begin with - deaths and resurrections are par for the course in the Marvel Universe. DC heroes are far more susceptible to the appearance of a stifling status quo, to the point where even a temporary disruption seems cataclysmic. Cataclysmic shit happens every day at Marvel. In other words, they needed something more than just the kind of temporary shuffle that DC was using to boost their sales. They needed something that could potentially have extremely deep repercussions - or at least seem so to the fans. “Break the Internet in half”, as we say nowadays.

I remember when the clone stuff began it was actually quite exciting. This is the dirty secret that no-one likes to remember: the first few months, when the stories were well-conceived and tightly coordinated, were extremely effective pieces of serial brinksmanship. First, a mystery figure was introduced, and then he was slowly introduced as dramatic hints were dropped. It was quite well done, and by the time the clone was actually revealed the plot had succeeded in injecting a modicum of excitement into what had been a moribund group of titles.

Spider-Man with automatic weaponry: always a good idea.

I actually have an extremely tiny part in this drama myself. Back in the early 90s Marvel advertised this thing called the Marvel Fan Phone, which was basically an answering machine hooked up with a tape of Marvel hype. Kinda similar to TMBG’s Dial-A-Song (free if you call from work), the idea was that you call the number and get some hype. Well, it was a big flop - no-one, to my knowledge, ever called the thing. Except, that is, for me on occasion, because it was kinda fun. Especially towards the end, when they realized no-one was calling, and knew they could get away with pretty much anything, they did some fun things. One of these fun things was giving away the Spider Clone plot months in advance. Remember - the Internet was but a wee little baby back then, so even if a few nuts called the Fan Phone it wouldn’t really have been a big leak. So, at that year’s Wonder Con, at the Marvel panel, they were making a lot of noise about the Mystery Man in the Spider books. Some fans were asking if it was Uncle Ben or whatever, but I just raised my hand and asked, in my most humble voice, if it wasn’t the Spider Clone from the 70s, like they had said on the Fan Phone. The Marvel guys looked kind of green for a moment before they conceded that, yes, it was indeed the clone, to which revelation the assembled fanboys began a-buzzing. I later read in Wizard that the Clone plotline had been “leaked” at Wonder Con, and I was oddly pleased by that.

By the mid-90s the Spider-Man books were suffering from a terrible torpor, and any sales goose, especially in the light of industry-wide attrition, would have been seen as a blessing. But, as the story goes, one should be careful what they wish for. The story was too successful. What was supposedly planned as a finite series eventually got horribly elongated. The bean counters demanded the series continue, and that the Scarlet Spider - who was never conceived as anything but a temporary character - be given more prominence. As Greenberg points out, The Age of Apocalypse was really big for Marvel around that time, so the edict was given that the Spider books should try to emulate that event. The only difference was that the Apocalypse books were extremely well-planned and meticulously executed - a textbook example of the best way to do those type of monstrous mega-crossovers. So, long after the Spider creators were growing tired of having to essentially hang fire for marketing concerns, they were forced to create storylines designed to fit into bookend Alpha & Omega issues, they were forced to design Scarlet Spider events after the character had ceased to have a reason to exist, and they were forced to have gimmick covers at every turn. According to Greenberg, no one thought that Maximum Clonage would be good as anything other than a sick joke - and yet, somehow that ended up as one of the major storylines. It’s like a car wreck in slow motion, where everyone knows that they’re driving over a cliff but no one person has the power to stop the terrible inertia. About halfway through it became obvious to all concerned that no one had a clue how to stop the thing, which is why they actually went so far as to replace Peter Parker with Ben Reilly - something that, apparently, no one thought was a good idea, but all were powerless to stop.

During the course of the story, three different editors-in-chief presided over Marvel. The story was greenlit by Tom DeFalco and finally put to bed by Bob Harris. In between was the disastrous “Marvelution” initiative. The story grew larger than any one editor, even larger than any one office, as the massive logistical problems grew and grew, radiating outward from the Spider offices until they threatened to subsume the character entirely. Many would argue that the character has never recovered from the abuse. Certainly, the return of Norman Osborne as a dues ex machina seemed to be a classic example of clutching defeat from the jaws of victory, especially when using Doctor Octopus would have been much better, made more sense and been more satisfying. As it is, every time I pick up a Spider-Man book and see Norman Osborne still alive I am reminded of the Clone saga, and how the story was so bad it required the unraveling of one of the most significant stories in the entire canon. How can anyone possibly take the character seriously anymore if not even the Death of Gwen Stacy is considered sacrosanct?

A few years ago I picked up Maximum Clonage Omega in a quarter box. Now that was a comic literally not worth the paper it was printed on. It’s obvious, reading that comic and any of the issues immediately surrounding it, that no one really had any idea what was going on. That it was obvious to anyone picking up a random issue off the street is frightening. If that much anxiety managed to trickle down to the pages of the actual comics themselves, what must the Marvel offices themselves have been like? Downtown Beirut?

But, you know, if the Spider-folks had actually been able to go through with their original idea of a conclusively finite Clone saga, it would probably be remembered quite differently today. It’s an interesting thought.

Ironically, Sal Buscema did some of his career-best work during this awful period. He and Bill Sienkiewicz made a surprisingly good team. Just try and tell me that's not a memorable cover...

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