Friday, 16 March 2012

MMC - Extra Portions 3

If Spider-Man ever had a semi-modern renaissance then it was probably around the time that Marvel was lining up hot new artist Todd McFarlane to work with comics veteran (even then) David Michelinie to boost the fortunes of the Wallcrawler, whose comics had been plodding along, inspiring no one and living off its name and reputation.

But before these two had a chance to set Amazing Spider-Man alight, there was Kraven's Last Hunt; a comics story arc that, had it been released a few years later, would have been a prestige mini-series and not much else. Created by J. Marc DeMatteis and Mike Zeck, it was a groundbreaking and controversial six-part story that [spoiler warning] ended up with long-time Spidey villain Kraven the Hunter committing suicide because he could never live up to his greatest nemesis. This was after drugging Peter Parker and burying him in an unmarked grave with limited air supply. This series was as dark as Spider-Man ever got and some of the themes and ideas introduced had the Comics Code of Authority glancing nervously at Marvel's offices. I mean, no one had ever committed suicide in a comic before (maybe they had, I can't remember) and especially not a supposed pinnacle of masculinity which Kraven was. It was shocking and should have heralded an era for the web-slinger filled with ideas never touched on before.

Instead, you got retro-Spidey, which in itself was great fun for a couple of years, at least until Todd McFarlane's ego got the better of him and someone told him he could write.

Kraven's death might have been unexpected and shocking, but death was a really useful plot device for a lot of comics. People remember deaths in comics, so a comic where people die a lot is bound to be a winner. Carl Potts, Alan Zelenetz and Frank Cirocco created a SF superhero combo called The Alien Legion, which essentially could have been one of the best comics ever created, but never really found the right audience. Imagine the French Foreign Legion meets Star Wars, that was Alien Legion and it had some excellent artwork, strong stories and minuscule support from Marvel's Epic line. It wasn't owned by Marvel so they spent the equivalent of a buck eighty on its promotion.

While it wasn't like Marvel's other death book - Strikerforce Morituri - where you could pretty much bet the farm that someone would die and regularly, in Alien Legion some characters such as Sarigar, Torie Montroc and the brilliant Jugger Grimrod were pretty much guaranteed to survive, no one else was afforded the same luxury. The closest thing I've ever seen to the Legion in film was Paul Vorhoeven's Starship Troopers. The earlier issues are the ones worth reading, before it became too fixated on Grimrod.

Death is also a lead character in another Marvel graphic novel; The Death of Captain Marvel by Jim Starlin acted as kind of an epilogue to the acid casualty of a writer's early spell on the cosmic superhero. It had one purpose really, to have a superhero die of cancer, it had a secondary purpose, to tug on the heart strings of any comics fan. It was pure schmaltz wrapped up in decay and blackness. It has probably been over-written umpteen times since it originally came out and probably struggles to pass the test of time (Starlin's artwork is just so 1970s), but if you want to feel miserable and elated at the same time, this might fit the bill.

Death as a character was a sensibly used guest star in DC's The Sandman, a series which I hate admitting that I loved at times. It was like the X-Men in many ways, you just couldn't pick out one issue or one story that superseded any other and the opening seven issues were possibly the weakest, it really sprang into life with the introduction of Death in #8 and Season of Mists is possibly my personal favourite story arc. It's almost clich├ęd to say it, but if you haven't read comics, read the one that most other non-comics fans read.

Oh and I have told you that I discovered Dave McKean haven't I?

Moving away from mortality and back at Marvel, where one of my true loves was Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's long and at times simply brilliant Fantastic Four. I dread to think how much out of time they must look now; how simplistic and unadulterated they were; but for 100 issues it was pretty brilliant stuff. Unfortunately, anything but trade paperbacks would set you back the cost of your house, your parents' house and all of their friends' houses; so let's move on...

Alan Moore might have reinvented Swamp Thing, but most of the 23-odd issue first series were personal favourites of mine. Initially by Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson, it has been documented that it was the first US comic I bought and still have, but after their remarkable 10 issue run, we were treated to David Michelinie (again) and Nestor Redondo's slightly less gothic, more superhero slanted version, which I loved with equal enthusiasm. Truthfully, most of them suck by today's standards, but hell, I enjoyed them and hated what my neighbour Mr Moore did with it, even if it was evolution.

Moore, with the aid of Gene Ha, produced Top Ten, a kind of superhero Hill Street Blues and it was one of Image's true high points. Unfortunately, it was so irregular that you kind of forgot what it was about and I'd long given up comics by the time it probably progressed or even finished. It was a good read, looked nice and evoked the feelings you got from watching a well made TV series.

Rarely has there been a comic that has stopped or has been cancelled that fully deserves your attention and what makes my next nomination all the more odd is that it only lasted 3 issues and never finished, yet it was, quite simply, one of the loopiest and intelligently put together comics ever published. Bill Willingham's Coventry, had it been published by a company with money, rather than Fantagraphics, might have been one of the most successful independent comics of all time; but it wasn't and Willingham took some of the ideas to DC for his Vertigo book Fables (which isn't a patch on the source inspiration). Set in the 51st State of the USA in an alternative universe where it is the only state where magic is allowed to be practised, it offered so much and might have delivered with the couple of spin-off novels released in 2002, but I don't know, I only found out about the books about two minutes ago.

What I do know about Coventry is that every single person I showed it to, bought it and each to a man was as disappointed as I was that it never continued.

I always had a bit of a soft spot for Howard the Duck or it might have been a teenage crush on Beverley Switzler's tits, which were finally unveiled by Gene Colan in the Howard the Duck magazine. For it's time it was a cutting edge satirical comic book, a rarity for US mainstream comics, looking back on it now, it was a strange comic, for which Marvel took a lot of risks with, but I suspect it has little more than curiosity value now, although it documents a period in US life that has largely been sandwiched and overlooked between the reigns of Nixon and Reagan.

Jim Starlin crops up a lot in my nominations and amazingly I got into him before I discovered drugs - a child psychologist might have fun with that - because he came into my life when I was about 14. Starlin did shit loads of stuff, but also had a name for himself as something of a maverick re-inventor, long before John Byrne or Alan Moore 'mastered' it. He took a lame character, originally invented by Lee and Kirby and poorly rendered in the interim by Herb Trimpe and Len Wein into one of the craziest Marvel comics ever created and then, through some clever writing managed to tie it into the core Marvel universe without so much as a dissenting voice. Warlock was bonkers comics and I suspect it would still be pretty bonkers even today. This sprawling story eventually played out in two hard to find Marvel annuals - Avengers Annual #7 and Marvel Two in One Annual #2 and had more superheroes than you could shake a stick at (Starlin loved drawing mass superhero scenes, even if he could never master the art of drawing feet).

I don't know if (Adam) Warlock has ever been resurrected, but when he died, like Captain Marvel, you got the feeling that bringing him back would be a story too far.

Next time: maybe some more, I'll have to search the memory banks; but there will be something.

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