Opus 87:

Opus 87: Spider-Man in Motion and the Fate of Four-color Comics (May 8). By the time I got around to seeing the Spider-Man movie on Tuesday, yesterday, the theater at the cine-plex I attended was almost empty. Maybe 20 of us at 2 p.m. in the afternoon. I guess, by Tuesday-judging from the reports of the movie's weekend box-office triumph-everybody in the universe (except me and the rest of the two dozen witnessing it with me) had seen it. If everybody hadn't watched it the previous weekend, it sure sounded like they had. According to USA Today, Spider-Man grossed $114 million, breaking the previous record for ticket sales revenue over a 3-day non-holiday weekend (held by Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone at $90.3 million). Likewise, Spider-Man topped Potter for the biggest one-day box office, Saturday's $43.7 million vs. $33.5 million.

            On Tuesday, of course, school was still in session. I suppose that would account for the dearth in the dark there with me.

            But the weekend's record-breaking performance must've given Stan Lee a huge laugh of satisfaction. Listed as Executive Producer of the flick, Lee's been touting the Spider-Man movie for about twenty years. I remember attending a session with him on the podium at the first Chicago Con I went to (when it was still at the Ramada Inn on Mannheim Road back in the late 70's): among the questions, of course, were those about the "forthcoming" Spider-Man movie. It was still in the works, Lee said, assuring us that it was "on track" or "silver-screen bound" or whatever other Hollywoodian expression he used to describe a movie that wasn't being shot yet let alone cast but, he insisted, would, eventually, get made. And this exercise was repeated for years at comic cons. Everywhere he went, Lee would be asked about the movie; and every time he was asked, he'd promise that it would, someday, be produced and in theaters from sea to shining sea.

            And, at last, it is.

            And its amazing revenue-producing record had to please Lee. It must've gratified him immensely since it more than justified his abiding faith in the character and the character's appropriateness for movie immortality. Peter Parker and all the other minions of the Marvel Universe. In the works (as I said last time) are movies starring Daredevil (with tv's Sydney Bristow playing Elektra), the Hulk, X-Men, Doctor Strange, Man-Thing, Submariner, Ghost Rider-seems to me the list is nearly endless these days, growing day-by-day with glossy visions of big-screen glory fogging the eyesight of everyone even vaguely connected to Marvel.

            "Movies are no longer the sideshow [at Marvel]," said Marvel's movie mogul, Avi Arad. "We are a bona fide entertainment company that has the best library in the business," he went on. "My dream is that every year we will have movies."

            Maybe not Disney yet but probably dreaming of it.

            If ever we needed a flat-out, unblushing assertion that the only reason comic books exist in today's marketplace is to secure merchandising and licensing rights for characters that can make more money for their owners outside the four-color pulpworld of their origins than inside, Arad's statement fills the void. Not that there was ever any real doubt about where the worth of these characters resides. Not in the comic books, anyhow. Or so they say.

            And celluloid is encroaching on the domain of the longjohn legions in another, even more insidious, way. Through sheer quality. The rising tide of superhero motion pictures (Superman, Batman, X-men, now Spider-Man), each more deft at special effects than the last, is slowly eroding the only beachhead comic books held. Until movie-makers developed the technology for depicting the deeds of super-powered beings, comic books were the only medium in which superheroes could convincingly function. Back in the decade of their origins, the thirties, comic books were the ideal medium for portraying super beings. You could write about superheroes in novels, or you could film their adventures. But neither books nor movies were quite up to the task of depicting the impossible feats of the spandex spawn. Narrative prose lacks the conviction, the authority and impact, of visuals. And in the movies of the day, the super deeds looked phony: the special effects then weren't sophisticated enough to persuade us that the images we were seeing were authentic "recordings" of actual accomplishments. Comic books, on the other hand, made superheroes both palpable and probable: they could imbue the antics of these costumed contenders with a sufficient illusion of reality to make the stories convincing. (You can find more discussion along these lines in my book, The Art of the Comic Book, which also contains an entire chapter on "Why Cartooning Is Not the Same as Filmmaking"; for a preview, click here.)  Since the first Superman movie of the 1970s, however, the movies have been as successful at convincing us of their reality as the comic books were of theirs. The distinction of 1930-1960 no longer obtains. And Spider-Man is just the latest in the triumphant march of movies across a landscape once the exclusive preserve of comic books.

            Shel Dorf, Sandy Eggo Con founder and a living legend of comics fandom, saw Spider-Man on opening day and left a message on my machine: "This is the best superhero movie I've ever seen," he said. And he is right.

            Spider-Man swings through the concrete canyons of a skyscrapered city and is utterly convincing. We've seen all the other special effects before in other kinds of thrillers, but the webslinger's tour de force debuts in this one. And it purely works.

            There are a few holes in the webbing. No Gwen Stacy, for example-her function as Peter's first heartthrob being combined with Mary Jane Watson's in a single MJ character with Kirsten Dunst dimpling to perfection. Gwen's absence is the most glaring of the deviations from the Spider-Man mythos, and only the most passionate of the character's devotees are likely to note other, minor, irregularities. (And I'm not one of those: by the time I became aware of Peter Parker and his angst, Gwen was long dead and MJ was the only woman in Peter's heart.) But the crediting of Steve Ditko at the beginning of the movie (not to mention in the comic books these days) as Spider-Man's co-creator more than compensates for a host of other omissions.

            The most intriguing aspect of the movie, however, was, to me, the absence of another dimension. There seemed to be little-if any-of the ironic, self-deprecating humor that infected the Superman and Batman movies. Not the camp comedy of the tv Batman in the 1960's. I don't mean that. No, I mean the sort of humorous aside that seems to say, to the audience, "Yes, I realize this is all just a little silly, and I know I'm merely a comic book character." There was, it seems to me, none of that in Spider-Man. There was humor, but it was organic: it came from the characters being themselves not from the actors revealing that they know they are pretending. And I think I know why that kind of irony is missing from Spider-Man. Why, by the same token, it was present in the Superman and Batman movies.

            The different treatments on the big screen stems, I suspect, from the different treatments in the comics. From the beginning, Spider-Man-Peter Parker-has been a personality, an adolescent plagued by all the uncertainties and longings that usually disturb teenagers. Personality has been as integral to the character as superheroicism. Not so with Superman or Batman. Neither of these premier characters started as personality studies. Both were simply heroic personas. The adventure fiction of the late 1930s and 1940s didn't require them to be anything more than routinely stalwart and resourceful. And that's all they were. It wasn't until the success of the quirky Marvel characters that any of DC's pantheon developed personalities of any distinction. Even as late in the game as the first Superman and Batman movies, both characters were still popular culture icons rather than actual personalities.

            Without personality to engage our sympathies and affections in the movie versions, the characters were forced to rely upon other dramatic devices. In both cases, the movie scripters resorted to the self-deprecating humor of ironic observation. We could chuckle companionably with these superheroes. But Peter Parker has a personality; and the movie-makers wisely let that personality drive their creation, leaving self-deprecating ironic comedy entirely out of the movie. Good for them.

            Not everyone agrees that Spider-Man is a nifty flick. The evening of the day I saw the movie, our local newspaper published a Letter to the Editor from an irate mother and father who were writing "urgently" to warn other parents of "a catastrophe involving their children." Although this mom and pop liked the "really neat action scenes" they witnessed when they took their son to see Spider-Man, they were "shocked and outraged" by the wet T-shirt scene in which we can see Dunst's nipples through her rain-soaked shirt. Not only that, but she kisses Spider-Man "and it appears more sexual content occurs later in the movie." It "appears"? Apparently, they didn't hang around to see for sure. Yanked their kid right out of his seat and out of the theater, thereby saving him, no doubt, from the lifetime of corruption that would otherwise be sure to ensue. But that doesn't stop them from recommending that all parents "should at least watch the movie before they expose a child to this kind of nudity."

            They finish with a flourish: "How can anyone expect a young man to be respectful to any young lady when he is subjected to seeing young women portrayed like this?"

            Yeh, well, sure: reality is undoubtedly bad for you. Particularly naked reality. Take the distinguished Victorian British art critic, John Ruskin, who never consummated his marriage for reasons that have never been divulged although Ruskin confessed that he was disgusted by his bride on their wedding night. The supposition is that he was repelled by his bride's pubic hair. That was disgusting, a blemish on a work of art to a man whose only previous experience of female nudity involved marble statues and oil paintings that did not depict pubic hair.

            Save us from nipples.

Nous R Us. In early April, the producers of the tv comedy "The Simpsons" apologized to Rio de Janeiro for an episode in which the bumbling paterfamilias Homer is mugged and kidnaped while in Rio. Searching with his family for a missing orphan that daughter Lisa has sponsored, Homer encounters rats and monkeys roaming the city's streets. Until the apology, Rio's tourism board was considering legal action against the Simpson enterprise for undermining its $18 million tourism promotion. Incidentally, one of "The Simpsons" biggest fans is Attorney General John Ashcroft, whose son recently gave him a 3-DVD set of the animated series and who can, at the drop of a hint apparently, recite favorite lines with aplomb.

            On May 4, the day after the Spider-Man movie opened, hundreds of comic book specialty shops across the country gave away comic books. Free comic books. Not every comic book store participated, and not all comic books were free-only selected titles, produced in vast quantities for the occasion by DC, Marvel, Image, and Dark Horse. The objective, blantantly, was to promote wider interest in comic books. (The Spider-Man movie was, on May 3, accompanied by a trailer announcing the giveaway. Just one aspect of this carefully calculated stunt.) Unhappily for my career as a comics newsman, I wasn't anywhere near a comic book store on the crucial day. But my local comic book store, according to a mole within, experienced an influx of customers only about twice the number they normally have on a Saturday. Many of the fresh influx, however, bought comic books as well as picking up their freebies. So I'd say the ploy worked-well enough, at least, to try it again someday.

            Bob Gorrell of Creators Syndicate was named editorial cartoonist for the America Online News Channel and may be the first to hold such a position. Gorrell and AOL editors select a story for him to cartoon about every weekday, and the cartoon is posted that afternoon, remaining exclusive to AOL for 24 hours.

            The Washington Post's legendary editorial cartoonist Herblock left most of his $50 million estate to form the Herb Block Foundation, which is charged with helping young people get educations, improving the Washington D.C. community, and encouraging young editorial cartoonists. The Milt Gross Fund of the National Cartoonists Society (that arm of the organization devoted to charitable deeds for indigent cartooners) was bequeathed $50,000.

            With a historic reputation for incest, murder (by poisoning), and assorted corruptions, Lucretia Borgia, the 15th century Italian aristocrat born as a result of a union between her father, a cardinal in the Church (who later became Pope Alexander VI) and one of his mistresses, will soon star in a new comic strip as part of Italy's year-long campaign to reconstitute her as an exemplary mother and wife. This effort was launched well before the reputation of the Church needed any resuscitation itself in the wake of the epidemic of child molestation that is presently being uncovered.

MUSEUM MUSINGS. The International Museum of Cartoon Art, which presently has one foot in Boca Raton and the other in a warehouse in Connecticut, may soon be able to plant both feet in New Haven. In the most recent development, the Boca Raton facility, which remains open with an exhibition and its gift shop, will be purchased by Lynn University and converted to a hotel for training its hospitality students. The city, which owns the land, must approve the plan because it involves the use of a site within the city's cultural enclave. Meanwhile, founder Mort Walker is looking for a new home up north at Yale University, where the IMCA may share gallery space for a time before finding a permanent home of its own. Both deals are pending as of this writing (May 8).

            In downtown Manhattan, attorney and cartoon aficionado Lawrence Klein has assembled a board of advisors for his projected Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art and has secured a charter from the State Education Department. MoCCA sponsored a fund raising reception in February at Illustration House, displaying framed original art by such comics luminaries as Jack Kirby, Charles Addams, Hal Foster, George Herriman, Dr. Seuss, and Bill Watterson, and on June 23, the MoCCA will sponsor an Art Festival at the Puck Building, assembling scores of cartoonists from every genre to draw sketches and sell original art to all comers. Said Klein: "MoCCA's mission is to be as inclusive as possible and to exhibit as many types of artwork as we can display to better educate and excite the public. Our plan is to showcase the full diversity in the comics and cartoon field as well as to demonstrate how comics and cartoons offer a window into the history of America and the world." MoCCA is very much in the developmental stage: it has no physical location at present, and its collection consists mostly of Klein's private holdings plus items loaned by others. Klein hopes to find a temporary facility within a year or so. In the meantime, he doesn't see MoCCA competing with the Walker facility because MoCCA would be in Manhattan while the International Museum of Cartoon Art would be out of the city in, say, New Haven. In fact, Klein said, Walker has offered to help with MoCCA in any way he can.

            Back on the left coast, the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center will open August 17 in Santa Rosa, California, where Schulz lived and worked for more than a quarter of a century. The 27,000-square-foot Museum holds a research library and archives and a 100-seat auditorium as well as display areas in which Peanuts originals and memorabilia will be showcased. Among the permanent features is a 7,000-pound sculpture by Japanese artist Yoshiteru Otani showing the evolution of Snoopy.

PEEVES & PRATFALLS: Reviews Withall. The so-called replica edition of Sheldon Mayer's Sugar and Spike, No. 1 (May 1956), is a treat. Mayer's creations-the immortal Scribbly Jibbet ("boy cartoonist"), Doodles Duck, Rufus the Lion, the Three Mouseketeers, and others-are, every one of them, comedic masterpieces, pure "cartoony" conjurations of the highest hilarity. But only Sugar and Spike rival Scribbly in unadulterated originality. And now we have their "origins" ready at hand. By one account, Sugar and Spike was created at the behest of DC editors to compete with a plethora of Dennis the Menace simulacrums then on the newsstand. But Mayer, who hated the idea of imitating (he called it "stealing") another's creation, did Hank Ketcham's imitators one better: Mayer's novelty was that his kids talked to each other in a baby-talk lingo that adults couldn't understand. This device was later employed by Pat Brady in Rose Is Rose: in the strip's earliest incarnations, Pasquale talks in an infantile argot that his mother "translates" for us readers, and much of the comedy of the strip arose from the juxtaposition of her translation against what Pasquale appeared to be talking about. But Brady may never have seen or heard of Mayer's mischievous toddlers, and Mayer never took the device to quite the lengths Brady did. Mayer's other innovative notion: Sugar, the girl, was the "leader" in the pair's antics, the mastermind of their mischief. I suspect, however, that this aspect of his creation did not come about as a result of an incipient feminism emerging before its time. Instead, it was simply Mayer repeating what he had seen in his own household when his kids were very young. His daughter, Merrily, is a year older than his son, Lanney, and, according to Merrily (in an interview in Comic Book Artist, No. 11): "I was an instigator. I was Sugar and my brother was the one who was always getting into trouble for everything I did. In those days, it was unusual for the woman to be the leader. But what you have to understand is, I was older. So, naturally, the younger kid followed the older kid."

            Mike Avon Oeming's Bastard Samurai is out. Penciled by Kelsey Shannon and inked by Oeming, No. 1 is a impressive achievement. The storytelling is taut and expert, but more atmosphere than straightforward narrative. Shannon's linework is more graceful and nuanced than Oeming's in, say, Powers. I'm reminded of Mignola and Templeton, but Shannon and Oeming are neither even though their work prompts memories of the others. Their pictures are simple but deft, precise evocations of moods and episodes, drenched in solid blacks. The love-making sequence and the scene at the wall of the waterfall (reflecting the character) are wonderfully done. The "story" in this issue consists of several killings without, it seems to me, adequate motivation. But Oeming and Shannon are setting up their samurai universe here, and the effort is expended, in this issue, on atmospherics and scene-setting rather than story per se. Worth watching.

            In Powers No. 19, Brian Michael Bendis turns the f-word into a conversational entity. I appreciate the pride a writer may take in creating something for an adult audience, but the f-word isn't ipso facto "adult." In fact, one could argue that over-use of the f-word is juvenile rather than mature. To rely, as Bendis and many other contemporary writers do, upon profanity to convey the illusion of reality-that is, to cite the language of the street in order to evoke the atmosphere of the street in one's creation-is, it seems to me, to admit a lack of imagination. Surely there are other ways to conjure up the gritty realities of the street. Keith Griffen does it, albeit humorously, in his Lobo stories (bastich and frag standing in for other, readily recognizable expressions). Surely a writer of Bendis' reputed gifts can come up with a non-sexual term to convey the same sense of milieu as the f-word. Besides, the frequent use of the f-word robs it of its force as an expletive by making it an everyday, commonplace term. No shock left.

            Speaking of Lobo, Griffen's latest venture into the character, DC1st: Superman/Lobo, No. 1, isn't nearly as imaginative an incarnation of the outlandish Czarnian as his earlier appearances. Some of the old Main Man ambiance is present, but Cliff Rathburn (pencils) and Rob Leigh (inks) haven't Biz's panache, and their anatomy is stiff and wooden. Too bad.

            In Howard the Duck No. 4, Steve Gerber turns sacrilegious, suggesting that religion obviates the need for rational thought in such governments as George W. Bush's (known as the "Bush World" or, for short, "Bushwah"). Bev gets laid and Howard resumes his, er, normal form as a waterfowl. So far, Gerber's reincarnation of his celebrated satirical duck has achieved little real satire. What passes for satire is Gerber's scatter-shot technique of ridiculing various social and cultural phenomena with verbal jibes sent off in all directions at once. To achieve a more mature satirical expression, he must, as he did with Howard in the first series eons ago, knit these effusions together with cohesive plots than expand upon the vituperative by giving it allegorical impact. It's not happenin' yet.

            To see what I mean with Howard as a vehicle for satire, you might (if you were so disposed) explore a book of mine called The Art of the Comic Book, in which there is a substantial discussion of all of Howard's first run, an exegesis, if you will, of the satirical import of Gerber's milestone accomplishment; for more about the book, click here to be transported to this site's hype on the subject.

            And, stay 'tooned.

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