The Great Comic Book Cull Of 2010/2011 Part 57: Marvel Comics – Spider-Man Part 3!

Spider-Man – Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane Vol. 1 & 2

Yes, I’m a straight male in my 30s. And yes I have lots of comics with punching, and kicking and shooting. And boobies. And I also have these: Some of the best romance comics you’ll ever read in your life.

This is the story of a young high-school student named Mary Jane Watson. She’s pretty, she’s smart, and she has a crush on a guy who dresses up as a human spider. It’s a slightly alternate take on the early days of Spider-Man, and specifically aimed at the teen girl audience. So why do I own these? And love them? Because genre doesn’t matter to me. I love good stories with interesting characters, and these have both in spades. These are well-crafted relationship comics, expertly done by Sean McKeever and Takeshi Miyazawa. The familiar backdrop of Peter Parker’s tumultuous high school love life is the setting here, and as such it takes some minor familiarity with the Spider-Man legend. What do you need to know? That Peter Parker is Spider-Man. That’s it, but you do need to know it in advance as the series itself never actually states it. Again, this is a story about Mary Jane. Spider-Man is just one of the characters in her life. Two, actually, as he and Peter Parker are very much treated as separate entities, although we know they’re not.

I know, this is an unconventional choice for a superhero comic. But it’s funny, it’s sad, and it’s got some great character beats.

KEEP

Spider-Man & Human Torch – I’m With Stupid

This is one of the first things that Dan Slott ever did for Marvel Comics, and it’s a big part of the reason why he’s currently the Shepherd of all-things Spidey. Why? Because it’s fun. So much fun. If your Spidey is the Marvel Team-Up Spidey of the late 1970s and 1980s, this book is for you. It’s the story of two friends, Spidey, and the Human Torch. Now, they may not always know that they’re friends, and sometimes they don’t act like it, but they are. Best friends in fact. And so Slott puts them through hijinks after hijinks, and what we get is just a good, all-ages superhero story, the likes of which are few and far between these days.

KEEP

YAY! No more Spider-Man!

What’s next?

Spider-Woman. Boo.

The Great Comic Book Cull Of 2010/2011 Part 56: Marvel Comics – Spider-Man Part 2!

Spider-Man: The JMS years

Because his run ended in scandal and controversy, it’s tempting to dismiss all of J. Michael Straczynskis long tenure on Spider-Man as disposable. Far from it. In fact, it’s JMS’ run that got me back reading Spider-Man after years and years away from the book. People forget that before JMS, Spider-Man was a floundering stunt book full of clones, death, and sadness, and featured every dumb gimmick Marvel could think of to bolster sales. JMS went back to basics on the character, but also attempted to add some depth to his origin. Peter Parker as avatar of a long dead Spider-God might not have taken off with the masses the way Marvel hoped, but they’ve had worse ideas over the years, and the concept garnered some great stories. And some terrible ones.

Amazing Spider-Man – Coming Home, Revelations, Until The Stars Turn Cold, The Life & Death of Spiders, Unintended Consequences, Happy Birthday, The Book Of Ezekiel

This run started off with a huge bang. JMS introduces Morlun, a new addition to Spidey’s rogues gallery, and one that was perfect as a starting point for what the writer was trying to accomplish in his run. JMS is known as a fairly talky writer, and to his credit he counteracted that by putting together one of the great Spider-Man battles as his first order of business. And not only is there plenty of action, but there’s also plenty of attention being paid to characterization. No, it’s not the same Peter Parker stumbling through personal problem after personal problem that we know and love. This Parker is starting to get his shit together. And we love him for it. After Morlun, comes the big reveal: Aunt May finds out that Peter is Spider-Man. And so we get several years of poignant character moments between those two icons that we’d never been privy to before, simply because of one simple change to the status quo.Also? Funny. Really funny. JMS’ Spidey isn’t quite as quippy as previous incarnations have been, but the laughs are subtle, and frequent. Oh, and John Romita Jr turns in some of the greatest art he’s ever done. And this is a guy who turns in great art the way you turn in your parking pass at work. It’s a regular occurrence. In short, the first 7 trades of this run are pretty much magic.

Amazing Spider-Man: Sins Past, Skin Deep, New Avengers, Spider-Man – One More Day, The Other, Back In Black

And then one day the magic died. I’m not sure whether or not it was John Romita leaving the book, the heavy-handed interference from Marvel EIC Joe Quesada, or something else that caused the not-so-gradual decline of this book, but decline it did. It was obvious by this point that JMS’ heart wasn’t in the comic anymore, and Sins Past was just the first of many terrible creative decisions. Mistake number one: Introducing two new villains as the long-lost love children of Gwen Stacy and Norman Osbourne. Stacy is a much-loved character in the Marvel canon, so much so that her 1973 death is considered the official end of the Silver Age of comics. To retcon her into a needy whore with daddy issues enraged fans and critics alike. And worst of all, it wasn’t a good story. And that was just beginning of two years worth of terrible decisions: Peter joins The Avengers. Peter tells the world his secret identity. Peter makes a deal with Satan to nullify his marriage with the love of his life in order to save the life of a woman near death anyways. Nah, that last one would never happen. Oh, wait. It did? Crap. As I said, it’s obvious from the quality of this dreck that JMS was under the gun here, and that he was essentially under orders for a lot of this. And since he’s written some fine comics since then he can be forgiven. But the end of this run was where a lot of long-time Spidey fans jumped off the book, and judging from recent sales numbers, they never came back.

CULL

Spider-Man – Tangled Web Vol. 1-4

This was a series that ran concurrently with a lot of JMS’ run, and man is it ever missed. Basically the premise of this is that it’s an anthology series, featuring stories both short and long, that fit neatly into the Spider-Man mythos, but don’t always star Spider-Man. And to top it off, if features plenty of indie and top creators that aren’t always known for their take on superheroes.And so you get fantastic, quirky little Spider-Man stories by people like Duncan Fegredo, Garth Ennis, Greg Rucka, Eduardo Risso, Paul Pope, Peter Milligan, Brian Azzarello, Sean Phillips, Darwyn Cooke, Kaare Andrews, and Ted McKeever. Now, this book isn’t for those who need continuity and punch-ups to pervade every page of their comics. But if you love short, stand-alone superhero stories by unconventional creators, you’re not going to get much better than this.

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Spider-Man: Blue by Tim Sale and Jeph Loeb

This was from a brief moment a decade ago where the pairing of Loeb and Sale could do no wrong. Every publisher wanted them to work their magic on character after character. It’s popular now to trash Jeph Loeb for every thing he’s written in the last 5 years. But his work with Sale still stands up. For the most part. This is a small story about Peter Parker reminiscing about the first love of his life, Gwen Stacy. And so there is plenty of over-the-top schmaltz, but it’s good schmaltz, and quite frankly it’s the stuff than Loeb writes the best. But as pretty much everything that Loeb and Sale did together, it’s Tim Sale that isn’t just the real star, he’s the whole damn thing. I don’t think I could name 5 mainstream artists that are operating at the level that Sale is at, and this is a great example of his finest work. As a Spider-Man story, I can’t say that it’s particularly engaging. But as an example of one of the best writer-artist partnerships of the last 20 years, it’s pretty much essential.

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Spider-Man – Kraven’s Last Hunt

This is the greatest Spider-Man story ever told. Or at least that’s the conventional wisdom. And for once, I agree with conventional wisdom. This story, originally done in the late 1980’s, stars Kraven, a Spider-Man villain who never really fulfilled his promise as a bad guy. Although he always had a great look, he was a fairly one-note character. That is, until J.M. DeMatteis and Mike Zeck got ahold of him. This is really his story, and it’s the story of a dying man. Nothing is wrong with him per se, but he’s at the end of his life, and he knows it. And so he wants to do one last thing: Destroy Spider-Man. Not kill, though that’s part of it. Destroy. And for Kraven, destroying your greatest enemy means becoming him. And he does.

This, my fine friends, is one of the great ones. One of the true, epic superhero stories that give you faith in a genre famous for telling truly epic stories. And it stands up so well. Even though it’s 25 years old by now, it would still kick the ass of 99% of the superhero comics out right now in terms of emotional impact, and in terms of pure entertainment.

KEEP

Spider-Man: Fever 

Ok, here’s what you do. Grab a Spider-Man comic. Any one, really. Ok, start reading. Now, smoke a carton of cigarettes. I’ll wait. Done? Ok, now here’s a thermos full of whiskey, beer, and coffee, and I’m going to need you drink that in one shot. Oh, and I’m going to need to inject your eyeballs with heroin and speed.

Now you know what reading Brendan McCarthy’s Fever is like. It’s a trippy mindfuck to end all trippy mindfucks, and it’s more about paying tribute to 1960’s Steve Ditko Doctor Strange comics than it is about telling a solid superhero story. If you love batshit crazy indie comics (and I do), then this book is for you. And only for you.

KEEP

Next up: Spider-Man and his little buddies!

New Tom Waits: Bad To Me – Streaming Now

For me, listening to a new Tom Waits album for the first time is what I would imagine reading a new Dead Sea Scroll is like for Christians: It’s exciting, it’s new, and it’s just possible that it might change the way I think about the world.

That’s how much this man’s music means to me. I have been very fortunate in my life to have experienced some of the world’s greatest musicians live, but nothing comes close to seeing Waits in concert. There are perhaps only one or two other artists whose albums I would reach for when the apocalypse comes, but Waits is the only one who could actually provide the soundtrack for said apocalypse.

Which brings us today. Bad To Me officially releases next week, but Anti has created a streaming site where you can preview the album now, for free: http://www.badasme.com/

All you need is a listening code. I’ve got three codes left, and whomever sees them here is welcome to them:  zqb-rvqdg, fnb-7zi86, ogb, spl7i.  But if those don’t work, just go to TomWaits.com and ask for one.

I’ll be doing a full review when the actual album comes out, but in the meantime I’ll just say that so far it’s shaping up to be the best studio record he’s put out since….ahhh, I can’t do it.  Picking which Tom Waits album I like best is like choosing which of your children is your favourite, without the advantage of seeing her grade scores so that you can know which one will most likely earn the most money. But if you ask me right now? This is the best album of the year.

 

 

The Great Comic Book Cull Of 2010/2011 Part 55: Marvel Comics – Spider-Man Part 1!

The greatest superhero of all time.

It’s taken me a while to get back to my culling project, mostly because I’m sick to death of my culling project. The problem is that I read so far ahead of what I was writing about, that I actually lost interest in it by the time I had to write about it. Plus, me not so interested in superhero comics anymore, and it’s still going to be a while before we get to the indie and creator owned stuff that I really enjoy. Still, I’d like to finish what I started, and so I give to you this:

Spider-Man is the greatest superhero of all time.

Yep, I said it. No take backsies. I’d fight anybody (well, not ANYBODY. If you’re a UFC fighter, or a professional soldier I just don’t think that would be very fair. Or if you ever took a self-defence course. Or watched a lot of martial arts movies. Or if you own a baseball bat) who says differently. Why, you ask? It’s not because of the suit, though the design and look of Spider-Man is a huge part of the character’s success. And it’s not because of the powers, though again, awesome.

It’s because of his origin. It’s the greatest in comics. Better than Superman (illegal immigrant becomes neo-messiah), better than Green Lantern (thrill-seeking diva is given magic jewlery by alien Chamber Of Commerce), and yes, I dare say it’s even better than Batman (spoiled rich kid sees his parents killed, becomes spoiled rich adult who also is absolutely crazy). Batman’s may be the most tragic, but Spider-Man’s is better. Why? Because it’s his fault. When people think of Spider-Man’s origin they usually think of the spider biting him after class, but me? I think of Uncle Ben.

After Peter Parker figures out he has godlike spider powers, he does what any of us would do: He robs a bank and bangs hookers. No actually, he becomes a professional wrestler. He wears a mask while he does so because Aunt May was hoping that he would grow up to rob banks and bang hookers, and he’s embarrassed that he didn’t live up to her expectations. One day, a thief makes his way into the arena that Parker is working at, and although Parker has plenty of opportunity to stop the villain, he lets him go. And so of course in the middle of a city full of 9 million people, the bad guy just happens to stumble into Peter’s Uncle Ben immediately afterward, and kills him dead.

It’s Parker’s own fault. That’s the whole crux of this guy. He was given a great gift, he didn’t use it properly, and he paid the ultimate price. It’s so simple, and yet it’s almost never used in superhero comics anymore. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he has the perfect motivation for doing what he does, and without motivation, you just have a guy who likes to dress in fetish gear and likes to get punched in the face.

That’s why he’s stuck around so long. More than any other hero, he truly understands what a responsibility he has, and as such, is probably the only true hero in a universe full of pretenders.

Spider-Man: Essential Spider-Man 1-6

I’ve mentioned numerous times throughout this project that I’ve gotten rid of most of my Marvel Essentials, and although the actual quality of the comics these are reprinting are unmistakable, the quality of the reprints themselves just doesn’t do these comics justice. These collect the run of Amazing Spider-Man from the early 1960’s to the early 1970’s, and are as close to the Holy Grail as you’re going to get in superhero comics: Stan Lee. Steve Ditko. John Buscema. Roy Thomas. The first appearance of Spider-Man. Flash Thompson. The Kingpin. The Green Goblin. The Death of Uncle Ben. Glory Grant. J. Jonah Jameson. The death of Gwen Stacy. And so on.

When it comes to the Silver Age of superhero comics, it doesn’t get better than this. And yet, I’m getting rid of them. The Essential line are basically cheap, black and white reprints of classic comics, and while they are eminently affordable, you do get what you pay for, and sadly reading these digitally and in colour on my iPad is a more fulfilling experience than these black and white cheapies.

CULL

Spider-Man: Greatest Villains

This was a collection of some of the greatest stories involving some Spider-Man’s greatest villains (Green Goblin, Mysterio, Sandman, Venom, etc). Like the Essential line, the quality of the stories themselves are not in doubt, but the quality of the presentation sadly is. LIke many Marvel trades from the late 90’s, the glue on has deteriorated to the point that it’s unreadable, and therefore not worth owning.

CULL

Spider-Man & Black Cat – The Evil That Men Do

This was from the brief period in the late 90’s/early 2000’s in which Kevin Smith was considered to be a good comic book writer. Thankfully, that time seems to be over now, and it’s rare that any of the major comic book companies will let Smith near their characters. But the comics from this period are still around, and this one might be one of the worst. Smith reimagines long time Spider-Man supporting character Black Cat as a bisexual vamp whose previously unmentioned rape was a big motivator for her beating up bad guys. It’s turgid, over-the-top, and barely readable. In short, it’s Kevin Smith. Terry Dodgson’s art is fun, and as one would expect, his Black Cat is about as sexy as is legally allowed in comic books. But it’s not enough to save this turkey.

CULL

Next up: More Spider-Man!

 

VIFF Day The Last: Silence, but in French

The Artist, directed by Michel Hazanavicius (France)

First of all, I should let you know that The Artist is in black and white. Seco…Hey! Where are you going? Come back! Ok, that’s better. The other thing that I need to tell you is that it’s a silent film, with absolutely no speaki…..Hey! Get back here! Uncultured philistines.

Yes, it’s a black and white movie. And yes, it’s a silent film, with absolutely no dialogue, with only an occasional inter title to help propel the story forward. And it’s absolutely wonderful.

It’s the story of George Valentin, the biggest movie star of the silent era of film. He’s got everything: Wealth, fame, and a beautiful wife. And then? Progress. The talkie is invented, making a silent specialist like George more than a little redundant. He’s bound and determined to prove the experts wrong, and do one last great silent movie. And it bombs. And then the great depression hits. And now he’s done.

This is a melodrama in the truest sense of the word, and as such, eminently predictable. But the genius of the film isn’t what the end result is, it’s how the story unfolds, and how Hazanavicius utilizes the long dead art of inter titles and a stunning score by Ludovic Bource to tell such a simple, yet effective story.

And of course we need to talk about the actors. To pull such a unique film, you need unique players, and we get them in spades in Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo. Bejo pulls off a wonderful Clara Bow/Ginger Rogers pastiche that would have stolen the show, if it weren’t for the uber-leading man star power of Dujardin, a man who I’m absolutely convinced was the lost love child of Gene Kelly and Douglas Fairbanks. Not to mention the great John Goodman, who as always makes bad movies good, and good movies great, with a nice little role as the studio boss with a soft heart.

And then there’s the score. Ludovic Bource has created a score so vibrant, and so exciting, that it might as well have been an actor in its own right. Though some of the stylistic choices do sound more than a little post-modern for the 1920’s setting, I’m willing to allow it.

I need to tell you something. This is no simple art house conceit. I’m convinced that not only is there a market for The Artist, but that it’s an Oscar contender. It’s probably the best feel good movie I’ve seen this year (yes, maybe even more so than Midnight In Paris), and I could see this crossing over to multiplex crossover success if handled correctly. If you like smart, entertaining films that don’t make you feel like you’ve been kicked in the junk by Pele, than The Artist is definitely for you.

Rating: A

 

VIFF Day 9: Congolese Street Music

Benda Bilili! Directed by Renaud Barret & Florent de La Tullaye (France, Congo)

Vancouver’s film festival is past the half way mark, and I’m starting to get just a little tired of the arthouse precociousness that you get with a lot of the films that VIFF presents. We get it, you’re sad, and you’re important. Good for you.

Because of all of the European misery I’ve been subjecting myself to, I was very much looking forward to seeing Benda Bilili! as I knew exactly what I was going to get: A documentary about one of the greatest musical success stories of the last decade.

It’s the story of Ricky Likabu, a paraplegic musician living and working on the streets of Kinshasa, Congo. About six years ago, the film makers meet Ricky while working on another project in the Congo, and fall in love with him, and his music. They decide to try to help him and his group of musicians (Benda Bilili), to make a recording. They also introduce him to Roger Landu, a homeless street urchin from a surrounding village, who at that point was just starting to learn the satongé, a single-stringed instrument of his own devising. From a musical perspective Roger is the last missing ingredient to Benda Bilili’s unique stew of soukous, zouk, African rumba, and funk, but the band still struggles, and the film follows them around as they spend the next five years trying to make their dreams happen.

This is a film full of joy, but it would be a mistake to call this a simple movie about music. What it’s really about, is following your dreams. Both Ricky and the film makers are trying to accomplish completely unrealistic goals, and the film follows both in a fairly straight-forward cinéma vérité style. What I appreciated about Barret & de La Tullaye’s approach was that even though they are a fairly integral part to Bilili’s story, they really kept themselves out of the film, and even minimized the involvement of producer Vincent Kunis in the movie, even though his arrival in Kinshasa really changed the fortunes of the band.

What the film makers do, and do well, is to keep the camera on the band. Half of the members of the group  are physically disabled in some way due to polio, and so it’s easy to dismiss them as a simple gimmick group. But as the movie eventually shows when the group makes its inevitable performance debut in France, they’re anything but. I should know, I’m one of the few people in this country that’s been lucky enough to have seen them.

Benda Bilili is a straight-forward rags to riches story. But it’s also a good film. And one that recognizes that Staff Benda Bilili isn’t worth watching because they’re from the Congo, or because they live in a zoo, or because they have polio. They’re worth watching because they are one of the best live bands on the planet right now, and it’s a tragedy that due to visa and passport problems, that this film might be North American audiences only chance to see them. Although the film does have it’s minor problems (a lack of real explanation as to exactly how successful the band becomes, no interviews with any band members other than Landu or Likabu), it’s still a very watchable documentary, and one of the best music films I’ve seen in some time.

Rating: A-

VIFF Day 8: Russian Thrillers without the Thrills

Elena directed by Andrei Zvyagintsev (Russia)

Thriller is a word that can be used to describe a fairly wide range of films. Elena isn’t one of them, but that didn’t stop the VIFF organizers from calling it that in the program guide. I guess “thriller” sounds better than “Slow-paced Russian meditation on the importance of family”. 

Elena is a middle-aged Russian woman who splits her time between taking care of her rich, selfish, second husband (who also has a poor, selfish, lazy daughter) and her poor, selfish, lazy son (who also has a poor, selfish wife, and his own poor, selfish, and lazy son). She’s managed to juggle her different familial loyalties thus far, but eventually she has to make a choice between her two families, and she does. Dramatically.

It’s a well-crafted film, and worth your time if you’re ok with a slow pace to your suspense. Elena does have some dramatic moments, but they’re rare, and not really the point of the film. What this movie is really about, is family, and loyalty to that family. It asks some good questions: How important is family, really? And why? What makes a family anyways? Is it blood? Marriage? Both? And if you have to choose between one family and another, how do you make that choice?

This was a subtle movie, and one that doesn’t give up its secrets easily. And while it’s ending may be unsatisfactory to those that need good to always triumph over evil, it’s one that fits this soft-spoken drama nicely.

Rating: B+