Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Tie-ins, Part XXVI: Spider-Man and the Incredible Hulk Back-to-School Edition

Some random Spider-Man books, Part 2
A free 16 page comic story shouldn’t cost this much

A straightforward story with some really weird ads

"Pipeline to Peril!"
Writer –
Art – John Romita, Sr
Letters –
Colorist –
Editor –
Editor-in-Chief –
August 1990

Imagine being a child back in 1981 and opening up your Sunday funnies to find a surprise: a comic book!

Not just any comic, either. A Marvel book featuring two of Marvel’s biggest superheroes: Spider-Man and the Hulk.

Unlikely scenario? Not if you were a child living in Dallas back then, because that’s just what happened.

Marvel the company created these one-shot funny books in agreement with select area retailers in various markets in the country. Dallas was one of the few that got in on the act with not just one issue, but five separate comics delivered this way in the early 1980’s. One of those five showcased the Dallas Ballet doing the Nutcracker and another the Dallas Cowboys football team, but the other three were all from a local upscale retail outlet known as Sanger Harris.

All of them had Spider-Man too. Three teamed him up with the Hulk, one title had him going solo, and the last one had Firestar and Iceman.

If the other four are like this one, I’m not sure if seeking them out is worth the effort. Let me show you why.

For one thing, there are 18 pages of ads in this issue, including the front piece and the back page. And while you might shrug your shoulders and go “So what? Just skip past ‘em,” understand that they are all from Sanger Harris and show various types of kids clothing. Still not feeling why this is so odd? Guess I’ll have to put them up for you to see.

This is our inside front page and WHAT is up with that girl’s face? She’s wearing a look of mild-to-medium incompetence. This isn’t JR, Sr’s doing, I won’t believe that. If anything, the ad looks like New Mutant’s era Bill Sienkiewicz. And it isn’t just this ad…It’s ALL of them.

(on a side note: the price of that shirt that the girl will grow out of in under six months is $16, which is about four dollars more expensive than a shirt for a kid at Target today. This was 35 years ago. That shirt is probably like a $40-45 shirt in today’s dollars. For a kid’s shirt they would grow out of in 6 months or thereabouts. YES, upscale store with overpriced stuff!)

Ad number two has two little blonde girls being “menaced” by a pack of goo-footed green aliens. But that’s okay, because they will make it through on buddy power. Kick the snot out of those little green frackers, girls!

Uh…you missed one. And your brother and his young playmate are totally too involved in reading a book or staring into their own eyes in the bathroom mirror to notice it.

These little cheerleaders are full of team spirit! And so is the pedophile about to touch Suzy’s rear-end. That’s what she gets for shaking her “pom-pom” so much. Run, girls! Run!

Don’t worry Suzy! Billy the kid will take care of that mean old Mr. Octopus-hands. He’s ready for some “rough and tumble action,” if you know what I mean? Now STOP Chester-molester! This means YOU!

However, the situation just gets worse and worse. Now the aliens are back and THEY want to “check out” the girls Luv It jeans. Seems more than just a little fishy if you ask me. Why is there an overtone of creep to all of these?

Okay, now I’m hacked off. Sanger Harris was showing “never released” Super Hero cartoons. And YouTube doesn’t have them. Where are these cartoons? Internet, don’t fail me!

Bobby and Billy sure do love using Mommy’s rouge. Not that there’s anything wrong with that!

As do their sisters, but that may be because the older girl is hooking for lunch money. Heck, she has to, at the prices her parents are paying for these clothes.

When Hell is full, the dead will walk the Earth…so don’t leave your babies sitting in the graveyard.

Now we are talking, at least on price anyway. They could shave off a few bucks more by not making such wide collars, I’ll bet.

Great Values for Girls! All I hear is John Belushi saying “Your women. I want to buy your women. The little girl, your daughters…sell them to me. Sell me your children!” from The Blues Brothers.

The best Christmas present ever.

Okay, we can start the story now…anytime. Maybe I should just skip the rest of these…

Oh, but not before another molester one! And this one tends to imply that your child will be grabbed by some “creep.” I don’t know who the marketing genius at Sangers was, but he sure knows how to make compelling ad copy.

Come off it! They aren’t being protected. Little Suzy’s head is encased in a solid block of ice. Get real.

Back in the day, my Adidas would kick the crap out of a child wearing “Kid Power” shoes. Possibly while I sang RUN/DMC.

Some of the weirdest belts I have ever seen.

That is 18 pages of ads… told you they were strange. And That's A LOT of ads compared to the story they share page space with. Now on to the 16 pages of story and 2 activity pages. Yay!

We begin with a reason for Spider-Man and Sandman to both show up in Dallas. Coincidentally this will be at the exact same time. Sure this is old-school hackneyed, but I forgive a lot of this for the sake of a story.

While Peter sees the "sights" of Dallas), including a Sanger Harris store specifically because cousin Billy insists on driving THROUGH a shopping mall parking lot on the way home in his Datsun two-door. Just what I love to do after a long plane flight. We also get a brief update on Bruce Banner, working in the oilfields. Meanwhile Sandman is making trouble below the soil.

I’m uncertain how shining a flashlight down a pipe will show signs of sabotage, but hey, I’m not a rig worker. Meanwhile Bruce catches sight of Sandman without realizing who he is. This leads him getting some of ole Sandy in places where the sun don’t shine courtesy of a quick sand storm.

Which leads to him transforming and generally making a nuisance of himself while also raising everyone’s suspicions that he’s the true cause of the rigs problems. which he kind of ends up being...

Parker finally gets to change clothes. Cousin Billy takes him on a tour of Dallas’s sights, which don’t seem like much at the time. There is 7-11's corporate headquarters! Dallas has changed a bunch since the early 80’s. Bruce meanwhile turns back to himself but can’t remember anything about Sandman. All he needs to do is check his underwear for a reminder.

Our pal Sandman gets the bright idea of covering himself in green dye after newspaper reports (note: it’s the Dallas Times Herald) show the Hulk sighted by the oil well. His plan goes off without a hitch, meaning he is free to menace the drilling operation while all suspicion will fall on the Hulk being responsible for any mishaps.

And more mishaps there will be as Sandman continues to wreck pipelines. Bruce knows he has to find a way to discretely stop whomever it is and the bad guys appear to have won this round.

Have to take a moment and state how much I love John Romita, Sr.’s art. His classic style set the standard after Ditko’s departure from Amazing. His clean figures and well-balanced panel layouts are always a treat.

Oh, and by the way, those page size ads for children’s clothes were not enough. Nor the product placement inside the book. No, now we have to show Spider-Man actually shopping at Sanger Harris for a present for Aunt May. That last panel is his spider-sense going off telling him that he’s found the perfect purse for her…and it’s on SALE too!

I was close. It was warning him that Sandman was near. Peter doesn’t recognize his famous foe but places a spider-tracker on him. Then he heads off for some Texas BBQ, which sounds mighty good there, pardner. Sorry. I’ve lived in Texas most of my life. If I slip into a Y’all here or there, ignore it please.

That night Spidey trails Sandman, using his power to attach webs to objects off panel that could in no way be high enough to give him the ability to swing like this. Also, that house is in the suburbs, probably Highland Park area given how cousin Billy likes to shop at over-priced Sanger Harris stores, which would make him close to downtown, but no where near the oil fields where Sandman would have a motel room…aaaaah! I wonder if New Yorkers do the same when they read a story of Spidey swinging through Long Island?

Anyway, he catches on to what Sandman is doing, just as the dirty crook approaches the oil field for his latest round of terrorism and destruction of private property. Banner tries to take him on mano-y-sandpile.

Only to have Bruce’s transformation freak Sandy the heck out. He finds his way blocked by Spider-Man though, and their ongoing enmity is something he can’t back down from. 

While Sandy goes after Spider-Man, Hulk goes to "help." Which is sort of like saying “Hulk does more damage than Sandman, thus furthering Kingpin’s interests." I love the “Ugly man keeps changing! How can Hulk smash him?” lines. Heck, I love “Hulk smash” ANYTIME.

And in a constant theme of WHY Sandman should never pick fights at construction sites, Spidey tricks him into punching a hole in a cement truck. Seems like he should have learned this trick by now.

And we have a one page story wrap-up that ties up EVERY plotline, and I do mean EVERY single one.

Decent story, some classic art, a little short and you have to dig through ads to get to it…I think I can show this one some love and give it a passing grade.

I would have loved to find this when I was child. Unfortunately, I was way past childhood and already starting high school when it came out. And of the three local papers (Dallas Times Herald, Dallas Morning News, and the Fort Worth Star Telegram), we took the Fort Worth paper.

The number of these type of inserts would make you think these turned into big sales for the Sanger Harris chain. Maybe they did, but those sales were either short lived or cost too much to generate. Six years later the chain was absorbed by the Houston-based Foley’s chain, and all the stores renamed. The unique arched storefronts have been remodeled in most malls. But the retail story doesn’t end there. Foleys was absorbed itself by the Macy’s brand name, with the final store being converted sometime in 2006. The Dallas Times Herald fell on hard times in 1991, and after 103 years of publication, was purchased by rival Dallas Morning News and ceased publication. Literally Marvel is the only company involved in this book that survived.

Sadly, as my lack of writer/inker/colorist/letterer shows, the book is barely a blip on anyone’s radar. Sad, because this was kinda cool and who knows for how many kids this was their first true comic book experience? Maybe it is more than half-full of ads, but there’s no such thing as a free lunch. And a comic book is a comic book!

Now enjoy these two activity pages because I’m swinging out of here:


Write on Kingpin’s head, children!

Monday, June 26, 2017

Tie-ins, Part XXVI: Spider-Man #1

Some random Spider-Man books, Part 1
The Fall of Todd McFarlane

Call it pride, hubris, or ambition – it still doesn't justify all the $1 back issues in circulation

"Torment, Part 1"
Writer – Todd McFarlane
Art – Todd McFarlane
Letters – Rick Parker
Colorist – Bob Sharen
Editor – Jim Salicrup
Editor-in-Chief – Tom DeFalco
August 1990

Few artist have soared so high as Todd McFarlane. His work for Marvel in the tail-end of the 1980's created some hot sale numbers on two of that company's biggest characters.

Todd's run on Hulk made me believe that the man-monster could be just as intimidating without making him a jade giant. And his time on Amazing Spider-Man redefined how people would draw web-head and his webs for years.

I seriously LOVE his art.

By all rights, McFarlane's legacy should have been years and years of providing the very best visuals for some of the top tier writers that Marvel afford to bring in.

Instead his legacy is Spider-Man #1.

For me, and I know I am not the average comic book guy but bear with me a bit here, this was the tipping point of McFarlane's career arc. His comic profile reads like a parabola for me. It crests right before Spider-Man #1 and then it begins a steep and ever-increasing descent into obscurity and … *poof* -- invisibility.

What happened?

After a couple of years of becoming the most popular of Marvel's new bullpen of great artists, McFarlane leveraged his position to force the powers that be at Marvel to allow him step way outside his comfort zone. On their dime. After building himself into my generation's John Romita, he decided he wanted to be my generation's Jack Kirby.

McFarlane wanted to write his own books too.

So? Plenty of artists have moved over to being writers. They've worked as co-plotters and learned what it takes to craft good characters and stories, figured out how to construct dialogue and plot that felt natural, and built enjoyable tales that respected the audience and the genre.

But McFarlane couldn't do that. He didn’t see the need to learn the craft. As he put it in this issue's back page, "he would get comfortable" and not advance from co-plotting to writing. He was sick of drawing what someone else told him to draw. He wanted to make art that told his story and he wanted to draw whatever came into his head, not slavishly drawing pages of things some other person had written.

He expressed this to management by turning in his notice on Amazing Spider-Man. At least that's what he said he did.

I've seen Todd in person and watched a few of his interviews. He's got the brash swagger typical of a New York native (although he's actually an import from Canada.) He acts sure of himself and a little cocky, if you ask me. It doesn't take much to believe that he demanded a new Spider-Man title all his own.

You don’t have to believe me on this speculation, but just read between the (mostly redundantly repeating themselves and full of run-on sentences) lines from the back page of Spider-Man #1. Jim Salicrup’s parentheticals only add to what feels like a growing discontent between Marvel and McFarlane.

But Marvel corporate and editor Jim Salicrup weren't stupid. The prospect of losing Todd to DC had little appeal and there were plenty of benefits to be reaped if they created a new title for Todd to "work his magic on." They laid the idea at Marvel marketing's feet and the next thing you know we had seven different variants of Spider-Man #1 headed down the distributing channel. This included some polybagged issues that would never be opened by anyone for fear of decreasing the issue’s “value.”

Two and a half million copies of Spider-Man #1 were sold to retail shops. At the time, it was the most any one issue had sold in the history of comics. And most of those were bought, boarded, bagged or slabbed in anticipation of one day reaping a huge reward.

That day will never, ever come.

Too many in circulation on a book that, as we are about to see, is mediocre at best and howlingly bad at worst. I suppose I should talk about the actual issue at this point. Let's do this...

If someone ever writes a book on how NOT to open a comic book story, this will be their first point: Don’t open on a cityscape and spend a page talking about the setting. Nothing says “I’m going to bore you for a page” like describing the setting right out of the gate. That’s why “It was a dark and stormy night…” is always used as a horrible way to begin a story.

Reach out and grab your reader. Like this:

His name – Todd McFarlane!

His penciling skill – Extrodinary!

His writing – Sparce!

My interest – NON-EXISTENT!

Okay, so going in for my first read of these in many years, this first shot of Spider-Man and the oddly simple text boxes seem a precursor of things to come. Note that this page isn’t all that bad. It even makes the prior page almost forgivable. But where Todd takes this…well, let’s continue on.

We get a full page of a violent purse-snatching in progress and something seems a bit off. First, this is way more graphic than prior Spider-titles would be. Parker would typically swing in BEFORE innocent victims got smacked around too bad. The bruising points to this being the “Dark Knight” flavor of comics, which flies in the face of the tone set on the page prior.

This consistent tone issue is something that comes up a bunch in the book. Is Todd making something violent and adult or is this a bright and happy book where we can describe Spider-Man in one word adjectives without any navel-gazing?

Next page we have what looks like our answer as the fun and quip-filled Spidey appears looking darker than Batman on a bad night and stealing lines from a Clint Eastwood movie.

For his efforts, Parker gets shot at. He dodges all of them, of course.

We turn the page and tone shift. Parker is now bright and funny again. The book is an amusement park ride that doesn’t know if it is a rollercoaster or a carousel.  

The we get two pages introducing the villains of this arc: a shadowy mystical druid-like figure who appears be controlling…

….a Much scarier version of the Lizard, who for this issue is drawn without his tail for many of the panels. 

Note a couple of things here: First the repetition of the “Doom” sound effect, which is supposed to represent tribal drumming AND to foreshadow the downfall of the hero in this story. If this had been used sparingly, it might have succeeded. Instead, over the five issue span of this story, the word "Doom" is printed more times than it is in the entire run of the Fantastic Four. It pre-dated Gir from Invader Zim by decades, but still when I read this issue I feel that same frustration that Zim must have felt in that first episode.
The overuse of the onomatopoeia creates the opposite effect than the one McFarlane is hoping for, turning dread into absurd comedy.

The book becomes: turn page, shift tone. We move to the next page of Mary Jane, who serves little purpose other than looking pretty and adoring Peter, and Peter Parker on the couch together. Peter is going on in a very…odd manner.

Todd’s Parker is full of himself.

VERY full of himself. Whereas Peter Parker has always doubted his abilities and had moments of crisis where he downplayed his heroic successes, here we have a Parker who touts them openly like they were no big deal. Todd’s Parker channels a bit of Todd in this, the hero too big to fail, the artist too popular NOT to do well.

I don’t like it. Parker to me is a bundle of self-doubt. In fact, much of his light-hearted banter while fighting criminals has always felt like a nervous tick to me. That he isn’t cocky or self-assured, he’s worried about screwing up. He bears the weight of the world on his shoulders and his banter distracts not only the crooks from whatever villainy they are plotting but also himself from his fear of screwing up again and someone he loves paying the price. Maybe my Spider-Man is too neurotic, but I think I channel his vibe pretty spot-on through Stan’s time on the title.

McFarlane doesn’t write him that way. Parker gloats with a curled lip about how that crook didn’t stand a chance instead of being grateful that today he didn’t mess up.

And MJ says how cute he is because she is window-dressing.

Turn page – shift back to dark and gritty as the Lizard eats a rat…

…then to break the formula we shift on the next page facing that one to MJ tickling Peter because he is acting like an arrogant prick. I HATE McFarland’s Spider-Man. The character, I mean. How hard is it to understand who this character is?

Turn page and Lizard (wait, there IS a tail in this panel) eats some thieves. 

Before ripping them to shreds, of course (Note: No tail here, but look at lizzy’s sexy buttcheeks.). Now try to get Gir’s Doom song out of your head…

The book is by far the bloodiest Spider-Man has ever been, and hindsight lends the thought that what Todd really wanted to write came out a year or so later as his Spawn comic. This book had all the violence that book had, but with a hero who had to restrain himself, even if the villains didn’t. 

He was writing Spider-Man as a horror title and turning his villains into dark and monstrous versions of themselves to fit the stories he came up with. The problem with all of this is that Spider-Man doesn’t really work as horror, even if you turn the main character into a brash, self-assured mirror of himself.

There is a good reason this was kept “out of continuity” too. None of these stories mattered. Not to the Spider-verse ongoing at the time. They didn’t change Parker or his cast of characters. Todd could have killed Aunt May and no one writing the other monthly Spider-titles would have batted an eye. This was his sandbox and it is easy to see why. Whatever he screwed up here could be ignored and still Marvel reaped the sales revenue.

Spider-Man swings around for two pages and thinks about how great he is.

The Lizard (no tail again) kills ANOTHER PERSON. This is the page before the last page too.

At this moment, someone in editorial wakes up and goes to Todd and says there isn’t a single page with Spider-Man and the Lizard together. So Todd, being Todd, does this on the very last page.

It took five issues for this to unfold and I’d be lying if I said I knew when they actually fought each other. I'm not sure if they even met before issue three. Whenever it was, it seems like it took far too long to get there.

So, there you have it.

I bought this. And the issues that followed. Right up until Todd left the book and Marvel for "greener pastures." I hated every issue. The stories had no arcs, the characters were unappealing and there didn't seem to be much for the actual heroes to do but pose. Never once did I feel I got to know Spider-Man or his cast of reoccurring friends and enemies better. I never found myself truly invested in the outcome of any single issue or storyline.

I used to be very angry about these books, but time his mellowed that. McFarlane was one of the artists I "collected." Looked up to! Proselytized others to convert them to the cult of McFarlane. I went back to the bins and pulled out issues when I could find them of his prior works. I was an infrequent buyer of Amazing until he showed up, thinking Spider-Man was too popular, much like Batman. But his art brought me back and made me believe in collecting Spider-Man again. His art style with all its quirks and intricate hidden Felix the Cats and Spider logos spoke to me. It changed how many of us viewed panel layouts and splash pages and action sequences.

The McFarlane (non-Amazing) Spider-Man series severed that love. For all the reasons above, I felt betrayed as a fan and that the characters in the Spider-Man saga had been maligned. This new series promised us the McFarlane art and a good Spider-Man story, but it didn’t deliver.

They were pretty but meaningless.

And if you don't believe me, you only have to browse a few discount bins to find out for yourself. You’ll find plenty issue number 1’s out there. Guaranteed.