Friday, February 27, 2009

You Never forget Your First Time

Ah, yes...the thrill of the unknown, the anticipation, the heady scent of conifers, the freezing temperatures, the spandex, the crowds...Sure, I could have performed better. And with practice I knew I would, but I'd like to think that my host was satisfied nonetheless. Yes, my inaugural Spider-Man appearance will always hold a special place in my heart.

To those outside the comic-book cognescenti, the significance of Rutland, Vermont,on All Hallow's Eve would be lost. But not me. The Halloween parade in Rutland Vermont was an event that often cropped up as a backdrop in Marvel and DC comics in the 70s, particularly The Avengers, which was my favorite title. I distinctly remember one storyline, wherein the Collector lured the team to Rutland as special guests of the parade. The Collector was a cosmic accumulator of galactic gew-gaws that would make the Collyer Brothers envious; a geek of universal proportions who decided that collecting superhero action figures was not good enough for him. Oh, no, he'd collect the actual superheroes themselves, in this case the Avengers. The team's host at the event was named Tom Fagan, who appeared to greet the team in a Nighthawk costume—Nighthawk being a lesser known member of another Marvel team, the Defenders. Of course, the Collector’s machinations were exposed, pandemonium ensued and our heroes emerged triumphant, all in the course of 22 pages. Granted, only a comic book geek would see the significance and, as one, I was thrilled. Adding to the thrill of appearing as Spider-Man at such an historic comic event, was the fact that my host was Tom Fagan! The geek inside me was convulsing; I needed a cigarette...and I didn't smoke.

To my disappointment, it was not Tom who met me at the airport upon my debarkation. As I entered the terminal and scanned the awaiting crowd, I was at a loss. My only visual reference to Tom was the illustration in the Avengers comic, and he was clad in a costume throughout the few panels in which he appeared. Besides, Tom wasn't picking me up anyway, but I had not been informed of that fact. My only hope was to wait until everyone had disembarked and paired up with the person or persons expecting them, and hope that whoever was left was there for me. Then I noticed a comic book peeking out from under a woman’s arm, partially covered by a black poncho. She was short—even with the three-inch pumps she was wearing—and clad in black, with stockings and a short skirt. Her makeup looked like it was applied by a mortician, but it worked with her dyed, red hair. Trepidatiously, I approached. The odds were in my favor—who else would be holding a Spider-Man comic book?—but if my assumptions were incorrect, it could get ugly. Fortunately, she was indeed waiting for me. Her name was Karen and she would be my chauffeur, driving me to my hotel and later to the parade.

Our conversation to the motel brought up an important concern. Seeing as it was close to 0˚ out and was expected to drop below that at sunset, how was I going to keep myself warm? Good question, one neither I, nor my Marvel contact took into consideration, although certainly an obvious one. I mean, it was an outdoor parade on Halloween night in Vermont and I was going to wear nothing but spandex and undies. DUH! Karen proved the savior, running to the local K-Mart and buying me thermal underwear, a size smaller than I would normally wear, because I didn’t want the fabric to bunch up and create lumps on the character. Before leaving me at the hotel, Karen revealed that she would be dressed as The Black Widow on my float with Tom, whose costume choice was a secret. Natasha Romanov, aka The Black Widow, was a Russian ballerina and Soviet spy, who first appeared as a foil for Iron Man in Tales of Suspense #52 in 1964, but had long ago renounced her heritage to join the good guys, occasionally joining forces with the Avengers. Her costume at the time was a sexy black body suit with black boots and thick gold bracelets from which she shot her "widow sting." Karen's heavy-handed makeup application and Ronald McDonald-inspired hair color notwithstanding, a Black Widow skintight outfit could be interesting...

It wasn't until Karen picked me up that evening for the parade that I considered the Widow's original costume as an option. The original suit, which inspired Karen's outfit, was something of a licorice-allsorts with a masquerade mask, short cape and fishnet stockings. It might have worked in sepia tone—seeming more at home in grandpa's vintage porn collection—but in the comics was presented in a grayish purple hue, looking more disturbing than sexy. More surprising was the half-liter bottle of Absolut Karen pulled from under her cape. Shouldn’t it have been Stolichnaya? Anyway, I would normally never partake of alcoholic beverages when working and never did on any Spider-Man gigs thereafter, but it was 10˚ below zero. Two swigs later, I was warm enough and my nerves comforted enough for me to swing into action.

We quickly made it to the float on which I was to ride. There, I finally met the elusive Tom Fagan...kinda. A portly man in a homemade Batman costume greeted me and introduced himself as Tom. I didn’t have more than a moment to contemplate the bizarre tableau atop the flatbed, which I was a key component of, before it lurched forward without warning as the parade began. The streets along the parade route were lined with townspeople in all manner of ghoulish garb. They cheered my float unaware of the odd juxtaposition of characters, not to mention the odd shapes of the so-called superheroes, on the flatbed. I mean, I shared my float with Batman—a rare inter-company crossover with rival DC’s famous superhero—and The Black Widow, a lesser-known Marvel character, no relation to Spidey, each from the same phylum in name alone. There was also a woman on board wearing a cardboard box, painted to look like a chimney from mid-chest down to her feet. Her head was covered by a black, velvet-like hat, adorned with flowers. To this day, I haven’t figured out what she was trying to be.

Yet, the Rutlanders cared not. Neither did I. I was too busy, leaping from side to side, striking poses; waving at my adoring public; and occasionally shaking the hand of those youngsters, atop their father’s shoulders, whose brave dads dared break the invisible barrier along the sides of the street. The parade revelers were a blur to me, not so much from the visual limitations of the costume as from the high of the endorphins pumping through my body from excitement. My movements belay the evening’s subzero temperature. The flannel underwear helped but was hardly enough to do more than keep me from getting frostbitten. And it was cold. Meat-locker cold. All-encompassing. The kind that no matter how many layers you don before stepping out into it, the best you can hope for is to be simply cold, but not shivering. Still, my concentrated efforts at being Spider-Man and the adoration of the townspeople distracted my noticing.

I don’t remember much about the return flight. It wasn’t until I got home and checked my messages that I discovered that I was on the front page of my hometown paper, The Boston Globe. Having no idea about the photo and seeing my message machine blinking like the dance floor of Studio 54 in its heyday, my heart raced with excitement. Any struggling actor will tell you that coming home to even a single message is like being greeted by the Publisher’s Clearinghouse people. I figured my photo and resumé mailing to casting agencies was paying off dividends, the naïve thoughts of a one-month-old New Yorker blissfully ignorant of the realities of getting acting work. Nothing like family to sober someone up in seconds. There were calls from my mother, my sisters, my father and friends, all informing me of my front-page photo in The Globe. It was exciting, but an excitement that soon turned bittersweet when I realized that there were not going to be any other calls but.

Later that week I dropped off the suit and collected my check, unaware that my moment as Spider-Man would grow into a ten-year career of adventures.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Heroes for Hire

At the time of my first appearance in 1986, the only characters available for personal appearances were Spider-Man, Captain America, The Incredible Hulk, Dr. Doom, Green Goblin, Firestar, Iceman and Spider-Woman. The latter three heroes aren’t exactly setting the world afire with their notoriety today, and what little repute they had garnered which led to Marvel's creating costumes for the characters was lost by 1986.

Firestar and Iceman had earned a place in the pantheon of Marvel's Personal Appearance Program by virtue of their co-starring with Spider-Man in the 1981 Saturday-morning cartoon Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, running a respectable three years to 1983, with an additional two years of repeats thereafter. Created in 1963 as a member of the original incarnation of the X-Men, Iceman hadn’t been on the team for more than a decade and was not a part of the new X-Men, which featured arguably the most popular and widely known member at the time, Wolverine. And the revamped iteration of the team—though crazily popular in comicbookdom and despite guest appearances on the aforementioned Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends—had yet to achieve the public renown that eventually led to the 2000 film based on the franchise. Firestar was actually created for the cartoon, but made her comic-book debut quickly thereafter.

Spider-Woman, aka Jessica Drew (no relation to Peter Parker aka Spider-Man), had the ability to shoot venom blasts from her hands and could glide upon the air currents, using a swath of webbing attached to the underarms of her costume. Despite a mildly successful comic series—which ran for 50 issues from 1978 to 1983—and a short lived Saturday-morning cartoon that aired only sixteen episodes from 1979 to 1980, Spider-Woman was all but forgotten by 1986.

You may notice a pattern here: cartoon = live representation of character. But licensing also played an important factor. Some early costumed characters in Marvel's stable included ROM, Spaceknight; Crystar, the Warrior; and Destro; all of which were based on toys from which Marvel licensed comic book adaptations, the former with their own eponymous books and the latter a villain in the G.I. Joe comic and cartoon series.

By the early 90s, the number of available characters had expanded greatly to include Iron Man, Daredevil, Dr. Strange and X-Men members Wolverine, Cyclops and Storm (some of which are shown in this 1991 Marvel Personal Appearance promotional pamphlet above—that's me in the Spider-Man and Iron Man costumes.).

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

It's Alive!!!

Yes . . . finally . . . the years of promising (read: threatening) are over. Actually, my vacillation lo these many years has worked in my favor, as technological advancements have made it virtually idiot-proof (perfect for me) for anyone to tell their story to the masses. Of course, I've now run out of excuses . . .

Thus, with the fear of the unknown (What am I getting myself into?)—best exemplified on the terrified mien of my 5-month-old self in the picture above—I present Heroes In My Closet, a candid look at my ten years as an official Marvel character actor; my adventures in and around the world of comics since; and the more than occassional opinionated observations on whatever happens to excite or annoy me at any given time.