Thursday, July 9, 2009

Survival of the Fittest, Part II

We left our errant hero at a comic-book convention in Edmonton, perched precariously atop a wobbly wastebasket in an unlit, fog-filled vestibule, awaiting his cue to enter from his Spidey sponsor, the delightfully demented Darwin…

With the noise of the fog machine drowning out my cue, I had no idea whether Darwin had heralded my entrance or not. Oddly, I thought of the moment at the end of The Sound of Music when the von Trapps are announced as winners of the music festival, but fail to return to stage: “The family von Trapp . . .”—no response—“The von Trapp family singers…”—murmers arise in the audience.

I counted three Mississippi’s before carefully swinging the door open with my fingertips and taking off, hoping my timing wasn’t too far off the mark. Despite numbness in my ankles from having squatted for so long atop the trash can, my “leap of faith from the lion’s mouth” was a success. The sudden impact of hitting the floor was jarring, but not so much that anyone could notice in the cloud of mist that swirled around me.

There was applause, a hum of oohs and ahs, and a few screams from terrified children, before the floodgates opened and I was inundated with entreaties for autographs and photos. Amid the requests were the usual queries, my rote responses to which I’ve related in previous posts (Hi, Spider-Man, what are you doing in Edmonton? How did you get here? Where are your Web-Shooters?) But it wasn’t long before I received my first taste of the more refined, persnickety interrogation that can only derive from a comic-book geek.

“Hey, ‘Spider-Man,’ The Official Handbook of the Marvel Handbook says you’re supposed to be 5' 9" (At 6' 2", I am noticeably taller),” at which point my smug antagonist would hold up a copy of the referenced magazine open to the Spider-Man entry.

Originally published in 1983, The Official Handbook of the Marvel Handbook was an encyclopedia of everyone and everything within the Marvel Universe, not only all the heroes, villains, sidekicks, supporting cast members, and teams, but also such esoteric items as Wolverine’s claws, Captain America’s shield and of course, Spider-Man’s Web-Shooters. Formatted like a standard comic book, most entries covered a single page—more important characters, such as Spidey and The Fantastic Four received more pages—listing the character’s real name, height, hair and eye color, occupation, affiliates, first appearance, base of operations, etc.; and featuring a brief history and description of the entry’s powers and weapons. A full frontal drawing of the character accompanied each entry as well. It could easily become the bane of my Spider-Man existence if I didn’t nip it in the bud at the outset.

“Oh that! Do you actually think I would subject myself to being measured? Those are merely guess-timates based off the photos you see in the Daily Bugle taken by that Peter Parker guy. Why do you think I’m always crouching? So no one will get an accurate fix on my size, of course. I have a secret identity to uphold. I’m not about to enjoin the Marvel editors in a coffee clutch at the offices to get measured or tell my life history.”

This comeback usually did the trick. It refuted the actual question while at the same time insinuating any other part of the entry as nothing more than a fabrication by a bunch of funny book creators out to make a buck off of my reputation. Some of the more insidious fans, the kind that want nothing more than to suck the fun, wonder and enjoyment out of anything that brings pleasure to others, would try to trick me . . .

“Hey, Spidey . . . How’s Mary-Jane?” they would nonchalantly ask, feigning benevolence by asking about the new bride of Peter Parker aka Spider-Man (The two married the year prior).

“Mary-Jane?” I would counter in a questioning tone, but knowing full well what was coming.

“Aha! You’re not Spider-Man. You don’t even know who Mary-Jane is!” They’d aver exultantly, like a hard-boiled detective finally pointing out the killer in a room of suspects after tense-filled minutes of deduction in the final moments of a movie.

“Oh, you mean Mary-Jane Watson-Parker, Peter’s wife,” I’d interrupt, my “I-could-have-had-a-V8” response striking worry in my antagonist. “As far as I know, she’s fine. I really haven’t see the two much since their marriage, what with her acting career, his freelance photo assignments and my crime-fighting.” As the words tumble out of my mouth, the deflation from elation on the mien of my inquisitor as he sees victory trickle through his fingers is a joy to behold. As a final nail in the coffin, I add, “I think Parker was supposed to be here covering the event, but I haven’t seen him.”

Had I answered, “She’s fine,” or similarly, my attacker would have gloated “Aha! So you are Peter Parker!” which is inane (Is he exposing me as being a fictional character?!!). If Spider-Man was truly real, his identity would be secret. Any theories on his identity would be speculation, and he would answer as I did. If you think about the whole conundrum of my being the genuine article, but not the real article because there is no such person, it becomes as heady as trying to make sense of time travel in movies (I have come from the future to change the past, thus negating my existence, which would prevent me from coming to the past to save the future . . . Ahhhhhhhhhhhh!). By incorporating bits of then current Spider-Man minutiae in my rebuttal, not only did I respond as the comics’ Spider-Man would have, but I also displayed my deep knowledge of the character, serving as a warning that any further attempts at humiliation would be foolish. Occasionally, I’d relieve my interrogator the humiliation by pausing only an instant— not allowing them the opportunity to crow—before delivering my stock reply. But most times I let ’em have it.

These lame attempts to “defrock” me would arise at every comic book convention at which I appeared. It was pathetic, but I kept my eye-rolling concealed under the mask and concentrated my time on the fans who were there to enjoy the experience, not try to sully it. This inaugural show appearance did present probably my most bizarre query from a fan. Fortunately for the questioner it came during a lull, so the only witnesses were the few retailers manning their booths in the area of the show where I was confronted.

“Spider-Man . . . Remember the old cartoon of yours in the 60s? . . . You know how they’d show you swinging high above the building-tops? . . . I mean the skyscrapers are underneath you . . . So what were you swinging from? . . .”

The actual question came after a litany of aspects of the cartoon, from which I decided to save you, as if the young questioner—he seemed to be in his upper teens to low 20s—wanted to make sure I knew precisely what he was talking about, so I could answer accordingly. His tone didn’t suggest he was setting me up. Rather surprisingly, he sounded as if he really wanted to know.

Perhaps I’d reached my saturation point with the geek abuse. Or maybe the inanity of the query irked me. But I put my arm around the fan’s shoulder, drawing him in close before softly saying, “I hate to break this to you . . . but that was a cartoon . . .” Evidently my reply was not so soft that the retailers couldn’t hear as a roar of laughter erupted around us. My inquisitor’s expression was a combination of confusion and disappointment. He actually started to repeat the question as if I hadn’t understood it the first time. I saved him the trouble and explained to him that I never understood the cartoon either (Obviously I need to swing from something; I can’t rightly snag passing clouds). My reply seemed to assuage him. In fact, he seemed relieved and happy, as if a dark cloud of confusion that had been hanging over him all the years since he first watched the cartoon as a child had been lifted.

At the first opportunity I bounded over to where Lee and McFarlane were signing. A large crowd enveloped McFarlane’s table when I approached, but all I needed was a slight aperture to angle myself through and once people realized who it was, they dutifully parted as if I’d just uttered “Open sesame.” McFarlane hadn’t noticed; his head was down as he autographed a lucky attendee’s comic. Before he could raise his head I vaulted onto the table, landing inches from him. He sprung back in surprise, but his shocked look was quickly replaced with a big smile. I told him how pleased I was that he was going to be drawing my adventures. He graciously thank me, then commented on how cool it must be to play Spider-Man.

“Being the idol of millions may seem cool to you,” I answered. “But it’s a tremendous responsibility protecting the world from the likes of Doctor Octopus and the Green Goblin.”

He chuckled. “That’s a great costume . . . where’d you get it,” he continued.

“Well, when I first attained my powers and decided to use them to fight crime, I made it. I couldn’t very well commission its construction, not if I wanted to keep my identity a secret.”

At first, I’m not certain whether he knew I was an official Spider-Man or just a local in an extremely well-made costume. Or maybe he simply thought I would answer him out of character, since he wasn’t just another fan asking the questions. But he finally realized that he wasn’t going to get a straight answer while he queried me in front of others, so desisted. One generous volunteer—it may have been an attendee—took a picture of us with their Kodak Instamatic camera and gave the shot to me. The photo was later used in my first published written work for Marvel, a short one-page article for the company’s fan magazine, Marvel Age (issue #96), fittingly entitled “My Life As Spider-Man.”

Lee was the consummate gentleman, one of the nicest, warmest and friendliest persons I have ever met. Infinitely talented, but equally as down-to-Earth. He gave art lessons while at his table, using a large white tablet of paper on an easel, amidst endless requests for autographs and sketches. A weaker man would have snapped, but Lee remained as affable and patient during the first interruption as he was during the hundredth. I found myself catching brief respites, perched beside him as I watched him draw. I was mesmerized—what a talent! The approach of a fan wanting my signature would snap me out of my reverie. I’d thank Lee for the generous use of his space, excuse myself, then leap over the table to meet-and-greet the newly arrived Spidey-o-philes.

Amid the handshakes, autographs, picture posing and kibitzing, one subject of local interest frequently arose: The Mall.

“Have you been to the mall, yet?”

“Well, no . . . I’m not much of a mall person,” I’d politely respond, while thinking, How dull is it in Edmonton?

“You know about our mall, don’t you?”

“The subject has been broached.” Yeah, only about a gazillion times. People, it’s a mall!

It turns out the Edmonton Mall is the largest in the world, even bigger than Minnesota’s highly lauded Mall of America, which I also hadn’t been to. To me, malls are human ant farms. My fondest thoughts about these sacred Institutions of Capitalism are the car-chase scene in The Blues Brothers movie in which Duke and Elwood destroy one of these shopping meccas with the help of Chicago’s finest and George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, in which one of the remaining bands of humanity make their final stand in a mall full of zombies, the tableau looking eerily similar to reality.

All malls were essentially the same in my opinion: a sprawl of smaller shops, like Spencer Gifts, Pier 1 Imports, Foot Locker and Claire’s, anchored at each end with flagship department stores, such as Macy’s, Sears and JC Pennys. Carts, selling everything from hair scrunchies to monogrammed baseball caps filled the corridors. And of course a food court with either a McDonald’s or Burger King, a pizza purveyor, a seller of Chinese food—usually named something cute with “Wok” in the title like “Wok This Way”—a hot dog kiosk, and a Cinnabon. The bigger the mall the more shops, greater number of sales carts and more expansive a food court.

The Edmonton Mall had all this and more: a miniature golf (or Put-Put) course; a professional ice rink where the Oilers held their practices; a water park, complete with simulated beach and wave machine; a lake in which an authentic replica of an eighteenth-century Spanish galleon resided; a lagoon which featured a submarine ride; two hotels; and an area with carnival rides, including a rollercoaster—all within the confines of the mall. It was as if Michael Bay had designed the place.

I have to admit I was impressed. But what really excited me was the rollercoaster; I just had to try it. Strangely, whenever I mentioned my desire, my eager mall boosters turned off-put, as if they regretted telling me about their beloved mall. “It’s your funeral,” they’d mumble as they turned away. Even when not quite so dramatic, people agreed I was mentally deficient to want to risk a ride on the Mindbender, as the coaster was called. Finally, I found someone willing to explain to me the reasons for everyone’s odd behavior. A little more than a year prior, the Mindbender leapt its tracks and three people were killed. Since that time the attraction had been shut down for repairs and had only just been reopened. Rather than being dissuaded, I was more excited than ever. The chances of a deadly rollercoaster accident happening are astronomical. The odds of two such tragedies happening consecutively would addle a brainiac. One would have a better shot at twice winning the lottery (Ride the “Death” coaster?!! Are you kidding? I want to be on the first trip after its rechristening!).

Thus, I found myself in line to ride the dreaded Mindbender whilst Darwin and Lola watched in awe. The coaster was relatively small; it was inside after all. But what it lacked in vastness and height it made up for in compact loops, tight turns and speed. Coupled with its interior placement among a bevy of innocuous chain stores—Oh, was that blur an Orange Julius?—It was a unique, exhilarating experience.

The highlight of the weekend was befriending Lee. We would later meet up in Manhattan and shoot some pool during one of his visits. But soon his popularity and schedule grew to the extent that it was hard to keep in touch, never mind actually get together. After he married, he moved to Italy, further complicating the matter. Still, on those rare occasions when we do see each other, regardless of how busy he is, he takes a moment to ask how I am and what I’ve been up to. As luck would have it, our flights from Edmonton coincided, so we waited at the airport together. Lee had a large black portfolio with him and offered me a piece of artwork before he went to his gate. I nearly fainted. Inside the portfolio were dozens of Alpha Flight and Punisher War Journal pages. The savvy choice would have been a selection from the latter. As Punisher was more popular, an original Jim Lee interior page of the character was far more lucrative than one from Lee’s Alpha Flight run. But I hate The Punisher. In my eyes he’s nothing but a gun-toting fanatical murderer, albeit of criminals . . . snore. I like my heroes super and, call me crazy, heroic. Punisher’s ethics are on par with those of murderers of abortion clinic doctors. They perceive the actions of their victims as punishable in their eyes, so killing them seems justifiable and thus not criminal, when of course they are.

As a title spun-off from Uncanny X-Men, Alpha Flight was always off-beat, its members unique. The title’s unusual stories always kept the reader off-kilter, on the edge of their seats. Despite shocking, yet never gratuitous and heartbreaking deaths, the characters persevered as superheroes. By the time Lee took over as regular penciler, few of the original team members remained. Yet, under the guidance of the under-rated, legendary writer Bill Mantlo, the series retained its signature style. I loved the series. When Lee’s run began, I noticed his exciting, detailed storytelling at once and savored every page. Now, I had a chance to own a page?!!

It was a difficult decision and my time was limited; we both had planes to catch. I chose one that was highly emotional and dramatic. Gee, what a surprise from an actor! It features the death of the villainous Purple Man, witnessed by his daughter and Alpha Flight team member, named appropriately enough Purple Girl, and colleague, the creepy Goblyn. They huddle in fear as an enflamed Purple Man staggers toward them. He collapses at their feet, his remains shattering as they hit the floor. A sobbing Purple Girl reaches toward him, safely kept at bay by Goblyn. The final panel pans back to show the two heroes embracing by the smoldering remnants of Purple Girl’s father. The child offers the only words on the page, “He’s gone.”

The page is one of my prized possessions and hangs proudly in my library. As far as Lee pages go, the page offers little; it’s from a lesser title and doesn’t feature any major characters—neither the Purple Girl nor Goblyn have been used much since the first Alpha Flight series ended in the early 90s—but it’s worth in the eyes of comic-book fandom is inconsequential. To me it’s priceless.


John III said...

Good reading as ever. I can see how so many of the interrogators could get on your nerves. As much as I loved comics, I've never been to a comic convention. I don't actively collect anymore, but I did recently complete a fair collection of Batman, G.I. Joe and Iron Man collections I started as a child. I am debating doing Spider-man too. But that would a be a huge undertaking. And Spider-man got weird with their alternate reality thing they did years ago. Didn't the whole series start over again or something?


Vroom! said...

Hi John!

I think they restarted the numbering on Amazing Spider-Man when J. Michael Straczynski took over in the late 90s; then returned to the old numbering when they reached the 500th issue. I believe they did the same thing with 500th issue of Fantastic Four and 600th issue of Thor, the latter coincidentally also written by Straczynski. I lost the passion for collecting soon after leaving Marvel. My collection had become an accumulation and I'd forgotten why I'd started collecting in the first place. I sold off the brunt of my mass o' comics, keeping most of my original collection. They are well-read and wouldn't rate much on the CGC scale, but I love them.

John III said...

Say what? The creator of Babylon 5 took over Marvel?? Hmm.. Well, I loved that series, but really interestng that he took over comics. Who woulda thunk? My collections are well read too, as long as pages are not missing, I don't care. Do you know about Elfquest? The graphic novels were split up into comics by Marvel back in the 80's. I was (and still am to a point) completely hooked on it. It sounds like they are getting close to an animated movie. They've been trying to do one since 1981.

Vroom! said...

Straczynski's done notable stints on the aforementioned Amazing Spider-Man restart, a great revamp/revisioning of Squadron Supreme, a Dr. Strange mini-series and the current Thor run. He is considered one of the hottest comic writers these days.

I am familiar with ElfQuest and started picking up Marvel's colorized rerelease of the series in the 80s, but never stuck with it... just too many other books I was reading at the time and my tastes were focused on traditional superhero stuff—although I loved Mage, Grimjack, Dalgoda, Dynamo Joe, American Flagg, Beanworld, Groo...

John III said...

Groo? Oh wow, that brings back memories. I loved that comic for a short time in my adolesence. I remember my friend and I kind of nervous our parents wouldn't approve of Groo, so we usually hid them. Now that would be a fun series to (re)collect! If you want to read Elfquest again, just go to their main site, Every book ever done is there to read right from the site. Enjoy!