Sunday, December 19, 2010

Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark Redux

Behold the power of Vroom!

Five days after posting my review on Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, in which I lay the brunt of my negative criticism on the musical’s unfathomable second half, the New York Times reports that the show is getting pushed back once again. In a Friday, December 17 article, entitled “Broadway Opening for Spider-Man Delayed Again, This Time to February,” by Patrick Healy… “Reflecting the view of some audience members who have criticized the show on blogs, Twitter and Facebook, Ms. Taymor and the producers have concluded that Act II has storytelling problems that need to be fixed.”

Now, far be for me to accept complete responsibility for Taymor and co.’s wise decision—humility prevents me from doing so—but how could the visionary not take into serious consideration the comments of one who spent a decade portraying the iconic Web-Slinging Idol of Millions?

And since I have her ear, I have a few suggestions for Ms. Taymor and her team as they work toward creating a Spider-Man musical worthy of the character:

  • Stop trying to reinvent the wheel—In a mere handful of pages, Stan Lee created a hero that has become an internationally adored icon for nearly 50 years. Suck it up and accept that fact, instead of thinking you can do it better. Use the incredible talents you displayed in adapting The Lion King to the stage on the Spider-Man mythos. The excellent Act I is a perfect example, and Act II begins promisingly, but then gets sabotaged by your forced re-imagining of the Web-Slinger. Throw out your misplaced ideas and go back to the source material
  • Live theater should be LIVE—No one spent a hundred-plus dollars a ticket to watch what amounts to a bad videogame. Excise the endless projected sequences of Act II and use your formidable skills in creating live action sequences worthy of a comic book hero. That’s what people expect from a live Spider-Man show. For that matter…
  • Develop more web-swinging scenes—They are breathtaking and elevate the show to heights (no pun intended) never before attempted in a Broadway show. Yet, there are none… NONE… in Act II, discounting the pathetic channeling of Mary Poppins by Arachne in a throwaway moment. Plus, not once does Spidey shoot his webbing. Figure out and incorporate that into a new battle royale with the Sinister Six and you’d bang Act II up a notch from Act I and leave the audience standing. Speaking of the Dirty Half-Dozen…
  • Make The Green Goblin and a slightly revised Sinister Six the main antagonists—I hadn’t mentioned Gobby’s Act II return in my review, because he only appeared on screen, a pathetic misuse of your great vision of the character, wonderfully portrayed by Patrick Page. Dump the ill-advised Swiss Miss and have the Goblin return as the leader of the Sinister Six. Currently, Spider-Man’s arch-nemesis and cabal of evildoers prove to be nothing more than illusions conjured up by Arachne. Make ’em real and stage a clever final showdown pitting our intrepid arachnid against the combined forces of evil.
  • Keep Arachne a spiritual manipulator—I like the use of the Arachne mythos as you juxtapose it with Spider-Man’s. But the character loses her integrity when you make her a physical threat. Cut the insulting, campy “shoe” number and make Arachne more of an observer in the same vein as the gods in the classic Ray Harryhausen film, Jason and the Argonauts. Spidey’s ultimate triumph can also serve to finally teach Arachne humility after thousands of years in limbo and her attempt at regaining a mortal foothold through Peter Parker. This result would further elevate the Web-Slinger as hero.

I want nothing more than for Ms. Taymor and co. to succeed. After all, there is nothing more heroic than turning seeming defeat into triumph.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark

The Wondrous Audrey surprised me with tickets to Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark for my birthday a few days ago. For those of you who need to get out more—although in all fairness, anyone living outside of New York City may not be as inundated with the latest Broadway show news as those in and around the Big Apple—Turn Off the Dark is the name of the Spider-Man musical that is supposed to open on January 11. I say “supposed to,” because continuing problems have plagued the show since work began on it six years ago.

At that time, the news of a Spidey musical was accompanied with the exciting dual announcements of the show’s director—Julie Taymor—and composers—U2’s Bono and The Edge. I was dubious. To me, the too-good-to-be-true news sounded more like the stage equivalent of Ishtar, the infamous Hollywood flop that began with such high hopes for success due to its A-list of ingredients, not the least of which was the first-time pairing of mega-stars—at the time—Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman. Plus, although a fan of U2, neither Bono nor The Edge had ever written a musical score before. But their songs have always been dramatic, so I was hopeful.

A scene from Ishtar (l. to r. Dustin Hoffman, Joe Camel, Warren Beatty)

A half-dozen years and 65 million dollars later the show continues to jump hurdles and dodge bullets, including financial woes, delayed openings, seriously injured actors—most recently Natalie Mendoza, who plays the villain Arachne, suffering a concussion last week—and dreadful reviews. Still, I was excited to see it, though my feelings were tempered with trepidation.

So was it as bad as reported?

Yes and no.

The lobby leading into the theater

SPOILER WARNING: The following review goes into depth about the musical, its plot, staging, characters and outcome. You have been duly advised.

The theater was packed, so the negative feedback certainly wasn’t turning people away. More likely, the opposite. No one wants to see the results of a terrific automobile accident, either, but everyone slows to get a view of the carnage as they putter by, gasping in horror as they do so.

Hey, down in front!

A red scrim with a giant illustration of a swinging Spider-Man, shooting his webbing and a stylized representation of the Brooklyn Bridge emerging along with his signature sticky fluid, hung before the stage. Of course, Spidey-o-files know it was the George Washington Bridge from which the Web-Swinger’s original paramour, Gwen Stacy, was hurled to her death, but I understand the use of the more iconic Brooklyn landmark. On either side of the scrim blue neon webbing angles up and outward from floor to ceiling, making the musical’s canvas encompass the entirety of the audience’s view and suggests that the entire theater is the web on which the tale will be woven (But would that make the audience members helpless victims?).

Store items ranged from T-shirts to throws

Show producer Michael Cohl, who was brought in to save the show when money issues threatened to close it a year ago, walked out before curtains rise to offer a safety precaution to the audience to basically not touch the actors at any time during the performance. Though he furthered by stating the announcement was mandated by whatever theater overseers were responsible for such, it sounded more like an apology for the show before it had even begun.

Director Taymor wisely teases the audience with a cameo of Spidey from the start

The scrim rises and the show opens with the fateful moment in Spider-Man lore—as depicted in the first movie—where his love Mary-Jane dangles from a bridge, the victim of the Green Goblin. His race to rescue her before she falls to her doom is cut short, however, by the entrance of quartet of teens discussing their plans to write the ultimate Spider-Man story, leading the audience to believe that the scene had sprung from the imagination of the youths. Their intrusion accompanies the drop of another scrim, the bottom half of which is festooned with a mélange of illustrations in the mode of original Spidey artist, Steve Ditko, plastered in a slapdash fashion.

The program lists the group—three boys and a girl—as the “Geek Chorus,” a cute pun and sly nod to the theatrical convention of a Greek Chorus first utilized in the plays of the ancient Greeks. The Greek Chorus served as onstage commentators, offering insight and exposition as a means of furthering the plot in a quick and concise manner. Taymor’s usage of the device is the first hint that she intends her production to echo the heroic epics of the ancients with all their over-the-top bells and whistles. And if her means of doing so proves too subtle, she rams the point home with the introduction of Arachne, the controversial character Taymor created for the show.

Famed French artist Gustave Doré's illlustration of Arachne

Arachne’s entrance is triggered when the girl corrects the boys’ assertions that Peter Parker was the first to have arachnid powers by elucidating them on the character of Greco-Roman mythology. Arachne was a skilled weaver who boasted that her skills were better than Athena’s, without acknowledging that her talents came in part from the goddess. When Arachne bested Athena in producing a tapestry, the mortal was transformed into a spider.

I was by no means harrumphing the appearance of Arachne. I learned to keep an open mind over the years about various iterations of beloved characters and their histories. Remaining a steadfast Sheldon will only bring disappointment, frustration and anger. Taymor’s Arachne offered a different idea on Spider-Man’s origin, implying that not just anyone could have attained arachnid powers from the bite of that irradiated spider. Peter Parker was fated to do so, chosen by Arachne as the vehicle to bring her powers into the modern world.

Despite this twee photo, Green Goblin was well-played and one of the few high points of the show

From this deviation the musical continues into more familiar territory: class genius Parker bullied; bitten by aforementioned spider during field trip; using new-found powers for personal gain, resulting in death of uncle; turning to crime-fighting; inadvertently causing the birth of the Green Goblin; which in turn leads to abduction of Mary-Jane; her rescue; and the Goblin’s demise.

All before intermission!

Taymor achieves this by condensing certain story elements and hurrying through others to both satisfying and frustrating effect. Of the former is her clever mash-up of Spider-Man’s and the Green Goblin’s origins. She introduces Norman Osborn—he who shall become Gobby—as the scientist in charge of the lab, which Parker’s class visits. Osborn is a geneticist who believes the key to mankind’s future is genetic engineering, splicing DNA and manipulating code from other animal species to give humans enhanced abilities for survival, such as being able to breathe underwater. It is his experiment with spiders that results in Parker’s fateful bite.

Osborn’s lab

Later, when Osborn hears of Spider-Man’s exploits, he believes the Wall-Crawler is the work of former employees who stole his secrets when they defected. In an effort to keep pace with the perceived competition, he prematurely undergoes a process on himself, which turns him into The Goblin.

Conversely, the pivotal moment in Spider-Man’s origin, the one element that defines him, that brought the character to the realization that “with great power must come great responsibility,” his entire raison d’être, that defining event Taymor decides to gloss over. In a hurried throwaway sequence that one would miss by blinking, Parker responds “not my problem,” when he hears the cries of someone asking assistance to stop a thief from stealing Flash Thompson’s car. Uncle Ben takes up the call and is run down by the thief. The staging and telling is a jumbled mess that someone with ADD would have trouble following.

In the original the culprit is robbing the gate receipts of the wrestling match at which a hooded Parker wins $1000 soon after gaining his arachnid abilities when he decides to use them for personal gain. That same evening the criminal kills Uncle Ben while robbing Parker’s home. The result may be the same, but the poignancy of the original far exceeds Taymor’s bastardization of the moment.

Spidey on the bridge is a recurring motif

And I understand the need for change when adapting one form of art to another. Each dictates different approaches and each has its pluses and minuses. So true with theater, especially when adapting a character with nigh forty years of stories over a half dozen or so titles; a live-action TV series and several cartoon series; and a successful movie franchise with a reboot on the way; not to mention appearances in song and guest spots in various forms, such as on The Electric Company. A Broadway production is a single entity. There are no sequels with the rare exception of the recently opened Phantom of the Opera show, Love Never Dies. The whole of the subject must be encapsulated in roughly two hours through a combination of words, music and theatrics. What is kept and how it is presented are the keys to the efficacy and success of an adaptation.

Taymor’s decision to give short shrift to Uncle Ben’s death, yet spend prolonged stage time on the establishment of Arachne—her creation—showed how much the director didn’t understand or didn’t care about the Spider-Man character. It is not the arachnid powers that define the character, but how he decides to use them, devoting his life to the mantra, “With great power, must come great responsibility.” Taymor does not ignore this concept, but her predilection for theatrics and her obsession with Arachne all but erases its importance in the show.

As this and other sequences in the musical are splattered in front of the audience, all I kept thinking was, “I’m sorry, Julie, if the story is getting in the way of your special effects.” This concentration of substance over story also makes the play disjointed, scenes don’t transition as much as pop up out of the blue. The result is much like a music video.

Be afraid... Be very Afraid...
Don’t misunderstand me. A lot of the theatrics are unbelievably amazing. The sequence introducing Arachne is stunning and mind-boggling in its intricacy. A half dozen or so women, clad as ancient Greek sculptures in flowing gowns, sit upon swings from the fly system, held at the apex of their upstage arc as the scrim arises. The tethers of the playground amusements are wide swaths of golden fabric. As soon as the curtain is up, each swing in the odd numbered position—one being the first on the far audience right, along with numbers three, five, etc. until the final position far audience left—is released in unison. The even-numbered swings are let go at the exact moment the odds reach their apex over the orchestra downstage, so the arcs oscillate in equal opposition. These “muses” relate the myth of Arachne as they swing.

As each arc reaches its height, a length of similarly-hued cloth stretching horizontally the entirety of the stage shoots upward betwixt the storytellers, in effect weaving with the tethers. With each swing, the arc grows smaller and the chance of a mishap increases. Upon the tale’s completion, the swinging had stopped and a giant tapestry hung over the stage. The choreography is ingenius in its symmetry with the myth, and makes what could have been a dry expository sequence, a thrilling event.

Look! Up in the sky...!

And the musical hadn’t even started with the Spider-Man web-slinging moments, yet. Words cannot do justice to the awe in witnessing Spidey in action LIVE; not a video nor special effect. And not merely up and down over the stage à la Mary Martin in Peter Pan. The character swoops over the audience from stage to the theater’s furthest reaches—the loge, upper and side balconies—landing in the aisles, then taking off again in an instant. Witnessing it was akin to the feeling of hurtling down the initial hill of a rollercoaster, a feeling I relive every time a think about it, even now as I write these words. The mind boggles at the hours the actors and technical crew had to go through in order to perfect these high-flying maneuvers. And thankfully, the night I experienced the musical, they were nigh-flawless, barring nearly imperceptible moments where the actor momentarily had to adjust his grip on the wire. But the minor fumbling with the rigging were purely cosmetic, the hand placement needed to illustrate Spider-Man’s seeming usage of his webbing.

The battle with the Green Goblin above the audience, the finale to Act I, is a tour-de-force. I needed stitches on my chin by intermission, my jaw had hit the floor so often.

And there were some wonderful grounded scenes as well, moments that showed that Taymor can create magic with out a cacophony of razzle dazzle. During one of the show’s most moving songs, “No More,” Parker’s life is cleverly juxtaposed with Mary-Jane’s and gracefully illustrates the idea that no one’s life is paradise. Outside his home, Parker is considered a loser, the brilliance that makes him special, only serves to ostracize him from his peers. Yet, his home life is filled with love and attention by his Aunt May and Uncle Ben. Meanwhile, MJ’s beauty and popularity at school, lay in stark contrast to her broken home life. Abused and beaten by an alcoholic single-parent father, she, too, feels the pangs of isolation. Taymor’s staging of the duet, which is not a duet, is restrained, wisely allowing the music and the emotions therein to shine.

Speaking of the music, Bono and The Edge did a exemplary job. I feared their adapting to the theater would result in a watered down rendering of their talents, in essence, a muzak version of U2. I needn’t have worried. The songwriting pair retained their integrity and concocted a score that is as thrilling and deep as the play’s subject matter.

Reeve Carney (Peter Parker) and Jennifer Damiano (Mary-Jane)... Their good performances could not be undermined by Taymors theatrics

Reeve Carney’s Peter Parker and Jennifer Damiano’s MJ were good. I found the couple of songs they sang together to be my favorite of the show. Patrick Page’s Norman Osborn/Green Goblin was a fantastic interpretation of the character; twisted, snarky, evil and ultimately enjoyable. Unfortunately, anyone playing J. Jonah Jameson has to compete with J. K. Simmons’s definitive portrayal of the character in the Sam Raimi films, and Michael Mulheren just cannot compete. But all the actors are under-minded by Taymor’s flash. Apparently, it isn’t just plot that Julie doesn’t have time for.

By intermission I was thinking, “This show is going to make a mint.” Sure, there were problems in scene transition and storytelling, and the characters could use more development, but with some tweaking and tightening, the musical could be something great.

But I also fearfully wondered, with the Goblin’s demise, where would the show go next? A peek at the program revealed that Spider-Man foes, the Sinister Six, were due to appear. Cool, I thought. What else could top the exciting mano-a-mano ending to Act I, but a battle royale pitting Spidey against a cadre of foes?

I should not have gotten my hopes up. The second half of the musical is a wreck, descending into camp and collapsing under Taymor’s self-obsession with spectacle and ego.

It begins logically enough with Parker’s secret world of crime-fighting destroying his life, most notably his relationship with Mary-Jane. In a scene taken directly from the seminal story in Amazing Spider-Man #50 by writer Stan Lee and artist John Romita, including an homage to that classic issue’s final splash, Parker quits being Spider-Man, going so far as throwing his webbed togs in a trash can.

Spider-Man’s absence from the streets sparks a crime wave. It also pisses off Arachne who does not wish her spider powers to once again fall into obscurity. In an overwrought masterbatory sequence, she haunts Parker’s dreams. When that doesn’t stir the arachnid out of him, she assumes a more corporeal form and unleashes the Sinister Six—a team of super-baddies composed of villains Spider-man had defeated in the past—to wreak havoc on the city.

And steal shoes!

I kid you not. In a scene that would make the 60’s Batman TV show seem like high art, Arachne sings “Think Again,”—referring to the villain’s feelings toward Parker’s decision to hang up his webs—while her hench-women fit the stolen shoes onto her legs.

There’s no business like shoe business

The song also triggers the Sinister Six, which are introduced via runway, like a fashion show. Apparently the I-am-not-only-a-female-but-one-with-many-feet-so-you-bet-your-ass-I’m-going-to-use-my-evil-powers-to-steal-footwear scene wasn’t ludicrous enough for Taymor. Her heinous half-dozen’s coming out party features each traipsing downstage, like a twisted Victoria’s Secret show. As they reach the ramps end, they terrorize and kill civilians, represented by—you guessed it—more puppets as an artistic means of conveying how nasty they are and to show that mankind is nothing but puppets controlled by Arachne and her lackeys.

The original group, which made its debut in Spider-Man’s first annual in the mid-sixties, included Dr. Octopus, Shocker, Vulture, Sandman, Mysterio and Kraven the Hunter. Over the ensuing years, the nefarious cabal would return in various iterations. Only Shocker and Kraven the Hunter remain in the musical’s evil assemblage. Joining them are Carnage, The Lizard, Swarm and another Taymor original, Swiss Miss.

The actual make-up of the group is inconsequential. Unlike Green Goblin, their personal histories are not integral to Spidey’s own. They merely represent evil run amok, so any villains would do, and Taymor selects those with which she feels she can get the most visual bang for her buck. Kraven and The Lizard allow the director to get back to her puppetry roots—so effectively utilized in The Lion King—with the former’s leonine vest assuming the illusion of a growling lion whenever he rears back in exultation and the latter’s reptilian alter ego literally bursting from Dr. Curt Connors’s lab coat in the shape of an inflatable lizard. Sparks fly from the Shocker’s body while Swarm and Carnage are notable only in the inanimate nature of their costumes. Each has unmoving tendrils swirling off them—Swarm’s represent bees, Carnage’s emulate the living symbiote of which his suit is composed.

Grace Jones meets Blue Thunder

My WTF moment in seeing “Swiss Miss” in the cast as a member of the Six was furthered by her appearance. She looked like the progeny of Grace Jones and a helicopter, a towering silver-clad Amazon with spinning blades as appendages. Upon hearing her name, all I could think of was the Heidi-esque spokespuppet for the hot chocolate mix. In fact, any mention of her moniker had me expecting the subsequent singsong “with mini marshmallows” from the vintage commercials. It wasn’t until the next day, that I realized that Taymor was playing upon a Swiss Army Knife with the creation of Swiss Miss.

Sorry, Julie. Not clever; just dumb.

Arachne also sends the city into darkness, a massive blackout whence the show’s title comes. Turning off the darkness means the return or triumph of light or, if I must spell it out to you, the triumph of good over evil. Ooh, how poetic, Julie!

It is at this point that the show transforms into a giant videogame. Towering screens, split like the pickets of a fence hang from the stage, on which the Sinister Six pose in a flurry of optical wizardry. Carnage's costume swirls and coalesces around him; Swarm disassembles into the flying apian wave whence his name derives; Shocker shoots sparks; blah, blah, blah… ad nauseam. Even when Spider-Man finally returns, the defeat of the Six comes onscreen, and not even in a battle montage with our hero. Each villain blows up into a kaleidoscope of pixels. It may sound exciting, but it was nothing more than one would see at any booth at the Consumer Electronics Show or any news report on the annual event.

Hey, Julie! There’s a reason why I go to LIVE theater. If I wanted to see a monster-sized video, I’d go to an Imax movie—and spend a lot less, too! What? Did you finally run out of ideas? Go to the puppet well once too often? Was 65 million not enough?!!

At an average of $40 per T-shirt, the show needs to sell 1,625,000 just to break even

To exacerbate the inanity of the onstage hijinks in the second half, Arachne inexplicably surrenders. Or rather, if there is a reason, it was unfathomable. She descends beneath the stage, Spider-Man poses in triumph and…

end of show.

There isn’t even a complimentary swing-by over the audience. In fact, Spider-Man doesn’t swing at all in the second half. There is no aerial battle royale. He doesn’t even take to the skies after he takes up the arachnid mantle once again. Arachne flies a bit, but quite honestly, Mary Poppins’s flight in her eponymous musical was much more exciting.

The second half of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark destroys any positives in the first half, replacing its wonder and thrill with bitter disappointment. Julie Taymor’s uncompromising love for style over substance is a good case for creativity needing restraint. Like her character Arachne, Taymor suffers from the tragic flaw of hubris. She would have done well to pay closer heed to the character placed in her hands and the motto he lives by: With great power must come great responsibility.

Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark gets a regrettable one spider.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Going for the Gold

1988 U.S. Olympic swimmer Janet Evans displays one of her three gold medals

With the advent of the 1988 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade came another request for my services. Once again I was asked to don the red-and-gold and play the titular metallic superhero, Iron Man, among many of the characters with which I shared the stage—or in this case float—at the spectacular 1987 affair. That event; as you may recall from my critically-acclaimed, multi-part epic, “I Love a Parade;” featured a trio of considerable debuts, all as part of the historic 25th anniversary of everyone’s favorite Wall-Crawler. The beloved Spider-Man balloon, the Marvel Universe float and a gaggle of newly-commissioned personal-appearance characters all were seen for the first time—the ultimate comic-book geek orgasm.

Props to marvel for ponying up the Benjamins for the event. Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade sponsorships, a.k.a. entry fees, were in the tens of thousands. And that was if you were accepted, which, quite frankly, was about as difficult as being turned down for a spot in the Surreal Life. Basically, if you had the dough, you could go.

Spider-Man loomed over the Marvel Universe float during the 1988 parade. That tiny white/silver figure above and behind the bell tower is Silver Surfer

Factor in additional fees for submitting both a balloon and a float; the not-insubstantial costs of designing and building both aforementioned elements; and creating about a dozen new costumes and hiring actors who’d be wearing them and one is easily looking at a price tag close to, if not above, a hundred grand. And this move was made before multi-billionaire, Revlon owner, Ron Perelman purchased the company.

Spider-Man actually got an invite to the 1988 event. The figure in white over my left shoulder is Janet Evans

Any participant could up their sponsorship each year, although any particular float was allowed only three appearances before a new entry had to be created. This keeps the parade from becoming stale with oft-repeated floats, yet gives Sponsors a chance to get a triennial bang for their entry buck.

Balloons were under no such stipulation. As long as the company paid for its inclusion, the inflatable was still in flying shape—the ginormous signature helium-filled wonders lasted only a handful of years before they degenerated into unusability—and there was public demand, the balloons were featured, which explains the inaugural Spider-Man’s many years of service before forced retirement.

Thus, Marvel re-upped both their sponsorships.

But how to supersede the year prior. What could Marvel do to top the pomp and circumstance of the trifecta firsts and make people forget the monster melee betwixt hero and villain that took place on the float? It would take an Olympian effort to accomplish such a feat. Fortunately, the company had a quartet of Olympians on hand.

Less than two months before, the 1988 summer Games of the XXIV Olympiad were held in Seoul, South Korea. Highlights included U.S. diver Greg Louganis’s inspiring capture of back-to-back golds on both diving events after hitting his head on the board in a preliminary round, which resulted in a concussion and stitches; Canadian runner Ben Johnson setting a world record in the 100m, only to be disqualified for testing positive to performance enhancing drugs; U.S. athlete Jackie Joyner-Kersee’s dual victories in heptathlon and long jump; three gold medals for U.S. swimmer Janet Evans and two for return participant Carl Lewis; and U.S. runner Florence Griffith-Joyner’s winning three golds and one silver medal, breaking two world-records (100m and 200m) in the process, records which still stand.

Florence Griffith-Joyner (Flo-Jo), her sister-in-law, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Carl Lewis and Janet Evans were all featured on the Marvel float. It was a masterful stroke teaming up real-life heroes with comic-book ones—the company Nabobs wisely excluded supervillains—especially Olympic champions whose accomplishment’s were international in nature and still fresh in the country’s mind, achieved a mere seven weeks before Thanksgiving. Spidey and his superhero pals would become synonymous with U.S. athletic excellence, patriotism, hot dogs, Mom and apple pie. Plus, the presence of such national treasures all but ensured maximum television coverage of Marvel’s float.

Plus, it certainly didn’t hurt that three of the four Olympic stars were African-American and two of those were women, two segments of the population woefully under-represented the 1987 parade—Luke Cage, aka Powerman, was the “token” black hero and the only two female characters were both supervillains! With the evil-doer ban in place, that would mean a complete lack of women, so estrogen domination was paramount.

But wait, there’s more!

The Marvel parade-planning committee pushed the minority meter into the red with the inclusion of the Harlem Boys Choir, a world-renowned singing group, founded in 1968, which drew its membership from the predominantly African and Hispanic New York City neighborhood of Harlem. At its peak, the group had five hundred choristers, although there were approximately fifty boys represented on the float.

The population explosion on the float meant a curtailment of superhero activities—there wouldn’t be another character battle in front of Macy’s—but it did not negate a moment before the historic retail edifice. That would now be provided by the Harlem Boys Choir, which would be featured singing carols when the ponderous mobile metropolis hit Herald Square.

No choreography equaled no rehearsals for the character actors. We merely had to show up at the appointed hour and place to suit up before getting transported to the float. In 1987, the Marvel offices on Park Avenue South served as the launching pad. But Babs, the Personal Appearance Department’s head, chose a different tactic for the 1988 festivities. I seem to remember her worrying over a new city edict that restricted vehicles crossing Broadway after 6 A.M. the morning of the parade, which meant she and the actors would have to be at the office no later than 5 A.M., in order to dress—quickly!—crowd into a van and make it cross town before West-Side access was constricted.

The original Statler Hotel, which begat the Penta, which is now the Hotel Pennsylvania

She sagely concluded that nobody wanted to stumble out of bed as 4 A.M.—or earlier—so she booked a room at the Penta (née Statler) Hotel on Seventh Avenue at 31st Street across from Madison Square Garden where she had the costumes delivered from Marvel HQ the day before. Opening in 1919, the Statler—today known as the Hotel Pennsylvania—is one of the city’s most historic (read: oldest) hotels. It and the Waldorf-Astoria were the name inspirations for the crotchety, elderly hecklers in the audience of The Muppet Show. I actually stayed there when it was still known as the Statler during a high school field trip in 1982.

Muppets Waldorf and Statler

Even then the accommodations were in terrible condition. I don’t believe the hotel had been renovated in the six plus decades of its existence. The fading wallpaper was a light mustard hue, long-stained over the years prior to when smoking was banned in the public thoroughfares of hotels. The rug was worn to sandpaper grade filaments with nasty-looking mauve and charcoal splotches—some the size of wading pools—every few feet. The dim lighting cast a jaundice glow, which only accentuated the depressing condition of the walls and floor.

This décor continued into the rooms, which were entered by heavy, self-shutting doors that would induce anyone unfortunate to get caught by its prodigious weight, to painfully mumble “Put the Candle Back!” The bed cover was a dull cranberry of the sort found in tapestries from the 1300s with the tactility of flock. Gray sheets could not hide the lumpy mattress, which resembled a piece of Razzles gum. And it didn’t feel any better. It was like sleeping on a back of sneakers.

Babs asked if I would be interested in staying there again in order to baby-sit the costumes. Seeing as I would otherwise be commuting into the city from Forest Hills, Queens, a trip that would add an hour to what was sure to be an already sleep-prohibitive wake-up time, I leapt at the chance.

I checked in with my modest gym back carrying fresh undies and toiletries at around 8 P.M. The rooms seemed somewhat better, but still would not have passed muster with the house staging experts on the Home & Garden Channel. What little room there was, was monopolized by the costumes. The great green duffel bag that housed the Hulk fought for space with a metal rolling clothing rack packed with body suits and tights and the giant black pizza box in which was stored Captain America’s shield. Miscellaneous helmets, masks and headpieces covered every table, bureau and chair. Despite the mess, the costumes were a vast improvement to the décor, providing splashes of color where there hadn’t been in decades.

I placed a wake-up call with the front desk for 5:00 A.M. Early, yes, but had I been coming from home I’d be setting the alarm for 4:00 A.M., and sneaking out of my apartment as quietly as possible so as not to wake up the roosters in the neighborhood. An additional advantage to accepting the baby-sitting job was breakfast. Boss Babs dangled the incentive before me when offering me the assignment, little realizing I would have done it regardless. So I had reception transfer me to room service, which whom I scheduled and ordered my early morning repast for the next morning, including an additional pot of coffee, cups, spoons and condiments for my impending guests.

The phone rang a few minutes past the appointed time. This was not unheard of back when wake-up calls were made by human beings as opposed to computers. Hell, there are places today that simply ring your room until the receiver gets picked up without so much as a female H.A.L. on the other end to say “Good morning.” Nothing more than total silence, which is a bit unnerving and quite inhospitable. When an actual person was making the calls, it is understandable that guests toward the end of the request list for each particular time slot would receive their calls slightly past that particular time.

Stephen . . . Time to wake up . . .

I had just enough time to shower before Room Service arrived. A food dolly was wheeled in, adding to the clutter that threatened to overcome the room. I was gobbling down the last crust of English muffin, when the first hero arrived. It is sometimes odd what one remembers and in this instance I remember clearly that Marvel character actor David was the first arrival. The year prior Dave played Robocop—yes, that Robocop—the explanation for which was given in “I Love a Parade.” If you’re waiting for the book, don’t hold your breath, just click the link and enjoy! But for those under a time crunch, his inclusion in the 1987 Marvel Universe float concerned corporate licensing, a new Robocop cartoon and the marketing department. You do the math. The fact that Paul Verhoeven’s distopian law-enforcement agent was left off the 1988 float invitation list may tell you something about how well that experiment went.

Anyway, Dave was playing Daredevil, the Man without Fear, the inspiration for the eponymous and lamentable 2003 movie starring Ben Affleck, Jennifer Garner and Colin Farrell. It was by no means the worst comic book film adaptation, and had some nice touches, like Matt Murdock’s heightened senses forcing his having to sleep in a sensory deprivation tank. But the story was uneven and overly dark, and the casting was ill-advised; having fair-skinned, all-American–looking Garner play Elektra—the daughter of a swarthy Greek ambassador—for example.

Over the next half hour, actors arrived, packing in to join me and the others in various stages of undress, java drinking and chatting about the state of our individual careers. Clothes were strewn about; costume bags were thrown over the furniture; half-drunk and empty coffee cups were perched atop every flat surface; and backpacks, saddlebags and whatever tote holding each thespian’s personal belonging—everyone in New York has a bag of some sort—were thrust in each nook and cranny, adding to the disarray begun by my unmade bed and dirty breakfast dishes. It resembled the stateroom scene from the Marx Brothers A Night at the Opera.

Babs arrived a few minutes before our departure time. Her appearance did nothing to curtail the actor’s state of undress. She sat on the only available corner of the bed and kibitzed with her boys, like the madam of a male brothel preparing her johns before a big weekend. Still, she made sure to get us out of the room and into the awaiting van, so that we made it to the Upper West Side where our float was positioned to take its place in the parade line-up before 7:00 A.M. Otherwise, we’d be forced to park several blocks away and haul our colorfully festooned asses to the demarcated area, as streets and avenues were summarily closed to traffic the closer it got to kick-off time.

Cap shimmies up the thirty-foot rear tower, which was book-ended at its base by giant comic books

So for two hours, us heroes had to wait around in the cold, late-November air. And the winds that whip down Central Park West can be unforgiving. Even wearing thermals did little to assuage the bitter cold. Some of the actors huddled in the bell tower with Mark who wisely donned the Hulk uniform early to keep warm. Other, more adventurous types, “played” on the float, shimmying up the tower at the rear of the construct and leaping from building to building to entertain the crowd. While still others, greeted our enthusiastic young fans who crowded the sidewalks awaiting the parade to begin. Their embracing love and 98.6º degree body temperatures took the chill off where thermals could not.

The Harlem Boys Choir showed up within a half hour of kick-off. They may have walked the additional blocks, but more likely, their status as special guests allowed them vehicular access at a later hour whereas us heroes and the hundreds of clowns, jugglers and miscellaneous characters that fill in the gaps among marching bands, floats and balloons along the parade route were considered mere window-dressing, just cogs in the machinery of the Macy’s Parade.

The boys were all wide-eyed and smiles, not only from being in the world-renowned annual Thanksgiving Day extravaganza, but also because they were sharing the experience with Spider-Man and the rest of their comic book heroes. The arrival of the Olympians minutes before start-up did little to avert the attention and wonder they bestowed on us (Hah!). We, in turn, genuflected before Carl Lewis, Flo-Jo, Janet Evans and Jackie Joyner-Kersee. I mean, Flo-Jo alone was an athletic god, the fastest woman in the world, two records that still stands more than twenty years later (and yes, I realize I mentioned it earlier in the post, but it bears repeating.)!

Were that Flo-Jo’s demeanor echoed the greatness of her accomplishments. Her unassailable aloofness in the face of the awe and supreme admiration she was shown by her fans stood in stark contrast to the magnanimity of the other three Olympians, whose grateful smiles and humility accentuated their brilliance. Contrarily, Flo-Jo was unapproachable. She took her position atop the faux building overlooking the bell tower and remained unmoving throughout the parade, her statuesque form enveloped in a fur coat like something that Diana Ross wore in Mahogany. Carl Lewis—a quietly sweet, humble and friendly man—joined her, with Evans and Joyner-Kersee taking spots on opposite sides of the bottom level.

For safety’s sake, most of choristers were arrayed about the lower level and stairs leading up to the belfry. The older and bigger members took places on the upper areas. All were forewarned about the lurching the float was prone to while in motion and duly told to hold on.

That’s Carl Lewis in the ecru coat, upper left

With most of the real estate on the entry occupied, scant room was left for the heroes to play. As a result, the action entailed little more than waving to the onlookers and periodically walking alongside the float, making brief stops among the crowds to shake hands. The iron “diaper” that covered my nether regions, still dug into my inner thighs, but I wasn’t going to let that interfere with my putting on a good show for the fans who waited in the cold as long as, if not longer than, we did.

Unlike the 1987 affair, at which it made its debut, the Spider-Man balloon was placed directly behind the float in 1988, looming over the cityscape mash-up and its heroes. It was awesome. Whenever I felt myself waning, I gazed upward and the ginormous inflated Web-Spinner made me all giddy and excited. Also contrary to the parade of the year before, Spider-Man was actually featured on the float. The year prior’s inanity of the Marvel Nabobs’ fearing the public might not be able to grasp the concept of having two Wall-Crawlers in the event—though one was a giant helium filled representation and each were well distanced from one another—ceased. Not only was Spidey present, but his stellar inflatable was nearly on top of him!

The placement of the float in 1988 was further toward the back of the line-up, which was undesirable. The closer to the rear, the longer one had to wait to get started, even though the call time was the same. By the time we entered Herald Square, where the float stopped and the Harlem Boys Choir sang, it was close to noon, five hours from the actors’ last chance to empty their bladders in the hotel room. No one was ignorant of the fact that coffee is a diuretic, i.e. it makes you pee, but not having at least one cup that early in the morning was suicide. Of course, by the time the wee choristers were singing us heroes wanted to die, the pressure in our bladders was that acute. And the frigid cold exacerbated the pain. Don’t even ask me what they sang. Visions of sugar plums was the last thing dancing in my head.

The official finish of the parade came at Macy’s main entrance on 34th Street after it turned off Broadway, where now—since Mayor Bloomberg’s initiative to turn Times Square into a pedestrian mall, which forced the alteration of the route—the performances now take place there and the parade disassembles further along. Our float had scarcely taken the right onto 34th when the heroes started bolting for the hotel. Any question of why Babs chose the Penta crystallized in brilliant clarity at that moment. The hotel was only a block away. One block to urinary bliss. You’d think Galactus had returned to swallow the Earth, and us heroes were rushing to save the day.

Sorry, folks. I'd love to stay and chat, but I gotta GO!

Jeremy—Spider-Man—had the hotel room key and breaking land speed records dodging the dispersing crowds and leaping over wee fans with outstretched arms to shake hands. I hobbled along as best I could, trying my best not to look like I had diaper rash. The delay prolonged my anguish but worked in my favor once I got to the room. By that time I arrived, the faster heroes had been able to do their business and the bowl was clear. Had I been forced to stand around waiting, I don’t think I would have made it. The seemingly arctic temps had forced my pork ’n’ beans to retract so far into my pubic area, they were tickling my uvula. Even the my fingers, which felt like frozen mozzarella sticks, could not stem the flow once I was able to coax the boys out of hiding.

Catastrophe averted! I shudder to think how close I came to bringing new meaning to Iron Man’s sobriquet Golden Avenger!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Are the Stars Out Tonight?

Ken Steacy’s caricature of himself as R2D2

He hit me!

I haven’t seen my old friend Ken Steacy in a decade and the first thing he does is wallop me. Granted, I gave a big hug to Joanie—his lovely wife who I haven’t seen in fifteen years—first, but it wasn’t anything scurrilous; nothing you’d see on Cinemax after midnight. Heck, I’ve witnessed more risqué maneuvers on iCarly.

Did I owe him money?

Perhaps I should back up…

Faithful Bloglodytes will no doubt remember the epic posting of a year ago (see “Jeepers Creepers”), wherein I recounted my first encounter with wild man Ken Steacy at Mid-Ohio Con. There, he took it upon himself to fashion replacement eyes for my suit, which con headliner Todd McFarlane teasingly commented as being “too small.” There was danger, suspense, and yes, hilarity ensued. More importantly, though, I survived!

Steacy drawing at the 2009 DragonCon in Atlanta. This is the first in a series of progressive photos taken by Anthony Taylor of the artist sketching a hula girl. Hey, isn't that R2D2s shirt?

I was fortunate (or “unfortunate” depending on how you look at it) to bump into Ken on several occasions thereafter throughout Canada and the U.S., while traveling under the aegis of Marvel Character Actor. On one such gig, I was sent to Victoria Island, off the coast of Vancouver, as part of a nationwide Canadian press tour to promote a series of pro-message custom Spider-Man comic books funded by the National Association of Chiefs of Police (NACP). But the press tour is a story for another time.

Ken lives in Victoria with his wife, the aforementioned and equally talented Joanie, and two boys, Alex and Raymond. When I knew I would be in his home town, I called him, so we could get together.

Joanie Steacy, a talented artist in her own right

He picked me up at the hotel soon after the early-morning press conference. I wasn’t leaving until the next day, so we had the whole day to hang. No sooner had we exited the circular drive in front of my accommodations then WHAM!, Ken socked me in the meat of my upper left arm.

OW! What the Hell?! (Actually, my response was considerably harsher but I don’t want to incur the wrath of the gmail censors and have my “Closet” closed).

“Punch buggy; no return!” Ken announced with that shit-eating grin of his, before I could put his face through the windshield.

There are some looks I have that would force Derek Zoolander into retirement. The psychic vitriol that accompanies them is palpable and intense enough that it can be delivered while I am masked and still elicit a reaction. Ken was the latest victim of my maleficent mien and quickly realized that I was not familiar with this what-I-assumed-was-a-Canadian-centric custom and he’d better start explaining himself immediately before I introduced him to some New York “hospitality!”

“You never played Punch Buggy before?” he delivered with a mixed tone of disbelief and regret for assuming this steaming 6-foot, 2-inch New Yorker might be a party to a puerile pastime—catalyzed by the sighting of a classic Volkswagon Bug—that finds one person punching another with impunity without fear of repercussion as long as the deliverer of said socking shouts “No Return!” before the deliveree can retaliate with a clout of their own.

As one might evince from my reaction… No, I had never heard of this perverse pastime. I was familiar with a traveling game when I was younger that concerned the spotting of the beloved German-manufactured half-moon–shaped vehicles made famous by the Disney Herbie films—The Love Bug, Herbie Rides Again, et al—and others, such as the Streisand/O’Neal comedy What’s Up, Doc?, but that game was far more sedate; less “Punch,” more “Buggy.” Or more appropriately, “Bug,” as players racked up points for being the first to spot the cars during road trips and shouting “Bug!” before their opponents did.

Pugilism was never a part of the game. At least it wasn’t meant to be. But growing up, my sisters and I, when we weren’t fighting, we were sleeping. Screaming was our way of conversing. As for playing together, it wasn’t a question of would it turn ugly, but when would it turn ugly. Most games never even got past the conception phase, as we’d start fighting over who would go first, color or token choices, rules, etc. before the game began. It wasn’t unusual for playtime to devolve into fisticuffs. So actually adding an element of hitting would be overkill along the lines of being hanged, drawn and quartered.

Yes, my family put the “fun” in “dysfunctional.”

Choosing a token someone else wanted was grounds for a donnybrook in my home

Twenty years ago, when Ken popped my “Punch Buggy” cherry, the once ubiquitous VW “Bugs” had all but disappeared from most of the U.S., certainly the less temperate areas of the country where the harsher weather conditions severely decreased the life of a car. In Vancouver, however, “Bugs” flourished, so it made sense that the game would continue unimpeded as well. But for me, the car and its eponymous game were a distant memory.

VW recently revived “Punch Buggy” in a series of national ads which were launched during last year’s Super Bowl; a good idea, but one doomed to failure, since the game was inspired by the unique insect-like design of the original automobile, and the new vehicles, though nice, are as indistinguishable as most every other car on the roads these days.

Appropriately enough, Ken and Joanie gifted us with this nifty Volkswagon Bug model for our wedding

My answer to Ken was a hearty smack and “Punch Buggy; no return!” of my own as another relative of Herbie sped into view. I felt nary a hint of guilt taking advantage of his inattentiveness while he awaited my reaction to his initial punch. After all, he ambushed me with his assumption that “Punch Buggy” was a universally accepted pastime, so it was only fair that I react in kind.

The remainder of the day was spent hitting each other; not the brightest thing to do to the driver of the car you are in, but the alternative was letting Ken hit me first and that wasn’t going to happen if I could help it.

Casa Steacy was a lovely Victorian with beautiful natural wood interior features. Alex (10) and Raymond (7) were Ken’s id made manifest; tag team bundles of kinetic creativity and enthusiasm that looked upon me as someone new to present their latest ideas and inventions. I couldn’t tell you which Steacy stripling was responsible for what particular parts of a creation. The two worked in tandem, often finishing each other’s thoughts as they spoke.

One of their proudest achievements was a toilet they had fashioned out of Play-Doh for a wolfman action figure. What put their sculpture above standard childish toilet humor (no pun intended) was the inclusion of plumbing. The boys has actually molded and connected Play-Doh pipes to the back of the bowl that worked. I can only imagine Watson’s and Crick’s initial giddiness when they told of their discovery of the golden helix structure of DNA strands. They presented to me what today would be considered classic Robot Chicken as wolfman stepped up to the crapper to do his business and a pea-sized Play-Doh dumpling fell into the bowl and rolled through the plumbing, exiting six-inches away.

They also showed me pages of plans for Rube Goldberg-esque inventions, for which they’d made schematics that were both ingenious and hysterical in their wackiness. I remember a particularly surreal facet of one that hinged on a man getting bored and falling asleep, at which point his slumbering body would collapse against the trigger for the next phase of the invention. And in true Goldberg fashion the insanely elaborate set-ups resulted in the most mundane outcomes, like lighting a match or turning on a faucet. As funny as their gadgets were, I got more enjoyment listening to Alex and Raymond explain each device. They put Vince, the ShamWow man, to shame!

Rube Goldbergs entertaining inventions were an inspiration for the Steacy boys own

Joanie was the Feng shui to Ken and the boy’s freneticism. Petite, sweet and charming, she was the calm, stable force of the household. But as a talented artist herself, she was no less nurturing in her husband’s and son’s creative pursuits. Thus, Chez Steacy was a perfect storm of imagination, cleverness and vision.

Unfortunately, Joanie was unable to accompany us to lunch as she had previous commitments. So Ken, Alex, Ray and I packed into the car and headed into town. And I soon learned the boys were no less adept at “Punch Buggy” than their father. They also had me at a distinct disadvantage. Regardless of their being wholehearted participants who reveled in the sadistic nature of the game—their ows followed by endless giggles with every hit given and received—I just couldn’t bring myself to wallop a child, no matter how much they tried to convince me—nay, begged me—to do so.

I’d pathetically swat their arms like a nonagenarian on pain killers, simply so I wouldn’t be pounded, and they’d razz me about the wimpiness of my delivery. Of course, my trepidation in putting any force behind my punches did nothing to decrease the power of their own when they got the upper hand, so to speak. Young and wee they may have been, but after a few hours you could have breaded my arm and served it as saltimbocca.

Lunch was pizza, during which Ken asked me about the Spider-Man costume (They always want to know about the costume); the material out of which it was made; how I see while wearing it; what it feels like; how do I put it on; etc. Ken was surprised to discover that I was unable to pull up the head over my mouth so I could eat and drink, as the suit is portrayed in the comics and movies. If the noggin area was a separate piece it would roll up, leaving a strip of revealed skin around one’s neck. Ergo, the memorable hanging kiss Spidey and MJ share in the rain in the first Web-Slinger flick would not be possible.

Ken then followed up with a query on how I eat when I’m in the red-and-blues (answer: I don’t). The question was rhetorical or seemed to be, because no sooner had it left his lips, then Ken went into a spiel about Spidey eating pizza. He grabbed a napkin, a red Sharpie seemed to materialize out of thin air, and he began scribbling frantically, giggling like Ed Wynn in Mary Poppins. I fully expected him to start floating to the ceiling at any moment. In seconds, he put down the marker and presented his piece, like he was a student laying aside his No. 2 pencil upon time expiring during a section of the SAT.

On the 4" x 4" canvas was a drawing of me in the no-mouth-access Spider-Man costume attempting to eat a slice of pizza. A blob of cheese covers the mouth area, clothes-lining to the slice in my hand with additional strands hanging and sticking to everything. It looked as though Spider-Man was a victim of his own webbing and it was brilliant.

Steacy whipped off this darkly humorous piece from a concept Yours Truly gave him at a convention, at which I was pulling double duty as both Spidey and Iron Man.

But seconds after finishing the mini-masterpiece, Ken crumpled the artwork in his hand, wiped up the table in front of him and tossed it onto the pile of uneaten crusts, fallen toppings and used napkins. I was horrified. I wanted to dive after the piece. How could Ken be so callous about his work? To do so, though, felt to me like a stalker groveling after a sheet of toilet paper that had fallen from the heel of the object of their infatuation after they’d left the bathroom. I still wish I’d made a fool of myself and taken it.

The highlight of my visit was experiencing Ken’s studio upon our return to the Steacy homestead. I’ve seen bigger walk-in closets, but none as magical. Clippings and artwork fought for wall space; photos of Joanie and the boys, and one of Ken in the cockpit of a fighter jet—a military brat, Ken grew up loving planes—shelves packed with gew gaws, cartoon and action figures and all manner of knick knacks, resembling the deck of a boatload of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island at the turn of the last century; and, of course, his work space.

The cover to the trade paperback collection of
Tempus Fugitive

Ken’s medium is the air brush, an instrument—connected via hose to a large standing air tank—that resembles the cleaning device of a dental hygienist only instead of a rotating polisher on the end, it sharpens to a point. Out of a hole at its tip, paint is blown, and the “brush” can be adjusted according to the desired stroke width.

Ken’s skill with the instrument is dazzling; his detail and control are mind-boggling, at times as fine as artists who paint with a single camel hair on the head of a pin. At the time I was there, he was in the midst of Tempus Fugitive, a four-issue square-bound, time-traveling adventure that he was both writing and painting for DC Comics. On his easel was the latest double-page spread on which he was working, a aerobatic dog fight betwixt to vintage biplanes. In the span of two pages, our hero is set upon by a duo of villainous aviators; outmaneuvers them and shoots them out of the sky. Damn, this Steacy guy not only paints good pictures, he’s a great storyteller as well!

Another cherished piece of Steacy art that adorns
Casa Vroom!

That trip solidified my friendship with the Steacy’s, who eventually came to my and the wondrous Audrey’s wedding in New York City several years later. But, as fate would have it, that was the last time I saw Ken and Joanie—I saw only Ken just long enough to wave in passing at the San Diego Con in 1997—until this past weekend at the New York Comic Con.

I was working for Fanfare/Ponent Mon, running the publisher’s booth as I did at SPX a month earlier. As such, I had scant opportunity to roam the main floor never mind brave the trek to Artist’s Alley on the other side of the Javits Center where the con was held. I wouldn’t have even known the Steacy’s were attending had I not received a call earlier in the week…

’Twas the week before NYCCon and barely past 10,
when the phone that was ringing, turned out to be Ken!
No greeting he made, but one question alone:
“Is this Spider-Man?” in an ominous tone.
“Why, yes,” I replied—calls like these were not new.
“It’s Ken,” he erupted like a giggling loon.
“I’ll be at the con, sweet Joanie in tow,
Would love to see you and Aud ’fore we go!”
The call was that quick, no more need to be said.
We’d connect at the show. Then I went back to bed.

Shakespearean poetry it’s not, but it gets the point across and saves you, my ever-patient Bloglodytes, from wading through my usual half dozen paragraphs of idle chatter, rants and sub-references before I get back on track.

Vroom! manning the Fanfare/Ponent Mon booth last month at the 2010 SPX in Bethesda, Maryland

Thank goodness for Jon and Beth, who helped me man the booth during the show. They valiantly held down the fort while I waded through thousands of fellow comic geeks to Artist’s Alley. I felt like Leiningen versus the ants in the classic Stephenson short story of the same name, on which the Charlton Heston movie, The Naked Jungle, was based. But once my journey to the Alley was complete, I still had to locate Ken in a sea of visual creators. Murphy’s Law was not quite firing on all cylinders as it was not the last place I looked before I found the Steacy’s.

Six billion ants vs. six bullets? Yeah, thatll work!

Ken was deeply ensconced in a commission when I approached, but Joanie recognized me immediately, putting out her arms to give me a big hug. No one would have confused the meeting with the finale of an Extreme Makeover: Home Edition episode, but it was heartfelt nonetheless. Even Joanie’s momentarily confusing me with Steve Rude—co-creator/artist of Nexus—did nothing to sour the moment.

That’s when he hit me!

“Punch Buggy; no return!” he cried in delight. My nephews don’t take nearly as much glee yelling “Tag! You’re it!” upon seeing me after a long spell. I never thought I’d miss being smacked, but after the hit, Ken grabbed me in an embrace and all the years between our seeing each other dissolved. I’m getting all verklempt just thinking about it

(Please… a moment…)

The reunion was short-lived, however, since I had to return to the Fanfare/Ponent Mon booth, and Ken had sketches he had to finish. Fortunately, he and Joanie weren’t leaving New York until Tuesday morning, so we agreed to get together for dinner the evening before. He autographed and sent me off with a couple of full-color prints he was selling, one of which from a painting he had created nearly twenty years prior. Ken had forgotten, but I would never forget. After all, I was one of the first people to see the piece upon its completion and, it now hangs on my bedroom wall!

This magnificent Magneto dismantling of a high-tech gun was one of the half dozen prints Steacy had for sale at NYCC

It was the fall of 1991, at the last of the annual conventions staged by the Devilish Darwin and Lithesome Lola (see “Survival of the Fittest,” Part I and II), Ken brought a series of non-commissioned 11" x 17" pieces of Marvel characters he had painted, which he hoped to sell to the company for use as posters. Each was brilliantly executed and offered a sly take on the heroes portrayed therein.

One featured the Punisher, pressed against a bullet-riddled wall. He faces the audience, chest-skull in full display, though he is turned toward his adversaries in the background who are charging him across a war-torn landscape. The character holds one of his signature giant guns and stands beside a pile of other weapons he has already gone through. Another takes place underwater, as Wolverine—back to the camera—faces off against an approaching Hammerhead shark. The world-famous X-Man is in naught but Speedos, but we know it is he, because of the telltale claws protruding from his fists.

This wet ’n’ wild Wolvie painting originally had the mutton-chopped mutant facing with his back to the audience, but Marvel would only agree to purchase it if Steacy turned the X-Man around

But the one that caught my eye, was a romantic nighttime scene of Mary-Jane and an upside-down–hanging Spider-Man drinking champagne atop the roof of their New York apartment building. In the distance is the Empire State Building and the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Ken created the piece to celebrate not only the Web-Swinger’s and MJ’s fifth anniversary as bride and groom, but also the impending 30th anniversary (1992) of Webhead’s creation. Marvel eventually bought the art and issued a poster in celebration of that historic event a few months later.

Ken hadn’t even taken it completely out of his portfolio, when I told him it was mine; I wanted it; how much? It didn’t concern me that the perspective whence the scene is painted was awry, given the locations of the iconic structures, a fact clearly evident to any New Yorker. When confronted with his geographical faux pas, Ken was unabashed about his ignorance. He’d never been to the Big Apple, but wanted to represent the city’s titular skyline within the limited background with which he had to work. At least he knew enough to place the towers beyond the Empire State Building.

New Yorkers know that the Twin Towers would be obscured by Mary-Jane were this a geographically accurate depiction of the Big Apple

But one error in the painter’s design was unplanned. Originally, stars twinkled playfully within the dark patch that delineates the moon’s crescent shape as if a bite had been taken out of the orb, making it possible to see the stars on its far side. But the moon is still whole; it always is. The lunar shape is dictated by the shadow that the Earth casts on its surface by the sun on the opposite side of the planet. Depending on where each celestial sphere is in its orbit determines how much of the sun’s illumination is blocked. When the moon is full, the sun’s light is unimpeded by the Earth.

A fan pointed out this error to Ken during the convention. He reacted with a hearty, self-deprecating laugh, and almost took pride in his stupidity as he explained the mistake to everyone who saw the piece thereafter. In the artist’s defense, hundreds of people saw the masterpiece without commenting on the gaff, myself included, before the young Copernicus-in-training espied it.

The phases of the moon, showing the important role the Earth plays

At the show’s completion, when I was ready to take the art home—arm and leg in hand as payment—Ken told me I’d have to wait until he fixed the problem. He would ship the work to me after he was done. I told him I didn’t care, but he insisted. Actually, I told Ken I wanted the art with the blunder intact. It would make for a better story when I showed it to friends, telling them what a dodo he was. Ken thought this hysterical, but he still refrained from giving me the art before he’d fixed it.

That Monday night following the New York ComicCon, Ken and I met with our respective honeys as planned. The Wondrous Audrey had only met the Steacy’s once at our wedding more than fifteen years before, and it wasn’t as if she had much exclusive time with either to kibbitz and get to know them, what with the scores of other guests to greet; the toasts to share; the dancing and eating. She knew them vicariously through me and my stories—I’m surprised she didn’t frisk Ken for X-acto Knives at the restaurant (If you haven't already seen—and why haven't you?—see “Jeepers Creepers”).

Audrey and Joanie got along like they’d gone to high school together. From an outsider’s POV, it would’ve seemed like it was they who had known one another for years and Ken and I were the spouses dragged to the affair.

It turns out that for the last few months, Ken has been teaching art at a school in Toronto, a six-month assignment that would have him and Joanie returning to Vancouver in December. They saw the NYCC as the perfect opportunity to reconnect with old friends and network with publishers at the show.

Ken was heartened by the reaction he received by the latter. “Ken Steacy?! I love your stuff!” was a common refrain he heard throughout the weekend. Unfortunately, it was immediately tempered by “I thought you were dead!” But beggars cannot be choosers.

Also ironic, was one particular recurring criticism: that his work was not cartoony enough. When Ken sprang onto the comics scene in the early eighties, he was a pioneer in introducing North American readers to the classic manga style, made famous by Osamu Tezuka, Godfather of Manga, through his most famous creations, Astro Boy and Jungle Emperor Leo (known in this country as Kimba, the White Lion). Then, Ken’s designs were considered too cartoony.

His talent was never in question. Big companies just didn’t know what to do with him. The ultra-detailed, testosterone-fueled stylings of artists, such as Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld, were the hot sellers of the day, and Ken’s work didn’t gibe. He did get work with smaller publishers, like Now Comics, with which he worked on Speed Racer and Astro Boy. But other than the occasional cover and isolated projects outside their mainstream titles—the aforementioned Tempus and a couple of Iron Man stories for Marvel Fanfare—the big two had nothing to give him.

With the explosion of manga in the past decade, which has lead to a cartoon-ification (if you will) of the industry in recent years, Ken now finds his stylings not quite in sync again, but for the opposite reasons.

In the 80s, Steacy also produced the covers for the three-issue Ultraman comic series by Ultracomics

Overall, Ken was pleased with his Big Apple convention debut. Longtime fans were giddy with excitement to finally meet him and get his signature. And more than a few unenlightened young’uns were transfixed by his artwork and wanted to know what brush in Photoshop Steacy had used? How else could one attain such sharp, vibrant colors? He left more than a few scratching their heads wondering if maybe this “airbrush” of which he spoke was a new feature of CS5 and slavering anticipation of getting to work with it.

Sorry, kids, there’re no keyboard shortcuts for the results that Ken achieves; no layer styles; no distortion, emboss or blur effects; and no magic wand. You will get paint on your hands and it won’t be from changing ink cartridges. The good news is you won’t lose your work, if the computer crashes. And there is no fear of developing Carpel Tunnel Syndrome. The bad news is, if you make a mistake, there’s no “undo.”

“Command Z” certainly would’ve made correcting a few erroneously-placed stars in the Spider-Man anniversary poster art a lot easier.

Ken and Joan Steacy at the 2010 New York ComicCon