Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Thing Is, Part IV: Don We Now Our Gay Apparel

Previously, our stalwart hero-for-hire checked into his anachronistic accommodations in West Hollywood and encountered the genial genius behind the new Thing and Iron Man costumes, David Janzow. Now standing among the sewing stations—each overflowing with a kaleidoscope of fabric and stuffing—in the main workshop of Shafton, Inc. and sheltered beneath a canopy of colorful costumes, Vroom! awaits Marvel’s latest additions to its ever-growing assemblage of character appearance apparel.

I think we've all encountered someone like this at the gym

My reverie was interrupted by the arrival of the Iron Man and Thing costumes. I was curious about the design of the former, which seemed oddly bulky to me. But I assumed Marvel was just taking a more kid-friendly approach with the Golden Avenger, as the suit was more indicative of the stuffed-animal variety, than the previous sleek, albeit uncomfortable, celastic version, which was a closer interpretation of Tony Stark’s iron apparel in the comic. I never made mention of my thoughts to Janzow because my job and chief concern was the functionality of the costumes, not their actual appearance. That was outside my jurisdiction.

The look of The Thing was spot-on, right down to his baby-blue eyes. Of course, it wasn’t chiseled from rock (Duh!), but the walking-mattress approach was more appropriate. And, although Ben Grimm’s stones were tightly covered with fabric, they were solid, not soft. Molded fiberglass or similar must have been used, each jaggedly-formed piece built upon the shell that housed the body parts like a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. The only component without any give was the head, which seemed molded from celastic—the same hardened material used in the helmet and body armor of the previous version of Iron Man—and painted a matching burnt orange. It descended partway down the neck before reverting to the same fabric that covered the rest of the body. Thus, it offered some mobility and tucked nicely into the torso, concealing the performer within.

Notice the more simplistic design of The Thing from the Marvel Action Hour (left) compared to a typical comic book rendering of the character (right). Seldom do comic artists supply Benjamin J. Grimm with teeth, as depicted, more often opting for a simple black maw

The only fault I could see with The Thing’s design was the dearth of rocks. The character should resemble an anthropomorphic pile of rubble. The costume was more like the remains of a collapsed slate roof. That’s when it hit me. Janzow must be working off characters breakdowns from the new cartoon, not the comic books! When animating, detail costs money.

Hanna-Barbera pioneered the streamlining of cartoons in order to save time and maximize profits in the television medium. They not only utilize less cels per second, but reuse backgrounds—ever notice the same trees and shrubs passing in the background when the Ranger is chasing Yogi—and all their character designs are simplistic. To render The Thing as he is depicted in the comic books would increase the animation process geometrically. The Iron Man outfit would logically emulate the cartoon version of the Golden Avenger in the same manner, which, judging from the suit, would suggest that the animated rendition is grossly exaggerated (My theory would later prove true.).

Here, too, the design of the cartoon version of Iron Man (right) is far less detailed than the comic-book iteration (left) on which the animation is based. Also, take note of the bulkier interpretation of the armor

There was no need to hie to a changing room—not that there was one. The costumes were constructed so that wearers could don them while in shorts and a T-shirt, my current ensemble.

The Iron Man suit was first. The pants were designed like a fireman’s, albeit far more snug, with thick canvas suspenders built into the inner waistband attached and adjusted by Velcro at the shoulders. I hoisted the chest cavity onto my frame, inserting my arms from the back, the way one might be strapped into a strait jacket, though Houdini would have found it a challenge to escape its confines. The horizontal zipper that ran along the spine was hidden by overlapping fabric. The waistband similarly extended over the area where it met the torso, nicely attaching with Velcro to conceal the demarcation line.

Boots were stepped into with unshod feet and the snug fit reminded me of wearing bunny slippers or similar novelty bedtime footwear… er… not that I would have any personal knowledge of such. Then the helmet was placed, while the wearer’s hand were still unencumbered, leaving the gloves as the final component. I felt as if I had just been upholstered. Still, the suit was comfortable—the temperature of which notwithstanding—and allowed the user a surprising bit of mobility, as far as these types of costumes go.

The user’s vision—accessed through the finely screened eye and mouth apertures of the helmet—was no more-or-less impaired than suits of a similar ilk. The yellow of the screening gauze effecting a jaundiced view of the world for the actor within. Claustrophobics need not apply!

A peek in the large standing mirror to one side of the floor, revealed an odd interpretation of Marvel’s iron-clad hero and further confirmed the difficulty in translating certain characters from two to three dimensions. Iron Man, as depicted in the comics, is essentially a human form over which is drawn a suit of armor. Little regard is taken for the outfit’s bulk—which even at its most-advanced—would still thicken the overall musculature of the character’s body shape. Envision the knights of olde, their appearance before and after they don their metal ensemble. There is a degree of klunkiness that cannot be helped. As uncomfortable as the original version of the Iron Man costume was, It was as close as possible to the sleekness of the suit as presented in the comic books.

Shafton’s larger-than-life translation exaggerated the bulkier sections of the suit, such as the chest plate, boots and helmet. The result: a top-heavy, seemingly squashed version of Iron Man that more closely resembles the design of the characters in Marvel’s current The Superhero Squad Show or the muscle-bound rival of Daffy Duck’s in the Warner Brothers’s short “Muscle Tussle.” If Marvel were to drag the costume out of mothballs to once again use at appearances, it would probably go over quite well today. But at the time of its debut, it was looked upon with derision. I suspected as much, despite my thinking Shafton had conceived a fun, kid-friendly version of Shellhead, which in turn was what I assumed Marvel was going for. As for the suit’s usability, the judging of which was my role in this Grand Guignol, it was aces.

The Thing costume, by contrast, couldn’t have been more perfectly envisioned, right down to his tight blue Fantastic Four shorts, which Janzow created so as to be removed and washed separately, so The Thing’s… uh, er… thing could always have a hygienic home. The outfit’s pieces were donned much like those of the Iron Man outfit. Unlike the former costume, however, the hands of The Thing suit were part of the torso and non-moving, thus effecting longer appendages that better fit the proportions of the rock-hewn member of the Fantastic Four. The wearer’s hands nestled in the metacarpal region of the outfit, but not extending into the fingers, thus laying the lion’s share of the arm-lifting squarely on the actor’s wrists.

Less than a half dozen lifts of the costume’s sizable arms and the strain on my wrists was unbearable. Try doing shoulder shrugs at the gym with ten-pound plates wresting on your wrists and you’ll get a better idea of my discomfort. The central handle of barbells distributes the effort into the forearms, thus affording better lifting form and concentration into the shoulder area. I explained the problem to Janzow and asked if it would be possible to build handgrips into the hands of the suit.

So, you come here often...?

To hide the chest cavity zipper and retain the erratic nature of the Thing’s rocky physique, Janzow cleverly designed the plates along the spine of the costume to fold over the zipper, interlocking with the neighboring slabs and snapping into place. Even upon close inspection, there wasn’t any way to tell how the torso was assembled onto the actor.

The Thing’s titanic tootsies posed another problem, their size and heft necessitating that sneakers be worn for proper stability and to prevent ankle injury. But the padding was too thick—more like that of Iron Man’s booties—and offered too limited a space to allow for both feet and footwear. D’ya ever try on a new pair of shoes, only to discover their additional padding stuffed in the toes? The solution to the Thing’s feet was modestly more difficult in that re-stitching would be required once the stuffing was ripped out.

Surprisingly, the visibility of the Thing’s headpiece was better than one might suspect due to the character’s stony configuration. Since his earliest delineation by the great Jack Kirby, the Ever Lovin’ Blue-Eyed Thing’s mouth has ever been drawn much like a muppet’s: a straight horizontal split along the bottom half of the face, as if someone had taken an ax to his loveable mug, stopping after the first swing didn’t quite cut through. When applied to a costume of Bashful Benjamin J. Grimm, the wearer is presented a wider landscape through which to look. This reduces the need for the actor to rotate his whole body to see what is approaching from either side. Of course, the vertical optic area was typically small, but the increased horizontal visibility made being enclosed in the suit seem less claustrophobic.

The whole procedure—from meeting Janzow to trying on the suits—took less than two hours. It was still early afternoon and I expected to spend the rest of the afternoon twiddling my thumbs in my room back at the motel-out-of-time. Perhaps I’d do some laps in the bathtub the inn calls a swimming pool, which would be much like running laps in a phone booth.

NEXT: The Eighth Wonder of the World

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Thing Is, Part III: The Man Makes the Suit

Previously, our erstwhile hero amazed the audience with his daring tale of bravely navigating the wild environs of Los Angeles—without GPS, Sacajawea or Magellan—by skillfully practicing the ancient art of map-reading as he made his way to meet the maker of The Thing and Iron Man.

A few hours later I was at my motel, an odd diminutive structure on a major thoroughfare of Hollywood that looked as if it had been built in the ’20s as a boarding house for the rare traveling salesman. It belie the modernity of the surrounding architecture, adamantly standing firm in its resolve to remain unchanged despite the town’s boom. It was probably the only business of its kind back in the day, singly owned and managed by someone seeking a quieter life in what at that time was considered the ’burbs.

A veritable rainforest fronted the building bursting against the wrought-iron black fence lining the motel grounds. All that was missing was Norma Desmond, with a martini in hand, greeting me at the entrance. Still, despite these unusual characteristics, it was well-maintained; the paint seemed fresh, the vegetation—though thick—was neat and trimmed, the concrete walkway lay uncracked and the architectural moldings and details appeared unchipped and complete.

A ludicrously-small in-ground swimming pool was just to the right of the walkway to the entrance. It was the size of a two-door sedan, and the only reason why I knew it was a pool and not a fountain was the security fence around its perimeter, on which were hung the motel’s swimming rules and hours. No running?!! There go my plans for a Chinese fire drill. It was evident that the motel’s owners installed the thing in an attempt to keep up with the competition. But it seemed to me that its Lilliputian size would only serve to accentuate the differences between the motel and every other accommodation in the area.

A wooden porch—the type one might see in a Country Time Lemonade commercial—fronted the building. Surprisingly the caretakers missed a perfect opportunity for a porch swing. As I ascended the front stairs, a wooden swinging sign jutting from one of the porch roof columns, brought to light the building’s immaculate appearance. Where I expected to read ADDAMS ESTATE, was imprinted a Comfort Inn logo.

As I passed through the doors, I felt like Dorothy exiting her fallen home and stepping into Munchkinland. Before me stood a modern, carpeted hotel lobby, complete with a free-coffee urn opposite the marble reception desk. I was strangely disappointed. A part of me was looking forward to Aunt Bea’s homemade family dinner with peach cobbler for dessert that I would share with my fellow wayfarers at a single long table in the kitchen before lights-out.

The manufactured cheery tones of the Recepticon snapped me out of my reverie. In moments I was dropping my things in the room. And soon thereafter sitting in the North Hollywood office of the Vice President/General Manager of Shafton, Inc. Custom Costumes, David Janzow.

If memory serves—and believe me the service has been going downhill over the years—Janzow inherited the company from his father, its founder. Shafton, Inc. may not be a readily familiar name to most of you at home—I certainly hadn’t a clue who they were or what they did—but undoubtedly you, Faithful Bloglodytes, have encountered their product, perhaps even shaking hands with it!

Shafton specializes in designing and constructing all manner of character and meet-and-greet mascot costumes. Taking a peek at its creations on the company website is like perusing a photo album of Who’s Who pop-culture icons, classic and nouveau alike. And their client list includes some of the biggest names in Hollywood, television and comics. Batman, Shrek, Caspar, H.R. Pufnstuf, and Bob the Builder are a mere smattering of costumes they’ve created, for companies such as DreamWorks, Universal, Warner Bros. and Sesame Workshop.

The scope of Shafton’s work never hit me until I attended my first Radio City Christmas Spectacular. One of the show’s most popular segments is the “Nutcracker Suite.” But in the Christmas Spectacular version a little girl dreams not of dancing with personified nut crackers, but rather a bevy of dancing bears of all breeds, from Polar to Panda, Kodiak to Koala. Imagine my surprise to see Shafton, Inc. listed in the program as the ursine architect for the sequence’s costumes.

On the surface, Janzow’s office was that of any company executive, stereotypically staid and business-like. A large centrally-positioned, wood desk sat against the far wall opposite the door; two chairs fronting it. I entered suitably disheveled from my six-hour, early-morning flight, wearing my signature Spider-Man–tee, faded jeans, untied high-top sneaks and baseball cap. My face featured several days’ worth of stubble and I had a momentary bout of nervousness, fearing my bedraggled appearance might offend.

Fortunately, Janzow belay the corporate starkness of his office. Where I expected Brooks Brothers, I instead was greeted with Structure (a hip, men’s clothier of the time. Please feel free to substitute with today’s cutting edge equivalent). Janzow sported a colorful, printed, button-down shirt, comfortable pants and shoes. His mien reminded me of the Laugh-In comedian Alan Sues, albeit not nearly as wacky, and quickly put me at ease.

Janzow acted as if I were a breath of fresh air compared to the corporate types with which he was most beset and took great interest in the San Diego Convention with which he was unfamiliar. I was a bit stunned at his admission of ignorance. Sure, the comic-book universe was my milieu and the con was not yet an internationally known annual spectacle of all things pop culture. But Janzow was in the business of building costumes of pop culture icons, and the show was awash with possible opportunities for Shafton, Inc. And it was virtually at his doorstep, a mere three-hour drive south.

Interestingly, Janzow’s excitement about the convention was that of a fan, rather than a company honcho looking to score new clients. As we talked, I began to notice some unusual decorative flourishes to his office, the sort of things one would normally not expect in the uninspired environs of a corporate nabob. Is that a statue of Frankenstein’s monster? Wait, that isn’t a photo of a loved one on his desk; it’s a shot of someone in a Woody Woodpecker costume. It began to dawn on me that Janzow was a geek like me, just not a comic-book one.

His passion arose from the Universal Picturess monsters, those endearing title characters from the studio’s classic horror movies of the fifties, made famous by such actors as Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney (both Sr. and Jr.), i.e. The Mummy, Dracula, Wolfman, et al. Well, that explains the bisque figure of Mary Shelley’s famous bolt-necked creation.

And that wasn’t just a photo of someone in a Woody Woodpecker outfit. It was an example of Janzow’s work. Lo and behold, Shafton. Inc. was the creative house that designed and supplied the Universal Studios theme parks with their costumes of Walter Lantz cartoon characters, i.e. Woody Woodpecker, Andy Panda and Chilly Willy.

With the social niceties taken care of—though, truth be told, Janzow and I could have kibitzed the afternoon away—the costume creator led me to the factory part of the building wherein the magic was made. Janzow’s office was walled on one side by a large window which actually overlooked the floor. So the trip was a simple matter of descending a flight of stairs.

The plant resembled something out of Norma Rae, only without the oppressive air. Rather the enormous space was filled with creative energy. Distributed throughout the floor were construction stations manned by workers all but hidden by costumes in various stages of development. Their heads peeked up over mounds of fabric, stuffing and fur, like the ubiquitous “Kilroy was here” motif of World War II. The very nature of the product, most of which were larger-than-life, hollowed-out, stuffed creatures in which a human was emplaced, made space a commodity. Aisles were compromised by the overflow of brightly-colored animals, giant raisins, anthropomorphic pop icons and the like.

The room was well-lit, a soft glow from tiers of frosted windows that lined the upper reaches of the walls joined a bevy of fluorescent lamps that descended from the ceiling. A circuitous track from which were hung hundreds of completed and as-yet-unfinished costumes—each with a protective clear plastic garment bag—traversed the upper reaches of the space, at times moving as workers needed to access particular pieces, like the bedroom doors during the climactic chase scene in Monsters, Inc. With my head craned upward and mouth agape at the wondrous collection of colorful costumes pirouetting above me on their suspended track, I’m sure I resembled the many New York City tourists, who stare up transfixed at the skyscrapers surrounding them, that I often mock.

NEXT: Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Thing Is, Part II: I Knew I Should Have Made That Left at Albuquerque

In the early 90s, a sudden upswing in the popularity of comic books led to a frenzy of character licensing (read: whoring-out) at Marvel. Suddenly, even such pathetic creations as Turner D. Century and The Gibbon were considered a commodity, the rights to which sold hither and yon. But the fever was built upon and fueled by collector speculation—the idea that comic books, even brand-spanking-new ones, were an investment worth gazillions—and collapsed under the weight of its own illusion by mid-decade.

Still, some positive things came out of that period; The Marvel Action Hour, for example. Not that the show itself was notable—it lasted a modest 26 episodes over two seasons—but to comic fans it offered something outside the confines of their 32-page, four-color world and hope that the new cartoons might be the long-awaited catalyst that would ignite popularity and excitement for comic books in the general public, ushering in a new age for the art form.

In less esoteric terms, the show led to Marvel’s green-lighting Fantastic Four costumes and an updated Iron Man suit, all of which they planned to reveal at the San Diego Comic Con as part of a major promotion for The Marvel Action Hour, which included a much-ballyhooed panel, introducing the voice actors who would be portraying the characters in the series.

I can hear the sarcastic Whoop-de-dos already, but you have to understand: appearances of mega-stars, such as Robert Downey Jr., Megan Fox and Gary Oldman, may have become standard con procedure. But in 1994, such c-list celebs like the chartreuse, fin-headed creature from the cantina scene in Star Wars were considered big news. Special guests like Brian (Beverly Hills 90120) Austin Green and Robert “Airplane!” Hays—the voices of the Human Torch and Iron Man respectively—were mind-boggling at the time.

ASIDE: Ironically, Hays, whose Airplane! character’s “drinking problem”—on which he would comment just prior to dousing himself with a drink in an attempt to bring the glass to his mouth in the movie—was voicing Tony Stark/Iron Man, who was revealed to be an alcoholic in the famous—at least to fans—“Demon in a Bottle” storyline of the mid to late 80s.

Of course I knew none of this—the age of internet instant info-sharing was a few years away, and anyone at Marvel with news of The Marvel Action Hour wasn’t sharing it with me. That changed less than two weeks before my scheduled trip with Audrey. I was called into the Director of Marvel’s Personal Appearance Program Alyson’s office one day and asked if I’d consider leaving several days ahead of schedule to oversee the final construction stages of the new costumes in Los Angeles. Specifically, Alyson wanted me to make sure the costumes were performer-friendly. Afterward, I’d be expected to portray The Thing at the con.

The few L.A. actors available were already scheduled to appear as other characters—Spider-Man, Captain America, Cyclops, Wolverine, etc.—and she needed someone with intimate knowledge of The Thing that she could entrust his portrayal, not to mention the important task of shepherding the construction of the new suits.

I would spend the weekend prior to Audrey’s regularly scheduled arrival at the costumer’s. With the convention beginning the Thursday of that week, we’d still have three days to ourselves. Marvel would pick up the tab for the hotel room—including those three days that I wasn’t doing a Thing (as it were)—and the rental car I would need while in Los Angeles. The role of the new Iron Man would be played by former NYC Spider-Man actor Phil, who’d be flown in from Arizona where he was living with his sister. Audrey was less than enthused when I told her, but understanding (Is it any wonder I married her?).

As originally planned, I flew into San Diego, where I rented a car and made the 3-hour drive to Los Angeles. Today, with all the ridiculous airline surcharges and fees for what used to be routine conveniences, rescheduling a flight can run anywhere from several hundred dollars to one’s first born. At the time, there were no additional charges for a simple ticket rescheduling. But actually altering the ticket from nonstop to San Diego to Los Angeles, however, would have necessitated a new ticket and the costs associated with such.

Seeing as this excursion occurred long before the advent of the internet and access to sites that provide directions for car travel, such as MapQuest, never mind GPS units, my younger Bloglodytes’ heads may be exploding with concern and questions wondering how on Earth I got to my destination. Well… Once upon a time, when people rented vehicles, the rental-car personnel provided maps to their customers and—you may want to sit down for this—gave out directions for free, marking the best route on easy-to-read portable maps that the agency supplied, again sans fee. And no, I wasn’t renting a chariot, nor propelling said car with my feet à la Fred Flintstone.

When I rented a car in 2008, I had flown into Long Beach and needed to drive one hour north to Los Angeles. I went straightwith to a kiosk situated in the rental agency’s parking lot, where attendants expedited reservations. After spending ten minutes refusing the car-rental agent’s offering of an SUV upgrade, I inquired about directions. The man just stared at me for a minute like a dog watching a ceiling fan…

“Would you like to rent a GPS unit for your trip?” he finally answered.

“No, thank you. I just need directions.” I politely replied as my waning patience neared danger levels.

“Well, if you rented a GPS unit, you wouldn’t need directions,” he mindlessly responded.

I felt as though I was in that scene from Spinal Tap wherein Rob Reiner’s documentary filmmaker tries to explain to lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel that if his one amplifier’s 10 setting were the highest, it would be as effective as his other that “goes to 11.”

“So you won’t give me directions?” I’d given the rental agency’s corporate lackey more than enough of my time and all of my patience.

“Um… uh… wait just a moment, sir…” There is that moment upon meeting a strange dog when you discover that the canine is not friendly. The agent was experiencing that moment.

He called over the other two puppets also working the parking area. I could hear the conversation as they approached.

“This guy wants directions to the Staples Center.”

“Didn’t you offer him a GPS?”

“Well, yeah, but he says he just wants directions.”

“Yessir, how may I help you.” Ah, the puppet master, I thought, though holding little hope that the issue would be resolved soon.

“I need directions to the Staples Center in Los Angeles.” I sternly replied.

“We can provide you with a—”

I don’t want a GPS. I just need directions. Don’t you have maps available for customers?” Should I hold his hand while I’m at it?

A light seem to go on in his head; I could almost hear his personal band of angels singing the “Hallelujah” chorus. “Ah, maps are available for purchase at the reservation desk.”

“You don’t provide single-sheet portable maps for the convenience of your customers?” My stress on convenience—more than suggesting that trying to sell something to your client is not the same thing as servicing them—seem to do the trick, though I’m sure the restrained rage and timber of my voice contributed. The patsy-in-charge scurried into the kiosk and began rummaging around like a rat routing through garbage. He emerged a few minutes later with—lo and behold—a map. Of course, neither he nor his two underlings had a clue how to use a map (They probably get lost each morning on the way to the garage; after all, their GPS is in the car!), but fortunately, I did (…ancient lore passed to me by my dad who received the knowledge from his father…).

Now, if only I could remain on course with this posting…

Meanwhile, back in the past, a cheerful agent happily gave me directions and a map, and I was on the road before you could say, “Would you like to rent a GPS?”

Next: Is That a Thing in Your Garment Bag or Are You Just Happy to See Me?

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Thing Is, Part I: Grimm Beginning

I’ve oft mentioned, Spider-Man gigs were primarily distributed amongst actor according to geographic location. There were two major offices, one in New York—the headquarters natch!—and Los Angeles, with a couple of satellites in Chicago and Dallas. All but the New York office, where Marvel Comics was located, were talent agencies out of which actors were booked to portray the characters.

Of course there were a few exceptions:

• If a particular actor was requested specifically by a client for an appearance out of the normal jurisdiction of the office that would usually handle the gig and said client was willing to pay the extra expense incurred by the additional travel, as was the case with my trip to Edmonton where I met the nefarious Darwin

• Marvel corporate was part-sponsor of, or hosting an event, in which case only the cream of the character crop were selected for the job regardless of where it was taking place and whence the actors were coming

• An exceptionally busy day in an area necessitated the use of an actor outside his/her territory… but the potential employer would have to agree to foot the increased financial burden of the gig, making this scenario a rarity

• The actor was picking up the tab, because he/she was journeying to that part of the country—whether for vacation or to visit family—at the time of the appearance and wanted to help defray the cost of their trip

It was on account of this final reason that I had the opportunity to perform at the San Diego Comic Con on several occasions.

San Diego Comic Con—now officially Comic Con International, although no one ever refers to the show by that name—is the biggest comic book show in the United States. Many argue, however, that the comic book aspect on which the convention was founded is fading fast into oblivion, pushed aside by movie and TV studios exploiting the event to whore their latest projects.

Initially, these exploitive efforts were welcome, because the products that were being marketed were comic-centric. For example, the year that The Rocketeer—based on the exemplary comic by the late Dave Stevens—was released, Disney held an advance screening in conjunction with the show. But the past years’ SDCC featured major pushes for such non-comics–related movies as the Get Smart! remake, and TV shows such as Fox’s Glee, Showtime’s Dexter and the Discovery Channel’s Mythbusters! And these were only a few of the more egregious examples. There were many more that had only a tenuous connection to comic books. Starz, for example, promoted their new series Spartacus: Blood and Sand, because it comes from Sam “Xena, Warrior Princess” Raimi, who also directed the Spider-Man films.

But in the early 90s when I was attending/working the con, it was still a relatively fledgling event with an attendance figure in the neighborhood of twenty thousand people, a far cry from the 125,000 attendees of 2008 and 2009 (125,000 is the San Diego Convention Center’s maximum capacity, so unless/until the site expands, that number should remain unchanged.), but a bump from the year prior and considered a great success. It remains the brass ring of comic events, one that every fan hopes to “grab” at some point. I was no different.

With the oodles of frequent-flyer miles I was accumulating from my web-swinging escapades, I began to exchange them for free flights to San Diego, where I would appear at the show. Marvel footed the bill for hotel accommodations, since they would have had to supply a room for an actor out of the Los Angeles office anyway. So not only was the trip free, but I also made money and got to go to the con to boot! It was a win/win situation for Marvel, too, as they not only saved money on airfare for their Spidey, but also got one of the elite character appearance actors from the home office (Humility, thy name is Vroom!).

In the summer of 1994 my then girlfriend (now wife), Audrey, and I planned a vacation to San Diego. Although our trip coincided with the San Diego Comic Con, I had no intention of working it. We both loved the area and intended on playing tourist. Audrey was not a comics aficionado anyway. As a clothing designer, she appreciated the art form and saw its appeal, but it just wasn’t her bailiwick. She certainly wasn’t about to devote her vacation time pent up in a convention hall surrounded by Klingons and Storm Troopers perusing old funny books. Still, she was willing to cede me a day or two at the show, while she lay on the beach or shopped, unencumbered by my incessantly asking “Are you done yet?”

Cue ominous fade-out music…

Unbeknownst to me, Marvel Productions Ltd. was working on a new animated series, called The Marvel Action Hour, which would feature cartoons of the Fantastic Four and Iron Man and was scheduled to debut in September, less than two months after San Diego Comic Con. Although both properties were considered two of Marvel’s premiere titles among the comic book literati—the former the unquestionable Grande Dame of the Marvel Universe, the series that helped define the Silver Age of comics and the one that begat the Incredible Hulk and Spider-Man, and led to the rebirth of Captain America—neither achieved the renown of the Friendly Neighborhood Web-Swinger, Green Behemoth or Red-White-and-Blue Avenger.

Previous attempts at animated series for both were lackluster. The late ’60s saw rudimentary cartoons that aired alongside renditions of the aforementioned Marvel characters, the theme songs of which are arguably more known and beloved than the ’toons themselves. Who doesn’t remember the (in)famous “Spider-Man, Spider-Man… Does whatever a spider can…” or “When Captain America throws his mighty shield… all those you chose to oppose his shield must yield…” ’toon tunes? The episodes, though, seemed like nothing more than crudely animated cut-outs of the comic book art, with the same panels used and reused ad infinitum throughout each series. South Park appears Disney-esque in comparison. But for Marvel geeks thirsting for media tie-ins and licensed product of their cherished characters, the cartoons were a tall glass of water.

In 1978, there was another try at a Fantastic Four animated series. It was/is summarily dismissed by fans for its replacement of member Human Torch with the loathed robot H.E.R.B.I.E. (Humanoid Experimental Robot, B-type, Integrated Electronics—Talk about a stretch for an acronym!). Rumor had it that NBC executives feared the potential repercussions of children setting themselves afire in an attempt to emulate their flaming hero. Hence, the Human Torch’s exclusion. In truth, at the time the rights to use the character were tied up in a movie that was never produced, so the Human Torch was unavailable.

Contrarily, Iron Man never got another series. But he did guest star in an episode of Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends—which debuted in 1981—to help Spidey, Iceman and Firestar defeat the Beetle, a feeble felon that the Wall-Crawler handily defeated by his lonesome several times over in the comics. So why Iron Man called upon to help battle the sub-par scofflaw, well… dem’s cartoons for ya!

Next: The word is given, drinking problems and getting directions…