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…


John III said...

Ahh yes, the nefarious Beetle. Supervillian of Supervillans. King of Evil.


Vroom! said...

I actually don't mind a lot of the silly characters, villains and heroes alike. They offer a refreshing respite from the dark, grim and gritty tone that pervades comics these days. Unfortunately, the comic nabobs are deeming them unworthy and either killing them or transforming them into psychopaths.

Would it kill them to just leave these characters alone; ignore them, until a talented writer wants to bring them back in a clever way? I miss the original beetle costume with the elongated suction-cup fingers and shell-casing helmet. Now that was a goofy-looking costume!

Thanks, John!