Friday, August 23, 2013

Ceiling Fans or My Movie with the Man Who Killed Spidey

I have to thank former Marvel colleague, writer Dan Slot, for this posting. It was he who reminded me of the incident, when I stopped by his table at a Big Apple Con a while back. I was a bit taken aback by the lack of attention the comic scribe garnered. It’s not as if he were secluded in a corner of the floor. His table was located just to the right of the main entrance—you couldn’t miss him!

Well, maybe you could! A cross between Danny DeVito and a minion, Slott isn’t much taller, and no less stocky. He has an endearing cherubic face and a Muppet eyebrow, which belie the mischievous twinkle in his eyes. It was sinful that Slott wasn’t fronted by a horde of fans. He’d been writing for Marvel and DC, since 1992, with a successful revival of She-Hulk and a Great Lakes Avengers limited series. Unfortunately, his attempts at relaunching a Thing—the rocky member of the Fantastic Four—comic were not as good, despite a snarky attempt to rally readers with a “Pull my Thing” campaign (in comic-shop vernacular, frequent buyers create “pull” lists, from which the store reserves selected titles before they’re put on the shelves).

The momentary low didn’t deter Slott, however. He went on to become one of a rotating crew of scribes on Amazing Spider-Man; wrote Avengers: Initiative, which led to his picking up the writing duties on Mighty Avengers after fan-favorite Brian Michael Bendis’s departure; and had recently become the sole regular scribe on Amazing, when I saw him.

Had anyone realized the 380º turn the diminutive writer’s reputation would take less than a year later, they not only would’ve been mobbing his area, but also clamoring for his head! Dan is now one of the hottest and most notorious, writers in comics, as much beloved as he is vilified. Why? Perhaps you heard in the news recently about the death of everyone’s favorite neighborhood Spider-Man. That was dastardly Dan’s doing. 
And merely offing Peter Parker wasn’t good enough for the whimsically wicked wordsmith. Oh, no… As he lay dying, Dr. Otto Octavius, better known as the Web-Spinner’s multi-appendaged foe, Dr. Octopus, transferred his mind with Parker’s at the exact instant the Grim Reaper swung his scythe. In essence, Octavius became both Parker and Spider-Man, destroying his hated nemesis, while also depriving him the respect and mourning of his loved ones. That’s just plain nasty!

To add insult to injury, Marvel canceled Webhead’s signature title, Amazing Spider-Man, first released in 1962, and replaced it with Superior Spider-Man. Superior?! As if to say Doc Ock’s super-arachnid, whose only accomplishment at the time was ending the life of one of Earth’s greatest heroes, is better than the original model, he who’d only saved the planet and countless lives for more than five decades. Why not just spit on Spidey’s fans and piss on his grave. Oh, wait. You can’t. He doesn’t have a grave!

Contrary to the seeming vitriol of my previous paragraphs, I’m far from joining the Slott-Hater bandwagon. Sure, I consider the radical writer my friend, but I honestly don’t have a problem with the way he’s treated the Wondrous Web-Swinger. After all, one of the character’s signature aspects is his continued heroism, not only in the face of overwhelming odds, but also whilst his unmasked Regular Joe self deals with a life seemingly crumbling around him.

But Spidey’s dead! you’re thinking. What greater obstacle to overcome? His demise also calls into question the hero’s raison d’être, that being “With great power comes great responsibility.” Does that sacred creed hold true after death? And how does a once nefarious ne’er-do-well like Dr. Octopus deal with the onus of such responsibility. Will Webhead’s legacy ultimately prove to be Doc’s undoing?

I also don’t believe for a second that Peter Parker is gone for good. Seriously, people?! Fellow comics cognoscenti should be ashamed of themselves. Have we not learned anything in the past fifty years. Times were, if there wasn’t a body, you could be assured the character wasn’t dead. Marvel’s obituary section stood at three entries for decades, encompassing Parker’s Uncle Ben; first love, Gwen Stacy; and Captain America’s Golden Age kid sidekick, Bucky. In fact, whenever a character “died,” the cynical response was, “But are they Bucky dead?” meaning truly having entered the Pearly Gates. Even that rule was shattered during writer Ed Brubaker’s run on Cap a few years back when the scribe brought Bucky back as the Winter Soldier, the storyline of which will be featured in the upcoming second film of the Red-White-and-Blue Avenger. Suddenly, “Bucky dead” meant bupkes.

More heinous was the resurrection of Uncle Ben a few years back. Ben’s death at the hands of a burglar, whom Peter had allowed to escape due to his selfish intention of using his newly acquired spider abilities for fame and fortune, led to the youth’s realization about the relationship between power and responsibility. His uncle’s return was a slap in the face of the Wall-Crawler’s basis for being!

So to all you so-called Spidey-o-phile nay-sayer’s, I say, “Get over it!” Enjoy the ride. The character’s been mired in mediocrity for years, and hasn’t raised this much contentious behavior since the ignominious Clone Saga of the 90s. Heck, it’s not as if our woebegone Web-Swinger hasn’t been killed and replaced before. Kraven the Hunter did the deed in the epic six-part “Kraven’s Last Hunt,” which ran through all three of the awesome arachnid’s titles, Amazing, Spectacular and Web of Spider-Man back in the late 80s. And in that scintillating saga, our bedeviled hero actually was buried!

The death of Gwen Stacy, the original clone story and its more notorious sequel thirty years later, the infamous black costume, Peter Parker’s wedding, the “One More Day” storyline; these and many others have been some people’s excuse to bellyache and bemoan the demise of their Spider-Man, when, in fact, they have done no such thing. All the stories still exist, and will long after the Web-Slinger has truly “shuffled off this mortal coil.”

As for the members of the hoi polloi who are grabbing their torches and pitchforks to storm the Marvel offices over the death of Spider-Man, you are no better than your geek counterparts in your misplaced hysteria. I have three words for you: DEATH… OF… SUPERMAN. Given all the import of a terrorist attack with no less the sensationalism, the media stoked into a conflagration what would normally be a minor news item buried in the celebrity gossip segment of their broadcasts on any other day with a modicum of activity. DC wasn’t just offing a fictional superhero, they were killing baseball, hot dogs and Mom’s apple pie, the American Dream, in one fell swoop. HOW DARE THEY?!

At the same time these Superman aficionado wannabes were descrying DC, they were buying up and hoarding copies of the seminal issue like gasoline in Mad Max, thinking they could parlay their purchase into tuition for their children a few years thence. I tried to explain the worthlessness of this Man of Steel milestone to the colleague of a friend of mine I was visiting during the height of the hullabaloo. She had just come into the office exalting her purchase of a copy, like she’d been one of the first to snag a Cabbage Patch doll.

As respectfully as I could, given the bile rising in my throat over the speculative hyperbole, I explained to her the comic was worth little more than the paper it was printed on. She would have none of that, citing Action Comics #1, the poster child for comic speculation due to its exponential rise in worth every year—even copies in extremely low condition sell for several hundred thousand dollars—as proof of her savvy investment.

Released in 1938, the sacred tome introduced Superman, the first ever superhero. Born in an age when comics were in their infancy and viewed as little more than cheap entertainment, and then sacrificed by the boatloads during the paper drives of WWII, there are few more than a dozen copies of Action Comics #1 in existence, never mind the one or two copies in better-than-shitty grade. Contrarily, DC shipped between 2.5 and 3 million copies of the “Death of Superman” issue, a large percentage of which were being hermetically sealed in Mylar and boarded with archival materials. To equate the two would be like comparing the Holy Grail to a Dixie Cup.

My calm rationale was greeted with the kind of look Homer Simpson gave Lurleen Lumpkin as she suggestively sang “Bunk with Me” to him. But unlike the famous animated Fox patriarch, my target never got the subtext of the message. “But this is the ‘Death of Superman’” she blurted with sudden finality as if I were the one who didn’t “get it,” before turning away and ending the conversation. I would imagine she’s since discovered that the only educational institution she can afford for her children from her “wise” investment is the School of Hard Knocks!

Which brings us back to Slott, whose career began in the early ’90s at Marvel, first as an intern, then as an assistant under Editor Fabian Nicieza. “Under” would not be an exaggeration. The young wannabe scribe followed Nicieza like Marley padded after his master. He was equally as loveable as exasperating, incessantly yammering story ideas and humorous anecdotes whether the beleaguered editor was listening or not. No wonder he was pegged as the writer for the Ren & Stimpy comic, which debuted in 1992, bagged with a scratch ’n’ sniff air “fouler.” The rascally raconteur proved the perfect fit for the popular animated pair, and the title’s subsequent success launched Slott’s career.

We’d begun reminiscing about out days at Marvel, when I’d asked him if he were interested in contributing something to the “Closet” as a guest writer. It was at that moment, a fan stopped by, and having overheard our speaking of working at Marvel, understandably asked if I’d worked at the House of Ideas, too.

“He was Spider-Man,” Slott chimed in.

Ever wary of people’s reactions when my former alter-ego is revealed, I quickly and succinctly explained that I was a character actor for Marvel at the same time Slott was interning.

“Cool!” the fan responded, genuinely impressed.

Our short exchange, however, prompted Slott’s recollection of his own “favorite Steve/Spidey story.”

Cue flashback graphics and sound effects... 

When I wasn’t on the road Web-Spinning or at the gym, I was hanging out at Marvel, kibbitzing with editors and trying to get writing assignments. Sure, being the company’s mascot helped in my getting more than a foot in the door, but it also proved to stigmatize my being seen as anything but “the guy who plays Spider-Man.” I often felt I wasn’t taken as seriously as others, whose vocation was strictly “writer.” Still, I cajoled my way into steady work penning articles for Marvel Age and eventually sold a Spider-Man story, which is an epic waiting in the wings.

More important, my Marvel colleagues were also my friends. So when someone snagged a block of tickets to an advanced preview of The Babe, starring John Goodman as the legendary Yankees slugger, I was asked if I’d like to go. A free movie? With my cohorts? Hell, I’d go to a documentary on quilting if it meant hanging out with friends (I’m just asking for it from the Etsy crowd!). The pass was actually a baseball card featuring John Goodman as the titular baseball star. It was a neat souvenir and hoped I wouldn’t have to cede it at the door to get in.

The cinema hosting the screening was several blocks further east than the Marvel offices on Park Ave. South. Anyone familiar with braving such an event knows the promoters give out far more passes than there are seats in the theater to ensure a full room. Entry is determined on a first come, first serve basis, so one has to get to the theater at least an hour beforehand, depending on the movie. Films with more buzz will draw an earlier and far greater crowd, but even the most obscure pictures usually have a mob waiting to get in… usually!

The Marvel group convened outside the theater at 6 PM for the 7 PM screening, and there wasn’t another sole in sight. In fact, the usher didn’t even bother to look at the passes, never mind take them as we entered. The disinterest in a free movie in a city of ten million people did not bode well for the quality of the pic. The internet was still a few years off, but the film’s reputation was such that, even in an age of relatively primitive word-spreading, its awfulness carried like wildfire, and this was without online trailers, Ain’t It Cool and its ilk, social media of any kind, email or texting; literally word-of-mouth. Considering The Babe hadn’t opened yet, I can only assume Siskel and Ebert gave it an enthusiastic “thumbs down” on At the Movies earlier in the week, and their opinions were gospel.

“We'd walk out on this movie in an airplane.”

The cinema was empty. Our party traipsed in and centered ourselves, leaning back and draping our legs over the seats before us, like we owned the place. Only two other people arrived: a pair of teenage girls who plopped their asses in the row in front of ours. Fortunately, they were short enough and the seats reclined enough that their obstruction was minimal. But the fact, they would choose the seats that they did should have alerted us to the type of people they were.

As is the wont of comic geeks whenever there is so much as two seconds to rub together, we began talking about our obsession. We weren’t especially loud, but the movie hadn’t started yet, so we weren’t exactly whispering either.

“Y’all talking about funny books?” asked one of the teens, spinning around to face us. It was only then we noticed the Southern drawl, because unlike her, we were not eavesdropping on the conversations of strangers. Her question was full of the kind of disgust four-color aficionados used to endure when exposed by the hoi polloi. I’m not sure if she was actually curious or was just trying to shut us up in a backhanded way. Her BFF may not have had the audacity to comment, but her complicity in her friend’s behavior was clearly evident in her unabashed giggling.

In the late 90s, I worked as the Marketing Manager for the second coming of Valiant, purchased by Acclaim Entertainment soon before. Just prior to the home office closing the comics division only a few years later, editorial planned on releasing “Varmints,” written by Dan Slott with art by Mike Kazalah, as part of a children’s digest-size anthology series.

Bless his naïve little heart, Slott perceived only interest where there was vitriol, and boy, do nerds love to share their passion. No less Slott, who proceeded to introduce himself as though he were filling out an application for eHarmony.

“I’m Dan and I’m an assistant editor at Marvel Comics,” he replied cheerily.

“Yeah, what does that do?” Again with the attitude, this time mixed with a generous helping of skepticism, the grammatical cluster-fuck of the sentence not withstanding.

Slott was undeterred, like a Mormon undertaking his assigned mission in a particularly adverse region of the world. “I basically help the editor in getting the books out on time; assist in gathering the artwork, send it to the inker, then to the letterer; I read fan mail for the books I work on, then pull the best ones and piece them together for the monthly letters page; I field calls from prospective talent…” The diminutive Slott seemed determined to kill this harpy and her mute mate with kindness.

“My butt!” the girl snarked.

Perhaps it was that playful twinkle in Slott’s eyes; the oh-so-pinchable cheeks; the ever-present friendly demeanor, more pronounced in the face of such hostility; that inspired his office mates, but regardless, without prompting, the next Marvelite in the row piped in, taking up the baton Slott so ably handed them.

“I’m Pat Garrahy. I’m also an assistant editor, as well as a colorist…”

“Yeah, what does that do?” Apparently, we’d covered the breadth of the girl’s vocabulary, if not her ill-manner.

But again, my colleagues were exemplary. Pat proudly discussed his duties without the faintest nuance of annoyance.

And again, “My butt!” was the answer to his generous efforts.

This continued down the line. One after another—Renée Witterstatter, Tim Tuohy, Mark Bernardo—my comic compadres persevered, introducing themselves and sharing their respective tasks and the comics on which they worked, to the ungrateful whelps before them. Each name and job title elicited a dubious “Yeah, what does that do?” and each description prompted a venomous “My butt!”

As fate would have it, I was seated at the endcap of the row and closest to these hillbillies. I didn’t share in the enthusiasm of my friends toward them, who increasingly showed that their worth added up to little more than a central position in the “Evolution of Man” charts one sees on classroom walls and in natural history books.

My mood grew darker as the dog and pony show progressed, seeming to accelerate as it drew closer. The tap of the t from the penultimate “butt” still hung in the air when, with palpable inevitability, the demon seed twins turned their vindictive gaze toward me.

“I’m Spider-Man and I web little shits like you to the ceiling…”

In stunned silence, the harridans slowly turned back in their seats. They didn’t move, nor peep, for the entirety of the film, and scurried out of the theater as the final frame before the credits flashed upon the screen.

In costume, hero I may be, but Vroom! suffers fools lightly!