Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Miracle Pictographs
    Graphic Novel Reviews by Spencer Ellsworth
March 2008

Peter, if I catch you eating flies again…

Ultimate Spider-Man: Ultimate Collection, Madman: Volume One

A sure sign of the Apocalypse, my mom has called several times in the past month to ask which comics would be appropriate for her junior-high school classroom. I was a big man and I resisted the temptation to say, "You want to expose your students to violence-inducing porn lite?" (Well, I resisted the temptation until I put it in an internet column. Sorry, Mom.) My parents encouraged my reading, but my mother was a bit suspicious of the comics. It's part of an old motherly tradition that includes such stories as J. Michael Straczynski's, in which, after a bad report card, his parents tore up all his original Spider-Man, Fantastic Four and X-Men comics, saying, "You'll thank us for this."

Sadly -- no, wait, I mean happily -- this deep and abiding tradition between parents and children is on its way out. Yes, brothers and sisters, English programs across the country are including Watchmen and Maus on their reading lists for required classes. Literary critics laud graphic novels like Adrian Tomine's Shortcomings. And seriously, a number of studies have shown that comic book readers not only read as much as non-comic readers, they actually read more. Another study has shown that comics, on average, contain more rare words than one can acquire through conversation. (For some exhausting detail on comic books and their effect on children's reading levels, google Joanne Ujiie and Stephen Krashen's article where I got this stuff.)

Unaware of all this social awareness, I purchased the first Ultimate Spider-Man for my eleven-year old brother a few years ago. He read it and did a week's worth of chores in a day to earn enough money for the second one. Let me recap: an eleven-year-old wanted to read something so badly he did chores for it. If you thought, like most people with eyes, that the 2001 Spider-Man movie was great, then you're cheating yourself by not reading Ultimate Spider-Man, especially now that the first two volumes have been collected in the very affordable Ultimate Collection. It's like the movies, only with more time and a bigger budget. It's also pretty much the comic version of what might happen if the people behind Lost or Heroes decided to make a weekly series about Spidey.

The idea of Marvel's Ultimate Line is an updated version of their classic heroes. Peter Parker in USM is still a geeky high schooler, but his Uncle Ben and Aunt May are aging hippies, and have given him a financially poor but emotionally rich life. This time, when Peter gains his powers, it's not from an irradiated spider, as in Stan Lee's version (we have learned that open displays of radiation just might be dangerous) but by a genetically altered spider, a tactic the film took up. When Peter gets a job at the Daily Bugle, he uses his photos of Spider-Man just to get in the door, and ends up troubleshooting their website. And, most modern of all, when Peter uses his spider-powers to strike back at his school tormentors, the parents of the beaten kid sue Peter's aunt and uncle. By taking up the wrestling gig, Peter uses the money to help his aunt and uncle out.

Stories that work, like Spider-Man's origin, can be retold every few generations with just as much power, as long as they're tailored to the audience. In the original tale, the police confronted Peter outside his uncle and aunt's house and simply said, "Bad news, son. Your uncle's been shot -- murdered!" I remember reading that moment when I was eight years old. It had weight and power, even though it read a little hokey at the time. But with a lot more space to tell the story, Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley paint the heartbreak in moving detail. It's a series of face shots, Bagley's strength, of Peter's Aunt May as she relates the story of the break-in. She stutters as she talks about the burglar pointing a gun at Ben and Ben's response, chuckling, "You probably have more money than we do," and then the fatal shot.

In the second part, as Peter gets the inevitable job at the Daily Bugle, he becomes personally involved with one reporter's attempt to take down Wilson Fisk, the "Kingpin of Crime." Again it's a beautiful update of the original story, in which Peter, before he takes on any costumed maniacs, attacks the force that is moving drugs and weapons through the inner city. And -- even better -- Peter screws it up. Horribly. In fact, he screws it up so badly that the Kingpin's enforcers knock him out, rip his mask off ("It's just some kid. Do you recognize him?" "No.") and throw him out the window. Peter barely manages to grab onto the side of the building, and slides down a massive window in full view of a huge party.

He doesn't quit. Peter does a little research and goes back to search through the Kingpin's security disks to find something incriminating he can take back to the Bugle. And when confronted by the rather large Wilson Fisk, he stands his ground in a beautifully teenage Spider-Man way. "I've got some things to say to you, mister big-time Kingpin. Ahem. First of all -- you are so fat that when you cut yourself shaving, marshmallow fluff comes out."

The story is perfect, and the art nearly lives up to it. Mark Bagley is an old hand at Spider-Man. He actually gained his gig with Marvel when he completed the art in the Official Marvel Try-Out Book at the tender age of twenty-seven (cue my inferiority complex) and had a long run on Amazing Spider-Man before the Ultimate gig, on his main title. Bagley's art has become the archetypal Spider-Man, but he manages to one-up himself and create an Ultimate Spidey that looks like a skinny teenager, a different and younger Spidey than we're used to. Most of the time Bagley's art is full of movement and his expressions glower or grin off the page. Every so often the figures do look a little too posed, though, and Bagley's dynamism is sacrificed for what looks like a rush job. His speedy pace does mean that you can collect up to fifteen volumes of Ultimate Spider-Man while some other comics launched at the same time are languishing.

If there's an eleven-year-old in your life, I can think of nothing better to do for them than to hand over the Ultimate Collection. Or perhaps your mother. I have recently purchased the first six volumes for her, again proving that the end is near.

In my California high school, there was this odd sort of agreement that we couldn't actually come out and say that something was brilliant. I loved Pink Floyd and the Beatles, but I just got strange looks when I said they were geniuses. "No, dude," my devotedly stoner friends would exclaim, "you know those guys are on something." Never mind that they put in hours of practice, or that psychedelic drugs actually make it harder to play instruments. My friends, who went through most of life in a haze, were quite convinced that there could be no inspiration without drugs.

Just for the pot-smoking children of Lancaster, California, then, Mike Allred, creator of Madman, despite the fact that he's a devoted Mormon, must be on something.

Madman follows an existentially-challenged reanimated corpse, punningly named Frank Einstein, as he attempts to save the professors who created him from the consequences of their own experiments, and, as he explores love with his girlfriend Joe. The comic careens from hilarious violence as Frank takes out "street beatniks" with his trusty yo-yo to moments of philosophizing, like "It's weird to think that I'm stuck by gravity to the surface of a spinning object. What if gravity failed? What if we all started spinning off into the sky? How long would we live?"

As we travel through the yo-yo-action-packed story, we learn that Frank pulled out the plugs in his neck meant to help him retain stability. As a result, he's suffered a bit of a breakdown, only alleviated when he wears his "Mister Excitement" superhero costume. In Volume One, Frank attempts to reunite his creators, Doctor Boiffard and Doctor Flem, and help them stop their archenemy Doctor Monstadt. Problem is, Doctor Boiffard is dead and packed in ice, and Doctor Flem is needed to reanimate Boiffard, but Flem is dealing with his own problems as an army of his corrupted clones terrorize the neighborhood. One of the clones bites Doctor Flem, spreading the "clone disease," and to preserve his body Frank has to cut off the doctor's head and immerse it in a special liquid to keep it alive. And it gets more complicated. The evil Doctor Monstadt has stolen Frank's true love, Joe. But with his trusty yo-yo and costume, Frank defeats Monstadt's goons and even gets the girl by the end.

Mike Allred's stories are like that roast someone served to you once. You remember. It looked like your grandmother's and you thought it would taste like your grandmother's, same old reliable thing, but it was the most wonderful thing you'd ever had. He mixes in odd spices that go together somehow, like philosophizing with action, or telepathy with romance. And his art is perfect. Clean and dynamic, but with a pop-art feel that gives Frank and his compatriots a look as though they were plucked from a Norman Rockwell painting, reduced to bare outlines and animated by a studio of runaway Pixar animators determined to spoil someone's childhood.

Again, it might be that you know a certain eleven-year-old who is in need of something to read, something perhaps that teaches the dangers of street beatniks or the relationship between power and responsibility. Or maybe you know an eleven-year-old who you wish would read anything. I have your solution, brothers and sisters, and even my mother agrees. Comics are the wave of the future. Ride it.

Next ish: No title yet, but word has it there will be explosions, a hail of bullets, and some heavy breathing. Stay tuned.

Read more by Spencer Ellsworth

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