Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Miracle Pictographs
    Graphic Novel Reviews by Spencer Ellsworth
October 2010

My hammer doth fly of itself, if ye know what I meaneth.

Thor Disassembled (Marvel 2006), The Sad State of Spider-Man

I don't care if he carries around a magic hammer, speaks in Elizabethan, and has flowing golden locks. I don't care if he resembles Fabio and likes sleeveless shirts.

I love Thor.

And let's make one thing clear: he could kick Superman's red-clad tuchus across the galaxy. Even if you ignore the fact that Superman is vulnerable to magic, there is the fact that Thor has a hammer and Superman only has his fists. One hammer blow to the head and it's over, folks. And if Superman is stupid enough to fight Thor in the atmosphere, Thor has gale-force winds at his disposal. Can you fly through that, Clark? And don't take about heat vision -- we're discussing a guy who is the master of lightning. Thor can take a little heat.

Ahem.

Let's wait a moment for that miasma of geekery to clear . . .

Stan Lee and Jack Kirby supposedly came up with Thor after they had churned out the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Hulk, Iron Man and a couple dozen others, Lee reasoning "What's next but a god?"

As a superhero, Thor is incredibly counterintuitive. His purple dialogue ("my hammer striketh in the service of justice, and in that cause the God of Thunder doth dare anything!") is the most obvious off-putter, but his supporting cast is also made up of fellow gods and goddesses who get bored if they're not battling Frost Giants. He occasionally turns into a human with normal speech patterns, notably Donald Blake, Jake Olson or Eric Masterson, but more often he is himself, high diction and all. Lee and Kirby were going so fast and riding such sudden success that I doubt they ever stopped to think what a bizarre guy they were introducing to their comics world.

Thor even has religious followers. The Ultimate Thor, while modernized, is a spiritual leader: a "pacifist with a big scary hammer" complete with his faithful group. Marvel 2099 has the Thorites and a few anachronistic Vikings still turn up, praying right to Blondie.

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Marvel's version has never been all that faithful to the dimwitted brute of Norse mythology, and few writers have bothered to incorporate more than a surface pass over the myths. Marvel's Thor engages in heroic struggles against Loki, the seductive Enchantress, and a bevy of Jack Kirby's old monsters. Norse Thor, in his more famous exploits, was tricked into doffing women's clothes by Loki. Marvel has "Balder the Brave" while the Norse Baldur is a peaceful, gleaming Christ figure. Marvel Sif is a warrior woman, single and lusty with raven tresses, while the Norse Sif had a proper set of Nordic golden locks and spent a lot of her time caring for Thor's children while her red-bearded husband was out killing trolls.

It's easy to ignore Thor's real myths and keep him a straight superhero. Plenty of writers have written decent Thor stories without really touching the myth, Tom DeFalco and Dan Jurgens being two notable examples, but two legendary Thor writers have given the comic a rich bouquet of myth and made their stories stand apart. Walter Simonson is the most famous. Michael Avon Oeming, who wrote Disassembled, is the other.

In the prologue to Disassembled, Loki steals the infamous mold in which Thor's hammer was made, forging his own weapons of the mystical Uru metal. Loki's attack promptly shatters the walls of Asgard, and as Thor strikes back, his hammer is met with four or five other hammers, cracking Mjolnir in half.


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Loki casts Thor to the depths of the Asgardian sea to be devoured by the Midgard Serpent, but Thor escapes to Earth, to the embrace of his fellow Avengers, and aided by them, he returns to Asgard to find it wasted by Loki's attack, and, most fatefully, Balder slain by a familiar piece of mistletoe . . .

Longtime Thor readers are well aware of the Ragnarok story; it gets pulled out every fifty to one hundred issues. Balder has died a good five or six times. Fenris the wolf gets loosed every other issue. Naglfar, the ship made of dead men's fingernails, has been lurking in the background ever since the mid-80s. So despite the wasteland that Asgard has become in Disassembled, the longtime reader won't really get the "wow" factor until well into the fourth chapter, in which Thor retires to the high seat of Hidskjalf to foresee and hopefully stave off the Doom of Asgard.

Things change.

I can't tell you how. I can't tell you why, or give away any more than I already have. Let me just say that no Thor comic, ever, has really gotten the meaning of Ragnarok like this one.

Germanic and Norse myths are essentially fatalistic. Like the ravens that represented Odin's sight, the whole Nordic world lived for death: a world caught between crushing ice and blazing fire, its death already woven on the Norns' loom.

So at the end of Disassembled, when . . . okay, I can't tell you it all, but when Thor makes a decision that utterly changes Marvel Asgard as we know it, forever and ever, you will be stunned and shocked and you might just think that, rather than a Marvel comic, you just read a good old Nordic Thor tale. For once, Thor isn't anachronistic. He makes a decision based on power and fate, those primal Viking values. It transcends superhero conventions and becomes truly mythic.

Andrea DiVito's art is big and poetic, full of statuesque heroes and beautiful settings both pristine and wasted. The city of Asgard, the land of the light-elves, and the frenetic battles of Ragnarok have been tall orders for thousands of artists throughout history. DiVito, though, brings a grandeur all her own to each scene, and her final battle with the legions of Sutur's fiery demons is worthy of nine worlds of gasps.

Next summer we shall get a glorious Thorapalooza, with the upcoming movie directed by Kenneth Branagh. Seriously! Kenneth Branagh is directing a superhero movie. Sblood and zounds, it staggereth the imagination. I'm going to be there on the first day, and I might just bring my magic hammer.

Um . . . okay, well, given that "you want to see my magic hammer?" will probably get me arrested, I think I will leave it at home.

Moving on . . .

Oh, Spider-Man.

No hero in comics gets so kicked around, beat up and picked on . . . by his editors. (Also, no other comic character has received so many words per Pictograph from me.) In about the worst story ever written, solely to satisfy a dubious minority of the audience, the 2007 One More Day story erased Spider-Man's marriage through a deal Peter made with the devil.

[Warning: this is a long one. If you thought that paragraph about Thor beating Superman was bad . . .]

Almost three years later, Spidey's comic has rattled on through a heap of stories wherein Peter is portrayed as either a lazy jerk, a selfish jerk, or by-the-numbers joking Spidey with little meat to his personality, despite some spectacular talent on the books.

Peter isn't allowed to grow as a character, so that's what you get, even from the likes of Mark Waid.

The most recent Spidey story, One Moment In Time, was the long-awaited (also long-dreaded) move by Marvel to try and explain the consequences of the marriage's disappearance on Marvel continuity. I can't do a "proper" review of One Moment in Time, since I just read it in the aisles of my local store. I won't spend money on a Spider-Man comic, barring the alternate-continuity Ultimate Spider-Man and Spider-Girl.

One Moment in Time explains what "now really happened" on the day of the Spider-Marriage, redubbing the art right out of Amazing Spider-Man Annual #21, when they were wedded. Only in this new timeline, Spider-Man got knocked out by a random crook for a few hours and missed his wedding.


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(You might not get this if you don't read a lot of comics. Writers and editors are constantly finding cheats to rewrite their characters' history. Besides a deal with Mephisto, I've seen multiversal crises, time wars, and just plain "this is how it really happened because we said so." In any case, your average comic book character's past is more subject to revision than Great-Grandpa's war stories.)

The crook part is pretty silly. A fat thug falls on top of Spider-Man and they land a few stories below and he's out for three hours? This from a guy who's fought the Hulk?

But the rest of the first chapter of One Moment in Time is actually good, showing how Spidey and MJ's marriage might have gone wrong and the stupid decisions they could have made based on wedding jitters. There is a telling moment where Mary Jane overhears Harry Osborne and Flash Thompson talking about her man-eater personality, predicting that the marriage to meek Peter will last six months.

Peter finds the abandoned bride once he comes to. She isn't mad, but she realizes that she doesn't want to get married, not now, not until she can come to terms with his commitment as Spidey and what it might mean for their relationship and their future and even possibly their kids. She still has tickets for their honeymoon in France, and she still wants to be with him, so off they go, together but not married.

All in all, this works. This might have even been the best way to deal with the marriage way back when. I remember the kinds of things that seemed like huge life problems when I was first married/engaged, and I laugh a little at how easily I was spooked.

But if Peter and MJ lived together as the new continuity says they did, they would have gotten married eventually. She knew his identity since they were both in high school, and the on again/off again relationship through the huge changes in both of their lives gave them a special understanding of each other.

Instead, as One Moment in Time goes on and Peter reveals his identity during Civil War, MJ decides she just can't handle it anymore. This particular revelation comes just after May Parker has been shot but revived in the hospital, and Peter has convinced Doctor Strange -- not Mephisto; in this new past it's Doctor Strange -- try not to think about it -- to erase the knowledge of his identity from everyone in the world.

In sum, at the end of One Moment in Time, Peter has actually solved all the problems his actions have caused. Aunt May is alive. No one knows his identity.

Mary Jane, though, is tired of getting chased by random crooks and hiding from the law. She splits. This particular act seems right in line with the panicked Mary Jane we saw on the day of the wedding. Problem is, this is a Mary Jane who has been living with and loving Peter Parker, even in this non-marriage continuity, for years. Why is this worse than having Venom come into her apartment and terrorize her, as he did a scant week after she and Peter were married (in the old continuity -- oh my aching head)? What about all the other times she was threatened by the Green Goblin and the Scorpion and the other villains who discovered Peter's identity?

Thus far in One Moment in Time, she has been chased by one fat thug.

At the end of One Moment in Time, writer Joe Quesada, also the editor-in-chief of Marvel and the world's biggest detractor of the Spidey marriage, flips a big fat middle finger at the fans who are still justifiably outraged over the dissolution of the marriage with this:

"There's someone out there for you, Peter," Mary Jane says, "but you'll never find her until you get over me."

Quesada might as well have written: "As long as I'm in charge of Marvel, you will get over it."

Gee, Quesada, and to think you could have written an actual story.

If Marvel absolutely had to erase the marriage, there are plenty of ways to do that properly. The Scarlet Witch is a Marvel character that currently hates the Avengers and has the power to alter reality. Spider-Man is an Avenger. Why wouldn't the Scarlet Witch rob him of his marriage?

The god of mischief, Loki, owed Spidey a favor from back in J. Michael Straczynski's run. Why wouldn't Pete call in the favor to erase his identity-reveal and therefore Loki's usual mischief-making would muck with the marriage?

For that matter, all it takes is one good writer to actually deal with the implications of One More Day and write consequences instead of continuing this perpetual abortion, giving the fans a little closure. Peter gave Mephisto permission to change the memory of the entire world. Are we supposed to believe that there is no Faustus-style catch? They don't have to stay married, but Peter needs to learn about his unheroic choice and face up to it.

Sigh . . .

Thing is, I can see where some detractors come from. Spidey's marriage was, in retrospect, mishandled from the start. As soon as MJ got married to Peter, she started worrying about him. All the time. Her role was usually to meander in the background, worrying.

Firefighters, police, soldiers and SWAT teams have spouses! Mary Jane was always written as an independent, gregarious woman with a strong sense of self-identity. The biggest problem for MJ isn't that Peter's in constant danger. It's that his whole crazy life makes it so that she often has no identity other than The Girl, and that he often overshadows her without meaning to. That is one of the few things Spider-Man 3 got right. When he starts talking about how many people almost died because of him, she shuts up about her next role and her next photoshoot, because it doesn't seem important, gradually fading her away.

That was the bone of contention that made their marriage interesting. Their efforts to overcome it were far more interesting than Pete's escapades with various women.

She was never really mined for plotlines. MJ's Hollywood politics never got caught up in Peter's life, nor did her abusive ex-con father and perpetually hard-luck sister. She did nothing, but she was always in the background worrying! In fact, she was supposed to be jetting to Hollywood every few months. Few writers took advantage of long-distance relationship issues.

About the only superhero who has been subject to the kind of editorial abuse that Spidey has is Hal Jordan, Green Lantern, who got turned into a serial-murdering crazy back in the early 90s and had to do a stint as the Spectre in order to atone. DC learned their lesson from that and brought Hal back, after Hal's fans hounded them for years.

Spider-Man's fans, other than a lot of online complaining, haven't put the kind of pressure on Marvel that DC received from Hal Jordan's fans. I wonder why not. Why shouldn't there be rallies for the marriage at prominent comic conventions? Where is the official Parker Marriage Fan Club?

It's a little horrifying to realize that most comic fans, even when they hate a comic, will keep buying for a certain character "fix." I had a friend tell me that he got "cold sweats" the first time he dropped a favorite series.

There are thousands of other good comics out there. Invincible is the best superhero comic on the stands, as good as any Spidey title ever was in its heyday, and will give you a nice amateur-hero-learning-the-ropes fix. Former Spider-Man writer J. Michael Straczynski is currently writing both Superman and Wonder Woman, doing a bang-up, new-reader-friendly job on both. Transformers: Last Stand of Wreckers blew the lid off the underestimated Transformers franchise.

I plead thusly: if you are pissed off about One Moment in Time and One More Day but you are still reading Amazing Spider-Man, drop the comic. Drop a lot of Marvel's titles. There is better stuff out there.

Final note:

Comics historian Peter Sanderson made a good point when One More Day came out. For years, the comics industry has been run by baby boomers that wanted Spidey the way he was in the first ten years after 1962. But those guys are gradually reaching retirement age, and they are going to be replaced by a crop of folks who grew up with a married Spidey. I was seven when Peter got married. I'm thirty now. I never knew an Amazing Spider-Man who wasn't married. Marvel's star writer, Matt Fraction, is thirty-four. Brian K. Vaughn, another star, is the same age.

So One More Day and now One Moment in Time will be undone. It's only a matter of time. Joe Quesada is forty-eight, and reaching the end of a normal tenure as editor-in-chief, though he has been incorporated into the upper echelons of Marvel Corp.

Seems silly to wait, doesn't it? Why not hire a writer to write a story now that can address all the problems from One More Day? Resolve the issue now.

Joss Whedon rewrote a little shambles of a script called Toy Story once. Hire him, Marvel with this sole instruction: "Fix it." Or Peter David, or Matt Fraction, or Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, or even current Spider-Writers like Fred Van Lente. Just hand it to a good writer and say, "Fix it. No parameters," and I guarantee we'll get something that will improve the situation and bring back old fans.

Bring the marriage back or don't, Quesada, but treat the fans with respect and remove your biased, mismanaging obsessed self from the process.

Otherwise, I guess I'll see you in twenty years, Pete. Miracle Pictographs will still be here, unless I get shut down for all this hot air contributing to climate change.

Next issue: Not a Spider-Man rant! How bout that?

Read more by Spencer Ellsworth


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