Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Childhood comics: Remembering Paul Kupperberg and Lonesome Pinky in Amazing Spider-Man #221

Remembering Alan Kupperberg, and the Denny O’Neil Amazing Spider-Man days

As I was vividly recalling each page of one of my childhood possessions, Amazing Spider-Man #221, I realized Denny’s run, save for the Deb Whitman subplot, seems very episodic, like television at the time. This simplicity might be one reason his ASM’s not as widely critically regarded, yet I recall his work distinctly. He’s very obsessed with time- the costume change and the trip back for the antidote come to mind-in a way that helps set the drama in detail. He’s blessed with longtime Spider-Man inker Jim Mooney, who keeps things consistent despite numerous fill-ins over an already-promising John Romita, Jr. I think the last time a cover declared the blurb “Crisis On Campus!”- back in ASM #68, was it?-Jim was often inking John Romita, Sr. or Don Heck.From Alan's Custom Comics work

One of those fill-ins featured Alan Kupperberg, whose work I want to remember today to mark his passing from this world on July 17th, 2015. I remember his name and work on Amazing Spider-Man #221 very clearly. Always a handy utility artist, Alan caught the agility of the wall-crawler, hand springing and kicking his opponent Ramrod, staying a step ahead of the very punk-rock-looking bruiser. I remember his sweaty Dr. Kissick and his sinister Ramrod along with his great Spider-Man figure work. The issue was briefly the only comic book I owned, surviving the ravages of my childhood ownership, so from the day Mom let me get it at North Broad Produce Market, I read it dozens of times. It became one of six comics from 1981 I got in real time. I rarely got to visit that Market, but I loved its citrus smells and would later see Iron Man #169’s dramatic tease about the new Iron Man- but we’ll get to Luke McDonnell July 19th, since that’s his birthday!
I committed every creator’s name to memory back then, as each issue that I gratefully took home was, to me, a star turn. After I became Facebook friends with Alan, I asked him about his turn on Incredible Hulk #300, which I finally got decades after its dramatic appearance in 1984. Alan got to draw most of the New York City-based Marvel superheroes in that issue, which sent the Hulk off to the Crossroads and his savage otherwordly final arc under Bill Mantlo. My attention to his credit, he said, brought quite a blast from the past. It was nice to get new fan mail, he said, from such a long-forgotten job. But Alan’s not forgotten. OH, yeah, sometimes confused with his Doom Patrol revivalist writer brother Paul, sure! But, from his first Marvel work on Crazy, the Magazine That Dares To Be Dumb, in 1976 onward, Alan had a journeyman career, from Captain America #240 throughout the 80s and 90s. He broke in, in 1974, at Marvel, working with Neal Adams’ Continuity Associates.
He had a good Black Cat you can find in issues of Peter Parker, and kind of excelled in the kind of parodies and cartoon humor with which his professional career began. Just look for Spider-Ham back-ups in Marvel Tales! He also took over the Howard the Duck newspaper strip after Gene Colan. In 1987, he drew the Peter Parker Honeymoon annual and the infamous ASM #289, where Ned Leeds is finally killed as the apparent Hobgoblin in flashback. Blue Devil, Firestorm, JLA, Warlord- his list afterwards at DC is a busy one!

What we’ll do here, though, is spend a few minutes over that one of many art jobs Alan probably spent a couple of weeks knocking out, ever reliably. Spider-Man was still in the long-standing pattern, only briefly messed with by Marv Wolfman when he finally decided Peter ought to at least graduate college, where the company really didn’t want to change his status quo and had a reasonably successful formula to keep pumping out adventures of their busiest trademark. Character studies and short story ingenuity become the episodic recourse. One can only take their best shot at saying something meaningful, like the colorfully-titled “Blues For Lonesome Pinky!”

I remember many times trying to ape Alan’s able splash page, where Spidey soars over Empire State University campus. His ESU phase as a Master’s student in physics and teaching assistant is usually handled over in Peter Parker, referenced in our Roger Stern Spectacular Spider-Man overview. His relationship with Debra Whitman, a secretary at the college, and rivalry with Biff Rifkin over her is, like his Daily Bugle dealings, usually Amazing’s province, under Denny. We’re swept into Dean Sloane’s office for a quick rundown on his status as T.A. and student. But a big creep’s leaning on a Doctor Kissick, nearby, blackmailing the professor for a poison.
The shiny-skulled baddie, as referenced by editor Tom DeFalco, is Ramrod, a Steve Gerber-Bob Brown “’Frisco” era creation who fought Spider-Man during his guest appearance in Daredevil #103. He sets off the ol’ Spider-Sense, and – I think it’s a ten second costume change later- the wall crawler’s taunting the heavy on the University Commons. Alan gives us a round one resembling what you might call The Rhino Strategy, until Ramrod wises up to the way out: heave a massive statue at the clustered students, then beat feet!

Peter consents to a bluegrass bar visit at the behest of his neighbor, the Kinky Friedman-styled country warbler Lonesome Pinkus, who’s become a fixture in recent issues, his goofy lyrics resounding off-key throughout Parker’s apartment building.
Here, the arm of coincidence stretches, with Debbie showing up on a date with her returned ex-husband Biff, and Peter settling on a glass of milk before a wretched Lonesome Pinky performance ends with erratic behavior worthy of a punk rock riot. Why? The beer’s poisoned...and Spider-Man clashes with the spiked patrons. But now, we get O’Neil’s human interest touch: Pinkus tries singing, desperately laying down some blues. This somehow quiets the bar, so as I recall, Spider-Man swings back to ESU campus to consult Dr. Kissick.

His grilling leads to a dose of antidote set aside to complete Ramrod’s ransom scheme. Spider-Man’s moving fast, again gracefully rendered, clock ticking. The pulse-pounding race, however, comes across a hurdle I’ll bet doesn’t surprise you much: Ramrod’s posed masterfully outside, to check out his crime scene. Would you believe he picked this bar because they told him he couldn’t sing and would give him a gig? A guy with an endo-skeleton like his would be a natural for heavy metal. Insults. Hopping. Wall-crushing. But a few mighty thumps from Spidey just aren’t slowing him down, and time’s running out for the bar patrons. Meanwhile, Lonesome Pinkus delivers the performance of his life, eschewing the corny country and western act for some apparently improvised painfully-real blues. I think it makes a subtle cultural comment on country’s new-found pop turn of the times compared to less-put-on, more sincere songwriting of the kind that made Greenwich Village famous, as quintessential 60s kid O’Neil would doubtless know. Lonesome’s expressions by Alan Kupperberg stay with me as much as Spider-Man’s kicks and bounces; facial expressions are his strength.

The junkyard finale actually takes a humorous turn. Ever the wise ass, Spider-Man makes good use of puns and used tires to set Ramrod up for a coup de grace. What do you do with a man with a metallic skeleton and skull who just won’t stop being antisocial? You stick him to a crane-mounted salvage magnet! O’Neil’s been good at finding non-Rogue’s Gallery types Spidey can’t just punch out; he even smushed together his new Hydro Man with the similar classic Sandman to make a mud creature you don’t want to muck with, in ASM #218. I loved Spidey’s immobilization of his bullying metal-enhanced foe.

But where the team goes for the extra-special touch is the depiction of Pinkus grasping his throat. He’s been begged to stay in the Spidey-turned spotlight and keep the crowd in check, because if they rampage elsewhere they may never be cured in time. His harsh rasp gives out just as the wall-crawler arrives in the nick of time to play bartender, a role we’ve never seen anywhere else. Debbie, Biff, everyone’s saved by the elixir-enhanced beer, but unnoticed, unheralded in a way we usually associate with Spider-Man himself, Lonesome Pinkus wanders off after the show of a his crazed audience will find impossible to remember.

And so memorably did Dennis and Alan and company tell this over-looked tale, I can tell you, all these years later. It’s the unsung heroes, like Mr. Pinkus, that keep the grind of recurrent trials going, pouring maybe a little special something of themselves into these crevices between the concrete of earth-shaking canon events. It’s the dreamer who comes for that forgotten turn in the spotlight that keeps the club there through good months and bad. Sometimes, they leave a little flower of beauty, struggling to survive in its natural way of finding life, noticed by the humble random passerby.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Iron Man and Spider-Man's John Romita Jr.: 1st Marvels

1st Marvels: John Romita, Jr. INVINCIBLE IRON MAN #115

Mantlo’s run becomes history, and Layton/ Michelinie/ Romita makes history

Paired with the inker who would notably join him on Uncanny X-Men- Marvel’s best direct market seller- the son of Silver Age Spider-Man artist John Romita followed his namesake over a decade after that future Art Director came to Marvel. I virtually forgot John Romita, Jr. got his first assignment drawing a back-up for Amazing Spider-Man Annual #11 in 1977. His full-book premiere comes in Invincible Iron Man #115, a 1978 issue which, with a few fill-ins, marks his regular tenure there.
When new writer and new inker David Michelinie and Bob Layton begin directing Iron Man, next issue, a definitive Bronze Age team comes together, making a modern look and feel for the mechanized marvel that influenced Jon Favreau and his own team on the box-office smash Iron Man movies.

But everyone’s got to start somewhere, and it so happens JR, Jr., as he’s often nicknamed, got the Iron Man assignment as Bill Mantlo departed the strip. Nowadays, a one-hundred-twenty-degree heat pounds a location like modern Mosul, where remainders of American armaments fell into the hands of ideological extremists who brutalized their Iraqi neighbors they could not recruit. No reasonable, woke person could blindly romanticize the power of advanced field weapons, which are only as good as the soldiers wielding them. By 1978, the attitudes shaped by Vietnam and Americans touched personally by foreign policies had led to a more counter-culturally-shaped, energy-research-oriented Tony Stark. Mantlo revived many old favorites such as the old Mandarin-gets-switcheroo-Iron Man, Ultimo stomping towards the capitol where Stark’s again been subpoenaed, Spymaster, Madame Masque and Jasper Sitwell. Outside Midas and his recruits there was nothing really new going on.

If you were new to Invincible Iron Man, Mantlo and Tuska delivered a reasonable superhero take with remixed classic touches- even a new Guardsman, complete with O’Brien brother inside. If you liked those things, you now had the latest version. As a young collector, I was attracted to the look of the Guardian armor and the back issue price was right, so these were my first versions of these characters, and #100 came with a Starlin cover, too. Mantlo gave us a the only appearance of the initially-successful Frankenstein Monster in a few years, and for many more, along with Dreadknight, a new villainous successor to Black Knight. Outside the Soviet Super Soldiers and brand-new Jack Of Hearts, we were back to the 1960’s story ingredients without the virulent anti-Communism. This would fit well with the general Jim Shooter approach coming in the 1980s; this was, in fact, the year Shooter was assigned Editor-in-Chief.

Romita’s debut continues those revisited elements. In fact, the hardest part of this storytelling- and granted, there are fans of this handbook-like approach-is how #115 takes the “revisit” element to such an extreme, there’s literally almost no new story whatsoever! When we reach the end of “Betrayal!” Stark’s ambushed by more characters from the past: the Ani-Men, recruited as muscle, apparently quite quickly, by Whitney Frost (Madame Masque), turned, as it were, on a dime by the return of Count Nefaria, an old-time Avengers foe. This is the sequel to his appearance in Avengers, a title being written at this point by a combination of Shooter, Micheleinie, Steven Grant and Mark Gruenwald, drawn in alternating arcs by John Byrne and George Perez.

There’s a rich reliance on existing Marvel continuity, but it overwhelms the utterly decompressed plot. Funny thing is, continuity between issues is about to fly out the window when the next team debuts, but then a new set of long-term threads begin weaving a modernized classic overshadowed at the time only by the revolutions in Uncanny X-Men and Daredevil.
Romita doesn’t take a strong presence in plotting this early in his career; the writer and inker will become the prime story drivers and give him lots of great stuff to draw.
JR will get to co-create Jim Rhodes, Justin Hammer- famously picked up and re-defined by the movies, Rhodey going on to become an Iron Man in his own right.
He gets the unflappable Mrs. Arbogast, reliable plant security chief Vic Martenelli, French business woman Yvette Arvil, bodyguard/ private investigators Bethany Cabe and Ling McPherson, who represent a Charlie’s Angels-flavored new breed of female support characters. Beth especially has more depth than the average love-interest, doubling as an action hero and confidante, not to mention an initial rival for the job of Tony Stark’s bodyguard! Suddenly, a character doesn’t have to be an Avenger to be recognizable. Everything gets specific!

It’s hard not to look ahead to this much-regarded three year run, because JR’s debut relies entirely on looking backwards. There’s a few proportion problems and the inking leaves the new penciler seeming a bit old-fashioned, appropriate for the Mantlo-era tone which often sported Jack Kirby covers, too. The bigger challenge yet, however: illustrating several pages of handbook review of the past of the fallen Unicorn, capped on front by a wrap-up of the departing Avengers, filled in with more morose Stark distance and the cliché “there goes a guy without a care in the world” from a guard, and a Tony Stark fist fight with Bird Man, Frog Man, Ape Man and Cat Man that ends with yet another betrayal from the recently-disguised Whitney/ Masque. Stark doesn’t get a particularly clever showing, just a scenario meant to invoke armor-less peril of the title character and a reasonably-quick-to-comprehend motivation for Masque’s betrayal. His shadowed intention was to make the dying Unicorn a pawn to the silhouetted “Other”- hard to miss the general shape of the Titanium Man, who re-outfits Unicorn with a new power beam and points him destructively in Iron Man’s direction. This all comes out when Stark utilizes a device to read Unicorn’s discordant memories, which nonetheless play out as an orderly recap of his previous three appearances and an unrevealed scene behind his present attack. There’s little discernible personality- he’d make a complex Saturday morning cartoon villain, but his character hook’s unchanged. Worse, this is all unveiled at this juncture without any development for another year, so it’s really just Bill leaving us a planned thread and cashing another quick check for hitting deadline. Romita’s relieved of pacing actual scenes, in favor of a pastiche flashback. This might’ve made the drawings themselves a simpler task for the beginner, who, with little plot and an information dump, has plenty of space, indeed, has to stretch some to get his seventeen pages.

We do revisit “he’s alone in his shell,” emphasized once again amidst the Avengers. He’s bossy jerk to the Beast. This is underscored by his later lonesome thought that he’s always surrounded by obedient machines. His concern over standing up Whitney is meant to establish he has a heart beyond his now-never-depicted lady’s man playboy life. Bill’s giving us characterization- but little interaction.

What we come to associate with John Romita Jr. suggests he’s better suited for what’s ahead. Prefiguring Magnum P.I., we’ll get a James Bond spin on Tony, complete with wry flirtation and glamorous women. Romita loves the cosmopolitan. If his Iron Man moves far away from the socially-conscious style, his superheroics embrace the coming decade’s love of computers and futuristic sheen. If his work’s subsumed beneath a very stylistically-heavy Bob Layton on inks, the armor itself becomes sleek, characters, realistic and demonstrative, and settings, referential. Suddenly we have a Stark who might take time to hit Studio 54, gambling in a tux in Atlantic City, disguising as a phone company worker on Long Island. The battle to remain free of munitions making embroils Stark Industries with S.H.I.E.L.D. itself! Stark has turmoil, but also friends, and reflects new ideas.

In 1980, JR Jr. begins Amazing Spider-Man in #208. Leaning on character drawing and a love for New York City itself, he catches on by #223-the end of O’Neil’s run-as the regular artist for another amazing team-up under Tom DeFalco with former Spectacular Spider-Man writer Roger Stern.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Halfway Through Life

Half way through Life?

You know, wherever you are, in a meaningful sense, you’re at the Beginning!
Everything- even your memories- can only be experienced Now. So whether you spend now thinking of your day, your life, days ahead, the distant past, the far-flung future-it’s still Now, the one moment you have.
Now, a neurological study of the brain I read, years back, pointed out that even “now” is really just a shade in the past, a few microseconds lag in your response. But consciousness is consciousness, isn’t it?

As the sun sets, I notice dark’s just barely come a bit earlier than it did even two weeks ago. Something about the length of the sunlight’s always fascinated me. I think it’s Potential, you know? Of all the things you can go out and do before the sun sets. You could be just as excited about the length of the night: for sleeping, for going out to enjoy an event or possibly meet someone. When I was a kid, summer between school years was longer, and I loved the beginning of summer. Maybe we didn’t have the money or time to spend it traveling or visiting some relative with a great home or playing out a season pass to Six Flags or Disney World or to go skiing on the lake, but at minimum, it was my own time! I’d think of what I wished to think about, and sleep was malleable. In fact, this second week of July, more often than not, was vacation time, so as I noted in a post about my Dad, my family and, uhm, Iron Man, in June, we were usually in a different setting, hopefully doing some cool different things, some camp out and fresh air and family stuff. At minimum, I was wondering off playing pretend in some different setting.

But I was conscious of every change in the passage of the seasons. We lived in the country much of my childhood, and Paw Paw’s garden, as well as our own, also reflected the changes: corn and tomatoes are ready about now, beans need picking. I went outside to play pretend- spent more years than I think is normal just wandering about in the foliage imagining my own stories, my own shows (which sometimes I played out with my watch to keep up with programming time and commercials, developing my own sense of story pacing). I imagined meeting pretty girls and being part of a gang of friends and good times and games. I lived out the commercials and music videos. I comforted myself often with the thought there was still plenty of time, and did I realize it or not, I appreciated the time I had spent in my own treasured world.

Defending the territory of my own little world is a big, big reason I ever try to make a living with my imagination. I value entertaining people- I love my investment in a bit of private time living on to share with others. It’s amazing when someone responds, rejoinding with my musings, stories, songs. Like, wow, that went from my head to theirs and then made it back to mine! I like sending feedback to others when I can for the same purpose: sharing, the creation of yet another new things shared. I love insights. I love Imagination. I love Possibility. I love Now.

I’d considered what to say about a comic book- one I got in embarrassing trouble back in fifth grade for peeking at in Math class- one I was borrowing at the time. It had been printed a year or two before. I was already nostalgic, if you call it that, for the times as a child I would find comics on the magazine or spinner rack, and though I could have very few of them, I would pirate their images and my glancing understanding of their stories to play them out in my back yard. I was keeping a person inside alive, my embodied enthusiasm and energy. I never owned this comic, but it came from a time when a comic book was my very favorite item in the entire world, and right now, since Spider-Man’s just been in a movie where he nearly joined The Avengers, it’s even possible to write about it and share it with an eager audience- maybe even in a book, which builds that career I need to preserve that Self I carried inside against all temptation and logic otherwise.
I had my topic and a strong memory and several points of connection from which to write. But first, I had to nap.
Before I fell asleep, I had the thought that I may well be already halfway through this lifetime- and that’s if it’s a fairly long-lived one! Our mystic reading years ago interested me in imagining a lifetime of hundreds of years- and with the changes as yet unforeseen, who knows just how long a life will grow to be? But it’s just as I put it in the lyrics of our song “Dear Future” nearly ten years ago: “With nine hundred years left, to savor your treasures- there’s guarantees for nothing but today!” So here we are. Today. Now.

I thought how, fortunately, if I’m halfway through life, I’m only one-third of the way of spending it, in all hopefulness, with Angela Dawn. Greedy for money, not so much, but experience? It’s most of what I really have and most of what I really want. Potential- the cheery idea that we have still plenty of time, possibly even most of our time yet, to love each other and appreciate each other’s company-is an emotional comfort against worry. So is not thinking at all. When, instead of going out to swim or take up some other summer leisure, I was push-mowing the lawn at my Mom’s after work, I simply resigned myself to the present- to the task at hand. Sure enough, when Anj came out to relieve me of the mowing a few minutes, I had a seat on the porch I always mean to clean, and looked out onto the yard I always think of as a place I could go have much more recreational fun than I ever really do- freshly cut, open, Potential. The root of that word is “potens”- power- and Potential is powerful indeed. I relished the particular cool of the evenings of late, some twenty degrees or so below the high of today. The breeze has its own peculiar sensory conversation with mind, body and soul. I didn’t envy anyone else their friends, family and summer fun, for those moments. I treasured the time I’d spent bonding with that plot of land, chopping away with Anj on that lawn.

I await my partner, artist Joe Phillips, and his new outline preserving our ideas staked out thus far in pursuit of a more unique and light-hearted version of Hero Duty, the strip we’re creating for IDW Publishing. Naturally I hope it’s just the start, halfway through life, in turning a life of daydreams into a reality of continuing creation and sharing. That's to say nothing of friendships I've known, and ones I can't even foresee! Somehow it makes me feel like summer’s just begun. I look forward to beginning my new podcast series and eventually, a video series for YouTube, starting with a conversation with a real, honest-to-Gosh comics creator and friend, Dave Kraft, who entertained me many, many times as a child even when I didn’t realize he was yet again the uncredited writer of my coloring book or Pez comic, and of course when I knew it was him, too, writing my back issue of The Defenders or The Savage She-Hulk. I look forward to recording songs I’m playing with our friend Steve McMahon, and his wife Claudia, who shared her recognition of that conversation the breeze brings to our feelings while she listened to me clumsily tinker out the chords to “Why Can’t We Sail Away?”- where the sea breeze “blows your name.”
It feels like I shouldn’t give up- and what, wait to die? Just like that urge that kept me getting back up to mow a lawn whose completion seemed closer to possibility, it feels like if I just keep at it, the books and songs and comics career forge profits of all sorts- become cartoons and TV shows and even movies! There may yet be a family. More friends- I mean, these I have came from their lives to mine, and I didn’t even know these people existed years ago, when my friends were my family. I still have the enthusiastic support of Bali, the biggest fan we ever had and the person who made martial arts and comics fun and interactive. We may even see each other again. I’ve had to let go of cherished people and move on from other times, and yet, every day, when I set aside worry and exhaustion, ideas await. No amount of possibilities that fell apart ever terminated Whatever your age, I wish to evoke that in you, in anything I do.
To wonder too often how long one has to live is truly to think too much on a thing yet undiscovered. Its single value is to enhance the present so that we use the best of our past. To make the best of our future.