My Monthly Curse by Phill Hall #7 – Enter The McFarlane

Posted by April 26, 2011 Comment

Phill Hall used to be the News editor for Comics International before launching the PDF comics magazine Borderline before abandoning comics altogether. Now, however, he is going to look back on it all for Bleeding Cool.

There’s this thing called the Reset Button – any means by which previously occurring drastic events are made partially or wholly irrelevant by the end of the story. This was DC’s attitude towards comicbook continuity*. Marvel’s was essentially the same, but with some subtle differences.

*[Continuity is a relatively new thing in comics, like bathrooms in houses, it’s a latecomer that makes you wonder how we managed without it. Our lives have continuity, so do soap operas, but in general things like sitcoms, even serials, tended to be – this is your format encased in a flexible bubble, do anything you want, but don’t break out of the bubble. Soap operas became hugely successful because of the feeling they were… ongoing – comics adopted this idea in the early 1960s and changed the way comics were read.]

Marvel’s entire continuity idea is based on the premise of giving the reader the ‘illusion of change’ it was something Stan Lee grasped the idea of while watching some of the SF and drama series of the late 1950s. The impression is the story is moving forward, but in reality all the cast are running to stand still. Conclusions have no place in ongoing dramas on TV and therefore they don’t in comics. No other comic produced by anyone embraced that idea more than The X-Men, but we’ll get to them, Spider-Man is who we’re talking about.

Spider-Man advanced continuity leaps and bounds. Not only did Peter Parker develop beyond the four-eyed nerdy science geek into a respectable student teacher with a host of friends, he faced tragedies that most comic characters never saw. People died, fathers of girlfriends were killed, relatives suffered serious illnesses, friends became drug addicts and then to top it all off, Spider-Man’s long-standing girlfriend was killed – possibly by the direct actions of Spider-Man to save her (but this is true geekism and we’ll explore that later, unfortunately). Revenge and vigilantism also raised their heads and Spider-Man was a comic that others had to aspire to, especially when it became the best selling comic in the USA around 1970.

Like the bloated histories of DC characters, Spider-Man’s success couldn’t be sustained for long. By the time the Direct Market was in place it was still one of the top-selling comics, but it had lost its way and like so many other comics was dragging along the bottom of the quality pool. Too many Rocket Racer, Will o’the Wisp and disco dancing ducks had sullied its fine reputation. The 80s were something of a nadir for the wallcrawler; but as the decade drew to a close, things started to change.

Marvel, like I said, had started to be recognised for some outstanding comics. People had been pointing at the X-Men for about a decade, but now they were looking at other long-standing Marvel characters and saying, “Hey, this isn’t half bad.” Comics like The Incredible Hulk, something of a laughing stock in comics had suddenly taken on the status of ‘must read’, Daredevil was outstanding and writer Ann Nocenti was touching on themes that even Frank Miller hadn’t dared to explore when he made his name writing and drawing the blind superhero. Even old standards like The Avengers (a group of heroes thrown together to save the world from even more serious threats) and Iron Man were getting makeovers, albeit quite non-evasively. Heroes were regularly getting their arses kicked, people were dying, Marvel seemed to be trimming back on the excesses of the over-fertile imaginations of the 1970s and in doing so was injecting something different – a kind of post post-modern pseudo-realism, into its characters.

However, Spider-Man had slowly seen its core audience dwindle. It didn’t really have the same following it had once had for a number of years, and while Spidey’s comics were still some of the best selling, there was a feeling around Marvel that Spider-Man needed an injection of adrenaline, to get it kick started again – to make it worthy of its top selling status.

So they killed someone big.

Well, not exactly big, but unexpected and out of the blue.

DC had success with Dark Knight and Watchmen and also a number of other ‘rather more adult’ themed series like Camelot 3000. These books relied not just on good stories and art, but also on prestige printing techniques, top quality paper, proper binding and probably sex. DC made their special projects just that – special. Marvel, it seems, were reluctant to take the plunge into prestige printing; nor did they want to label their comics with anything that might threaten their position on the newsstand (yes, it still sold to the newsstands, but nowhere near the quantity it once did), so if they had something good, it just slotted into existing titles with no fanfare or frills – which is a bit contrary, given what I have told you about the company and what is to come.

A six-part story across their three monthly Spider-Man comics was to rock the foundations of the publisher. DC’s successes were known among non-comics fans, because they were granted the status and critical success outside of the comics industry – they are held as shining examples of the ability comics have to be something more than just ephemeral kids’ stuff. This six-part Spider-Man story was unheralded; it just arrived; yet in many ways it had as much of an effect on Marvel comics readers (and the hard to please critics) as anything else they ever released.

The story was called Kraven’s Last Hunt and it featured the long-standing Spider-Man villain Kraven the Hunter. Not the most ambitious of characters from the offset; Kraven was basically a thug cum big-game hunter who decides that Spider-Man is the greatest prize of all. He was an ambiguous villain, as most memorable villains often were and despite often being in cohorts with other more blatant villains, the character just didn’t sit well in that role of megalomaniacal wannabe world leader or crime boss. Kraven didn’t steal, he wasn’t interested in power; he was not ‘organised crime’; he hunted. Kraven, however, was also inexorably dull. It didn’t matter who wrote him, he just came across as a pompous (South African) arse.

Then one week in 1987, everything changed. I won’t bore you with the minutiae of the story but in a nutshell it revolved around Kraven abducting Spider-Man, drugging him and burying in an unmarked grave and then assuming his role as the do-gooder Spider-Man. While he prances around New York fulfilling his fantasies – if you can’t beat him, become him – Parker lays in almost asphyxiation in the soil. The denouement is that Kraven, unable to be the true Spider-Man, commits suicide – a definite no-no as far as comics are concerned. The entire story is dark, gloomy and still has the feel of the darkest Dark Knight story and a psychological exploration of one man’s obsessive madness. It also showed Peter Parker in a different light and ignited the fans desire to read Spider-Man again. Where he had become as lame as Superman had in the 60s and 70s, now there was the chance that like other comics characters, Spider-Man was being dragged into the modern era.

If there was any parity, the creative team of J. Marc DeMatteis and Mike Zeck should have been catapulted to the same status as Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons and Frank Miller. But this didn’t happen, mainly because a far more commercially successful creative team followed Kraven’s Last Hunt. Plus it was probably a good six months before the rest of the non-Spider-Man buying comics fans started to hear just how crazy and off-the-wall these six issues were. By the time people were acknowledging this as one of the greatest Spider-Man stories of all time DeMatteis was back at DC and Mike Zeck, not the most prolific of artists had disappeared back into obscurity.

The reason I’ve focused on this specific story, when i could have chosen a personal favourite from the same era, is because it was a game changer at Marvel. DC Comics had rebuilt itself; hacking away at 50 years of history (or baggage as it was classed as) and by reinventing itself opened its doors to new readers. Marvel didn’t have a defining moment like its older competitor, but it did change, but far more slowly. This was really the point in history where Marvel kind of acknowledged that comics had a sociological meaning and worth; that they were more than just ephemeral.

Anyhow, enter Todd McFarlane – A former hockey player from Canada who drew Spider-Man like he really was a spider. McFarlane’s star was in ascension already. He’d helped turn the Hulk around and now his attention was on the character he believed he was born to draw. It seemed a bit of a gamble to team this hot new artist up with someone with a long history in comics and with no great success, but that’s what Spider-Man editor, Ralph Macchio (no, not that one) did. David Michelinie had been a jobbing writer on the scene for over 15 years (one of his first jobs was writing Swamp Thing – and very good he was at it too!). He had stints on a number of titles but had never firmly established himself. He sat down with McFarlane and they had this idea to return Spider-Man to his roots in a modern way. Over 20-odd issues they brought back almost every single one of Spider-Man’s most imaginative original villains. In some cases they reinvented them, in others we, the fan, had even more shocks in store. The stories were fluid and the artwork like nothing that had ever been scene before.

The Amazing Spider-Man, the monthly comic, saw its sales skyrocket and it was all down to what Marvel perceived as one man. Todd McFarlane. Poor old David Michelinie received no credit from Marvel; he was, after all, just the writer, so he virtually disappeared from comics after that. I don’t think I’ve seen him write much since being unceremoniously dumped by Marvel, although I’ve been informed he did start to make a comeback around 2005 and still does the occasional script even now. It was a shame because the actual stories and scripting were above average and enhanced McFarlane’s artwork immensely.

The comic became so successful that it rivalled The X-Men franchise in sales. [The X-Men was by this time a franchise; it outsold every other comic in the USA, won all the major awards and had become the focus of Marvel’s attention] Marvel was looking for a way to really cash in on the then current comics frenzy and decided to give McFarlane his own Spider-Man comic. I mean, the guy could draw, so he could obviously write as well… Couldn’t he?

In August 1990, Marvel announced the arrival of the adjective-less Spider-Man. A new high-quality production comic produced exclusively for Marvel by the saviour of Spider-Man and possibly the entire comics industry – Todd McFarlane. The retail world went wild and ordered it like it was the next best thing since sliced bread. Total sales for the comic eventually exceeded 3million. It was the biggest selling comic since the arrival of the Direct Market. Its sales reflected a bygone era when every comic published had print runs in their millions. Plus Marvel made extra money from the comic by releasing it in about five different variations. There was a black and silver cover, a green and gold cover, a black and red cover, a plethora of colours to tantalise the growing speculator market. Some came in plastic bags, others didn’t. In fact, despite having had a print run that was well over three times larger than the average Spider-Man comic, speculators still managed to screw the last pennies from the fans pockets. More importantly, Spider-Man #1 was so successful it gave Marvel ideas – massive ideas about how to turn an already lucrative company into something really big. It reinforced ideas they had been working on and the success of this single comic had given them a free rein implement them.

Arguably DC could have ridden this wave with Marvel, but whenever the company had a success they seemed to hide it under a bushel – the company seemed reluctant to capitalise on its own success. Instead of cashing in on Batman when they really should have, they waited three years and brought out a comic at around the same time as Marvel launched Spider-Man. The new Legends of the Dark Knight should have been a major success for DC (in reality it was, but it could have be so much better), but comics fans and movie goers had moved on. The second Batman movie, with which this was timed to coincide with, did nothing for comics or comics sales.

Even more parochial successes were overlooked until it was too late. DC, the home of Mad magazine, had a tradition for satire that others have never been able to manage and when it brought out a serious parody of its most ‘serious’ heroes, it was an instant hit and had sales that were considered excellent in a market dominated by Marvel and Batman.

The comic in question was called Justice League and was based on the concept of the old team of DC heroes called The Justice League of America. A team, like most superhero teams, that was formed to protect the world from even more dangerous threats… and … yawn… That was how a lot of superhero team books were now being received. Deeply cynical people argued that superteam books only existed to keep copyright on duff concepts and characters. What the creators behind Justice League did was take half the original team and throw in a bunch of complete and utter wankers to make up the numbers. It was jammed-packed with self-deprecating humour, bizarre scenarios and enough intrigue and interest to keep the fans coming back for more. It also had Batman acting exactly how you’ve imagined him to act. Coincidentally it was partly created by one J. Marc DeMatteis (of Kraven’s Last Hunt).

Despite the success of this (not) spoof comic, DC took well over two years to spin off from it. By which time the bubble was rapidly deflating. Justice League had lost enough of its popularity for the spin off comic Justice League Europe to be nothing more than a marginal success. If DC editorial team had been going on a cruise they would have missed the boat. The biggest irony of DC’s repeated inability to catch the gravy train is they are owned by one of the largest entertainment corporations in the world – TimeWarner. By the time the Justice League concept had run its course, DC had dozens of spin-offs in the pipeline (these were genuinely believed to be good enough to stimulate sales on all the other Justice League books, but should have come out when the original was a sales success rather than once the gravy train had moved onto another plate of meat).

So, McFarlane recreated Spider-Man in his desired image and the comics world was going mad at sales of millions for the first time since Nixon was president! The competition had all but been beaten to a bloody pulp and Marvel stock continued to rise. By this time there was serious money interested in Marvel, but their accountants were looking at making the company even more buyable.

Meltdown actually happened in 1991, but the real repercussions wouldn’t be seen for a couple of years – as is often the case with economic depressions.

Next time: A brief history of Marvel Comics and lots about the X-Men

(Last Updated April 26, 2011 11:52 am )

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