MARVEL 2002 - 2004: OF BEEZER AND BELOVA
Early 2000s Marvel was a very interesting place. Joe Quesada and Bill Jemas had just come into power, and were busy throwing lots of stuff at the wall. The first rebuilding efforts came with the major franchises. J. Michael Straczynski took over "The Amazing Spider-Man", while Grant Morrison reinvented the mutant corner with "New X-Men." It was good timing considering the success of the new movies at that time. We were just beginning the era of the comic book-based movie franchise, something we now take for granted.
It was more than just a rethinking and a paring down of the main Marvel superhero line, though. There were lots of little experiments. The longest lasting and most successful of them is the Ultimate Universe, but there were numerous other miniseries and publishing initiatives that came and went. Some of them you might have forgotten by now, barely a decade later. I found a bunch of them in a dusty long box recently, and plan on looking at them with more historical context today. Consider this the beginning of an irregular series, as I have time to read them.
We start this week with two books so far apart on the content spectrum that you'll probably get whiplash thinking about it: Gail Simone and Jason Lethcoe's "Gus Beezer" and Greg Rucka and Igor Kordey's "Black Widow."
About the only thing those two books share in common is their title characters' yellow hair.
In March 2003, Marvel released three one-shots in the same week: "The Marvelous Adventures of Gus Beezer with Spider-Man" and "--with the Hulk" and "'--with the X-Men." Gail Simone tells stories of young Gus Beezer, a boy in the Marvel Universe who is obsessed with superheroes and has very little good fortune with the people around him. He has an annoying next-door neighbor and there are bullies in school and his sister is unkind to him (and vice versa, to be fair) and he gets stuck in boring family situations and, etc. etc. Each issue tells a complete Gus Beezer story, complete with a guest Marvel superhero.
The book was obviously meant as an outreach to pull in younger readers. At the time, the only such books at Marvel and DC were the "Adventures" titles, mostly based on animated series at the time, and almost all from DC's side. Gail Simone confirmed that in a Marvel press conference back in January 2003:
"One of my favorite editors, Mike Raicht, asked me to come up with some concepts for an all-ages title, which had been a goal of mine for some time. It's actually very cool of Marvel to do this project- a quality all-ages title with great production and fantastic art. It was absolutely a labor of love for all concerned.
Unfortunately, it didn't work for me. Despite a great deal of talent behind the project and some cute moments, the overall impact was minimal. For starters, Beezer isn't terribly sympathetic. There's a bit of a Peter Parker thing going here, where you want to root for the underdog who can't catch a break. Problem is, Beezer creates some of those bad situations on his own. And when he does overcome them, he acts just as badly in return. I don't want to read this book to my four-year-old daughter just for that reason.
With slightly older kids, the book would probably be a hit. They're less concerned with sympathetic characters and dramatic stories. Superheroes visiting a kid their age is likely enough to get them to identify with the comic to make it a success. Thankfully, the book doesn't drop into the gutter with the usual rounds of burping and farting humor that such books like to sink to. Gail Simone talked about that in an interview here at CBR at the time:
"You have to be very honest, and the humor has to be very carefully-constructed, I think. There's a lot of gross-out humor for kids, which isn't so much my thing. I did have some experience writing for younger audiences because I've done a lot of stories for the 'Bart Simpson' comic, for the same audience. It's very, very rewarding to get mail from a young reader. Those are great days."
Read as isolated comics for full entertainment potential, the books wind up feeling thin. There's just not enough there for me, and the flat and boring characters don't help.
Secondly, Lethcoe's art fails whenever a superhero comes on the scene. Lethcoe is a part of a generation of comic creators that came out of animation in the era of "Herobear and the Kid." He did a great superhero kids' school comic, "Zoom's Academy for the Super Gifted," and so he must have been an obvious choice to draw a book like this. His strengths are clearly in drawing children. Those mostly work. His superhero characters, though, are awkward and gangly. They aren't exaggerated enough to put them into a nice stylized category. They merely look incomplete and bored. The "Hulk" book is the one exception to this, where Lethcoe's style works perfectly against type, making a bored or stiff Hulk work. Even there, though, it only works when it's the pretend Hulk drawn in the guise of one of the kid characters. When the "real" Hulk shows up, he falls flat again.
The book was produced directly from Lethcoe's pencils, with the line work knocked out in favor of colors. So not only was the book lacking a bold black line to anchor the art in place, the line that did exists was a color. It felt like the art was disappearing on the page. The colors being used were an almost pastel palette. There was nothing on any of the pages to anchor the art. It all felt washed out, which is a shame. This is a book that needed more contrast to hold its weight on the page.
Third, I didn't like the format. Two thirds of each page is devoted to the main story, while the last third is a separate story told by Gus Beezer as if he drew it in his notebook. There's no reason for the two stories to run side by side. As a back-up tale, maybe it would work. But even reading each story separately straight through, the second story didn't add too much and didn't have many memorable moments. I read those stories just to get through them, rather than to enjoy them. Again, I'm sure a new reader at the age of 8 or 10 would find it cool to have two stories to read in that way, so perhaps I'm just not the target audience.
A follow-up one-shot came out a year and a half later with the same name as the most popular of the original one-shots, "The Marvel Adventures of Gus Beezer with Spider-Man." The indicia finds a way to differentiate the two books, but the cover logo and design are identical. As Lethcoe was busy elsewhere, the Gurihiru Studios came in to draw the book. The result is a stronger book with a slicker and cleaner look. This one was not produced from pencils. The story has the same problems, though. If you liked those one shots, you'd like this follow-up, particularly as it ties in to even more of the Marvel Universe.
That was the end of Gus Beezer. The series wasn't a bad idea, and Marvel took some chances with it. They wanted to reach out to a younger audience and give them something that stood on its own with a timeless appeal. It gave comic shops something nice to rack up front with their Kids Comics section, and opened some sales channels for Marvel. I just don't think the execution lived up to what the book needed to be in order to deliver those readers. Maybe a series like this would work better today as digital short stories? Do an eight page "Guz Beezer" story and post it directly to Marvel's app at comiXology. Price it at 99 cents. Make it a true outreach. I bet it would work better today than it seemed to do originally.
BLACK WIDOW BELOVA
As Marvel attempted to grab the younger audience with the "Ultimate" line and books like "Gus Beezer," so also did they aim for the older ("mature") market. That was the aim of the Marvel MAX line of titles, where anything went, from sex to language to violence. It was a tacit acknowledgement of the truth they so often hid in the main line of books: Their readership was not made up of kids anymore. The audience was filled more with young adults. While the main universe of titles could only pay lip service by growing grimmer and grittier to appeal to that slightly older crowd, the Marvel MAX line hid nothing. It took Marvel characters, shoved them over to a pocket on the side, and let the characters get involved explicitly in things the regular line of titles would have pretended didn't exist or glossed over briefly.
One of the books in that line was "Black Widow," a three issue miniseries from Greg Rucka and Igor Kordey that tells us the story about how Yelena Belova became Russia's new Black Widow. Belova first appeared in the classic Paul Jenkins/Jae Lee "Inhumans" series at Marvel Knights, then graduated to her own three issue mini in 1999 (sub-titled "The Itsy Bitsy Spider") from Devin Grayson and J.G. Jones. That was followed by another three parter from Devin Grayson and Rucka, with Scott Hampton on art. (The six issue mini of the same era from novelist Richard K. Morgan and Bill Sienkiewicz featured Natasha Romanov.)
This "Black Widow" mini (subtitled "Pale Little Spider") is a quick and easy read, a short little gut punch of a story that brings up the old Cold War feel without directly invoking it. This is a completely internal story, with a murder/mystery at its heart and elements of top secret military intelligence. It's a perfectly self-contained story that does its job well, of pushing a young Yelena Belova into her role as a Black Widow.
It's also a Marvel MAX title set mostly within a sex club. So, you know, lots of bondage fun!
The short version of the short story is that Belova is the next Black Widow in training, but is having troubles coming to grips with her role. She constantly compares herself to Natasha Romanov and finds herself lacking. When a member of military intelligence is killed at the sex club he secretly frequents and some secrets might be compromised, Yelena is put on the case. She has to act fact and grow up quickly to work her way through the dark and seedy underworld. The problem is, she's been in training for the Black Widow program since before puberty. She is naive and repressed. Suddenly, she finds herself running up against all kinds of walls she's uncomfortable with and only getting in deeper trouble along the way.
It's a strong character study from Rucka, quickly defining the character, showing us her weakness, and giving us events that force her to grow up or flame out. She's very physically strong, but mentally sheltered and perhaps weak. Will that be her undoing in the program she's trained half her life for?
In many ways, this book feels like a natural pre-cursor to Joe Casey's "Sex" series at Image right now. It recasts some tropes of superhero comics through the filter of more adult pursuits. It's nothing radically new, but it's handled maturely and seriously, from the bondage gear to the emotional attitudes behind them.
The art is from Igor Kordey, who was a big name at Marvel in that time period. He worked on things like "Cable," Soldier X," "Extreme X-Men," and Grant Morrison's "New X-Men" series. That's not exactly low profile. His style is harsh and dirty, perfect for the title. Black Widow looks feminine and strong, but his art isn't glorifying the scene she finds herself in, or titillating the reader with "well-chosen" angles. (That confusion only happens when looking at Greg Horn's covers, which are almost tame for him.) It's much closer to something we'd see from Sean Phillips, for example, where people look like normal humans and don't spend pages posing for the reader. Even the sex club scenes don't look all that glorious or sexy. This is a MAX title, so there's plenty of activities seen on the page that you'd never expect to see in a Marvel comic, but still no full frontal nudity. It's not necessary.
Kordey's people don't look beautiful. They look real, with a wide variety of facial features and body types. Some of his angle feel wonky to me, like they're coming in just a bit too tight or they change around too fast, but I like the overall effect now more than I did at the time. I think his style is suited better to this type of work than more traditional superhero fare.
The colors from Chris Chuckry keep the dark feel of the atmosphere, even when using shades of red and purple for the lighting. When it comes time for more simple scenes -- the conversational ones that happen across a table -- he's able to dial it back and light the room up to show us the characters who are acting.
The mini tells a key part of Belova's history and gets there in an interesting fashion. Rucka's script is just twisty enough to keep your attention without overwhelming you. Kordey's art is grounded and complementary of the script's tone. It'a a nice if all too short story. I would love to have read more standalong stories set in Russia along these lines.
After this mini, though, Yelena Belova would go on to stranger things. I'll let Wikipedia sum it up:
The real Yelena is later freed from stasis by members of A.I.M., who install her on the High Council of A.I.M. (alongside Andrew Forson, Graviton, Jude the Entropic Man, Mentallo, Superia, and an undercover Taskmaster) as the Minister of State in Bagalia (a country populated by supervillains).
It is quite a culture clash from this miniseries to that fate.
But, hey, superheroes sell better than spy books. And, inevitably, the audience gets what it wants.
(If they want Wolverine's claws, check out this blacksmith<.>)