Pipeline: Flashing Back to the Bwa-Ha-Ha Era

Tue, May 13th, 2014 at 2:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist
8

10 YEARS AGO: BWAH-HA-HA REUNITES

DC Comics went back to the well in 2004 to reunite the team of Keith Giffen, J.M. De Matteis, and Kevin Maguire for more Bwah-Ha-Ha Justice League adventures. "Formerly Known as the Justice League" was a six-issue miniseries that brought back second and third tier characters from the original series: Blue Beetle, Booster Gold, Fire, Maxwell Lord, L-Ron, Elongated Man and Sue Dibny, Manga Khan, and Captain Atom. The new addition to the team was Mary Marvel, portrayed as the hideously naive and youthful power character, a bright ray of unrelenting sunshine cast upon a team of bickering cretins. It's a great dynamic.

Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, and Martian Manhunter show up in the last two issues. I'm not going to guess what the reasons for the absense of the "Big Guns" was. It might have been creative or political, but since this is DC, my money is on the latter. That absence doesn't stop the creative team from crafting the perfect superhero sit-com all over again, though. They didn't lose a step between the original era and this one. Your pleasure might vary depending on your personal attachment to the characters, but the material is just as strong as you'd expect. If it isn't featuring Batman or Martian Manhunter, that's just an implementation detail.

Giffen and DeMatteis use that lower-tier status to their advantage here, as the heroes go to work for Maxwell Lord once again as the "Super Buddies." It's meant to be a Heroes for Hire type of group that advertises on the cheap local cable stations late at night. Complete with a low tech and less than stellar store front office, the group limps along in these six issues. Compare that against the era where Batman and Flash were members and the team worked for the UN and had fancy high tech headquarters. This is the Justice League slumming it so low that they're not the League anymore.

Bea and Sue rate the guys, completely failing the Bechdel test, but who cares? It's just funny.

Funny enough, the "Super Buddies" concept doesn't even get to its first paying gig in these six issues. This is all about creating the group, but some third party interventions prevent them from even setting up their headquarters. The team never takes a case. It's a smart set-up for an on-going series, but these six issues never get that far, because the craziness doesn't let them.

The strength of the book is its characters and their interplay. The third issue, for example, features the cast, abducted and locked in nondescript rooms, in pairs. They've been robbed of their will to use their powers to escape. All they can do is quarrel and bicker and not bother doing anything. That's a set-up for the world's most boring comic, but the dialogue carries the show. It's the best part of the issue, to the point where when Mary Marvel and Captain Atom have their climactic battle, it's almost a disappointment to see a superhero plot kicking in. Can't we just lock all these characters in a room and let them talk for 22 pages?

The setup: The heroes have been captured and Mary Marvel will soon be forced to go gladiator-like battle against Captain Atom. Bea and Mary meet one of their captors and probably fail the Bechdel Test. But who cares? It's funny.

I have to stop here, of course, to talk about Kevin Maguire's art. Nobody else could sell these stories as well as he can. With those malleable and expressive faces that play to the back row of whatever theater you imagine them in, Maguire's art gives you all the subtleties that this material needs to be paid off. Any lesser artist would drag this book down. The only other kind of artist I could see selling this is someone coming over from the animation world, where wildly expressive actions are a part of every moment.

Maguire draws every character's tic, every gesture, every protruding lip, pursed mouth, squinted eye, lowered brow, etc. Picture any phrase a novel writer might use to help the reader visualize an intricate mannerism or expression, and Maguire can draw it. 12 times a page, if necessary. Few artists would have the patience to draw what Maguire does on these pages. He's a wonder. It can sometimes go a little too far, but I appreciate that a lot more than the opposite.

Maguire's art is still unique in the comics industry, which is tough to maintain in a world where every generation copies the previous one.

Lee Loughridge knows how to color Maguire, as well. His style is a great match for the book, keeping things colorful but simple. You don't need to be doing all the sculpting work over Maguire's art. That line is dimensional enough, particularly with Joe Rubinstein's inking. (We've talked about some of that in recent editions of The McSpidey Chronicles.) Loughridge's style looks more like classic anime coloring, with harsh lines between the shadows and the light. It keeps the book easy to read but still interesting.

The only thing working against Loughridge is the paper stock, which soaks up a little too much of the color. It's much better than the newsprint of the original series, but not strong or white enough to make the art pop out. That restraint in the coloring is useful on that kind of paper stock, also, where more gradients and sculpting work would overwhelm the capabilities of the printing press.

And let's not forget the hardest working man on the book -- the letterer! Bob Lappan was still hand lettering comics in 2004, and thank heavens for that. He had to draw compact letters squeezed tightly together to fit everything in. These are pages that put Brian Bendis' notoriously dialogue-heavy pages to shame, mostly because there are more panels and more small word balloons.

That all said, do you know what the most relaxing part of reading this book in 2014 is, as opposed to 2004? I have no idea what the continuity is. It's mentioned that Maxwell Lord is more machine than man at this point, but I don't remember any of those details anymore. I mean, I guess this is from before Wonder Woman killed him. I don't know. Was this before "Identity Crisis" and the ugliness that went on there? Yeah, I guess it was.

This book seems to exist on its own little corner of the universe. It's not trying to shoehorn itself into a big event for the sales. It stands alone so well. You don't need to get caught up in remembering who was doing what, where, and when. You can sit back with this book and enjoy, particularly when you realize this whole universe doesn't even exist anymore.

I joked on Twitter after reading this book that I wanted to buy up DC Comics just to revert the whole universe back to its pre-New 52 days if only so this book could exist again today. I don't know that I'd want to see Giffen and DeMatteis try this kind of book in the New 52 world. I'd hate to think what the characters would be like. I suppose it almost happened with "Justice League 3000," but I think that was being played much straighter even when Maguire was still on the book.

There is a trade paperback collecting this series. I don't think it's in print anymore, but you can track one down easily enough on-line. If you liked the original run -- and I certainly did -- there's a lot to enjoy and admire here, even without the big name characters.

26 YEARS AGO: AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #306: "Humbugged!"

A bug-powered villain is easily handled by Spider-Man, who also has jealousy issues with his alter-ego, Peter Parker. And Jonathan Caesar just gets creepier by the issue.

Humbug looks nerdy and ill-equipped to play the role of superpowered villain here, but he does rock that tape deck on his hip well.

Todd McFarlane, for a man who fashions himself a horror artist these days, does very well drawing more light-hearted and comedic moments. His style lends itself nicely to silly things. There's no better example of this than "Amazing Spider-Man" #306, featuring a villain named "Humbug." A college professor seeking revenge on his ex-employer by dressing up in a silly cape and suit and using bug powers to get what he wants, the character looks ridiculous, and he acts ridiculously, with poses that look like an anemic guy in baggy clothes barely carrying his cape. He runs like something out of a Hanna Barbera cartoon. The cowl with the big "HB" across his forehead around the fin is silly.

Even Humbug's gate provokes more giggles than awe or fear.

But McFarlane sells him. He doesn't draw him as a muscular moron. He presents Humbug as the nerdy insect-loving freak in silly ill-fitting baggy clothes playing dress-up. He just happens to be slightly dangerous because his insect-inspired weapons and powers are enough to cause trouble. McFarlane plays his superpowers straight, visually. Humbug has nicely-designed energy blasts coming out of his hands, for example.

He's another easy catch for Spider-Man, though the elements of surprise catch him off-guard at first. The fight plays to Spider-Man's strengths, giving the web crawler a scientifically based villain that he can out-think, both emotionally and logically. (Spoiler: He threatens a jar of bugs to get Humbug to surrender.)

Writer David Michelinie realizes the level of Humbug's threat and doesn't play him for much more than laughs. Humbug is limited to a third of the issue, and is easily disposed of. He's the mandatory action bit of a superhero comic that's much more of a soap opera than an action/adventure piece.

Michelinie's run on the series suffered from a serious lack of villainous firepower. I don't think anyone could take Humbug or Black Fox seriously. Prowler looks cool but is hardly threatening. Chance was in over his head. Silver Sable is more friend than foe. Aside from Venom's appearance in issue #300, Spider-Man's been getting off easily. The serious drama in the series comes from the soap opera parts.

McFarlane couldn't help himself and gave us at least one attempt at a dark and menacing villain, hidden in shadows in a back alley.

As Michelinie is wont to do in the series, the rest of the issue is spent on a smattering of things. This series definitely adapted that episodic flow where things come and go as they please, instead of a more focused, singular story where everything goes in one direction and there's a definite ending (presumably after a six issue trade.) This constant flow of storylines is what kept readers interested month after month back in the day. It may lead to slightly underwhelming storytelling by today's standards, but there's something to be said for events unfolding at their own pace and overlapping as they go along. It doesn't all feel so neat and contained as it might today. It feels more natural and less structured. I like that part.

For example, this issue starts with Spider-Man manhandling a photographer trying to get his picture. (Today, video of this assault would go up on YouTube, and the Daily Bugle would go on a rampage.) It's a four-page sequence that ends on a page of Spider-Man thinking his way through the odd situation -- that of a photographer dressed up as his main subject but who is slightly jealous of his alter-ego.

The best page of the issue is a disconnected exposition dump. But, c'mon, that's classic McSpidey swinging across the city!

McFarlane takes a page that is essentially plot recap and exposition, and makes it the best sequence of the issue, with three dynamic panels of Spider-Man swinging above the city. These are the kinds of poses you think of when you picture McSpidey in your mind. The webbing is all over the place, the legs are bent, the feet point out, and the city shrinks behind him. The second panel is even another high-contrast photocopy of the city McFarlane would drop in from time to time.

A great page marred only by a randomly lettered balloon that's clearly by someone else. Likely it was a late addition by the Bullpen to clear up some back story stuff for new readers.

The only thing that ruins the original art on the page is a word balloon addition on the second panel. I'm not a big Rick Parker fan as a letterer to begin with, but at least his lettering is consistent from page to page and panel to panel. Someone else drew in the second word balloon here to add in the plot recap from last issue. It might even be that the last two lines of the previous thought balloon were changed in the Marvel Bullpen, too. The spacing with the letters gets a little weird there, and the letters are slightly different forms. If I owned the original art to this page, the only blemish on it would be the obvious lettering corrections. (They might have been pasted in after the fact and easily removed, though.)

Jonathan Caesar invites Mary Jane to a soiree at his place, where MJ fights off unwanted advances and Caesar thinks evil thoughts. This vaguely minor background plot from recent issues will blow up next issue.

The Black Cat is back from overseas and is looking up Peter Parker, only to find out he's moved. The new guy in the old apartment wonders if the skylight is really a good idea.

And meanwhile, in Chicago, a businessman is replaced by his evil twin, who turns out on the last page to be The Chameleon.

One comic, and at least five separate plots. They certainly gave you your money's worth back in the day.

Series editor Jim Salicrup makes a cameo appearance.

Meta Cameo: At Peter Parker's book signing, one attendee waiting for his autograph is Jim Salicrup, editor of "The Amazing Spider-Man."

In this sequence, you get both the Black Cat and a Felix the Cat (who is a black cat)

Felix Watch: The man currently living in Peter Parker's previous apartment has a Felix mat in his bathroom. I wonder if Peter left that behind?

The Nagel print in Aunt May's house in this issue is close to the one in Peter's apartment from a few issues back, but, well, most of Nagel's stuff looks alike that way...

That's So 80s: Even Aunt May has a Nagel poster in her living room. Did Peter give it to her when he moved into the Bedford Towers? It's not exactly the same as the one we saw in issue #298, but it's pretty close -- dark around the eyes, black clothes, long hair. The collar is too different, though.

Next week: The Chameleon is in Chicago! Guess where Peter Parker's book tour will be stopping next? Yup. And Caesar makes his move!

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