The Art of the Sell — Hulk Sells Honeycomb

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

Sometimes I’m prepared to expound at length about the nuances and intricacies I think I spy in an ad campaign. Sometimes I’m just amused that, incredibly, the Hulk was employed to see Honeycomb cereal in the nineteen-seventies, and I want to share it.

My Misspent Youth — What If? #29 by Steven Grant, Alan Kupperberg, and Al Gordon

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

When I started reading superhero comics, the publications of Marvel were immediately granted favored stories status in my collection. It would be years before I regularly sampled the wares of the distinguished competition, and I could rattle off all the reasons for the unquestionable validity of my preference. Considering that one of the prime qualities I cited was the clarity of the publishing house’s continuity, unbounded by the dueling versions of the universe that abounded at DC, I operated in quite the contradictory state with my regular purchases of the series What If?

The bimonthly periodical presented alternative versions of vaunted tales from Marvel’s history, speculating on how the heroes’ stories may have proceeded different had Wolverine killed the Hulk in their first encounter, Spider-Man chosen to eschew crimefighting, or Captain America threw his shield into the ring for an United States presidential election. Because of general preference to look back with some distance for stories to revise, usually I hadn’t read the titanic tales that got twisted. On occasion, I didn’t even have the barest familiarity with the vintage comics serving as inspiration.

I was intrigued by the cover to What If? #29, which urgently asked “WHAT IF THE AVENGERS DEFEATED EVERYBODY?” and depicted clearly older versions of the founding Avengers — Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Giant Man, and the Wasp — standing triumphantly in the midst of a mass of fallen fellow superheroes. I didn’t know what story issue creators Steven Grant, Alan Kupperberg, and Al Gordon were riffing on, but I knew if had to be good. Like most boys that age, I craved wild mayhem in my comics.

What If 029-002 (AnPymGold-Empire)

The What If? issue held its funhouse mirror up to Avengers Annual #2, published in 1968, and brought Earth’s mightiest heroes face to face with a towering figure calling himself the Scarlet Centurion. The portentous fellow claimed he came from the future, and he traveled back in time to equip the Avengers with the means to correct a problematic path that would lead to a grim, dystopian outcome. The only way the Avengers could prevent this dire future was by defeating all of the superheroes and supervillians in the world, and allowing Centurion to ensconce them away. It sounds like a basic bad guy deception, but the Avengers sign on for the mission anyway.

What If 029-006 (AnPymGold-Empire)

Eventually, the last being boasting elevated abilities is bested by the Avengers, and, for good measure, the Scarlet Centurion transports Hulk away from the planet as well. All major foes vanished away, the remaining Avengers decide to hang up their respective costumes. It was the ongoing activity of super-power beings, after all, that led to devastation, according to the Scarlet Centurion.

Not long after the do-gooders have settled uneasily into their lives of leisure (or, in the case of Thor just went back to to battling giant ogres and other fiends in his homeland, Asgard), the Scarlet Centurion manifests again, this time demanding the world bow to his despotic rule. There are no superheroes there to stop him, so why not?

What If 029-013 (AnPymGold-Empire)

There are a couple superheroes left, though, so there was a little hitch in that nefarious plan. The mysterious friend who gives notice to Tony Stark that help is on the way is none other than Dr. Donald Blake, the mortal alter ego of the mighty Thor. So that Norse guard factors into the finale, as well. Indeed, the hammer-wielding hero delivers the final blow against the Scarlet Centurion.

What If 029-018 (AnPymGold-Empire)

Thor doesn’t realize it, but that mere man is Rama-Tut, who regularly bedeviled the Avenger in his identity as Kang the Conqueror. Getting much deeper into that slice of Marvel lore would require far more word than I’m currently prepared to tap out.

The Avengers win the battle, but What If? stories generally end on a rueful note. Tony’s enthusiastic expectation that the team will now reunite for good is dashed when his fellow Avengers announce they still want nothing to do with the superhero life, in part because they were so easily duped by the Scarlet Centurion. Tony is left standing alone, lamenting what has passed away.

The story had no resonance for me as an inversion of something I’d read previously, the way it must have for some other purchasers of this issue of What If? But within it was still the grand scale of Marvel’s superhero saga, the sense that everything was connected and could come crashing together at any moment. It thrilled me, even if, in this instance, the cataclysm was outside the canon. Seriously as I took all these colorful pages I flipped through, sometimes I was happily satisfied if the comic was simply fun.

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

Outside Reading — Mission Completed edition

Poppy

Inside Apollo mission control, from the eyes of the first woman on the job by Erin Blakemore

The fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 11 touching down on the moon has brought the expected cascade of articles and television news features. By and large, they’ve all been marvelous, especially those that take the extra effort to convey just how wildly improbable the mission was given the technology of the time and the relatively rapid rate at which the effort progressed. My favorite piece of the bunch is this profile of  Poppy Northcutt, the first woman to work as an engineer at NASA’s mission control. The article, published by National Geographic, is largely based around a recent interview writer Erin Blakemore’s conducted with Northcutt, but it’s also flavored nicely with telling archival details, such as the framing of condescending news coverage about Northcutt from back in the day.

 

An Unusual Gang of Idiots: The Joy of Working at MAD Magazine Past Its Heyday by Ryan Flanders

hoard mad

This reminiscence, published by The Comics Journal, offers a fitting eulogy for Mad, the iconic humor magazine that’s been in critical condition for some time and recently took a turn for the worse. Ryan Flanders, who worked in the publication’s art department for many years, hits all the expected highlights of the magazine’s history and influence. More valuably, he provides a corrective to the romanticized notion that there was an anarchic methodology inherent to Mad‘s production. A magazine doesn’t last for over six decades if chaos rules behind the scenes, and Flanders is duly proud of the hard work undertaken by him and his colleagues, never missing a deadline. The article is warm-hearted and straightforwardly insightful, offering the timely reminder that the legacy of Mad belongs to the many, many professionals who put their hearts, minds, and funny bones into getting those boisterously insolent pages assembled.

 

 

 

Laughing Matters — Mad Magazine

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

MAD-Magazine-34-Fireworks-Cover

By the time I was cognizant of the offerings arrayed on the magazine rack at the local grocery store, Mad was already an institution. Of course it was. The publication had been around for about twenty years longer than little ol’ me. I grew up with Mad as the North Star of insolent humor, juvenile in its outlook, but also invested with a commensurate youthfulness in its zingy freedom. Absolutely anything was open to mockery, and the greatest arched-eyebrow derision was reserved for the most imposing pillars of authority. If you can’t beat ’em, joke ’em.

I don’t remember that many issues of the magazine ever passing through my hands, yet Mad was somehow everywhere. Paperback collections were strewn about and the proper closet shelf held spin-off games, which were more fun to browse through than actually play. At school, a kid who smuggled in a copy of Mad was briefly a hero, subject to jostling as classmates clamored to get a giggly dose of Don Martin or Sergio Aragonés or Al Jaffee’s Fold-in. I begged to read Antonio Prohías’s “Spy vs. Spy,” marveling at the pantomime slapstick without quite being able to articulate what was vividly unique about it. At the time, I just knew it was funny to me. That was plenty.

My Misspent Youth — Amazing Spider-Man by David Michelinie and Todd McFarlane

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

When I look back at the seismic events in the comic book field during my most devoted reading days, I’m never completely certain if I recognized the transformative moments as they happened. I’m not referring to the staggering turns of events with the narratives. Those were often touted urgently on the covers and in the agitated alliteration of Bullpen Bulletins listings. What I’m thinking of are those instances when a creator absolutely upended the field, whether by ingenuity or a lucky convergence with the zeitgeist. I liked Frank Miller’s Daredevil, for instance, but surely I didn’t have an awareness of the massive shift in the character and broader superhero storytelling it represented.

But I’m reasonably sure I knew Todd McFarlane tilting his pencil at Bristol board pages in the service of Marvel’s flagship Spider-Man title was a big deal, and I believe I knew it from the jump.

spider man swing

Although far from the comic and toy magnate with enough excess cash to buy ludicrously expensive baseballs like they were mere gumballs, McFarlane was already a burgeoning fan favorite when he took over monthly art duties on Amazing Spider-Man, paired with writer David Michelinie. McFarlane came to the title straight from an immensely popular run on Incredible Hulk, including at least one issue that set collectors hopelessly aquiver. He was an up-and-comer, ushered onto the biggest, most important stage Marvel Comics had to offer.

Eventually, McFarlane’s art, defined by its hyper-aggressive line work, could grow wearying in its constant visual collisions, but when he first started with the wall-crawler the dynamism he brought to the pages was thrilling, even somewhat dizzying. He largely stayed on model — his Peter Parker was recognizably the same character invented visually by Steve Ditko and then fully locked into place by John Romita, a full generation earlier — reserving the most stylized renderings for side characters and new figures.

Among the main cast, the only one who was noticeably changed was Mary Jane Watson, who’s recently added a hyphen and a “Parker” to her name, thanks to a heavily hyped marriage that even spilled onto the field of Shea Stadium. Mary Jane had barely changed one iota visually since she first informed Peter that he’d hit the jackpot. McFarlane caught her up to the late nineteen-eighties in a big hurry.

spider man mj

In the context of the fictional world, Mary Jane had grown up from the idealized girl next door to an in-demand fashion model. Reasonably, it was time for her to look the part. Of course, as many discovered retrospectively, trafficking too freely in late-eighties style was a dangerous endeavor.

spider man disco

Be careful, gents! Legendary Casanova Paul Shaffer is on the prowl.

Even as McFarlane was jarring the fairly staid look and feel of Amazing Spider-Man in the art, Michelinie was poised to make his own monumental contribution. The antagonist in McFarlane’s first issues was the entirely forgettable zooming mercenary Chance, but another villain was lurking, ready to bring the requisite weight to issue #300, a milestone anniversary for the book.

In the wake of the major crossover event series Marvel Super-Heroes Secret Wars, Spider-Man adopted a new costume, forgoing his familiar red-and-blue duds for a sleek black-and-white number. Found in its original form on a distant planet, Spider-Man learned that the costume he thought was a garment with remarkable pliability was actually a living alien being sheathing itself over his form, leeching some energy of him in the process. Spider-Man rid himself of the symbiote costume, opting for a fabric version of the same design, but the alien being found a different host. Both the human and the alien were bent on revenge against Spider-Man. Bonded together, they went by the name Venom.

spider man venom

Bold and just a touch untethered from the basic human physics, Venom was a character made to showcase McFarlane’s skills. The anniversary issue delivers precisely the massive superhero punch-around outrageousness that any eager comic book reader would want. I’m not sure every bit of the story makes sense, but, in the manner of a summer blockbuster film, it didn’t really matter because the sheer spectacle of it was so satisfying.

In the end, the tussle with Venom was the catalyst for the return of Spider-Man’s best-known costume. Mary Jane was terrorized by Venom, and wasn’t all that excited about her husband working his night job with a similar look.

spider man end

The reset to the more familiar Spider-Man branding was basically inevitable, but it still felt somewhat like it was an extension of McFarlane coming onto the title. The guy liked drawing lines, and they’re all over the classic costume.

The run on Amazing Spider-Man cemented McFarlane’s fame in the comic book field, and was central to the expansion of his creative efforts. Just a couple years after his auspicious debut on the title, Marvel gave McFarlane his own Spider-Man series, which he would draw and write, mostly serving to establish that he wasn’t all that great at the latter. From there, he would go on to help form Image Comics, established in part with his series Spawn. McFarlane clearly understands the importance of the original Amazing Spider-Man issues in his career, as evidenced by his recent choice to pay homage to them as Spawn comes to its own milestone. Sometimes, the comics of historic importance are as clear as can be.

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

Laughing Matters — Strange Planet, by Nathan W. Pyle

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

strange planet coffee

I’ve tried to think of a way to describe the abundant pleasures of Nathan W. Pyle’s webcomic Strange Planet, but everything I come up with is merely explaining the reason its humor works, which, to be fair, is a very Strange Planet way to approach the task. Instead, I’ll just share a couple of my favorite here and include a link to the comic’s home on Instagram. The only thing I’d like to add is that the final punchline on the birthday party strip below elegantly, perfectly captures my animosity toward pranks of all kinds, even well-meaning ones and especially those I’ve personally perpetrated over the years. And it delivers this ingenious observation in only two words. This comic is a joy, and it’s absolutely brilliant.

A book collecting the strips arrives later this year.

strange planet trust.jpg

Outside Reading — Ever So Curious edition

The Unexpected Profundity of Curious George by Rivka Galchen

george

I’m always going to susceptible to a smart story involving Curious George, and this piece is smarter than most. For The New Yorker, Rivka Galchen explores how well the adventures about the inquisitive little monkey have aged and digs into the shared biography of the two authors, married couple Margret and Hans Rey, in an effort to consider how their experience as refugees shaped the storytelling. Galchen makes interesting connections that further illuminate the deep resonance to be found in the Curious George books. In particular, the specific details Galchen excavates from the various books are always well chosen and amusing. There’s a loving admiration of even the most daffy components of the books, those authored by Rey and a few other choice examples. What I now need — and I do mean need — is for Galchen to expand the thesis to deliver a deep reading of Elizabite: Adventures of a Carnivorous Plant.

 

hunsinger horse

How to Draw a Horse by Emma Hunsinger

Also from The New Yorker, Emma Hunsinger is given a sizable chunk of digital real estate for an autobiographical comic about, to put it most simply, the time in her adolescence when she strained to add horses to her artistic repertoire. It is, of course, about much more than that. Hunsinger’s sharing is heartfelt and poignant. What really impresses is the way she takes full advantage of the form in which she’s working. There are single images that carry the weight of full confessional monologues and others that achieve added power through imaginative desconstruction. Basically, How To Draw a Horse succeeds so completely because it’s a story that couldn’t have been told any other way.

 

A 40-Something Looks Back at ‘Thirtysomething’ by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

thirtysomething

Now that “Outside Reading” is the thing we do ’round these here digital parts every Saturday, I suspect I’ll be typing out Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s name a lot. She’s delivered winner after winner for The New York Times in recent years, whether celebrity profiles, long-form investigative pieces, or withering take-downs of cultural nonsense. This week, she published an article that uses a semi-nostalgic, mostly curious rewatch of the late-eighties/early-nineties drama Thirtysomething. Brodesser-Akner lands on a piece that is properly amused by the decidedly of-the-moment trappings of the original series, but it also slides into melancholy — sometimes even bruising — memoir. In doing so, the article offers the reminder that for all the attempts to consider pop culture through a critical framework, it’s almost inevitable that these TV shows (and movies, and books, and albums, and, and, and) strike us as viewers in a way that deeply personal. I had my own dalliance with Thirtysomething back when it first aired. Since I was watching while in college, I’ve long thought I was seeing it as a sort of instructional manual for the looming adulthood that secretly petrified me. After reading Brodesser-Akner’s piece, I wonder if there were some other wounds that were being bandaged up. Maybe the strongest testimonial to the pleasures of the article is this: After finishing it, I immediately put in my preorder for Brodesser-Akner’s forthcoming novel.

 

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Watching Elizabeth Warren Come Alive by Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick has long been my favorite writer at Slate, and her new piece drawn from following Elizabeth Warren on the campaign trail is the first that makes me believe the Senator from Massachusetts could very well succeed in her run for the U.S. Presidency. That’s not exactly the argument that Lithwick is presenting, but her clear-eyed reportage on Warren’s approach is telling. “Warren shines in her unscripted Q&As precisely because she isn’t trying to please the Unknowable American Electorate of 2020,” writes Lithwick. “She is just trying to answer whatever the questioner is asking in the moment.” I could go on at tedious length about why that simple approach is precisely what any politician needs to do in this fraught national moment, and I likely will indulge in some expounding too many times between today and November 2020. For now, I’ll refrain and let Lithwick’s article carry the weight.