Saturday, March 25, 2006

Friday in the Shooter Gallery

Going to be a short one this week, because we are rapidly closing in on the Emerald City Comic-Con up here in Seattle, which means that I am frantically trying to get enough of my students' giveaway ashcan zines printed to get us through the show weekend. Thankfully, I have some connections in the printing industry who are willing to donate the use of their equipment, so I'm not having to do it out of Kinko's like some of the other indie publishers I've met. But I AM having to do it in short after-hours bursts, in and around the printer's actual paying jobs, at various odd hours of the evening.

So I didn't get a whole lot of reading done this week. Barely had time to swoop into the comics shop and clear the reserve box, and as I blew past the new comics I did a spit-take, because I saw a whole bunch of New Universe books.

Of ALL the things to revive.... the New Universe? Seriously? A Jim Shooter project that bombed so horribly it was the laughing-stock of the entire industry for the next couple of years? (Remember the bit in DC's "Legends" miniseries where Guy Gardner or somebody stomps a lame villain named Sunmark, a villain raving about how he's going to bring about a new universe, and just in case we didn't GET it, he's dressed just like Star Brand and bears an amazing resemblance to Jim Shooter?)

Actually, I rather liked Star Brand early on, when it was Jim Shooter and John Romita Jr. doing it. The idea behind the New Universe was kind of cool, though the execution was screwed up from day one. The premise was that one weird thing happened, the "White Event," and then everything else that came afterward would deal realistically with the various repercussions of this one fantastic impossible thing. It's known in SF circles as the 'one-gimme' school of speculative fiction.

Unfortunately, when you set six different superhero books in the same fictional universe, and have them all cross over and interact, you've already blown it. That's six gimmes right out of the gate. And they multiplied as the books went on, I think because nobody but Shooter really understood how the one-gimme idea was supposed to work. Despite the whole real-world-no-costumes mandate, the books all ended up being standard super-hero melodramas... except the first few issues of Star Brand.

Star Brand was a very odd book, kind of like the early Green Lantern might have been... that is, if young Hal Jordan had been a dumb car mechanic who just wanted to get laid, instead of a heroic jet pilot. Yet it was somehow compelling, because it seemed like this was a really personal book for Jim Shooter; the way Howard the Duck was for Steve Gerber, or the Silver Surfer was for Stan Lee. This was where Jim Shooter was determined to by God create capital-A Art in comics, Make His Statement. At least, that's what it felt like.

But the weird thing was that the 'statement' of Star Brand was vaguely unpleasant. The themes of the book were mostly, men are jerks, women are clingy, money talks, and foreigners should die. The book was deeply personal, but the person just wasn't someone we wanted to get to know.

Star Brand -- the REAL one, which is to say the deeply personal Jim Shooter one, didn't last. Shooter left Marvel, or Marvel left him, or whatever, and John Byrne made it his business to dismantle everything Shooter had set up in the book when he took it over.

Star Brand, as hypnotically unpleasant as it was, wasn't the most famous bit of Shooter nastiness, though. That honor has to go to the time Bruce Banner got accosted at the YMCA. Think the Identity Crisis rape controversy was something? You should have seen the way Shooter's characterization of gay men cruising the showers at the Y lit comics fans on fire. This was before the internet, so they got mad enough to bury Marvel in actual paper letters. It was all over The Comics Journal for months.

As it happens, I got this issue in the mail a couple of days ago -- eBay again, alert readers will recall that collecting the Marvel magazine line is a hobby of mine -- and it was the first time I'd seen the story in twenty-five years.

The Hulk's magazine had always been a bit of a problem child, even for a magazine line that was itself something of an unwanted branch of the Marvel family. For the first nine issues it was black-and-white, went under the title The Rampaging Hulk! and it purported to give us untold tales of the Hulk's early years. (I think this was all retconned out later, with some lame excuse about how these stories were just movies an alien artist made or something.) The stories themselves seemed a little off somehow. Doug Moench, the go-to scripter guy for the magazine line, tried hard, but you could never quite tell if the stories were meant to be serious or funny or both. Mostly they were just odd. The art was by Walt Simonson but you could hardly tell, the pencils were so smothered by Alfredo Alcala.

Then came Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno, and suddenly the magazine was in full-color, now called just The Hulk! and featured stories in more or less the same style as the TV show: lots of Banner getting involved in people's lives, not too much Hulk, Bruce on the road again at the end of each issue. You could almost hear that lonely piano music rising as you got to the last page of the story.

As Hulk versions go this was actually pretty good. I really liked the TV show (laugh all you like, gamma purists -- it's the biggest mass-market success the big green guy ever had) and I enjoyed seeing it reflected in these comics, after a fashion.

But Shooter felt that the magazine was still too comic-booky, not 'real' enough. The structure was the same as the show but the things happening to Banner were too fantastic. So he decided the easiest way to demonstrate what he wanted was to write one himself. He wrote "A Very Personal Hell" for #23, and ironically enough, a kind of hell did break loose, mostly from the gay readership. Shooter vainly tried to defend the whole thing by complaining that he didn't see why anyone would be offended because he showed two gay men as rapists, it wasn't about being gay it was about rape, and "if I offended rapists, I'm GLAD."

It dawned on me, rereading it again last week, that "A Very Personal Hell" had exactly the same vibe Star Brand had in its early issues a few years later. This was Jim Shooter trying to Say Something. This was his one-gimme Hulk story -- with the Hulk himself as the "gimme." Everyone else in it, he claimed virtuously at the time of the controversy, was based on a real person he knew or had met. Well, if that's true, then everyone Shooter ever knew is either a creepy predator or a spineless victim.

The funny thing was, as ham-handed as the story is, and as clumsy as his impatient arguments defending it were at the time, Jim Shooter was right -- he DIDN'T single out gay people, because if you actually read this story, you can see there's lots of contempt for humanity to go around. There's not just the two lisping leering shower rapists; there's also the evil manipulative mother, the worthless stoner chick, the abusive boyfriend, the wimpy suicidal woman. Victim or predator, either-or, nothing in between. Eat or be eaten. The Shooter philosophy.

I know nothing about Jim Shooter, never met the guy (though my friend Kurt Mitchell likes to tell the story of showing his portfolio to Shooter at San Diego one year, and how he got one of the best art lessons he'd ever had when Shooter spent forty minutes patiently, but ruthlessly, dissecting the work.) For all I know Jim Shooter may be the sweetest guy in the world, and never mind his press. Most of that came with the job. The editor-in-chief of Marvel always gets yelled at by the fan press, it's what we do. I admit it. But whatever Jim Shooter is like as a person, as a writer there's something unsettling about his most personal works. Like Star Brand, "A Very Personal Hell" has that same vaguely unpleasant fascination, an emotional train wreck you can't look away from.

All that being said, having had the intervening two and a half decades to calm down about the whole gay rape thing (and let's face it, in the wake of stories like Identity Crisis it seems almost quaint) I decided that I kind of like this story, despite everything. It's sort of Bill Bixby's David Banner trapped in the middle of an Aaron Spelling rewrite of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" until Lou Ferrigno's Hulk shows up and smashes everything. And come on, who wouldn't stand in line for THAT play?

See you next week.

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Anonymous Al Ewing said...

Wierdly, the other hefty New Universe book (apart from Justice, which was two completely different series that happened to crash into each other so that the protagonist was hurled through the windscreen of one into the other), DP7, is the opposite of the 'eat or be eaten' philosophy and managed to come closer to the 'what if superpeople were REAL?!?!?' idea. In that it was essentially 32 issues of soap, with a rotating cast of characters who are generally nice but not particularly heroic or intelligent, any more so than the average man in the street. The CIA and the Army got involved - ridiculously - but the thrust of the series was whether Dave would get up the courage to talk to Steph (he did) and whether Randy would get together with Charly (he didn't, but there was a thematic conclusion for both of them which showed that was probably for the best). Anyway, the series was covered in shades of grey, Randy and Dave typifying this, which is presumably why the book ended up being about them rather than the somewhat cypher-like other characters. Apart from Lenore, who was fascinating until she got eaten by an amoeba, but that's the New Universe for you.

3/25/2006 07:30:00 AM  
Anonymous Adrian said...

Greg--frighteningly, your article actually makes me want to check out the issues of Starbrand. Didn't John Byrne try to get back at Jim Shooter by destroying his home town of Pittsburgh when he took over the book?

DP7 was Mark Greunwald's baby. And it's interesting given the abovve that if I recall correctly, he said that this was his most personal work. Didn't Greunwald later bring back the NU Earth in Quasar and have it orbiting the Stranger's home planet? Did anyone ever address that? Man, the NU was weird.

3/25/2006 08:03:00 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

Wait, *that's* why Pittsburgh got blown up? God, Marvel must have been a very interesting place to work at in the early '80s.

You can kinda see Shooter's contempt for humanity in one element of Secre Wars as well: Zsaji (or however the fuck you spell that), the healer woman who, as a side effect of her powers, causes men to fall in love with her, and then dumps them as soon as she gets a new patient.

3/25/2006 10:46:00 AM  
Blogger Cory!! said...

Another thing that lends credance to your argument that Shooter was trying to create ART was that Shooter defended the story by saying that the same thing happened to him when he was young and had to live at the Y. I have never read the story myself, but I read ALL of the controvery...and nearly at the same time, weren't Roger Stern and John Byrne dragged into it because fo their use of a gay character in Spectacular Spider-Man?

3/25/2006 11:13:00 AM  
Blogger Tom Foss said...

Remember the bit in DC's "Legends" miniseries where Guy Gardner or somebody stomps a lame villain named Sunmark, a villain raving about how he's going to bring about a new universe, and just in case we didn't GET it, he's dressed just like Star Brand and bears an amazing resemblance to Jim Shooter?
And Legends was illustrated by John Byrne, natch. I just went back and found that scene, which is really interesting for two reasons:
1. "Sunspot" tells guy to stop laughing at him...
2. ...Then proceeds to shoot himself in the foot.

Shooting himself in the foot? Sheesh, could we be any more obvious in what we're trying to say?

3/25/2006 11:22:00 AM  
Blogger --Greg Hatcher said...

"I have never read the story myself, but I read ALL of the controversy ...and nearly at the same time, weren't Roger Stern and John Byrne dragged into it because of their use of a gay character in Spectacular Spider-Man?"

Ah, THAT takes me back. Let's see if I remember... I think you are pretty close. Most of this played out in the columns and letters pages of The Comics Journal, as I recall. The controversy was whether or not Marvel had an anti-gay agenda. It hinged on three incidents -- the Shooter Hulk story, the Roderick Kingsley fashion-designer character in Spider-Man, and an interview John Byrne had done in which he used the expression "faggot-queer-homo" and laughed a lot about it.

I already gave you my take on Shooter. And Kingsley certainly was every limp-wristed fashionista designer stereotype ever, but I think the idea was to play that for laughs. Later he was shown to be straight (though I strongly suspect that was shoehorned into the story, in an effort to shut down all the "Marvel hates gay people" press) and later still he was shown to be the REAL Hobgoblin. Byrne's comments were certainly jerky and Neanderthal, but then again so are a lot of other comments he's made about other people and things.

My feeling is that there was no 'agenda.' There was just a lot of insensitivity and ignorance and then a lot of defensive backpedaling. A few years later Northstar came out in an even more ham-handed story than Shooter's and suddenly Marvel was the pro-gay company, even though DC was doing a lot better job handling the issue, especially at Vertigo. Go figure.

Really about the only conclusion you could draw from all of this is that superhero comics are really bad at addressing social issues.

3/25/2006 11:30:00 AM  
Anonymous Dan Coyle said...

What I find funny about Roderick Kingsley that when Stern did his big reveal in Hogoblin Lives, that his brother was impersonating him while Roddy was out being the HB. But thanks to the new Spec Spidey Essential volume, I've discovered where Roddy got the idea: Belladonna trying to divert suspicion by claiming that her older, prettier model sister was the villain (They'd both been run out of business by Kingsley). So essentially, Roger Stern was just reworking an old story of his.

For my money, the best NU book was PSI Force when Fabian Nicieza took over scripting. It became a weirdly paranoid mix of cold war thriller and X-Men. Nicieza, sadly, has never equaled it IMO, though he's come close in Cable and Deadpool.

3/25/2006 04:34:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Say what you will about Shooter, Marvel hasn't had a good editor-in-chief since he left. (DeFalco ran out the string on the foundation Shooter set up, Harras had no idea how to handle moving beyond being a line editor, Jemas...'nuff said, and Quesada ain't an e-i-c.

3/26/2006 09:35:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Griswold said...

Jim Shooter was promised a decent budget for his New Universe books, but then that budget was reduced to very little. So most of the books were produced by creators with little experience or editors.

3/27/2006 09:22:00 PM  

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